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

David Lehman, Author Doubleday Books $27.5 (448p) ISBN 978-0-385-47542-6
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 1950s 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 Ashbery (Wakefulness; Forecasts, Mar. 30) comes off as the withdrawn genius of the group, while Lehman spends considerable energy combating the not wholly unjustified myth that has grown up around O'Hara's frenetical social life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. (Oct.) FYI: Lehman is series editor of the Best American Poetry, now in its 11th year.
Reviewed on: 08/31/1998
Release date: 09/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 448 pages - 978-0-385-49533-2
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