Wednesday, November 4, 2009
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK SCHOOL POETS
This ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK SCHOOL POETS—written and compiled by Terence Diggory—is my new (or one of) favorite book(s).
Yes it's an expensive hardcover reference book, that could also be used as a textbook, part of the FACTS ON FILE LIBRARY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE series.
But it's also one of the best alphabet lists I've ever encountered (and as anyone who has read this blog for more than a few days knows, I love alphabet lists). And I find it totally engaging and—despite my widespread experience in this scene and connections with many involved in it as well as my deep reading of most of the works referred to in it—enlightening.
And yes I'm an entry in it (first in the "L"s at last). But that doesn't change the fact that it's a well-written and instructive guide to all the major, and many of the minor, figures in "The New York School of Poetry"—including many of the overlaps and obvious connections and not so obvious connections with other poetry "groups" (or scenes as I saw and experienced them) of the period when their labels were originally applied and the decades that followed (i.e. the 1950s thru the '80s pretty much, though there are several entries for more recent poets the author connects to the concept of "The New York School" and to the real origins in the 1940s).
Some of the entries may have a few things off (I noticed the misspelling of one name in a list of L.A. poets), some obvious missing links (the DC scene of the 1970s that had some deep connections with New York School poets is touched on and represented by a few poets, including me, but a glaring absence is Terence Winch), and sometimes some things are emphasized that seem only partially relevant while more obviously relevant facts are missing (a few of the entries on some of the more recent poets included read more like resumes).
But those caveats aside (and having had my own experience with a poetry anthology I edited that I left some people out of etc.) this was obviously an enormous undertaking and Diggory not only deserves our gratitude and respect for doing it, but for doing it in a way that makes this much more than a mere encyclopedia.
Most encyclopedias have so many entries that are either boringly written or of little relevance to anything a reader might really care about, they can become pretty tedious pretty fast. But not this one.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK SCHOOL POETS is a terrific history of the ideas and major figures in what came to be classified as first generation and second generation "New York School" as well as many of their important works, not just books but individual poems as well.
And it makes not just the obvious connections with "The Beats" and "Black Mountain" and "Deep Image" and "The Language Poets" etc. but also more subtle ones. And it's all very well-reasoned and written, without the usual jargon that seems to be so rampant in academic studies and textbooks in recent years. Any reader will find it accessible as well as informative. Someone who knew nothing about "The New York School" would have the equivalent of a college course on the subject after reading this, and not just one semester's worth.
And if that reader were to look up some of the poems or books of poems mentioned, or works of art or dance or music etc. or just the poets and others mentioned and read their poems or prose or viewed their art or etc. they would have the equivalent of a degree in the "American" avant-garde (or alternative if you prefer) art and literary movements of the second half of the 20th century.
As someone with connections to many of the various artists and scenes referred to in this book, I have more than an academic understanding of what Diggory is writing about and the connections and cross references he's making. And despite the fact that I would maybe have emphasized a few things he doesn't, or drawn different inferences or connections, I can say if I were a young poet coming up and wanted an understanding of the avant garde antecedents to what's happening now, this would be one great book to get a hold of.
[PS: That's John Ashbery, Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan in the photos in case you didn't know, and another caveat I might have is why the photos of Ashbery and Waldman represent them at extremely attractive moments in their lives, i.e. when they were much younger, and Ted's represents him toward the end of his life, not the younger, healthier handsome image those of us who loved him remember.]