“The New York School(s) Holding Class: Community, Critical Verse, and Public Scholarship, concerning and including a poem by Stephen Paul Miller”
Too often, I think, we position the academic or the scholarly as separate from or even at war with the popular, the public. Instead, thinking about the ways that scholarship can be populist, or that the public can be scholarly, is fruitful. In this talk, I’m going to unpack the importance of one kind of public scholarship, the essay-poem, through a close reading of one that’s about public scholarship, by professor and poet Stephen Paul Miller. It would be impossible to talk about any of this, though, without first tracing a brief history of The New York School, the zany movement or non-movement in contemporary verse that makes poetry-as-public-scholarship possible in the first place.The New York School is less a school, movement, or collective in the traditional sense than a way to think about some of the many brands of poetry going on in New York City since the 1950’s. The nominal title has historically been used to refer to a handful of mid-century poets—namely, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. While their styles differed, often radically, they converged in a cosmopolitanism informed by friendly and collaborative relationships with avant-garde artists and jazz musicians and an intense focus on the day-to-day. Quotidian as it is, mid-century New York School work strikes a lofty register more often than not, often taking explicitly critical or discursive turns. O’Hara and Ashbery both professionally critiqued art, while Kenneth Koch was a long-standing and well-respected professor at Columbia University. Further, for decades now these poets have been increasingly canonized and studied worldwide.More recently, however, scholars such as Daniel Kane have taken up interest in a “second generation” New York school that’s decidedly less highbrow than the first. This second generation, moving into the 60s and 70s, contrasts with the first in a few ways—most notably, in that there aren’t four or five names that automatically go together with it. As the poet Ted Berrigan proclaimed, and scholar Harry Thorne has emphasized, “the New York School”—as a title—is “a joke” to second-and-later generations, since membership is predicated solely on whether or not one wants to be in it. In sharper contrast, think of the manifestos and other clannish practices associated with canonized movements like surrealism and futurism. Whereas the first generation New York School didn’t exactly pump out these kinds of insignia, either, formal art criticism and ivy-league degrees were key elements its members shared. The second, instead, is typified more by its members’ active, if sloppy, relationship to their craft: live performances in local cafes and cheap-but-prolific mimeograph magazines: not so much what its members have, but what they do. Whereas the first generation celebrated classical music and jazz, the second preferred rock and roll, and, eventually, punk. Second-and-later generation New York School poets do not seem to have found their their homes in mid- or uptown Manhattan, but rather downtown, in and around bohemian Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, that is, not neighborhoods associated with mainstream or high culture.Nonetheless, many post-first-generation New York Schoolers are in fact practicing critics, whether academically affiliated or not. The big difference between the way that newer New York School poetry does criticism and the way that the first generation did it, though, is that now poetry criticism, or the “po-crit zone,” as Miller calls it in his essay-poem “DUNK,” is thoroughly public and populist, rather than isolated and exclusionist. I’ll use terms like “essay,” “talk,” and “poem” interchangeably to refer to Miller’s hybrid text throughout my own presentation since “DUNK” was first a talk delivered to the Tel Aviv University English Department. Its critical and inter-textual nature also makes it very explicitly an essay. For the majority of it, Miller postures himself within and against various ways of thinking about the intersection of capital-C Criticism and capital-P Poetry, juxtaposing PhD (and ABD) poets with cultural phenomena high and low. Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Warhol brush elbows with basketball star Julius Irving, or Dr. J., with whom Miller associates when he gets his own PhD and can consequently “dunk,” too. Yes, in an essay in which the literary greats show up, it’s the basketball star that this poet/critic relates to most powerfully. This titular metaphor is just one of many gestures toward making the academic popular: the lecture opens up with a series of welcoming imperatives, urging the audience to interrupt, since Miller “want[s] to be accessible,” and line-breaks into his actual email address (3; the poem is also reproduced below this essay).
While Miller brings up several poet-critics in his poem, the one who gets the most airtime is Charles Bernstein, who’s currently the Donald T. Regan Chair of English at UPenn. As a poet, Bernstein is best known for his involvement with Language poetry, which is an offshoot of the Second-generation New York School. On the more critical or theoretical end, he’s also published a number of collections of essays—but the vast majority of his work, authored and edited, is still poetry. Miller contrasts himself with Bernstein, since, though they’re both professors, “Charles didn’t have to get a PhD. He gets hired/ to teach literature based on expertise,” which makes him a “REAL poet-critic.” “REAL” is capitalized, as if Miller is shouting, which, alongside the italics, acts as a second kind of vocal modification, making of the poem a score, and enhancing its performative element (11). This passage sets up a binary—non-PhD poet-critic Bernstein on the one side, and PhD “mere critic,” as Miller says he’s hired as, on the other. But while the conventional way to think about a doctoral degree is as a marker of elite status (if not elitism), it here comes in second place: Miller’s assertion that he can “dunk” sounds retaliatory, not triumphant.
