David Lehman   book cover  
David Lehman    

The Last Avant-Garde: an excerpt

  David Lehman explains his motivation for writing The Last Avant-Garde, and in doing so offers an overview of this Bold Type feature. You'll find 5 poems from the author, and a wonderful excerpt from this illuminating book.

I found it exciting and inspiring to combine biography with other disciplines, other goals: cultural history, the history of ideas, and literary analysis. The book is about the New York School of poets and in particular the movement's four founding figures: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. There are chapters on each of them as individuals, since of course each differs from each of the others; there are also chapters in which they are considered as a coherent and cohesive group. I want to convey something of what it was like to be young and brilliant and ambitious in New York City in the postwar era. I want to convey something of the glamour that adhered to the very notion of the avant-garde even as I ground that term in its historical context and make conjectures about its future. The city of New York is, in a way, a character in the book, and so are the painters with whom the poets collaborated at that exhilarating moment when New York supplanted Paris as the world capital of modern art.

It seems to me that the biography of a great poet or a controversial thinker, in addition to being intrinsically interesting, can help illuminate a specific text, a current of thought, or a cultural phenomenon-in some cases all three. The use of biography has what you might call a functional advantage: the strong narrative drive that comes with the turf helps sustain the reader's attention. In American universities, biography as a tool of literary criticism has been out of favor for about sixty years, which may make me something of a maverick. But books as different from one another as Lionel Trilling's study of Matthew Arnold (1939) and Janet Malcolm's book on the Sylvia Plath biography industry (1994) show several imaginative ways of combining biography with the study of literature and ideas.

Also, check out a review of The Last Avant-Garde in Jacket Magazine. Click here.

Photo of David Lehman copyright © Star Black

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