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Roberto Bolaño and the New York School of poetry

By Andrew Epstein

The late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is of course best-known as a novelist, the author of ambitious, sprawling novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666. But before turning to prose, Bolaño started out as a poet; in fact, he often said he valued poetry more highly than fiction and sometimes claimed he was a better poet than novelist. His work is marked by a deep and abiding fascination with poetry and the people who write, read, and teach it. As Ben Ehrenreich wrote several years ago in an essay for the Poetry Foundation, “through his legions of fictional poets (some more fictional than others), through their political compromises, their self-betrayals, their struggles and feuds both petty and grand, Bolaño built a world.”

Ehrenreich is surely right about the importance of poetry, and fictional poets, to Bolaño’s oeuvre, but the critical discussion of this element of Bolaño’s work thus far has mostly remained on a general plane, instead of connecting his writing to particular poets and poetry movements. However, with the recent publication of his unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman and of his complete poetry in The Unknown University, Bolaño’s rather surprising links to a specific poetry movement — the New York School of poetry — have come into sharper focus.

It is common for readers to link Bolaño to Latin American and Spanish literary influences, to European avant-garde movements, or to other fiction writers. But Bolaño clearly read and absorbed the New York School of poetry and painting, along with a truly astonishing range of other sources. Although commentators on his work have barely mentioned it thus far, the New York School plays an important role in his work. It flickers just on the margins of Bolaño’s fictional universe, a ghostly example of the kind of poetry — as well as the type of intimate avant-garde community of like-minded others — that continually beckons and frustrates Bolaño and his characters.

Bolaño’s preoccupation with poetry can perhaps be seen best in his wonderful novel The Savage Detectives, which is actually a novel about poets. At its heart is a semi-fictional movement of young poets Bolaño calls the “Visceral Realists” (loosely based upon his own youthful involvement in a coterie called the Infrarealists). Throughout the remarkable opening section of the novel, this group — with all of its subversive energy, its iconoclasm and playfulness, its goofy, idealistic naivete, romanticism, and tragic flaws — reminds one of a host of other avant-garde communities, including the Surrealists, the Beats, and the New York School.

But it is more than just a novel about poets. The Savage Detectives is a moving meditation on poetry as a horizon of possibility and disillusionment. In fact, it’s one of the most exhilarating, devastating, exhausting, and revealing accounts of avant-garde poetry — and the movements and social worlds that sustain it — that I have encountered. It portrays the avant-garde as dream, as tragedy, as farce, as inspiring coterie and impossible community, tantalizing potential and heart-breaking, inevitable failure. In this, Bolaño echoes one of the hallmarks of the New York School itself: an intense, often ironic awareness of the paradoxes inherent in any avant-garde community, both its allure and its limitations.

Larry Rivers, "The Athlete's Dream" (1956) source: lunacommons.org
Larry Rivers, “The Athlete’s Dream” (1956) Source: Luna Commons

However, The Savage Detectives contains few direct references to the New York poets themselves (except for a passing reference to poets Ted Berrigan and John Giorno). Traces of the New York School stand out more prominently in the recently published book Woes of the True Policeman, one of the many (and perhaps the last) of Bolaño’s posthumous works that have appeared in recent years. At the novel’s center is a Chilean university professor named Óscar Amalfitano who falls in love with a young Mexican artist whose specialty is making forgeries of paintings by … Larry Rivers, of all people. Rivers, of course, was Frank O’Hara’s close friend, collaborator, and sometime lover, and the painter who is perhaps most closely allied, both socially and aesthetically, with the New York poets. This unusual detail — and the figure of Rivers himself — becomes a significant thread in Bolaño’s novel. The young artist, Castillo, explains that he sells the forgeries to a Texan who “then sells them to other filthy rich Texans.” When Castillo informs Amalfitano that Rivers is “an artist from New York,” he replies “I know Larry Rivers. I know Frank O’Hara, so I know Larry Rivers.”

Soon after, as Amalfitano meditates on the strangeness of this situation — the amateurish Rivers’ forgeries, the Texans who buy them, and the art market in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas — Bolaño writes:

“he immediately pictured those fake Berdies, those fake camels, and those extremely fake Primo Levis (some of the faces undeniably Mexican) in the private salons and galleries, the living rooms and libraries of modestly prosperous citizens… And then he imagined himself strolling around Castillo’s nearly empty studio, naked like Frank O’Hara, a cup of coffee in his right hand and a whiskey in his left, his heart untroubled, at peace with himself, moving trustingly into the arms of his new lover” (58).

