Photo by Koch/Doubleday 1998

Once upon a time – 12:20 p.m., Friday, July 17, 1959, to be exact – a little-known poet named Frank O'Hara left his office at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to get a shoeshine and some lunch, and to buy presents for friends he would be visiting in the Hamptons that weekend. During his lunch hour he also purchased a copy of New World Writing (“to see what the poets/in Ghana are up to these days”), gobbled down a hamburger and a malted, went to the bank (where “Miss Stillwagon” didn't look up his balance “for once in her life”), decided on which books to buy for which friends (“after practically going to sleep from quandariness”), bought a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes, caught sight of the front page of the New York Post with Billie Holiday's face on it, and suddenly realized that Lady Day was dead:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

All this is gleaned from “The Day Lady Died,” the brief (29 lines), almost documentarian elegy O'Hara wrote in Holiday's honor. Its originality as an elegy lay in the way it answered the question “What were you doing when you heard that so-and-so died?” four years before anyone started asking it. Now, four decades after it was written, it reads not only as an elegy for Holiday, but also for a time.

It is a time that David Lehman, author of The Last Avant-Garde, an intelligent and entertaining critical and biographical study of the “New York School” of poets (O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler), seems nostalgic for. “It is no secret,” he writes in the book's introduction, “that our own times are inimical to the imagination. Technology has put art to the rout . . . Poetry consists of irreproachable sentiment rendered in bite-size pieces, doggerel for an inaugural . . . Or perhaps it is something in the air of a hip, dark underground cafe that can sell blue jeans.” Though Lehman, who is the series editor of the annual The Best American Poetry, does go on to say that he is convinced “of the high quality and enduring value” of our best contemporary poetry, his introductory remarks cast the rest of his book in a warm, late-afternoon glow: Poets (perhaps all creative people) had it better back then.

Today it often seems as if every other person in America is some sort of bohemian, but the '50s were of course notoriously straight. Consequently, as Lehman points out, the avant-garde had something to be avant-garde against. With Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso & co., this took the form of drugs, mysticism and a lot of wild writing. The poets of the New York School wore ties, held jobs and preferred cocktail parties to demonstrations. For them, language was a playground, an adventure, a place to discover things, and all this at a time when, as Koch wrote,

One hardly dared to wink
Or fool around in any way in poems,
And Critics poured out awful jereboams
To irony, ambiguity, and tension –
And other things I do not wish to mention.

Like most “schools,” the New York School was one only because someone said it was, and the label stuck. Nonetheless, its members had plenty in common. All four poets were friends, all were interested in obscure French writers like Pierre Reverdy and Raymond Roussel, and all were deeply committed to the revolutionary paintings being done by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and the other Abstract Expressionists. But in most ways they were very different. O'Hara was electric and charismatic, with a gift for friendship that struck his contemporaries as almost superhuman. (At his funeral in 1966 – O'Hara died at the age of 40 after being run over, improbably, by a dune buggy – painter Larry Rivers claimed that 60 people in New York thought of him as their best friend.) Ashbery, on the other hand, was mysterious and evasive. (In a telling anecdote, Lehman recalls seeing Ashbery buttonholed at a party by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who tried to draw him into an argument. “You can't argue with me,” Ashbery told him, “because I don't exist.”) Koch, the only heterosexual in the group, was anything but a straight man on the page. Ashbery nicknamed him “Dr. Fun,” and Lehman calls him the funniest poet in America. (“The best way to conquer women in different cities,” Koch once advised, deadpan, “is to know the mayor or ruler of the particular city/And have him introduce you to the women [perhaps while they are under the influence of a strong love-making drug.”]) The odd man out, if there was an odd man out, was James Schuyler, the only one who didn't go to Harvard and the last to join the group. Prone to schizophrenia and depression, he spent much of his time living at the home of the painter Fairfield Porter in Southampton, Long Island. (“He came to lunch one day and stayed for 11 years,” Porter's wife said.) Schuyler was the least acclaimed of the four initially, but his reputation has grown enormously since the 1980s. His characteristic tone is intimate and direct, as in this elegy for a friend: “Look out/the win-/dow/cluck:/it's real,/it's there,/it's life./Look/at/your hand./It's real/and so/is death./Mike,/so long!”

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.

LA Weekly