David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets[1] examines the lives, work, and influence of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler in what seems to be order of importance. To put my cards on the table, as Lehman would have a critic do, I declare that none of these poets has written what I would call a single poem of any importance, although some of them have written plausible light verse.

Lehman states the problem succinctly:

Though he is America’s best-known poet, with a strong readership in Britain and a larger international following than any of his contemporaries, Ashbery remains an issue and for some a litmus test. A respected editor declared that one cannot like both Ashbery and Philip Larkin, and though I feel that one can, I understand the logic of her position. Ashbery’s...

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