This binary surfaces again later in the poem, this time in the context of Miller applying for tenure and then the title of Full Professor (or “full-of-it professor,” as he calls it). After the admission “…applying for tenure I don’t mention poetry,” he disrupts the conventional, conversational tone of his verse with the Neanderthalic-sounding “Me hard-core critic” (15). The ironic non-grammatical assertion of his critical chops in the face of potential termination finishes the work of un-doing academic highbrow and rendering it instead as low—as low as primitive human life forms and as low as humor that concerns them (if you will, I’m thinking of a certain series of Geico commercials). This is a real anxiety, though: Miller asserts that “Charles’s poems get him better and better jobs/ but mine can get me fired” (15). And while Miller does “own up/to [his] poetry” applying for Full Professorship, he can’t, seemingly, when tenure—which is “other-worldly”—is on the line. This subtle difference speaks to the populist bent of what he’s doing, since being a “full-of-it professor” is really only a status thing—“which gets you on the subway with $2.50,” an expression we use in New York for something that has no value whatsoever—whereas tenure, synonymous with security, is closer to, if not literally, a “life/death” situation.
The PhD/non-PhD binary gets even more airtime as Miller situates himself in a long line of poet-critics beginning not with Kenneth Koch, whom he reports is “the first major New York School poet/ with a PhD,” but rather with T. S. Eliot—who, prior to hopping across the pond and becoming an English citizen, was a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard (17-18). Miller underscores Eliot’s perpetual All-But-Dissertation status as class-coded, “since/working in a bank would be hard/ with a PhD” (18). These lines, ironically posturing as Eliot, or within an Eliotic understanding, frame Diss-finishing as elitist—as indicative of a social standing that’s above the banal labor of working at a bank (or perhaps anywhere). This is the mainstream understanding of terminal degrees, though, isn’t it? It is the very understanding “DUNK” works to complicate. John Ashbery, like Eliot, “accidentally/ on purpose doesn’t finish his” Diss, since “he doesn’t need to” (18). But the critical move comes in when Miller positions these two major poets, taken together, as “better than [him]” because they “can get all kinds of jobs/ without doctorates.” So while on the one hand, the PhDis a status symbol, on the other hand, the even bigger indicator of that same status is not needing it—and actively renouncing it by beginning but not finishing the Dissertation.
Even though Miller subversively positions PhD-possession as populist, he also contends with its hung-over elitist significance. After reflecting on an Ashbery sentiment (that one “can never use a word/ without thinking he could’ve used another”), he posits that “once you’ve a PHD/ you can’t give it back,” which he then re-phrases as: “a PhD sets you in/ a way you mightn’t like” (19). I read these lines as momentarily turning back on the poem’s over-arching rupture, re-inscribing the PhD as a status symbol, and apologetically accepting the privilege that comes with it. They momentarily contradict the assertion “Me hard-core critic,” or the positioning of the PhD in second-place. But it’s what these lines set up that is more important: I’d like to draw your attention, finally, to Miller saying that he wants to
…go where no academic has
behind a dissertation–
to stretch the limits of the discipline–
to dunk in such a way the whole world outside the basket scores
In these lines, Miller formulates a theory of the essay poem and/as public scholarship that sees popularization, or the making-public of exclusive knowledge, as not radically different from, but rather essential to, the academic project. That is, “the idea/ behind a dissertation” is “to dunk in such a way.” To 360-windmill-between-the-legs-behind-the-back, if you like. It is “to stretch the limits” of every discipline—to let others in. And this is all so that “the world outside the basket”—or people on the other side of whatever woven walls barricade the academy—“score.”
What does this mean, though? Helping people outside the basket score might signify helping them get into the basket, if we stretch the basketball metaphor a bit further. If the basket here is the academy or academic discussion, then Miller’s work furrows its high brow by dunking the popular—the populous— emphatically through it. Welcoming one community into another, he opens up a channel or conduit through which more and more people “outside the basket” get to score, too. This project, of welcoming the public into academic discourse, echoes a project that Daniel Kane highlights as central to the varying modes of the second-generation New York School. He argues that one main element of New York School work after the first generation is its sociability, or the way that itdoes the social. Beyond the fact that much of this poetry is either born from or made specifically for live performances within the community—at cafes, bars, and venues like St. Mark’s Church in the bowery—the work actually builds community within it. The way it does this, in contrast with other poetic schools or movements that do not, is in relentless reference to, and celebration and practice of, collaboration and interdependence. Kane cites the plethora of collaboratively authored poems and volumes, as well as spontaneity, improvisation, and the proliferation of name-dropping throughout Second-Generation work, to highlight this sociability.