Near the end of the book, the Rivers plot culminates with a strange and funny anecdote about running into Larry Rivers himself at an exhibition of his work.

The novel also features an amusing collection of Amalfitano’s “Notes for a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet.” This takes the form of an almost Buzzfeed-ready list that consists of items like “Happiest: Garcia Lorca,” “Banker of the soul: T.S. Eliot,” and “Strangest wrinkles: Auden.” Among other names cited in this rather crazy, irreverent list, one finds several important figures of the New York School – Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, and Diane Di Prima — getting top honors in some strange categories: “Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara,” “Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, José Emilio Pacheco,” and under “Biggest nervous wreck: Diane Di Prima”.

Signs of Bolaño’s interest in poets of the New York School can be found elsewhere across the body of his work, as when Frank O’Hara pops up in a short story collected in Last Evenings on Earth in which two poets meet, share poems with one another, and discuss their influences: “We talked a while longer, about Sanguinetti and Frank O’Hara (I still like Frank O’Hara but I haven’t read Sanguinetti for ages).” In the newly published collection of his complete poetry, The Unknown University, Bolaño’s connection to O’Hara is considerably more substantial. He not only uses a passage by Frank O’Hara as an epigraph to a poem, but the (untitled) poem itself closely echoes O’Hara’s work:

I listen to Barney Kessel
and smoke smoke smoke and drink tea
and try to make myself some toast
with butter and jam
but discover I have no bread and
it’s already twelve thirty at night
and the only thing to eat
is a nearly full bottle
of chicken broth bought this
morning and five eggs and a little
muscatel and Barney Kessel plays
guitar stuck between a
rock and an open socket
I think I’ll make some consommé and
then get into bed
to re-read The Invention of Morel
and think about a blond girl
until I fall asleep and
start dreaming.

(translated by Laura Healey)

With its “I do this, I do that” narrative conjuring up an ordinary but melancholy-tinged everyday moment, its references to listening to music, and jazz at that (Barney Kessel), its intimate and conversational tone, its lack of punctuation and its headlong rush, Bolaño’s poem seems to intentionally evoke O’Hara’s signature style.

In another poem in The Unknown University, Bolaño chronicles his experience of reading Ted Berrigan’s 1963 book The Sonnets.

A Sonnet

16 years ago Ted Berrigan published
his Sonnets. Mario passed the book around
the leprosaria of Paris. Now Mario
is in Mexico and The Sonnets on
a bookshelf I built with my own
hands. I think I found the wood
near Montealegre nursing home
and I built the shelf with Lola. In
the winter of ’78, in Barcelona, when
I still lived with Lola! And now it’s been 16 years
since Ted Berrigan published his book
and maybe 17 or 18 since he wrote it
and some mornings, some afternoons,
lost in a local theatre I try reading it,
when the film ends and they turn on the light.

(translated by Laura Healey)

The poem portrays the speaker’s formative encounter with Berrigan’s ground-breaking collection of experimental sonnets, but also hints at the frustrations or limitations of his exposure to it: the “lost” speaker, who may also have recently lost his lover (Lola), merely tries to read the book. He seems to long for the energy he seems convinced Berrigan must have had so many years ago when he wrote those poems. The poem also underscores both the cosmopolitan nature of Bolaño’s imagination and the international reach of the New York School of poets. Berrigan’s book The Sonnets, like this sonnet itself, crosses time and space, speaking across 16 years, and sliding across boundaries and nationalities: written in New York, circulated around Paris by a Latin American poet who is now in Mexico, read by a young 26 year old Chilean poet in a movie theater in Barcelona.

Bolaño of course read voraciously, immersing himself fully in a wide range of 20th century avant-garde writing and art, but as the final pieces of his work appear in translation, it has become clearer than ever that he seems to have had a special connection to a poetry movement that sprouted from a place far from Santiago, Mexico City, Barcelona, and other key points in his own geography — the world of Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Ted Berrigan, and other New York poets.

Poetry — especially the kind of poetry the New York School produced, and even more so, embodied, in its example and its ambivalent attitudes about community — seemed to exemplify Bolaño’s guiding belief about art in general: that it always promises us shimmering possibilities and perpetual disappointment at the same time.

Andrew Epstein is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. He is the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.

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