- The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant-Garde: Between Radical Art and Radical Chic
The work of the New York School has become central to virtually any story one might wish to tell about American poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century. The diversity of critical response evident in the earliest breakthroughs—Auden’s choice of John Ashbery’s first volume for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Donald Allen’s featuring of New York School poets in his anti-establishment anthology The New American Poetry—intensified as critics from Harold Bloom to Marjorie Perloff debated whether Ashbery, for example, had sustained or shattered the romantic lyric tradition. The problem of situating these writers is compounded by the variety of the different poets’ work, a variety which raises questions about whether their association really rises to the coherence of a ”school,“ and which has caused most critics to concentrate instead on individual poets—usually Ashbery or O’Hara, but increasingly also Guest, Koch, or Schuyler.
In his ambitious new study, Mark Silverberg develops a critical frame that identifies the shared project of the New York School poets as a response to the mid-century crisis of the historical avant-garde. Drawing on Peter Berger, Paul Mann, and Richard Murphy, Silverberg describes that crisis as a weakening of the oppositional stance characteristic of artistic movements from Italian Futurism to abstract expressionism. Writers and artists came to recognize that in the context of advanced capitalism, the avant-garde’s animus against tradition and its relentless pursuit of novelty make it (in Mann’s phrase) “the leading edge of the mainstream” (17). The New York School poets, writing in a mid-century art world where the success of abstract expressionism had ironized its fiercely anti-bourgeois attitude, sought to invent a strategy for maintaining the [End Page 949] integrity of avant-garde experimentation in the face of the co-optive powers of capitalist culture. Silverberg describes the strategy that emerges as replacing opposition with indifference, and what Schuyler called (referring to abstract expressionism) “the big, cold, dramatic gesture” with a sensibility attuned to “mystery, divergence, distraction” (191, 20).
Silverberg’s perspective yields a number of important insights. When he describes the affinities of the New York School poets in terms of a stance, rather than a set of formal features, he usefully shows how the poets confront a shared situation without reducing the diversity of their different responses. The author’s central term for their neo avant-garde attitude—indifference—is flexible and capacious enough to include O’Hara’s flaneur detachment, Ashbery’s campy use of cliché, and Guest’s post-symbolist effort to create invisible landscapes. At its best, Silverberg’s pursuit of indifference across such various poetic works is a model of critical categorization. Rather than policing and reducing the idiosyncrasies of the poems, indifference functions as an optic that magnifies the vital particularity, for example, of Schuyler’s development of a way of looking that leaves no trace. One can step back from the close readings of the indifferent artifacts that make up the heart of this book to see the surprising affinity of Schuyler’s vision to Guest’s or to Koch’s. But—and I take this to be a virtue of Silverberg’s approach—the affinity remains surprising.
This book is part of a recent critical trend seeking to recalibrate our sense of the relation of postwar poetries to modernism, and Silverberg presents indifference as a modern affective stance that he makes a good case for comparing with the canonical modern moods of boredom or anxiety. His study reads at times like a taxonomy of varieties of indifferent experience. The readings that constitute this taxonomy are beautifully modulated, frequently convincing, and illuminated by the author’s extensive reading of the poets’ critical writing, and of the famously eccentric modernist canons they assemble. He is best with the less-studied writers, and especially with Schuyler. Silverberg’s observation that “in...