While “DUNK” certainly registers along these lines, and Miller is definitely doing Second-Generation New York School poetry, here and elsewhere, what’s important about “DUNK” is the way it sets up a new kind of sociability: a kind that takes as its target the hierarchical determinants of the academy. He’s taking on the way that letters tacked onto a name, or not, decide who gets to talk and who doesn’t. He’s provoking discussions about what gets to be scholarship, or the proper subject thereof, and what doesn’t. Sure, the 1960s broke down a lot of walls in this respect. Miller is not the first person writing essay poems, and certainly not the first scholar interested in pop culture, or in mixing pop culture in with whatever is deemed above it. But his work builds upon, if it doesn’t invent, the infrastructures that allow this kind of work and thinking to happen. The poet and activist Anne Waldman has written about “infrastructural poetics,” which she sees as practices within and without the written word that “keep the world safe for poetry.” And poet critic Maria Damon has re-phrased this ethos, remarking that what Waldman does, and, indeed, what I read Miller doing, is keeping the world safe “through poetry.” If “world” here means the academy, or the economy of knowledge production, and the concern with keeping or making it safe for “people outside the basket,” or the public at large.
DUNK by Stephen Paul Miller
at an English Department
outside the English-speaking world
Tell me when
you don’t get,
want to add or
Does GET mean “understanding” to
you? Am I using too many American idioms?
Feel free to interrupt. I want to be accessible.
Professor Karen Alkalay-Gut suggests
I take up the idea of the “poet-critic” to
so why not use a poem —
this one, “Dunk,”
to set itself up? But,
first, dunking’s dipping a
a basket from above. Second,
there’s no one
way of defining
“poet-critic” since it
poet as art critic,
poet as academic critic,
poetic critic, discursive poet,
or simply someone both poet and critic,
I steer clear of these meanings,
telling the committee evaluating my promotion
I mix poetry with criticism.
A historian of Chinese culture and literature asks,
“I accept your poetry
as cultural criticism,
is it poetry?”
“Attention to language,” I
say but screw it,
do I wanna be a poet?
Poetry’s the only thing duller than criticism.
After a reading someone tells my poet friend Ken Deifik,
“I don’t like poetry, but I like what you do,” and
in this spirit I take the historian’s query as a
compliment. Okay, the committee’s
confidential but thank
you, thank you Professor Kinkley!!! I owe you forever!
This poem’s not poetry at all cuz
do I contradict myself?
No!!! I make sense!
Am I a
poet-critic or what?!
But no — poetry derails criticism and poet-critics
the absorbent mess, says Charles Bernstein, over
falsely reflective, “neat” criticism —
po-crit recontextualizes non-stop, blotting
out criticism, so I’m one
even if philosophy doctors dunk.
“You don’t look like you jam.”
Here’s how I do it.
God is a line…one very long thin line with millions
of colors twisting and turning into
Getting a doctorate
you feel like a doctor,
Julius Winfield Erving III,
reverse-bank-shot-genius, first to
fly free-throw-line-to-hoop and dunk (or “stuff”) the
ball through the net’s metaphoric ocean.
A New York Net, (before the team’s
a human net Net,
realizes his object
of consciousness through
himself much as
God is a line through Him or Herself. Also, in this
Sade dubs me “Smooth Operator,”
“Diamond Doctor with all the lines,” a
doctor of doctoring. Operatively tying John Ashbery to
Nixon’s Oval Office through the self-surveillance device of
the convex mirror, my dissertation gives meaning,
its play a real thing,
the play as real thing,
real ’80 NBA Final
“baseline move” thing —
from the right baseline
Abdul-Jabbar, flies back behind the basket and
in back of the other end of the
and reaches under the board
for a soft
“Should we take the ball out,”
Magic Johnson wonders, “or
ask him to do it again?”
(Hey, someone on TV in our Tel Aviv hostel’s
doing that play again!)
Is that spindoctor-
j-thing — how
it all “comes together” — what “thing”
originally means —
why I think
“The Doctor!” on getting my PhD?
