A Reflection on the New York School Poetry and “Cuban Cigars”

At face value, the New York School poets can be difficult to define. They all appear unique in their own ways, while somehow maintaining a similar (sort of) style, a tendency toward abstraction, as if they have an answer they refuse to share, an image they leave intentionally unresolved, an underlying philosophy they only hint at. My impression is that these tendencies are incredibly intentional. Frank O’Hara essentially denies any of these underlying elements of his poetry in his “manifesto,” “Personism: a Manifesto.” He basically says that a poem should become its own entity, separate from the poet, through the process of writing, allowing the words and images to make up an overall picture, a pure abstraction, or an image of (emotional) intensity. O’Hara was more interested in the art of a poem being the primary focus. This does sometimes appear to be precisely what happens in his work, but there are other instances in which his work appears far more carefully crafted and leans more into a central theme/idea.

In an introduction to the New York School (https://blogs.charleston.edu/schooling-american-poetry/files/2017/02/Reed-11hdlkb.pdf), Brian Reed writes far more about the tendencies of the New York poets than I have space here to accomplish, but he also explains some of their differences, how their poetics seemed to change (often subtly) throughout their careers. Reed focuses on each of these poets in turn, and in attempting an imitation for this blog post, I centered my attention on two points Reed makes. The first: discussing O’Hara, Reed states that O’Hara’s most well-known work is his ‘I do this, I do that’ poems, in which the speaker writes about an experience (often a mundane, everyday experience) that, throughout the course of the poem becomes suggestive of some deeper understanding (not overt), some deeper connection to broader insights (or some deeper realization about the world, existence, life, etc. – all often being not quite overtly clear). This approach intrigues me, taking as a subject something like an afternoon of people-watching at a cafe or airport and then seeing where the observations take me in the form of a poem, so I wanted to factor that in as I began thinking about my own imitative poem.

The second element I pulled from Reed’s introduction pertains to his discussion of Kenneth Koch; he writes about how Koch often veered into a more stream-of-consciousness style in his poetry, something like in his poem, “The Circus.” If one were to allow a poem to take on its own form, to lead toward its own formulation and content, it seems to me that factoring in some level of stream-of-consciousness might be among the best ways to achieve it. Therefore, in contemplating my own poem, I decided to allow myself to let go as much as possible, to allow some free association to flow–this proved to be far more difficult than I anticipated (when I talk of these poems, I can rattle of several lines that sound pretty close to the source, but sitting in front of a screen and typing almost interferes with such a loose, unimpeded release; this factor alone prompts me to reevaluate some of the work by these poets). Ultimately, I do not think I truly exhibit O’Hara’s ‘I do this, I do that’ structure, and I similarly do not think I was truly able to pour out a stream-of-consciousness verse in the style of Koch’s “The Circus.” The following poem, however, “Cuban Cigars,” is my best effort.

 

Cuban Cigars

 

I stood in a place time forgot,

or we stood there, feeling our hearts

in the heart of Havana, on a small

balcony, cast iron paint peeling railing

 

having climbed narrow hidden stairs

having greeted gracious hosts in broken

Spanish and broken English

overlooking forgotten streets

 

busy with hasty walkers bike taxis

broken concrete streets unbroken

midcentury American steel vehicles

running on fortitude and determination

 

like the dogs rummaging around town

like the people in dirty tattered rags

But there was so much more there

ghostly beneath our corrupted vision

 

something truly alive, some truth of life,

and maybe we noticed or maybe we didn’t

we might have seen reality for the first the only time

or perhaps Havana charmed them as us

 

music ringing through broken light

cutting the silence of distance and darkness

glasses clinking at the corners

a sensory overload of Cuban

 

meats, cigars, exhaust, heat, water

drainage, bodies… life, and, oh!

the cats, I glanced down at the cats

and turned but you were gone

 

so alone on the terrace I watched those cats

a small family, an adult and several young kittens

hiding in a darkened alley, down a darkened street

lit by dim, sparse streetlights and the occasional dim

 

headlights the kittens were boldest venturing

timidly from the shadows, trotting across the street

looking for scraps, one picked up some trash and ran

back to the safety of the darkness before returning

 

to look for more, each fleeing in scattered

directions any time feet approached

anytime the ground rumbled melodically

under car tires, and I thought of Cuban

 

Cigars and I wanted to tell you about the cats

about the cigars, how the man told me how

he got around the government’s restrictions

how his cigars were the best of them

 

since they were a combination of them all

and how the cats learned about surviving life

learned from their town, their world, and how

the people all seemed so happy, so savvy

 

so artistic, so alive in a noisy beautiful

rundown place with a richness of life unknown

to any of us from our enriched distanced world

and then I heard the door behind me and saw

 

your beautiful face appear, framed picturesque

by your dirty messy hair and I thought of Cuban

Cigars and, oh!, the cats! and I

quietly and gently gripped your shoulder

 

pulled you to the edge of my revelation

but the cats were gone, leaving undefined stirrings

somewhere under my ribcage, only me

aghast with insufficient words

 

a feeling and nothing

left with me to say…

so I lit a Cuban Cigar and awaited truth’s

return knowing we’d soon be gone

 

and like forgotten

space unmoved by temporary matter

neither the cats nor the music

nor the hasty walkers nor the scents

 

the Cuban meats, the clinking drinks,

artists and busted busy streets neglected

Havana would remain unchanged by us,

our presence or our absence

 

but I still have Cuban Cigars, the humidor,

the memory, the lingering image of the cats

the unnamed universal lesson they, and Havana,

revealed, and, of course, you, to this very day

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