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

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The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. David Lehman. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets is "a study in friendship, artistic collaboration, and the bliss of being alive and young at a moment of maximum creative ferment" (1). Lehman blends literary criticism, biography, and cultural history in a manner that should appeal to a wide audience, particularly those readers who are interested in the history of American culture or of avant-garde movements in general. In addition to its popular appeal, the book is a thoughtful contribution to literary criticism and aesthetics.

The Last Avant-Garde chronicles the beginning of the New York School of poets, analyzes its impact on contemporary poetry and poetics, and discusses the continuing viability of the idea of the avant-garde. The first part of the book describes the New York School in general and then considers each of its "core members," John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. The chapters in the first section describe the poets themselves as well as with their particular contribution to the aesthetics of the New York School. Lehman explores the commonalties among the poets as well as their distinctive characteristics, both personally and as poets. According to Lehman, "remarks and anecdotes can assist in the practical task facing a poet's interpreter" (94), and he draws widely from a variety of sources, including letters, interviews, and personal reminiscences.

The second part of the book considers "whether the avant-garde as an abstract concept or a practical idea is finished" (11). …