"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.