January 3, 1999
New York Times Book Review
Enough time has passed since the poets of the New York School resembled anything like an avant-garde that to refer to them as such now invites nostalgia. As with so many artists who begin as defiant Prince Hals and end as conquering King Henrys, the term suggests a time prior to widespread acclaim. For John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler -- the subjects of ''The Last Avant-Garde,'' David Lehman's jaunty and readable account of artistic friendship and collaboration in Manhattan in the 1950's and early 60's -- the battle to establish their distinctive brand of poetry has long been waged and won.
Of Ashbery, Lehman writes that ''he is America's best-known poet, with a strong readership in Britain and a larger international following than any of his American contemporaries.'' That his willfully opaque poems remain a ''litmus test'' for some only suggests to Lehman that there are those who have not yet caught up with the judgments of our most prominent literary critics. All four poets may be read in swank collected editions befitting their prizewinning oeuvres. Lehman's label of ''avant-garde,'' however, reminds us that these darlings of the academy were once its adversaries, and that their work was not always the colossus it has become but a dynamic fringe experiment.
Lehman, the author of ''Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man,'' has a spirited story to tell, and he tells it with spirit. A strong proponent of the New York School esthetic, he is fortunate in his material, which lends itself so neatly to bohemian mythologizing. With more than a hint of Romantic ecstasy, Lehman describes the fervor of the San Remo bar and Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. Such midcentury hangouts teemed not only with painters and writers, we read, but also with ''the bliss of being alive and young at a moment of maximum creative ferment.'' As Koch has it, the scene was ''fizzy with collaboration.'' (And one suspects, with so much hard drinking going on, fizzy with Alka-Seltzer as well.)
O'Hara provided the group with its center and, after his death in 1966 in a freak accident on a Fire Island beach, with its martyr. Through his myriad friendships and his curatorial position at the Museum of Modern Art, O'Hara worked painters like Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers into the mix. Joint works abounded. Rivers inspired a play by Koch, Koch wrote the poem ''A Postcard to Popeye'' with Ashbery, Ashbery wrote the novel ''A Nest of Ninnies'' with Schuyler, Schuyler collaborated on an ode with O'Hara, O'Hara sat for a portrait painted by Rivers (his lover) and so on in a daisy chain of ''literary lovemaking'' straight out of ''La Ronde.''
While mutual admiration cemented them as a school, the four remained very different as poets, with the ''quietly Whitmanic'' Schuyler most markedly apart. Personally, they had much in common. All (save Schuyler) overlapped at Harvard, all (save Koch) were homosexual, all (save Ashbery) did military service, all (save Koch) reviewed art and all (save Ashbery, who soon moved to Paris) lived in New York during their formative years as poets. The sound of Ashbery's voice so resembled O'Hara's that people mistook them for each other, yet readers of their work would hardly make that mistake. Lehman, nevertheless, finds some common denominators. The quartet aligned themselves with French Surrealists like Raymond Roussel, Pierre Reverdy and Guillaume Apollinaire: ''They favored wit, humor and the advanced irony of the blague (that is, the insolent prank or jest) in ways more suggestive of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg than of the New York School painters after whom they were named.''
An assiduous researcher and critic as well as a companionable gossip, Lehman occasionally falls prey to his poets' playful spirit. Do we need to know Ashbery's astrological sign (''Leo . . . with Virgo rising'') to appreciate a poem referring to constellations? Lehman sometimes overstates his case, particularly where he assumes the reader's complete sympathy. Ashbery's associative ramble ''The Skaters'' becomes in Lehman's estimation ''a latter-day equivalent of T. S. Eliot's 'Waste Land.' '' The comparison misfires. Ashbery's lines pale next to the best of modernism, America's only truly great literary avant-garde of the century and the movement that the New York School poets labored so wildly to extend.
David Yezzi, a poet, is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
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