To his great credit, Lehman manages to be scholarly without being exclusionary, and avoids jargon like the plague. (Given that he is the author of Signs of the Times, a ferocious attack on deconstructionist obscurantism in the academy, this is as it should be.) His book is, however, a little soft around the edges. Though he does allude to various critics of the New York School, particularly those of Ashbery ("I have no idea most of the time what Mr. Ashbery is talking about," William Arrowsmith confessed in a review of Ashbery's first book, a view many readers have echoed since), and provides an entertaining account of a famous mano a mano encounter between O'Hara and Robert Lowell at a poetry reading, he never really explores the validity of the criticism itself. This is a pity. The kind of poetry Ashbery writes is, as he says, "a litmus test," and differs as sharply from the poetry of someone like James Merrill (rhymes, meters) as does a Jackson Pollock from a Lucien Freud. This radical divide is one of the most interesting aspects of modern art, and it would have been heartening to see Lehman tackle it. Instead, we are given teasers, like Seamus Heaney's skeptical version of Ashbery's poetics ("That's all very well in theory, but what's it like in practice?"), or Arthur Miller's more trenchant comment (ironically, about a play by James Merrill): "You know, this guy's got a secret, and he's gonna keep it."
Lehman loves the poetry of the New York School, and admires the men who wrote it. Koch, a legendary teacher, was his professor at Columbia, and Lehman seems to have more than a passing acquaintance with Ashbery. A third-generation New York School poet himself, Lehman has written what is in effect a disciple's book, more enthusiastic than critical. For readers who don't know these poets but think they might like to, the best thing to do would be to pick up the book and look at the selections - such as this one from Ashbery's long poem "The Skaters," written while he was living in Paris in the early 1960s. As Lehman says, the poem "offers a vision of urban alienation, a portrait of a 'professional exile' . . . to whom the news of the day ('crime or revolution? Take your pick') is irrelevant." It also offers another example of the New York School's secret weapon: humor.
None of this makes any difference to professional exiles like me, and that includes every body in the place.
We go on sipping our coffee, thinking dark or transparent thoughts . . .
Excuse me, may I have the sugar. Why certainly - pardon me for not having passed it to you.
A lot of bunk, none of them really care whether you get any sugar or not.
Just try asking for something more complicated and see how far it gets you.