When Poetry Was the Rage

When Poetry Was the Rage

“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.


“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.

Little magazines quickly emerged from this scene. Poets at Les Deux Mégots and Poets at Le Metro were literal records of the poems read at both cafes, whereas The Floating Bear, edited by LeRoi Jones and Diane Di Prima, and C: A Journal of Poetry, edited by Berrigan, published new poems by poets prominent on the cafe circuit. These little magazines were different from the typical literary monthly or quarterly. Most were produced on hand-cranked mimeograph machines, a cheap technology that allowed editors to print publications as frequently or irregularly as they liked, a liberty that in turn modified the publications’ purposes. Charles Olson was fond of the semimonthly The Floating Bear because his new poems could be in the hands of a few hundred readers and writers in two or three weeks. For Paul Blackburn, another advantage of mimeoed little magazines was that they functioned like newsletters. The stapled, smudged pages had a raw, homemade feeling, and along with poems and reviews they featured “recommendations as to what books are on sale at what shops, what new magazines (or newsletters) have started up and their addresses, instructions for raising rare herbs.”

Kane says that the gossipy tone of these publications is yet another indication of how poets on the Lower East Side did not simply frequent the same dingy bars and restaurants but had managed to form a genuine community, “an ‘alternative’ literary and social project in opposition to an official conservative verse culture.” This is certainly true of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s, which through its reading series and poetry and printing workshops defined an aesthetic and served as a semiofficial gateway into the Lower East Side literary milieu.

But Kane overplays his hand when discussing the reading series and little magazines of the Lower East Side, freely using the word “community” when he’s clearly talking about a bunch of cliques. The Floating Bear was free, but it was sent only to those people included on a tightly controlled mailing list. Similarly, Ed Sanders’s Fuck You/a magazine of the arts was available just at a small number of stores, hidden behind the counter, and only those in the know could find it. If this is a community, it’s one that thrives on a closely cultivated sense of intimacy, secrecy and personality–a coterie, really. Because Kane is so enamored of “community” and its ennobling connotations, he downplays the tension between the winks and nods friends made at each other in their poems and the challenges those friends faced when they moved beyond their cliques. Consequently, an episode that should be a central part of Kane’s story–Ted Berrigan’s decision in summer 1968 to leave the Lower East Side for the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa–is merely a coda. With his incessant talk about community, Kane is as convincing as a realtor on the Lower East Side who insists that a studio with a closet large enough to accommodate a tiny futon is a spacious one-bedroom apartment.

The king of downtown literary coteries in the early 1960s was Frank O’Hara. An indefatigable talker, drinker and smoker, O’Hara was like the sun of a small solar system, providing heat and light to the writers and painters clustered around him. O’Hara lived on East Ninth Street from 1959 to 1963, and although he hated his apartment (it was infested with cockroaches) and its location (hard on Tompkins Square Park), his tenure on the Lower East Side was, according to his former roommate Joe LeSueur, “the high point in his writing, both in productivity and quality.” During this period many young poets fell into orbit around O’Hara–Berrigan, Padgett, Aram Saroyan and David Shapiro, all of whom recognized that O’Hara, despite his connections with the uptown art world, remained an unrecognized and underappreciated poet. O’Hara’s intellectual and sexual charisma had caught LeSueur’s eye nearly a decade earlier, and it is the story of his ten-year relationship with O’Hara and his immersion in Manhattan’s world of poetry and art that LeSueur tells in his relaxed, meandering and tender memoir.

LeSueur grew up in a large Mormon family in Los Angeles and served as an Army medic in Italy during World War II. His friends, he says, compared him to Madame Bovary languishing in the provinces. LeSueur fled his Yonville on a cross-country Greyhound bus that deposited him in New York City in July 1949. After a few weeks of cruising swanky uptown bars and surviving on cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and one-night stands, he became the kept boy of a Reichian therapist. As a concession to indulging in the twenty- and fifty-dollar bills that his lover kept stuffed in a small ivory box, LeSueur sat for twenty minutes in an orgone box three times a week. This wasn’t exactly the glamorous writer’s life that LeSueur had imagined for himself when he sat in a public library in Los Angeles devouring The New Yorker and the Sunday New York Times. He finally glimpsed that life in 1951, when he met O’Hara and started hanging out with the poet and his witty friends at uptown galleries and downtown bars. Four years later LeSueur stepped into the middle of a writer’s life when he moved into O’Hara’s apartment on East 49th Street. “I just came for the weekend and stayed longer than I usually did,” he explains. If LeSueur and O’Hara were not quite a couple, they were certainly more than just close friends, with O’Hara always being the household’s incandescent center. The two parted ways in 1965, after O’Hara had bedded one of LeSueur’s lovers.

“These personal notes on Frank’s poems are indeed digressions, and I make no claim for their value,” LeSueur writes in his preface. Beneath this modesty lie a few vendettas. One is against O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, for suggesting in City Poet that O’Hara’s appetite for rough trade and straight men betrayed his gay identity. LeSueur insists that O’Hara was not always as promiscuous as Gooch says, going so far as to claim that in 1955 O’Hara swore off having sex with strangers. LeSueur also characterizes O’Hara’s queerness in a different light: “As for Frank, I’d say that he was pansexual, a term that better suits him inasmuch as it implies a Whitmanesque grandeur, generosity of spirit, and inclusiveness.” O’Hara was certainly generous, but he was hardly a saint, and LeSueur knows as much. He tells an anecdote about Charles Ingle, a blond novelist “responsible for burning a hole in Frank’s pants.” Ingle, who had a mysterious fatal illness, stayed at LeSueur and O’Hara’s place for a short period of time in the mid-1950s, and according to LeSueur, “Frank soon became bored seeing him lying around the apartment. ‘If Chuck’s going to die,’ he said after less than a week, ‘why doesn’t he? What’s he waiting for?'” Chuck is no Lana Turner: Chuck Ingle we don’t love you get lost.

One thing that O’Hara never tired of was mythologizing his social life, and the names of friends, places and events that spill from his chatty poems are an alluring invitation to biographers. The names are like a secret code, and one can’t but wonder if identifying them would unveil the subtext of a poem. But O’Hara’s catalogues, though personal, are not confessional, so it doesn’t really matter whether or not we know that Mike Kanemitsu, who is mentioned in “Personal Poem,” was friends with Jackson Pollock. LeSueur divulges this fact in his chapter on “Personal Poem,” but in the course of a digression about O’Hara’s attitude toward the Beats and rumors concerning Kanemitsu’s life. Those in the market for a concordance to the poems of Frank O’Hara will be disappointed by the way LeSueur alludes to Kanemitsu and the many other people who appeared on the crowded stage of O’Hara’s life and work. Not only is his book’s lack of an index an impediment to swiftly tracking down bits of O’Hariana, but his glosses of poems are idiosyncratic. In fact, “To the Film Industry in Crisis, [November 15, 1955],” the one chapter where LeSueur proceeds through a poem line by line diligently unpacking allusions, is quite dull.

What LeSueur does best is create a mood. In chapter after chapter, with bursts of recollection and flashes of bitchy wit, he not only evokes the noise of O’Hara’s quotidian and accidental world but also conveys the extent to which O’Hara’s poems were immersed in it. When O’Hara died after being hit by a jeep on Fire Island in 1966, several of his painter friends mourned his passing by creating works that mythologized him as an artist victimized by a brutal society. LeSueur’s portrait of O’Hara doesn’t suffer from such bombast. With their keen sense of the ephemeral, their dislike of didacticism and their alluring mix of vulnerability and charm, his digressions are fitting tributes to O’Hara’s ebullient poems.

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