Friday, March 5, 2010

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

Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New
York, NY: Anchor Press, 1999.

Lehman’s narrative begins with an overview of the New York School of Poets' disparate members, their poetic lineages, and the historical context in which these young writers developed and honed their skills. The second section of the book focuses on a detailed account of the four founding members: John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara. Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The author examines each poet’s aesthetic proclivities, literary importance, and biographical narrative. The final section of the book investigates the term “avant-garde”; specifically, its etymological origin, its initial application and purpose, the manner in which literary movements appropriated the term throughout the early twentieth-century, and, finally, Lehman’s claim that the New York School (both painters and poets) represents the last instance of avant-garde. Outside of the individual narratives, Lehman goes to great length explaining the over-arching, aesthetic traits of the New York School. For starters, “writing was properly understood to be an activity, a present-tense process” (3), and as such, how one constructed a poem was just as, if not more, important than the end-product. Furthermore, “all poetry was the product of a collaboration with language” (3), lending to a materialist outlook with regard to poems; or as Schuyler wrote: “The words are themselves/ The thing said/…/ A word, that’s the poem” (358). Moreover, the poets shunned overly serious posturing, opting instead for “aesthetic pleasure” in the form of “wit, humor, and the advance irony of the blague” (4). The poets wrote “hoaxes and spoofs, parodies and strange juxtapositions, psudeotranslations and collages….ad hoc forms…and self-assignments” (4). Incorporating overheard conversations, pop culture references, and self-reflexive turns are hallmarks of the New York School poetry as well. When expounding upon Ashbery, the New York School’s most well-know poet, Lehman finds his poetry to be “the least autobiographical of modern poets” (94), as it traces “the serpentine gestures of the poet’s mind” (96); additionally, his poems “toss off complex truths about human behavior in a disarmingly off-hand way” (96), all the while obscuring comprehension through techniques such as disorienting pronoun usage, wherein “the ‘I’ has a feckless habit of sliding into ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘we,’ and sometimes ‘they’” (98). Such maneuvers lead to “the idea of ‘misunderstanding’ as a liberating aesthetic principle” (100) that defeats “the analytic methods of New Criticism” (105). For Ashbery, “poems are made of words and names, not ideas, and the immediate source of these words” (107). To this extent, Ashbery does not reject mimetic experience, but “extends it to new areas: the recording of his own mind in motion” (109).

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