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The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets

The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets

by David Lehman

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A landmark work of cultural history—now in paperback—by one of our best critics and chroniclers: the story of how four young poets reinvented literature and turned New York into the art capital of the world.

Greenwich Village, New York, circa 1951. Every night, at a rundown tavern with a magnificent bar called the Cedar Tavern, an extraordinary


A landmark work of cultural history—now in paperback—by one of our best critics and chroniclers: the story of how four young poets reinvented literature and turned New York into the art capital of the world.

Greenwich Village, New York, circa 1951. Every night, at a rundown tavern with a magnificent bar called the Cedar Tavern, an extraordinary group or painters, writers, poets, and hangers-on arrive to drink, argue, tell jokes, fight, start affairs, and bang out a powerful new aesthetic. Their style is playful, irreverent, tradition-shattering, and brilliant. Out of these friendships, and these conversations, will come the works of art and poetry that will define New York City as the capital of world culture—abstract expressionism and the New York School of Poetry.

A richly detailed portrait of one of the great movements in American arts and letters, The Last Avant-Garde covers the years 1948-1966 and focuses on four fast friends—the poets Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. Lehman brings to vivid life the extraordinary creative ferment of the time and place, the relationship of great friendship to art, and the powerful influence that a group of visual artisits—especially Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Fairfield Porter—had on the literary efforts of the New York School.

The Last Avant-Garde is both a definitive and lively view of a quintessentially American aesthetic and an exploration of the dynamics of creativity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] jaunty and readable account of artisitc friendship and collaboration in Manhattan in the 1950s and early '60s...Lehman tells this story with spirit." —The New York Times Book Review

"A highly readable and fittingly hybridized book: part cultural history, part speculative essay, part literary criticism, part biography...[Lehman] weaves narrative strands together with pertinent and lucid appreciation of the poetry." —The New York Observer

"Lehman skillfully waeves biographical sketches into his account of the poets' work and friendships...Makes a vivid, substantial constribution to our picture of New York in the '50s." —San Francisco Chronicle

David Yezzi
...[A] jaunty and readable account of artistic friendship and collaboration in Manhattan in the 1950s and early '60s....[The author] has a spirited story to tell, and he tells it with spirit.
New York Times Book Review
John Hollander
The authoritative study of an important and enduring moment in our recent cultural history.
Lingua Franca Review
Brian Blanchfield
"How do you know when a poem is finished?" someone once asked Frank O'Hara. His immediate, and now legendary, answer: "The telephone rings." That retort, undoubtedly issued along with a plume of cigarette smoke, may sound flippant, but it neatly illustrates the continuous relationship between self and art that characterized the work of the New York School of poets. As David Lehman points out in The Last Avant-Garde, the "school" -- which included John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and O'Hara -- is aptly named because their poems, like the dripped- and splattered-on canvases of the New York School of painters, were arenas for action rather than representation. Here, for example, is an excerpt from O'Hara's breathless poem "Memorial Day, 1950":
My mother and father asked me and I told them from my tight blue pants we should love only the stones, the sea, and heroic figures. Wasted child! I'll club you on the shins! I wasn't surprised when the older people entered my cheap hotel room and broke my guitar and my can of blue paint. At that time all of us began to think with our bare hands and even with blood all over them, we knew vertical from horizontal, we never smeared anything except to find out how it lived.

Lehman argues that, because the New York School poets drew from the unbuttoned physicality of modern art (as opposed to Eastern mysticism), they may have more lasting impact than the other literary movements of the 1950s. The Beats may have "made more noise," Lehman writes, but they produced art with a less radical and less informed understanding of expression. The relationship between the two groups could get tense. Jack Kerouac heckled O'Hara during a 1959 reading, calling out, "You're ruining American poetry, O'Hara!" The poet shot back: "That's more than you ever did for it."

The New York School arrived at a perfect moment. The New Critics were lionizing logical and morally earnest "concerned citizen" poetry, and Lionel and Diana Trilling gave the establishment's sanction to only the most solemn new writers. By contrast, the four poets generated around their own bold, apolitical literary innovations an enthusiastically gay (in both senses of the word) atmosphere. They created numerous tandem compositions -- including plays, operas and illustrated chapbooks -- with the more coltish second generation New York School painters, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter. Lehman compellingly re-creates this energy; you can sense the breakneck wit that passed between any two of them.

In part two of his book, "The Ordeal of the Avant-Garde," Lehman abandons his sure narration for an equivocal kind of cultural criticism. He cobbles together a definition of the avant-garde and then challenges its characteristics as inherently contradictory: Can a movement encourage collaboration while still privileging "that insubordinate individual, 'the modern artist?'" Can it be adversarial but not produce political (and, so, one-dimensional) art? And -- apropos of the present-day poet's particular ordeal -- if art cannot at once be academic and avant-garde, how can an artist find that necessary resistance when "everything is instantly accepted, absorbed, glorified, bought, sold, copied, recycled, trashed?" These are good questions, even if Lehman is hardly the first to ask them. Too bad the answers he supplies are often less than conclusive.

