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Toeing the Lines

Avant-garde poetry from the Big Apple underground



Since Walt Whitman self-published the first volume of his revolutionary Leaves of Grass in 1854, New York City has been home to a rich tradition of self-publishing and radical underground poetry. Frank O'Hara, Diane DiPrima, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg and countless other poets met their muses in small hand-made journals and books far off the confessional, university-backed literary maps of the time. Like Whitman, many of these poets found their ways into the larger arteries of publishing and the American literary consciousness.

With help from small publishers, another generation of underground New York poets is finding wide circulation for their formerly sub-radar verse experiments.

Here's a rundown of just a few of the many new works by some of the poets in what is loosely and jokingly referred to as the "Second Generation New York School."

Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, and Manifestos by Anne Waldman, Coffee House Press, 2001.

This latest tome from the already prolific poet, scholar and ambassador who recently visited Colorado Springs brings together the many prose ballasts behind her ecstatic poetic vision. "I propose a Utopian field where we are defined by our energy, not by gender. I propose a transsexual literature, a transgendered literature, a hermaphroditic literature. . . a poetics of transformation beyond gender," Waldman proclaims in "Feminafesto."

Other chapters include reflections on motherhood and writing, diaristic accounts and political observations during her travels, interviews detailing her formative years, reflections on the founding of the Naropa Institute with Allen Ginsberg, and tracts on the art of performance poetry.

Poems I Guess I Wrote by Ron Padgett, CUZ Editions, 2001

In his early career in the 1960s, Ron Padgett did for poetry what Andy Warhol did for painting -- flattened it out into delightful pop mirages that reflected the strange and superficial dream landscape of American culture. His imagination, however, was far more expansive than Warhol's, and his poetry went along with him on the epic adventures of his mind.

In his latest book -- a thin volume from punk and publisher Richard Hell with drawings by artist George Schneeman -- is a collection of poems that the author says he has "no memory, or at most a tiny inkling of a memory, of having written."

"Deep down I'm just down there," Padgett muses in "Solidus," "a kind of gurgling/ black Jell-o that doesn't have any idea/ of what's going on up here."

The Vermont Notebook by John Ashbery & Joe Brainard, Granary Books/Z Press, 2001.

This is John Ashbery (of a generation before) at his most accessible smugness, which isn't saying much. His "entries," which range from a laundry list of names and oil companies to faux diary moments, is made bearable by Joe Brainard's always gorgeous black-and-white pop doodles of cartoon rain, the toilet, bacon and eggs, and other illuminated mundanities.

Fugue State by Bill Berkson, Zoland Books, 2001

Bill Berkson is probably the most deliriously lyrical poet writing today. Always toying with the line between abstraction and revelation, Berkson trades freely in the currency of antique words like "sempiternal," "epode" and "appetition," while never letting you forget our present tension with lines like "succumbing to a disorderly shelf-life like Tampax in June." Like an archivist trying to catalog the dump, Berkson carefully reveals the music of linguistic schizophrenia in our culture of forgetting. Yvonne Jacquette's aerial rendering of lower Manhattan (drawn from the top of the World Trade Center) on the cover adds a spooky prescience to this pre9-11 book.

Skies by Eileen Myles, Black Sparrow Press, 2001.

A more sober and contemplative Eileen Myles emerges from the breathy blue background of Skies. But her trademark Boston chop and wit is still intact. "That's right/ hit me on/ the shoulder/ with a sign/ of my impending/ death,/ Yellow Leaf," she defiantly grumbles in an untitled poem that distantly echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dogs, broad swatches of color, love, light and landscape inhabit the bulk of this book with occasional quips like "Poem from an airplane": "How many/ miles do you/ get for a/ crash?"

The Angel Hair Anthology, edited by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, Granary Books, 2001.

Like Donald Allen's seminal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, this collection of avant-irreverance reads like notes from a collective of disillusioned scientists furtively searching for a new feeling. Gathered from the archives of poets Waldman and Warsh's underground magazine and press of the same name, The Angel Hair Anthology rounds up works of brilliant then-young poets the likes of Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan, John Wieners, Rene Ricard, Dick Gallup and Joanne Kyger. Like all anthologies, the poems are hit-and-miss, but it's great to see works by many lesser-known and less-published authors like Mary Ferrari and Charles Stein. A great look into Angel Hair's sphere of influences and progressions.

Hymns of St. Bridget & Other Writings by Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson, The Owl Press, 2001.

This new collection of flirty collaborations between Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson opens the windows on both O'Hara's and Berkson's coy and playful erudition that often treads close to the domain of private jokes and campy love letters. Berkson's notes at the back help us dispel that you-had-to-be-there feeling when the poems seem most opaque. And combing for lines always turns up plenty of treasures like: "One hundred Americans a day are accused of cubism," and "at the syndicate I don't like to fuck for lunch" and "My heart is corresponding oddly and with odd things and I/ sometimes wonder if the future holds nothing."

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