Friday, April 01, 2016

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: New York School of Poets

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

For poets and artists, a shot of sheer courage.

I feel about the New York School of Poets the way my grampa felt about the Red Sox: they’re my team.  Therefore I sat down to this book quite certain that I would be disappointed, if not downright offended.  I’ve avoided reading it in the past -- I didn’t think it could possibly be worthy of its subject.

What a terrific book!  Any one of the four sections devoted to Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, Schuyler is worth the price of admission.  Each is masterful and full of satisfactions.  Perhaps most critically, Lehman questions several key assumptions in Brad Gooch’s life of Frank O’Hara in a way that I found entirely convincing.  (So much for the suicide theory.)

Above all, each of the biographical sections is a gorgeous introduction to the pleasures of the poet discussed.  Of the New York School poets, James Schuyler is the one about whom I knew the least.  Lehman’s enthusiasm is so infectious that by the time I’d read half of the chapter devoted to Schuyler I would have had to have been physically restrained to keep from ordering everything in print.  (I am now deep in reading James Schuyler.  My quality of life has soared.)

As much as I enjoyed all of this, it’s likely that the most valuable thing about the book is that it attempts to answer the question, “What the hell does avant-garde mean, anyway?”  Twenty years ago, I was a student in the writing department of the Naropa Institute.  The poets there always described themselves as avant garde, as if it were as easy to be avant garde as to subscribe to National Geographic.  I roared when I came upon the quote from Janet Malcolm: “The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.”  Now you tell me!  Naropa would be shocked.

How about this utterly essential quote, courtesy of Harold Rosenberg.  “Almost to the degree that art expresses its contempt of all that is established and official, it is sought and paid for -- which is to say: taken into camp and deprived of its antagonistic force.  The readiness of capitalist society to accept the art that avows its antagonism to capitalist society is therefore anything but the evidence of art’s power; it is exactly the means by which art is made impotent.  The expectation that art will supply the principle by which society can be redeemed is little more than a self-congratulatory fantasy.  No redemption has occurred: all that has happened is that the highest achievement of the free subversive spirit has been co-opted to lend the color of spirituality to the capitalist enterprise.”  

It’s funny that a book which concludes that it’s just about impossible to be avant-garde any more would turn out to be so downright inspirational.  Night after night I emerged from my evening reading feeling as though I’d taken a shot of sheer courage.  Anyone interested in the New York School will want to read this, especially if they are a poet or an artist wondering how to persist, despite everything, in a manner which is true, brave and joyful.

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