No wonder I make
it through the wilderness-college-committee,
the dialogue, as in a Bar Mitzvah promoted
to full-professor-MAN and so must doven
in secular fashion, the
university after all named
for the voice — John the wild — in the wilderness Jew
“No one agrees with you,” a prof once tells
me on a job search
after I spritz in the boonies ’n return with
John’s first interview choice.
“I’m a voice in the wilderness,” I
say to that prof. “Oy!” he moans.
— Anyway —
I doven for the St. John’s University-wide committee, the
No, really, the candidate for promotion
gives a little speech:
“the works of Wordsworth
and Coleridge, Keats’s
letters, Emerson’s visions
of a new and organic
poetry, Whitman’s prefaces,
Pater’s impressionism, the poetry
and criticism of Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot, and all
the movements of modernism, with their various
in which the formation of taste
and reception of the strange or
are in part the
with the St. John’s University Mission Statement’s
call to merge ‘imagination’ with ‘research’….” and so on.
Okay, I’m no expert,
poetry and criticism interact. (Intersect? Or are
they inextricable — I mean
right from the get go?)
The term “poet-critic” I associate
with New York School Poets like Frank
Ashbery, David Shapiro, James
Schuyler, Peter Schjeldahl, and so on,
all poets and art
when my cultural criticism’s blurbed
I suss out how
poets like Charles Bernstein use the term
I give Charles credit for what my
blah blah blah talk to the university committee calls
“the re-emergence of the poet-critic.”
In essays like “The Revenge of the Poet-Critic…” —
shouldn’t it be “Return of the Poet-Critic…”?
don’t poet-critics have Jedi qualities? —
Charles shows criticism needs
poetry’s upsets and
alluding to work like Charles’s
Susan M. Schultz
speaks of poetry-criticism
silence with language.
I think of it as Charles
being better than me.
I had to get a Ph.D.
Someone, New York Times art critic William Zimmer, tells
me if you get a Ph.D. you can get a job. Is that true?
Don’t Ph.D.s drive cabs? No, he says,
I can get a job. So I get a Ph.D. Thanks, Bill.
But Charles didn’t have to get a Ph.D. He gets hired
to teach literature based on expertise his poetry
provides. He’s a REAL poet-critic.
Me, they hire as
But I can
probably should touch on
if not get lost in
“What makes me, as ‘Dunk,’ a poem?” I say,
“ease of and attention to language combined with
the rhetorical question,
‘Why isn’t this an f-ing poem?’ shifting
the burden of proof,
as when Thoreau
power relations between
individual and state,
and national security’s
not at stake here,
so let’s shift.”
Is this a lecture, a poem, both, or neither?
Am I in the po-crit zone?
It’s so nice to be here with you.
I thought poetry senseless
since it’s so full
you can’t reduce it to understanding —
“Love hath reason, reason none,” Shakespeare notes,
and Meher Baba points out,
“Understanding has no meaning. Love has meaning….Holding
on most meaning”
poetry’s full and empty of sense.
My best poetry’s meaningless,
and even when I believe that
to explain — an
part and parcel of my early poems.
Explanation joins fullness
as in a painter’s mark
in the sense
Franz Kline and Barnett Newman say
marks are truly background,
because background’s the real marking (or writing) utensil.
A simple statement forms a world of poetry-criticism
much like an abstract
crossing over to paint “things” then
stressing visual or
conspicuous through supposed absence.
Think of a relatively young Andy
Warhol assuming real art messily indecipherable and playing
with his now iconic imagery. His soup cans drip paint.
documentary filmmaker Emile D’Antonio advices.
Similarly, I’m just coming
from a Jill Magi poetry reading
explains her poetry
as part of what radically
sociologist C. Wright Mills calls
the “sociological imagination” — a sense of
yourself as hanging on culture, like painting
with background, so
I expect Jill’s “sociological poetry,” as
she calls it, to talk,
but it’s interpretively resistant —
a kind of “full” sociological datum.
Jill correctly — I surmise — sees poetry
as full and definitely not dominated
by reference or meaning,
but isn’t meaning part of the whole poem’s pie?
Can’t poetry do the work of criticism?
And discourse be poetry, upsetting poetry’s too neat world?
Discourse is so beautiful and fictive after all.
“God is a line with millions of colors.”
So, if light moves in waves, and discourse literally
runs” like river water from bank to bank,
is “discursive poetry” more apt than po-crit?
I don’t love the term “poetry-criticism”
cuz “criticism” is from the Greek
but no I like poetry-criticism
than discursive poetry
because what’s a line but
a separator, a cutter of space, so to
speak, cutting actual from potential.
