We’re huge fans of Bernadette Mayer over here. A few years ago, we assigned a feature to our beloved former colleague Linsday Garbutt, who wrote about Mayer’s 2020 book Memory for JSTOR Daily. Memory—which came out at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—celebrates friendship at a moment when we were all stuck inside by ourselves.
I was revisiting that piece recently after seeing Jonathan Aprea’s wonderful feature about The Poetry Project’s “Adventures in Poetry,” which features Mayer and other New York School poets like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. O’Hara who famously died in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island was best known for his book Lunch Poems, Ashbery for his poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which takes the Renaissance painting of the same name by Parmigianino as its subject.
Way back in 1976, both Ashbery and O’Hara were considered “painterly poets,” whatever that means. One early critic named Fred Moramarco describes “Self-Portrait” like this:
Looking at the poem and painting together, one is struck by Ashbery’s unique ability to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino’s fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painting’s meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision.
Both Ashbery and O’Hara were closely affiliated with the Abstract Expressionists. Both worked for Art News and O’Hara was a curator at MoMA. O’Hara has a poem about reading at the artist Joan Mitchell’s apartment in Adventures in Poetry that’s so immediate. If you don’t know Joan Mitchell’s paintings, you’re in for a real treat. She painted gorgeous abstract paintings, one called “Ode to Joy” for Frank O’Hara. One of my favorites is a painting named after O’Hara’s poem “To the Harbormaster.” John Ashbery read that poem at O’Hara’s memorial service and is said to have been so broken up he could hardly finish.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Allen Ginsberg had read O’Hara’s poem “To the Harbormaster” at O’Hara’s memorial service. In fact, it was John Ashbery who read the poem.