May 1999

David Kennedy

Buy this book The Last Avant-Garde:
The Making of the New York School of Poets.
by David Lehman

416 pgs. Doubleday, 1998
$19.25 ~ You Save: $8.25 (30%)
We are coming to the end of a period in which several generations of poets in America, Australia and Great Britain have found the work of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler more inspiring than that of Auden, Eliot, Lowell and Pound. For example, when the Australian poet Ken Bolton begins his poem (My List Begins) Joe Turner:

It is terrific
        to be on your feet
                    in the
Forest Lodge, coming in the door
                    I don't
know what time it is
            but not late and I am

It seems as if there could never have been any doubt that writing is deeply embedded in the fabric of everyday living. It seems appropriate, then, that David Lehman's study of the New York school, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, should appear now to remind us that this was not always the case. The story goes that you could 'join' the New York school by giving $20 to Ted Berrigan. For an extra $7.50, Lehman's book doesn't 'get you in,' but it goes a long way toward explaining why so many poets are still writing themselves onto a posthumous guest list. Lehman gives sensitive and persuasive accounts of the poetry and the reasons for its appeal as well as what might be termed the 'group dynamics' of the New York poets: "Writing about this quartet of poets, one is struck by how often a useful generalization fits three of the four principals, with O'Hara the one constant in all." Lehman draws a convincing picture of the poets' social milieu and of the wider cultural and political background to their poetry: the rise of Abstract Expressionism, the dominance of the New Critics, the Eisenhower era. He has known or worked with most of the people he writes about and has interviewed many others. He makes judicious use of correspondence, reviews, newspaper articles, and most notably, John Ashbery's personal archives now in the Houghton Library at Harvard. His tone throughout is celebratory and upbeat, and his study complements and, to some extent redresses, both the post-AIDS gloominess of Brad Gooch's well-researched City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara and the theoretical emphasis of Geoff Ward's ground-breaking Statutes of Liberty.

The Last Avant-Garde is welcome, timely and eminently readable. Lehman's enthusiasm is engaging and prompts further reflection on some of the more intriguing aspects of New York school poetry. As Lehman acknowledges in a lengthy discussion in Part II, the whole conception of avant-garde art has become extremely problematic. Indeed, it could be argued that Abstract Expressionism—not Pop Art—marks the point at which the avant-garde becomes assimilated and fully commodified and that O'Hara was deeply implicated in the process. While it is perfectly possible to argue, as Lehman does, that 'the New York poets were aesthetes in revolt against a moralist's universe' (358), it now seems clear that this revolt was of a limited nature. Lehman's equally valuable observation that the New York poets believed in 'identifying the reader's pleasure with the author's happiness' suggests that the undiminished influence of the New York poets can be traced in part to their extremely user-friendly prosody. New York poetry is easy to consume. It's not surprising to find that the personae presented in the work of Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara and Schuyler are in many ways conspicuous consumers. Their poetry is full of products and the enjoyment of those products. It has often been remarked that O'Hara portrays himself as a late twentieth-century flâneur but he is also a shopper par excellence. Many of his most enduring poems feature the poet in the act of shopping, about to shop or just having shopped. If New York poetry rejects metaphysical speculation or confessional angst, it replaces them with unashamed enjoyment of the material world. In this sense, Ashbery's 'perpetual motion' discourse and O'Hara's restless circumambulations of Manhattan both figure the free-floating, ever-aroused, never satisfied desire of capitalism. The one uses language with 'no obligation to buy' any one particular mode, just as the other shops for Picayunes and le cadeau juste. This may go a long way to explaining, albeit rather uncomfortably, why New York poetry was so influential in the period of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, which was the age of designer labels and over-engineered adult toys such as Phillipe Starck juicers. It may also be the inevitable element of risk in a poetry which does not think that poetry is 'above' or better than life.

The intriguingly incomplete fit between a portrayal of the New York poets as avant-garde resisters of bourgeois norms and the actualities of their practice and influence is even more visible in the area of poetics and sexual politics. Ashbery, O'Hara and Schuyler are—or were—gay, and yet their most enduring influence has been on largely straight male poets. Of course, Ashbery makes no overt references to his homosexuality and references by O'Hara and Schuyler are casual and unpoliticized and this makes this aspect of their work easy to dismiss or ignore. However, when one considers that, as Geoff Ward points out in Statutes of Liberty, male involvement in poetry in twentieth century capitalist societies has been surrounded by clearly articulated anxieties about effeminacy and, quite specifically, sissyness, then their appeal and influence becomes all the more remarkable. As I noted above, O'Hara is always going shopping which is something that many straight men traditionally shun. Similarly, when Schuyler, in 'A Few Days', tells us how he wastes money on flowers and spends part of the poem using a whole bottle of expensive cologne, this opens questions of the relationship between a gender and its permitted voices. As Schuyler's poetic self transcends taboos about behavior, so does the poetry transcend taboos about vocabulary and subject. What New York school poetry exemplifies, is a defining lack of embarrassment about being a man, being engaged by cultural products, and writing poetry. Its legacy—for male poets—is to demonstrate a way of writing that is unafraid of being true to the complexities of the self in poetry. It is a way of writing that is not hung up on either the idea that poetry must be equated with physical labor, or that the only alternatives to that conception are self-conscious romanticism or hard-boiled, laconic detachment. It is way of portraying the observing self in the midst of everyday reality that is neither the snapshots of social realism, or the poet with his nose pressed up against the windows of other peoples' lives. It is not just an enactment of the fact that poetry is a particular way of behaving in language but an inspiring suggestion that poetry may in fact be a particular form of social behavior. Its ultimate legacy is that the decision to write poetry is inextricable from the decision to live one's life in a particular way and that the foundation of this is the acceptance, in O'Hara's words, "that everything is all right and difficult."


Readers may also find the following of interest: Chris Greenhalgh's Towards a Postmodern Urban Poetic: The Poetry of Frank O'Hara, Verse Vol 9 No 3 (Winter 1992), 75-86; and my own Four Windows on James Schuyler, Verse Vol 10 No 2 (Summer 1993), 70-75.

David Kennedy was born in Leicester, England in 1959.  He co-edited The New Poetry (Bloodaxe Books 1993), and is the author of New Relations: The Refashioning Of British Poetry 1980-1994 (Seren 1996).  A selection of translations from Max Jacob’s surrealist classic Le Cornet à Dés (The Dice Cup), in collaboration with Christopher Pilling, is forthcoming from Atlas later this year.  He lives in Sheffield.

to top


David Kennedy: Review
Copyright © 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review