The first half of The Last Avant-Garde is entertaining, however; it's certainly more habitable than City Poet, Brad Gooch's often myopic biography of O'Hara. (Lehman is well-positioned to write his version -- a former student of Koch's at Columbia and an accomplished poet himself, Lehman is the series editor of the annual Best of American Poetry volumes, and he functions as something of a poetry impresario in New York.) Lehman's formidable wit, and eye for details that recall an era that begrudged happiness and happenstance in its art, reminds us how necessary the New York School was -- and is. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Through a careful balance of serious criticism and biographical sketch, Lehman (Signs of the Times) succeeds brilliantly in characterizing the lives and works of four poets--John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) and James Schuyler (1923-1991)--who defied the literary conventions of the '50s and '60s, and have gone on to produce some of the most significant 20th-century American poetry. After two chapters that set the scene--from intellectual comradeship at Harvard (all but Schuyler) to talking and drinking with the Abstract Expressionists at New York's Cedar Bar--Lehman devotes a chapter apiece to each poet. Whether evaluating Ashbery's and O'Hara's work (and their rival claims to rebelliousness), explaining the method behind Koch's madness or delving beneath Schuyler's seemingly simple surfaces, Lehman mixes biographical interest with careful, scholarly exegesis. Ashbery (Wakefulness; Forecasts, Mar. 30) comes off as the withdrawn genius of the group, while Lehman spends considerable energy combating the not wholly unjustified myth that has grown up around O'Hara's frenetical social life and accidental death. Though he can strain toward portent, as in his paean to Columbia professor Koch (Straits; Forecasts, Apr. 27), Lehman is delicate in his appreciations, especially of Schuyler. The last section, with its dubious pronouncement that an avant-garde is no longer possible, seems tacked on, and while one might further quibble about Lehman's reduction of a rich, varied tradition to the work of four men, his clarity and earnest enthusiasm will entice readers to both his subjects and their absent partners in literary crime.
Library Journal
Lehman (series editor, "The Best American Poetry") combines biography, cultural history, and literary analysis to reveal the identity, aesthetic, and friendships of a group of four artists from 1948 to 1966. Quick to establish the atmosphere of collaboration, spirit of competition, and sense of common cause that would fragment into a literary collegiality, Lehman carefully profiles poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler and compares his New York subjects with the earlier Paris avant-garde. The last chapters, given to an aesthetic analysis of avant-garde movements, culminate with a glimpse at some of the generational offspring of the New York School. Lehman's well-written, warm, good-humored text (which has just the right edge for his topic) is both thorough and accessible. -- Scott Hightower, NYU/Gallatin, New York
Christopher Benfey
...[A] genial and boosterish account of "the making of" the New York School of poets....Its extreme claims notwithstanding, this book is easily the best available introduction to these four poets, who are too often written about by indignant, but-is-it-poetry?.detractors or by equally vehement partisans. -- The New Republic
Martha Bayles
The persistent reader -- that is, one who already admires these poets...eventually will be rewarded by Lehman's portraits of the individual poets... -- WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
David Yezzi
...[A] jaunty and readable account of artistic friendship and collaboration in Manhattan in the 1950s and early '60s....[The author] has a spirited story to tell, and he tells it with spirit. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A fresh encounter with the expansive experiments of poets (and others) who in the 1950s casually formed the New York School. Lehman (Signs of the Times) both sets the heady urban social scene of this "last avant-garde" and reconsiders the poetry that helped to provoke it and was provoked in turn. Focusing on the "school"'s largely anti-academic founders, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler, the author devotes a chapter to each, with two chapters of more general import serving as bookends before and after. Lehman deftly strikes a balance between biographical and literary issues. For instance, in writing of the reticent Ashbery's effusively enigmatic work, he makes no attempt to simplify the poems or charm readers with comparatively straightforward biographical insights. Instead, the writing rightly assumes primary importance, and his comments on the life settle in around it. Lehman approaches Koch as a neglected master whose puckishly inventive humor, indefatigable teaching, and dedication to artistic collaboration have been central to inspiring camaraderie within the New York School. Yet not everyone will be convinced that Koch's writing merits unquenchable hosannas. And in Lehman's argument that the school may represent the "last" avant-garde to matter, he venerates with questionable nostalgia a series of literary improvisations happily not yet concluded. For readers outside the action to fully appreciate why these poets and their colleagues contested expectations, more chronicling of the opposition to them would have been useful. An inherent irony of this cultural history: it's an intelligent, spirited encomium written to salute a movement that onceseemed not to want any; the poets served the margins. But Lehman clearly wishes to remind our commercial age of the need for robust individualism to give backtalk, although he seems not to hold out much hope for any to emerge of true new pungence. By contrast, New York of the 1950s is unveiled as a contrarian mecca. A valentine for four poets—and a cultural corrective.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.18(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.93(d)

What People are Saying About This

Max Blagg
This depiction of the golden age of friendship and collaboration should be required reading for all members of the contemporary poetry scene.

Meet the Author

David Lehman is the author of Sign of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, several books of poetry, and is Series Editor of The Best American Poetry. His essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in all the major literary publications, from the Times Literary Supplement, to The New Yorker to The Paris Review. He is the recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institution of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.

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