Yes. Right. Poetry-criticism’s the bomb,
counter to the “M.F.A. McPoem”
frankly I begin thinking of
as something tying
me to the projects of
other living poets and critics
when I apply for “full professor,” what
American professors tend to try for
five to ten years after
which is far more nervous-making
than going for full-of-it professor
since the tenure decision means “up or out,”
staying “forever” or splitting — getting fired
or seemingly staying for long as you want —
so applying for tenure I don’t mention poetry.
Me hard-core critic.
Charles’s poems get him better and better jobs
but mine can get me fired
though in the full professor process — it not being
life/death — I own up
to my poetry.
Tenure in America
usually comes with
promotion from assistant
professor, your usual rank when hired,
to associate professor.
You reincarnate with it,
but promotion to full professor’s a slight
raise, seeming end to scrutinizing your entire life, and
more status, which gets you on the subway with $2.50
but also makes it harder to be hired elsewhere
without being a superstar full professor.
Tenure freezes you to your plantation. C.
Wright Mills says he needs to write his way out
In my full professor promotion process, poetry-criticism’s
a rubric or heading under which to list both
significant sizzling critical feats and
distinguished Kong-like poetic features.
Aristotle, after all, says poetry compares
incomparable things, and as a poet who is a critic
everything I do I do for something like
“poetry-criticism” — hence, I’ve ten meters of poetry success and
ten of critical success
so when Ms. Poetry-Criticism fastens
these two poles my accomplishments
reach twenty meters —
ten whole meters longer!
At St. John’s U
the only difference between
associate and full professor requirements is
an associate professor’s achievements
must be “significant” while
a full professor’s should be “distinguished”
so my poetry might distinguish my
significant research! I
cultural criticism with poetry, I tell them, and
can I be the only one playing these games?
Kenneth Koch’s the first major New York School poet
with a Ph.D. — New York School poet
and lyricist Kenward Elmslie
tells me Kenneth is the one
who pushes the term New York School
and wants that kind of togetherness
so, in a manner of speaking, origin of the term
New York School poet aside, Kenneth Koch is the first one
though he isn’t an art critic
as much as he hangs with artists
and sees poetry as the object of
an artistic kind of contemplation,
and, in this regard,
near New Year’s 1987,
Kenneth Koch tells me it’s important
not to care about your dissertation topic.
His topic’s incredibly insignificant —
I certainly can’t remember it,
something about very, very old French literature, I think —
the idea’s I guess not
to get too
attached to academic thought and
some people dodge Ph.D.s.
I’ve a feeling John Ashbery accidentally
on purpose doesn’t finish his.
He doesn’t need to.
T.S. Eliot simply doesn’t hand in
his dissertation — he’s conveniently
in Europe and can’t since
working in a bank would be hard
with a Ph.D.
All these people are better than me
and can get all kinds of jobs
Kenneth Koch might need one
but minimizes the accomplishment.
Ashbery says he can never use a word
without thinking he could’ve used another
(note to self — relate this to Saussure’s
notions of linguistic stock and utterance —
to what a student might
be thinking of saying and not
saying in class —
hey, my spring Literature and Culture class
can be a poem!), and
re: Ashbery never quite having the right word,
once you’ve a Ph.D.
you can’t give it back.
In other words,
a Ph.D. sets you in
a way you mightn’t like.
But I want to go where no academic has
gone before —
behind a dissertation —
to stretch the limits of the discipline —
to dunk in such a way the whole world outside the basket scores,
everything poetry except maybe poetry.
Before this talk I avoid
discussing poetry in poetry-criticism and
think of the genre
as a way to write about anything else
as when Andy Warhol tells
his actors to talk about anything but the camera.
May I address the sociology department?
How long can you focus on your focus
for others to focus?
asks George W. Bush CIA Director George Tenet.
Jerusalem literally means
implying the infinite consciousness
and finite knowledge (or vice versa) of rocks, so
you rock on a very high level — the city’s slab dunk reverberates
stone love from the future,
but I prefer Tel Aviv, New York, whatever. I mean
I get Kenneth Koch.
I want to write a boring dissertation
but that takes talent
so I figure how we
go from the 60s
to Reagan, and
a year after my book’s
makes the shift positive,
turning my argument Neocon.
Then Frum slips
GW Bush the term “axis of evil,”
I think somewhat self-reflexively.
Forget poetry, reflexivity echoes what you mean.
Are there any questionssssss…
question mark mark mark
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