The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets
David Lehman
Anchor, $16.95 (paper)


In his 1958 novel The Subterraneans, Jack Kerouac describes an establishment that he calls the Black Mask, a loud, seedy, feverish dive which seems a combination of two Greenwich Village night spots where the Beat writers and the New York School painters and poets gathered for evenings of conversation and conviviality, the San Remo and the Cedar Tavern:

Nights that begin so glitter clear with hope, let’s go see our friends, things, phones ring, people come and go, coats, hats, statements, bright reports, metropolitan excitements, a round of beers, another round of beers, the talk gets more beautiful, more excited, flushed, another round, the midnight hour….

David Lehman’s biographical and critical study of the New York School is at its atmospheric best when it replays passages like the above in elaborate, electric detail. His painstakingly organized collective portrait proves how well he understands these artists, perpetually insomniac in a sleepwalker’s decade, testing the limits of American poetry in an era that ushered in the blacklisting witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy and the threat of nuclear devastation. While the prototypical poem of the 1950s relied upon elevated diction, coherent logic, and "a sense of moral earnestness," the New York School poets–John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler–"revitalized poetry at a moment when it seemed that everything that could be done had been done."

Over fifty years ago, three students at Harvard University met and shared their already prodigious literary and artistic influences (too numerous to name here), writing their early poems, and working at the Harvard Advocate.These three–Ashbery, Koch and O’Hara–came to New York (Schuyler followed shortly thereafter) in the early 1950s and quickly found themselves among "second generation" New York School artists–Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers, among others. Collaborations proliferated, short films were shot, hybrids of paintings and poems appeared, love affairs and triangles formed and fizzled out. Just as the painters began re-introducing figuration into their work, the poets changed the face of postwar American poetry with sophisticated applications of irony: intelligent and irreverent parodies, zany collaborations, faux translations, unconventional novels and plays, throughout favoring a gesture which Lehman characterizes as the blague, from the French for "practical joke" or "trick." The Last Avant-Gardespeculates about the poets’ ideas of connection to the painters:

O’Hara saw the "powers and personality" of Abstract Expressionism clearly at work in the poems he and his friends were writing…. [Ashbery] felt that the poets were linked to the painters mainly by proximity … that the painters exemplified the idea of an adventuresome nonconformist … an inspiring precedent…. "[a way] to be free … that most people felt [was] impossible for poetry."

O’Hara’s famous poem "Why I Am Not a Painter" begins with the poet yearning to be a painter. O’Hara reports the process of Mike Goldberg applying the word "sardines" to a canvas as O’Hara crafts his poem "Oranges." Eventually, Goldberg’s painting is "just letters" hanging in a gallery, but O’Hara’s poem has not "mentioned orange yet"; twelve poems are the result, but "there should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life." The poem cleverly inverts the materials of the painter and poet (Goldberg works with the word as a physical object, O’Hara with a color), and demonstrates how the final products of both differ from their original, ostensible subjects. Though O’Hara "would rather be / a painter," he honors the close, productive bond between the visual and the verbal, while celebrating himself as that enigmatic, generative figure, the "real poet."

Lehman proposes that this collaborative, prolific period lasted from 1948 to 1966, when O’Hara died. Of his subjects, O’Hara is often regarded as the undisputed star of the group; commanding and flamboyant, he was as un-self-conscious dashing off a poem during his lunch break from the Museum of Modern Art as he was posing nude for Fairfield Porter and Nell Blaine. He is also the only one of the quartet to have been previously featured in a full-length biography, and a weaker biographer might characterize him as a tragic artist, dying at the age of forty. Lehman justly criticizes the portrait of O’Hara in Brad Gooch’s biographyCity Poetas inaccurate. While Gooch insists upon O’Hara’s alcoholism and promiscuity, Lehman rejects the Dionysian stereotype. He illustrates the poet’s nearly selfless concern for his peers, pointing out that dozens of people emerged after the poet’s death, each claiming to be his closest friend. Lehman closes his discussion of O’Hara with a provocative reading of "The Day Lady Died," the stunning elegy for Billie Holliday, convincingly placing the poem in the company of the great elegies of the English language:

As the detractors of "Lycidas" were wrong, so the critics of "The Day Lady Died" misjudged the poet’s conversational ease and seemingly self-centered stance…. [It] is a moving elegy not in spite of the poem’s preoccupation with the poet’s self but because of it; the death of the great singer at the age of forty-four occurs as an interruption, a shock that the reader is invited to share…. To the charge that O’Hara is too ironic to be sincere, I would borrow the distinction Lionel Trilling made between sincerity and authenticity: O’Hara’s suspicion of sincerity as a rhetorical mode is paradoxically what makes his work more authentic…. [I]f all that survived of 1959 was "The Day Lady Died," then historians a century hence could piece together the New York of that moment in the same way that archaeologists can reconstruct a whole extinct species of dinosaur from a single fossile bone.

• • •

Each of the remaining three poets receives equally extensive and relevant biographical and critical treatment. Lehman fills us in on Ashbery’s childhood as both a lonely boy growing up on an upstate New York farm and a precocious contestant on a radio program, his friends’ reaction to his early poems ("like falling in love with some thrilling young person from Mars," according to Koch), the impact of his decade in Paris on his life’s work, his contributions as an art critic, and his present position as the most frequently imitated and parodied poet in America. Few seem to remember that his place in the firmament was secured precariously over decades, beginning with Auden’s grudging selection ofSome Treesfor the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

The price of comic ingenuity, Lehman observes, has somewhat affected the literary success of Kenneth Koch. As both an admirer of Koch’s brilliant catalogues and innovative one-line poems, Lehman is perhaps the most enamored of this poet. Koch is a lauded teacher (his antic assignments have become something of a legend in academic circles) yet is presented here as an under-appreciated writer in an era when the lyric was considered alpha and omega. Perhaps more ignored in the poetry world, in spite of a Pulitzer, is James Schuyler, whose life and deceptively transparent, scrupulously particular poems are thoroughly investigated here. In terms of both its form and neglected status, his work stands apart from the others. Often making use of the literal rather than the symbolic, he creates in his "Hymn to Life" a kind of "laundry list" that, as Woody Allen’s character in Manhattandiscovers, has the power to make life worthwhile. We learn about his complicated, influential friendship with Auden, as well as why he was the last of the four to publish a book. He was renowned as the best editor of the group, and his poems attracted notable admirers such as Elizabeth Bishop, yet he did not give a public reading until 1988, three years before his death. Dazed at times by heavy dosages of antipsychotic medications, he spent a great deal of his later years in squalid hotel rooms.

Curiously absent from Lehman’s discussion is Barbara Guest, whom he calls "the odd woman out" in the New York School. Lehman apologizes for this omission (among others) in his introduction, but Guest deserves better than a handful of references: she was befriended and influenced by the same artists as the others, and though her work has moved increasingly toward Language poetry, it owes a great deal more to Cubism than it does to the Marxist roots of most Language poets, as Lehman himself points out.

According to its introduction, the book aspires to both biography and criticism, but Lehman digresses when he attempts to get past the term "avant-garde." The avant-garde, according to his research of other "forward looking" movements such as French Surrealism, has four "necessary conditions": "the importance attached to the new, the tremendous value placed on originality, the idea that change is ameliorative, and the artist’s adversarial instinct." Lehman insists that the New York School poets are the heirs to this avant-garde tradition, but avoid obvious political articulations in their poems. As inventive artists, the group may approximately satisfy the rudiments of this definition, but the argument quickly becomes attenuated, overpopulated. Do we need to receive detailed accounts of the petty quarrels between the Beats and the New York School, or Robert Lowell’s notorious letter to Lyndon Johnson? Or rambling, ultimately unproductive considerations of the political subtext of Ashbery’s poems? His primary lamentations –that art has been excessively commercialized, that the blague has been made mainstream (think of the ubiquitous mustache on a Mona Lisa T-shirt)–may be valid points, but they hardly seem controversial. Lehman does his most impressive work as equal parts thorough biographer, close reader, and enthusiastic fan, but his monotonous disagreements with the quartet’s detractors and his pervasive love of the anecdote make for uneven criticism.