“Our Program Is the Absence of Any Program”: The New York School Reading the Past

  • Ben Hickman
Part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics book series (MPCC)


In the summer of 1950, shortly after arriving in New York, a 23-year-old John Ashbery wrote to his new painter-friend, Jane Freilicher:

I’m reading The White Devil by Webster, a rather charming novel by Mary Webb called “Armor Wherein He Trusted” … I’m also reading the poems of Prior, whom Kenneth would love, I’m sure—he writes in a very familiar style, rather like Auden in Letters from Iceland. And Edith Sitwell: I love her early stuff more and more, but certainly can’t take a long poem called Gold Coast Customs, which she considers her Waste Land; it is easily the most intolerable poem ever written … I still have to finish D. H. Lawrence (groan) … Here’s a comforting little poem from Nicholas Moore … It sounds as though he wrote it to Kenneth Koch about John Ashbery … (Letter dated August 8, 1950 in the Freilicher archive at the Houghton Library, Harvard)

There are many things revealed in such letters, common between New York School figures whenever they were away from each other. There is the obvious voracity of Ashbery’s reading appetite, his proclivity for variety, the apparently arbitrary mixture of high- and lowbrow, tragic and comic, ancient and modern, with no attempt to suggest connections. There is also the collaborative atmosphere that reading as an activity is evidently taking place in: Ashbery is not only sharing his reading with one friend, he is constantly framing it in relation to another.


Reading Practice Western Asceticism Historical Sense Convex Mirror Locus Solus 
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© Mark Silverberg 2013

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  • Ben Hickman

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