“That was a benefit shooting.” So said a shaken Kenneth Koch to a stunned audience seconds after a tall, scraggly man fired a pistol at him on January 10, 1968. Koch was reading at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, the ad hoc headquarters of a new generation of witty urban poets, some of whom, like Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, were influenced by the poetry of Koch and his chums John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. As Koch delivered the opening lines of “To My Audience”–“My audience of camel dung and fig newtons,/My audience of hats, and how shall I address my audience/of new york green frock bats”–a poet named Allen Van Newkirk approached the front of the stage and yelled “Stop!” Van Newkirk then pulled out a pistol and took two shots at Koch. Koch lurched forward, thinking he was wounded. But Koch had not been wounded, let alone shot, because Van Newkirk’s pistol was loaded with blanks. As Koch collected himself Van Newkirk traded insults with several audience members, and in the back of the church an accomplice, Andrei Codrescu, distributed leaflets protesting the suspicious conviction of LeRoi Jones for illegal possession of firearms. Koch, apparently, was not the only poet who had been “assassinated.”
This faux-assassination occurred in the early years of the Poetry Project, and it is fitting to find the episode described in All Poets Welcome, Daniel Kane’s history of the vibrant poetry scene that exploded on New York City’s Lower East Side during the 1960s. In a way, the episode is an apt symbol for Kane’s book. Kane presents the faux-assassination as an example of the audience collaboration that made Poetry Project readings raucous and invaluable. But wasn’t the faux-assassination just radical chic, and a fairly smug dose at that? Koch seems to have thought as much, since the poem he read immediately after his surrealist assassins had fled was “The Pleasures of Peace,” in which he writes, “Now I must devote my days to the Pleasures of Peace/to my contemporaries I’ll leave the horrors of war/they can do them better than I.” Elsewhere Kane claims that “the personal behavior and social formations exhibited at poetry readings, cafes, and bars” on the Lower East Side “played a role in determining future reception of a given text.” In other words, it’s indispensable to explain how the advice and gossip that poets traded over coffee and between the sheets invariably directed attention to this or that poem. Time and again in All Poets Welcome, a description of some interesting aspect of the Lower East Side poetry scene is assaulted by academic hyperbole, and all too often Kane’s argument ends up shooting blanks.
This is unfortunate because Kane has an important story to tell: how, beginning in the early 1960s, a second generation of New York School poets defined itself through a unique culture of publicly performed poetry and cheap publications. In her lively memoir, the poet Hettie Jones (LeRoi Jones’s first wife) remembers that in the early 1960s a real estate broker named D.D. Stein advertised his $25 cold-water flats on Avenue B with the slogan “Join the Smart Trend,” and the cafe Les Deux Mégots on East Seventh Street publicized itself with the motto “Come East Young Man.” Lured by the neighborhood’s cheap rents and bohemian aura, poets like Padgett and Berrigan came to the Lower East Side from as far west as Tulsa, Oklahoma, whereas others, such as Anne Waldman, migrated several blocks, from Greenwich Village. The poets hung out at Les Deux Mégots and Le Metro, both of which held open poetry readings.
Although open readings are as widespread today as Barnes & Noble, in the early 1960s they were novel. John Ashbery has said that when he left New York City for Paris in 1958, “poetry readings were solemn and official events given by the elder statesmen of poetry.” When Ashbery returned to New York five years later, “everyone was giving poetry readings everywhere. I was astonished at being asked to give one, until I realized I was one of about a hundred poets one could have heard that night in New York.” At Les Deux Mégots, any poet could read for a set number of minutes, and anyone in the audience could praise or belittle the work. Kane’s book includes a thirty-four-track CD featuring recordings of poets reading their work, and some of the recordings, notably Koch’s memorable reading of “To My Audience,” include catcalls from the audience.