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This item is taken from PN Review 92, Volume 19 Number 6, July - August 1993.

GEOFF WARD'S recent critical book Statutes of Liberty (Macmillan, 1993) is heralded as the first by a British critic devoted to that phenomenon - anathema to many British readers - commonly referred to as 'The New York School'. Frank O'Hara appears at the apex of Ward's Empire State Parnassus; ranged below this wild, generous deity, whose disarming formal sprezzatura and casualness of approach repel so many 'craftsmanly' writers, are the figures of James Schuyler, John Ashbery and (less focused) Kenneth Koch. The book ends with an account of the legacy of this 'school', as though its own moment has decisively passed. Certainly in the later work Ward adduces, the legacy (if that is what it is) is wan: the excess, freedom, joy, experiment of the New York School has been given a severe purgative; the later poets seem for the most part to be programmatic and polemical, illiberal in language and politics. The L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E school has invented decorums as asphyxiating as, but less readable than, the numbest Augustan: poetry as a hygiene.

'I am writing a paper on Chaucer whom I now love with a burning devotion,' O'Hara declared in a 1951 letter to Jane Freilicher. He was already freighted with avant garde enthusiasms, but his ears were open, and they stayed open. He never lost his capacity for 'burning devotion', and it is this sense of enthusiasm born of informed and untroubled - untheorized - pleasure in poetry and the other arts that marks off Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler and Koch from those critics who take them up as a cause, imposing a coherence which only makes sense if one blurs the very real differences between them and invokes Theory, or a play of contrasting Theories, to yoke them together.

Ward, when he wrote his book, didn't have the advantage of Brad Gooch's new biography of O'Hara, City Poet, a compelling circumstantial narrative, subtitled the life and times and including in its cast of characters almost every significant avant garde practitioner of poetry, music and art up to 1966 when the poet died after a senseless accident on Fire Island. Gooch isn't a name-dropper. It just happens that O'Hara, like Ashbery, was at the heart of something radical and new, a phenomenon which, though focused in New York, drew its energies from a diversity of lands and languages. Gooch's book seems to me truer to the letter and spirit of O'Hara's work, and more illuminating, than Geoff Ward's account. And this is not only because the 'higher gossip' of biography is more entertaining to read than lit crit. Ward has a lively style, and his polemic is stimulating because it is so profoundly irritating and protean as it clouds in a dozen different ways the work it seeks to advocate. Gooch's book is truer because it is informal, engaged, impassioned, because the humour and character of O'Hara and his world emerge in their complexity and the poems come clear in two senses: they are contextualized and elucidated, and they are 'released' from the merely circumstantial into the larger patterns that they make. Faithful biography, without an axe to grind, is perhaps the most serviceable form of literary criticism for poets of the New York School - at least for O'Hara and probably for James Schuyler.

Ward's book is what one might call an early aftermath. It draws a line under what is still - judging from Ashbery's Flow Chart, Hotel Lautreamont and his later work, and from Koch's continuing fecundity, as from the writing of Barbara Guest, Harry Mathews, John Ash and others who might have been more amply dealt with by Ward - anything but a spent force.

Statutes of Liberty sets out to do various things but completes none of its tasks. Ward wants to explain British resistance to the New York School, to answer American critics like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, to provide a theoretical basis for appreciation of the poets, to answer those whose theories are not adequately inclusive, to provide his own inevitably subjective reading and response (the most successful element in his book), to touch on the issue of homosexuality, to identify British 'New York School' poets, to attest to the fertile congruence between poetry and the other arts in that curious culturally molten city which has cooled down somewhat since the 1960s.

British resistance to the New York School is not universal. What resistance there is has something to do, it seems to me, with a bias in the 'mainstream' and in the teaching establishment at all levels in favour of a poetry of what Christopher Middleton, in an essay in this issue, calls 'opinion', a poetry about rather than of experience: paraphrase, the pursuit of 'hidden meanings' and closure of various kinds - formal or narrative - all compose this 'orthodoxy', tinged too with a degree of xenophobia. But how deep does the resistance go? Ashbery, and increasingly O'Hara, have a very real presence in Britain and reviews of their work are not noticeably worse (with Hotel Lautréamont notably better) than in America. And Ashbery and O'Hara both have had impact on a range of mainstream and nonmainstream British poets. So, for that matter, have Koch and Mathews. It might have been more interesting for Ward to ask the specific question: why do British readers tend to get no further with Pound than Mauberley, and yet they tend to start reading Ashbery with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror? Why do they resist the huge challenge of the Cantos and the more experimental reaches of early Ashbery?

British readers - like many Americans - may find the theoretical claims made on behalf of these poets a bit trying, and Ward's book will not get them any closer to an understanding of the adventure of difference that the poems represent. How could it? He discusses Harold Rosenberg on deep and layered space, De Man on symbol and allegory, Derrida on differance, Bloom, Jameson, Hillis Miller, Baudrillard on the era of the image, Lyotard on the death of meta-narrative, Merleau-Ponty. He does not mention Firbank or Laura Riding, writers clearly formative of the tone and formal strategies of some of these poets. Laura Riding's work touched Ashbery and an understanding of that lesson is more useful than a discussion of the applicability of Merleau-Ponty's hermeneutics: Riding's kinds of determinacy and interdeterminacy are radically resolving since she makes meaning inseparable from expression and rejects nuanced language in favour of a rigorous determinacy, proof against 'polyvalency'. What is .exciting in criticism is to see demonstrated the metamorphoses and modulations that occur within and between the works of writers who are always finding and extending their common resources. It may be Chaucer, or Soutine, or Apollinaire, or Riding, or Auden or Prokofiev: a critic who keeps his eye on connections, who discloses etiolations and new configurations, takes us into the creative imagination, and into the poem, tracing its various resonance within our ear and memory and within the larger memory we come to share as our experience of reading, viewing, listening extends. Ward seems tied into an evolutionary vision of literature: there's a continuum along which writers can be situated and he judges their work in part at least in accordance with the fidelity with which it conforms to that situation. For him there are beginnings and endings in literature; this prejudice identifies him as a very British sort of critic, no matter how much theoretical ballast he carries, and though he works back from the near present, not forward from the past.

He insists that the academy is the abiding place of poetry. It is, clearly, the abiding place for certain forms of reading and, latterly, for certain forms of writing. But the New York School was not incubated in the modern academy. The universities where these poets found their way into a wide, intriguing mess of cultures were places in which poems and prose were read and responded to, where young writers found others like themselves and shared their readerly and writerly passions. The world they moved on to - their New York - was a place where they could, whatever their lifestyles, develop without alienation, working collaboratively, making their ways pragmatically, as artists, choosing what they needed, discarding or putting by what they had no use for just then, but seldom if ever having recourse to the filter of simplifying theories, to false and limiting decorums. It is their freedom which challenged the stiff orthodoxies of the 1950s and 1960s; that same freedom ought to challenge the new orthodoxies of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly those theoretical schools keenest to appropriate them.

This item is taken from PN Review 92, Volume 19 Number 6, July - August 1993.

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