Eschatology and the Avant-Garde

As Reviewed By: Brian Henry

The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets by David Lehman. Doubleday, $27.50 (hardcover). Anchor Books, $16.95 (paper).

David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets focuses primarily on the original poets of the New York School, identified as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. Although Lehman acknowledges peripheral and subsequent New York School poets, as well as New York School painters (a movement and label that actually preceded their poetic counterparts), his primary interest lies in the lives, work, and interactions of these four poets.

[private]Among the four, Ashbery has become the most influential and celebrated, though O’Hara’s influence on English-language poetry has been enormous and was shortened prematurely by his bizarre death at 40. In their early years, Ashbery was considered by the other three as “The Poet,” while O’Hara was the consummate charmer, the center of attention in any room. Koch, who received his PhD and taught at Columbia University for many years, remained a consistently humorous and inventive poet and became a renowned teacher of poetry. Schuyler, the fourth poet in the group in terms of output and acclaim, battled crippling psychological problems; although important to younger poets attached to the New York School, Schuyler’s general influence has been considerably smaller than that of the other three.

Lehman’s purpose in this book is twofold: to describe the origins and achievements of the poets of the New York School and to argue that the group constitutes the last avant-garde movement in American poetry. The former goal results in a highly readable, informative compendium of cultural and literary history, literary criticism, and biography that educates the reader about the poets’ work, lives, and relationships with each other. This is the book’s primary strength. The book’s latter purpose is more polemical, and therefore more problematic. No critic can prove exactly what comprises “the last” avant-garde, in any art form, because the mainstream (and therefore the advance guard) of art are constantly changing. It is not that Lehman makes a weak case for his argument (he manages to support his thesis convincingly after defining his concept of the avant-garde), but that any such argument seems bound by limitations of criticism because art always outpaces and outperforms criticism (which Lehman, himself an accomplished poet, must know). However, Lehman has issued a challenging proclamation that will compel readers to consider for themselves the scope of the avant-garde.

Lehman defines the “avant-garde” art as “advanced art, breakthrough art, art that anticipates the future,” and restricts that definition to “a movement or group activity” because individuals and individual works of art cannot be avant-garde. An avant-garde group can be an “organized cadre” issuing proclamations (like the Surrealists) or an “informal clique of friends bound by elective affinities” (like the New York School of poets). Naturally, the avant-garde cannot remain in the forefront indefinitely, and Lehman thoughtfully discusses the problems arising from the tensions between tradition and originality, creation and destruction, respectability and unacceptability. The poets of the New York School also demonstrate these problems: although “the critical response to the first published efforts by Ashbery and Koch bordered on outrage,” both poets, especially Ashbery, have become adored by numerous critics. Because “everything is instantly accepted, absorbed, glorified, bought, sold, copied, recycled, trashed,” Lehman says, there are no borders for the avant-garde to transgress, no limits to reject or expand, no resistance to overcome. Today, “the distinction between true artistic innovation…and meretricious novelty…is difficult to discern and impossible to enforce,” further jeopardizing the existence, or emergence, of a new avant-garde. While it does not, and cannot, provide the last word, The Last Avant-Garde is a worthy place to begin.[/private]

About Brian Henry

Brian Henry has published poetry and criticism in numerous magazines around the world, including the Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, Harvard Review, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Stand, Overland, and Threepenny Review. His first book of poetry, Astronaut appeared recently in the UK and in Slovenia in translation. Astronaut was published in the US by Carnegie Mellon University Press. His second book, Graft, is forthcoming from New Issue Press and from Arc in England. He has edited the international magazine Verse since 1995, and was a Fulbright scholar in Australia in 1997-98, where he was Poetry Editor of Meanjin. He teaches at the University of Georgia.
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