- Purchase/rental options available:
American Literature 74.3 (2002) 664-666
[Access article in PDF]
There is much to admire in Geoff Ward's treatment of three central members of the New York School of poetry: James Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, and John Ashbery. I would draw attention with pleasure to the writing style in Statutes of Liberty, which gives voice to a lively, combative personality through the characterizations and judgments it renders. The new edition adds little new material to the first—only a fifteen-page "Post-postscript" of miscellaneous thoughts about the continuing critical and poetic legacy of the New York School, so there remains something fundamentally puzzling about the book. Rather than expand his many acute insights into the works and influences of the poets, Ward squanders the opportunity for a fully rounded assessment by engaging in a Quixotic tilting with theoretical positions (loosely grouped as deconstruction) that have largely disappeared from critical discussion. Even in 1993, theorists like Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Harold Bloom no longer occupied center stage; to invoke them in 2001 as if any legitimate [End Page 664] claim for poetic value must take their positions into account is seriously out of date.
Although it is never stated in so many words, the central task of this book appears to be making British readers take seriously this group of American poets. Ward employs two main strategies for this purpose, comparing the poets to several others perceived as canonically British (Byron, Eliot, and Auden) and placing their poetry in relation to the ideas of prestigious theorists (including, beyond the three mentioned, Barbara Johnson, J. Hillis Miller, Peter Burger, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Not being a British reader, it's hard for me to tell how persuasive Ward is with his primary audience. From my perspective, it's a mixed performance. Let me give some examples. Undeniably a major influence upon all three of the poets treated by Ward, Auden is invoked many times throughout the book. In passages of close reading, Auden's importance is tellingly argued, especially during a comparison of early Ashbery to early Auden. When Ward wants to make larger claims about the Auden inheritance in American poetry, however, he overinflates Auden's importance. The most egregious example of this occurs when, in the course of setting out the suggestive and multifarious analytical terms deep space and layered space that he uses intermittently throughout the study, Ward seems to reduce their interplay to a contrast between the English Auden and the American Auden. Another version of deep space-layered space that Ward offers is de Man's famous dichotomy between symbol and allegory. Curiously, he brings this heavy de Manian machinery to bear upon the evanescent poems of James Schuyler. In the midst of this performance, Ward steps back to make a significant point that obviates his own efforts: "Deconstruction may shed a certain light on the poetry, but it does not in the end disclose anything that the poetry did not know about itself" (28–29). Just so.
When Ward engages in close readings of major poems, such as O'Hara's "In Memory of My Feelings" and Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," he does an excellent job of explicating famously difficult passages. By choosing to compare the New York poets mainly to British poets, however, he sometimes sacrifices the aptness of his insights for a too-easy sense of continuity that is less than convincing. One starts out, for example, finding Ward's comparison of O'Hara to Byron to be startling and revealing. In particular, this summary of their relationship is both powerful and nuanced: "O'Hara was not influenced by Byron: rather they are both poets for whom the comedy and wit they exhibit so habitually is powered by pressures of mortality. They are writers for whom the construction in writing of a plausible simulacrum of their non-writing selves&mdash...