The Last Avant-Garde

book The Last Avant-Garde

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 23 ~ April, 1999

Let’s dispense with preamble: David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde is really good. It’s so good I read it at my desk when I should have been working, and in bed when I should have been sleeping. It made me go out and buy other books. I want to be up-front about this because you’re a busy reader and you probably don’t have enough time to read (who does?), and you need to know that this is a book you should make the time for.

The Last Avant-Garde is about the New York School of poets. It’s about New York. It’s about the fifties and about today. It’s about an extraordinary group of painters, writers, poets, critics and hangers-on who, in the words of the flyleaf, “bang[ed] out a powerful new aesthetic.” It centers around four friends: John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler.

“The story of the New York School of poets,” the book begins, “is a study in friendship, artistic collaboration, and the bliss of being alive and young at a moment of maximum creative ferment. It is also the story of the last authentic avant-garde movement that we have had in American poetry.” If you are a writer, if you have friends, if you are or would like to be creative, how can this opening not draw you in?

The poets followed the lead of the Abstract Expressionist painters in many ways: like the paintings of Pollock and de Kooning, some New York school poems chronicle the creative process, rather than the so-called “outside world.” Writing, for these poets, was a present-tense process; mimesis, the representation of the world, was refined and redefined with the idea that “the world” includes the interior world of the poet and of language itself. They wrote poems as elaborate word experiments following complex rules; they wrote a poem a day; they wrote poems for their painter-friends; they composed stunning poems on the way to readings.

Forget the mental image of the unhappy poet staring in agony at a page or computer screen; the men Lehman describes were ironists, humorists, liked hoaxes and spoofs, wrote parodies, created ad hoc forms (requiring, for instance, the name of a river, or flower, or famous woman, in every line). And they experimented, Lehman tells us, “not for experimentation’s sake but for the sake of writing great poems.” They were not only avant-garde writers, but also literary artists.

The Last Avant-Garde combines cultural history, biography, and literary analysis; it also combines personal anecdote with scholarship, which is part of what makes it such fine reading (as is Lehman’s fine prose style).

The first, and larger, part of the book consists of chapters on each of the four primary poets Lehman has chosen to address: Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch and Schuyler. (Mixed and mingled with information about each of these men is information about their entire circle – how they came to meet, the artists they befriended, the lifestyle they chose, the affairs they had, the poems they wrote, and the collaborations they entered into). The second part of the book, entitled “The Ordeal of the Avant-Garde,” provides a look at what it means (or meant) to be avant-garde, and why Lehman considers the New York school to be “the last avant-garde” (although he does not preclude the idea of a new avant-garde arising, which heartens me).

Most any excerpt from the book I could choose would prove instructive, teaching one something about these men, the world they inhabited, the poems they wrote. For example: “The most extended collaboration produced by the poets was the novel that Ashbery and Schuyler began in the backseat of a car returning to New York City from the Hamptons on a summer day in 1952,” Lehman tells us. “Looking for a way to lessen the boredom of the ride, Schuyler suggested that they write a novel. `How can we do that?’ Ashbery asked. `Oh, it’s very simple,’ Schuyler said and pulled out a pad. `Think of a first line.'”

Or we learn of Kenneth Koch, “Koch never forgot the great lesson of the Surrealists – that in art, unlike ethics, the ends justify the means. If one should achieve a vision of the grail, it is immaterial whether vision or error, the conscious mind or the unconscious self, thought or dream, had led to this sublime end. All ways are valid: none are holy.”

About O’Hara, Lehman writes: “The surface of O’Hara’s poems is so dazzling, with taste so fine and sensibility so rare and appealing, that it comes as a surprise to investigate and realize there are depths of meaning in his offhanded poems that seem as disarmingly immediate and perishable as telephone calls.”

But the book is more than a collection of excerpts and analyses: it paints more than a whole portrait; it’s three-dimensional. Any slice I provide doesn’t approach what really makes the book work. It’s about the relationships as much as it is about the people themselves. I can excerpt pieces of the book until I’m blue in the face, but all it’s going to do is tease you. Excerpting and summarizing are futile. As Jeanette Winterson writes, “The question `What is your book about?’ has always puzzled me. It is about itself and if I could condense it into other words I should not have taken such care to choose the words I did.”

Instead, consider this: I began this book not knowing a thing about the New York school. I had never read a single New York School poem. I wasn’t at all familiar with the visual art of Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, or Jane Freilicher, whose paintings are so deeply intertwined with the New York School’s writing. Since finishing this book I have sought out books of poems by Ashbery and O’Hara, which stand on my bookshelf now, already becoming dog-eared.

I also find myself making constant reference to the New York school. I brought up their glorious use of ad hoc forms in an online discussion on formal poetry (I was arguing that “formal” doesn’t have to mean “serious,” and they backed up my point beautifully! Who else would write a sestina about Popeye?) I brought up the New York school in a conversation about the aesthetics of camp. I argued to a friend that Frank O’Hara’s “lunch poems,” which he wrote on a daily basis and some of which are absolutely sublime, are proof that writing a poem a day can be a good thing. I think I’m starting to drive my friends a little nuts. It’s like the Jane Siberry song, “Everything reminds me of my dog,” except this time, “Everything reminds me of the New York school.”

After reading Lehman’s book, I feel like I know the New York school personally. The lives and work of Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler and Koch have somehow integrated themselves into my psyche. This is a book that I read, and came away from changed. What more need I say?

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at www.rachelbarenblat.com