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J A C K E T  # 6
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The Plot Against the Giant . . .
david lehman 
 the last avant-garde

the making of the new york school of poets
Doubleday, New York, 1998, ISBN 038547542X, US$27.50 h/b
reviewed by Paul Hoover
You can read the first chapter
of "the last avant-garde" in Jacket # 5
            THE LAST AVANT-GARDE is a history of the poets of the "New York School," whose leading members are generally considered to be John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. Influenced by French poetry and therefore by what Ashbery has called the "Other Tradition," these poets are innovative yet respectful of traditional form. They are fond of wild juxtapositions and changes of tone but also of lyrical beauty of expression. In style and attitude, they have the "dash" of Byron rather than the sincerity of Wordsworth. Their work ranges from the postmodern discontinuity of Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath to the romantic formalism of Kenneth Koch's comic epic in ottava rima, The Duplications. They are also attracted to the compositional methods of the French group Oulipo, of which Harry Mathews, a founding editor of the New York School journal, Locus Solus, is an active member. Oulipo member Georges Perec was known for writing a novel, La Disparition, that contained no letter "e." The novel's protagonist, Anton Vowl, is therefore appropriately named. In the same methodical spirit of play, John Ashbery wrote a cento, "The Dong with the Luminous Nose," which begins:
Within a windowed niche of that high hall
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn.
Born around 1927, the New York School poets first met either at Harvard or the gallery scene in New York City, where they moved after college. All were identified with the New York art scene at the time of its post-war burgeoning. O'Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, where he curated some important shows; Ashbery edited ARTnews and served for ten years as art reviewer for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune; Koch collaborated with painters Larry Rivers and Alex Katz, among others; and Schuyler was Associate Editor of ARTnews and a curator at MOMA. On a more intimate level of connection, O'Hara posed nude for Fairfield Porter and slept with the experimentally bi-sexual Larry Rivers. It must have seemed entirely reasonable when John Bernard Myers, director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and publisher of O'Hara's A City Winter (1952), Koch's Poems (1953), and Ashbery's Turandot and Other Poems (1953), "came up with the New York School moniker in 1961, hoping to cash in on the cachet of the world-conquering Abstract Expressionists." When O'Hara died tragically in 1966, run down by a dune buggy on Fire Island while returning from a party at Virgil Thomson's vacation house, he was as much mourned by the art world as by poets. Alfred Leslie's The Killing Cycle is a celebrated series of paintings on the subject of O'Hara's death.
            While O'Hara's talent for friendship is evident in the "intimist" tone of his poems, not all of his work is intimate or personal. The poem "Second Avenue" is, on the contrary, packed, surrealist, and difficult, while "Ode to Joy" is melancholy and heroic. But, on the whole, we think of O'Hara's as a public poetry and Ashbery's as private. Frequently quoted in The Last Avant-Garde and Lehman's former professor at Columbia University, Kenneth Koch is the Borscht Belt comedian of the group, while James Schuyler, who died in 1991, the same year he was unjustly excluded from the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, successfully joined the "I do this, I do that" poem with observations of landscape and nature.
            The book has a wealth of information about the poet's lives, their work, and the artistic atmosphere of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side in the Fifties and Sixties. There is a wonderful series of photos of the poets and painters in their youth: a boyish John Ashbery at a costume party embracing the outrageously feathered Nell Blaine; the previously mentioned Fairfield Porter drawing of Frank O'Hara, nude save for a pair of unstrung "rough trade" work boots, his penis in a slight state of erection; Ashbery walking barefoot and tanned on vacation at Cabourg, "the real-life model for Proust's Balbec," according to the caption; and a wonderful photo by Burt Glinn, A Back Table at the Five Spot, showing Frank O'Hara, Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan at a corner table as sculptor David Smith chats nearby with Helen Frankenthaler. The caption informs us that Rivers organized evenings of poetry and jazz on Monday nights, Thelonious Monk's night off. The Five Spot is of course featured in O'Hara's most anthologized poem, "The Day Lady Died."
At the Five Spot
Detail: Frank O'Hara, Larry Rivers, and Grace Hartigan at the Five Spot, 1957, photo copyright © Burt Glinn, 1957
Yeats believed that artistic and cultural perfection was to be found in Byzantium at the end of the first Christian millennium. Poets of my generation, who were children in the Fifties, tend to locate a postmodern renaissance at the Cedar Tavern, a hangout for painters, and the San Remo bar, a haven for the Beats. The period has been written into myth as one of cross-fertilization and artistic daring, and indeed the period 1948 to 1960 was a time of openness and discovery despite its reputation as the dour era of Eisenhower and the HUAC hearings. Aesthetically at least, the revolution happened in the Fifties rather than the Sixties.
            It is no longer anticipated that poets and painters will hang out together. Painters may read poetry, and poets most certainly look at paintings. But there is no overall sense of a shared artistic moment. Since the mid-80s, the culture has been ruled by niche marketing and the dominance on the alternative scene of language poetry and performance poetry--aesthetic "narrow casting" for the realms of page and stage. The word "difference" rules, and there is a fading of the neo-romantic pulse.
            Barbara Guest, whose reputation has grown so considerably in the last ten years, is quoted in The Last Avant-Garde but doesn't receive critical and biographical attention of her own. Yet she has a greater following among younger poets than any New York School member other than John Ashbery. This is partly because her work, like Ann Lauterbach's, has moved closer to language poetry; it is also due to the fact that the work of Ashbery and Guest has from the start influenced the language poets. Of the language poets themselves, Lehman writes, "But as Gertrude Stein said of Hemingway, the Language School looks modern but smells of the museums. It could not exist outside the university."
            It is true that, just as performance poetry is media-ready and therefore beloved by even the print media, language poetry is academy-ready. The founders of the language movement were interested in ideas at a time--the 1970s--when bohemianism opposed intellectual position-taking. Of the New York School, only Frank O'Hara's parodic "Personism: A Manifesto" and Kenneth Koch's satiric poem "Fresh Air" can be described as statements of poetics. John Ashbery, whose work has profoundly changed poetry, has always refused to be caught in the vulgar errors that such statements inevitably contain. When the giant makes himself invisible, it is hard to plot against the giant. Because of language poetry's commitment to theory and Charles Bernstein's writings especially, it is a rare younger poet who does not have a theoretical point-of-view. Peter Gizzi's anthology, Writings from the New Coast, was issued in two volumes, "Presentation" and "Poetics." But even Donald Allen's New American Poetry: 1945-1960 had a later companion volume of poetics. The more innovative a poetry is, the more it requires a critical framework. At the same time, we hesitate to indulge a poetry for its ideas alone.
            It is always the case for the avant-garde that a new outlaw appears in town. Language poetry and performance poetry get a lot of contemporary press, as well as attention from the young. Charles Bernstein's essays have created critical momentum for a poetics that undermines aspects of New York School expression. Nevertheless, John Shoptaw's study of John Ashbery frames Bernstein as an inheritor of the Ashbery aesthetic of discontinuity, obliquity, and blending of high and low styles. New practices are often stained with the blood of the practices they seek to replace.
            In the long run, people want poems rather than statements of poetics. This is true even of scholars. We read poetry not for the perfection of its plan or shrewd oppositions but because, in a new way, it speaks to us of life and death. The emotion of the poem remains excessive, and is, as Stevie Smith wrote of children, "in excess powerful." This is probably what Pound meant when he wrote, "Only emotion endures." But the emotion is mute without a new language.
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