The Heretic

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Through his friendship with Rivers and Freilicher, Porter met Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, and Schuyler, the four core members of the New York school of poetry. The circle these poets and painters formed was based equally on friendship and artistic affinity, a shared aesthetic point of view and an ideal of intense personal loyalty. For the pages of Art News , Porter wrote “Larry Rivers Paints a Picture” and “Jane Freilicher Paints a Picture,” and O’Hara reciprocated with “Fairfield Porter Paints a Picture.” Porter also put his friends into his paintings. His 1951 portrait Larry Rivers , his double portrait of Schuyler and Ashbery ( Jimmy and John , 1957–58), his 1967 picture of Freilicher with her daughter, Elizabeth ( Jane and Elizabeth ), and his rendering the same year of John Ashbery and James Schuyler Writing “A Nest of Ninnies” are particularly fine.

Inspired by the poets, Porter took to writing poems and often attached his latest efforts to letters sent to friends. He learned the rules of the sestina from Kenneth Koch, and this became his favorite form; he and Koch even corresponded in sestinas for several years. Some of these are charming. But my favorite Porter poem is “I Wonder What They Think of My Verses,” a kind of group portrait of his circle of friends in their reactions to the painter’s poems:

If Jimmy likes them, I believe him Because Jimmy is kind And he does not pretend If Larry dislikes them, I do not believe him Because his ambition distracts him If John dislikes them, I believe him Because he is lazy and quick If Frank likes them or dislikes them, I do not believe him Because Frank is considerate And he is led by his imagination Far beyond the ability to forgive If Jane likes them, I believe her Because her feelings guide her And if Anne is critical I believe her Because she desires my credit If Rudy is impressed It is because he did not know I had it in me If Walter dislikes them He does so to prove his affection If Edwin understands them It is to reciprocate my trust And Kenneth is pedantic And filial and fatherly But jerry is contemptuous and sarcastic Because he wants me to love him And Laurence admires them Because he wants to admire his father.

The poem names, in order, Jimmy Schuyler, Larry Rivers, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Jane Freilicher, Anne Porter, the photographer Rudy Burckhardt, the photographer Walter Auerbach, the dance critic and poet Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, and two of Porter’s sons, Jerry and Laurence.

Porter proved himself to be an able polemicist in favor of the poetry his friends were writing. Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956), selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series, baffled many readers. William Arrowsmith aired his misgivings in the pages of The Hudson Review . “I have no idea most of the time what Mr. Ashbery is talking about or being, beyond the communication of an intolerable vagueness that looks as if it was meant for precision,” Arrowsmith complained. “What does come through is an impression of an impossibly fractured brittle private world, depersonalized and discontinuous, whose characteristic emotional gesture is an effete and cerebral whimsy.” Porter defended Ashbery at length. “In Ashbery’s poetry there is a kind of music new to poetry,” he argued. “Ashbery’s verbal phrases are to me ideas in the way that musical phrases may be so considered.”