Skip to main content

Avant-Garde New York Poet David Lehman

Lehman is the series editor of "The Best American Poetry." His new book "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets" (Doubleday) is a cultural history about a group of poets in the 1950s who he says helped to reinvent literature, like John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. They took their cue from the Abstract Expressionistic painters of the time who were also in New York.


Other segments from the episode on November 10, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 10, 1998: Interview with David Lehman; Commentary on Peter Green.


Date: NOVEMBER 10, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 111001np.217
Head: David Lehman
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

KEN TUCKER, HOST: This is FRESH AIR, Ken Tucker, FRESH AIR's pop music critic and critic at large for "Entertainment Weekly." I'm sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest, David Lehman, has just published "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets." It chronicles the careers of four poets: John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch,
and James Schuyler from their initial innovative work beginning in the '50s.

They held in common the idea that poetry should be energetic and conversational, as often fun and absurd as it was serious and revelatory. And they made friendships and occasionally collaborated with many figures in the art world.

David Lehman is a critic, poet, and editor. He oversees the annual "Best American Poetry" anthology series. His books include: "Signs of the Times," "Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul Demand," and a
very useful guide to mystery novels called "The Perfect Murder."

David Lehman, welcome to FRESH AIR.


TUCKER: OK, now set the scene for us as you do in your book. It's the early '50s, we're in Greenwich Village in the Cedar Bar, and bellying up to the rail are kind of two-fisted painters like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem deKooning.

You quote Elaine deKooning as saying they'r
e on a decade-long bender of creativity and competition. What are the poets, who are the central figures in your book, doing? Where do they fit into all this?

LEHMAN: They're younger. Ashbery, O'Hara, and Koch have recently graduated from Harvard. They are newly arrived in New York City, they're dissatisfied with the academic poetry of the time -- the poetry that's conditioned by the new critics. They take their inspiration from the abstract expressionist painters who have caused a major revolution in art,
and who have succeeded in getting New York to supplant Paris as the world capital of modern art.

And they meet nightly at the Cedar Bar, which is the painters bar, and hang out with the painters and bring poems with them and exchange them with one another. And they have friends among younger painters like Larry Rivers, and Jane Frielicher (ph), and Mel Blaine (ph).

They spent many a day collaborating on various multimedia projects: plays, collages, lithographs, and they spent the evenings sort of partying wi
th high spirits.

TUCKER: The patron saint of the New York School, it seems to me, was Frank O'Hara who was also an art critic and a curator of the Museum of Modern Art. He was kind of the James Dean of this movement in that he lived hard and died young, and left a beautiful corpse in what sounds like a bad joke -- he was run over by a dune buggy on a beach on Fire Island in 1966.

What makes him so important and crucial to this?

LEHMAN: O'Hara was probably the central, pivotal figure -- the catalyst. F
or one thing, by the sheer force of his personality he held this group together, not only this small group of poets, but their entire wider circle of acquaintances.

He was such an enthusiast, such a champion of the painters that he became beloved of them, and he rose from being a lowly desk worker in the Museum of Modern Art to becoming one of their chief curators. So, his position was one that could bridge downtown and uptown -- the official headquarters of art in the Museum of Modern Art, and the bohemian hang
outs of Greenwich Village.

He was also somebody who wrote poetry that was so conversational, casual, easy to like, colloquial, that it was very easy to fall in love with his poetry. He made poetry seen as natural as breathing.

TUCKER: Yeah, I like the way you quote him as saying that his poems are the byproduct of exhibitionism. And he said: "I'm the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love."

LEHMAN: Yes, he's very quotable. Another great line from him is: "I am ashamed of my century for
being so entertaining, but I have to smile."

TUCKER: Could you read a portion of a Frank O'Hara work entitled "Personal Poem" to give us some idea of his style?

LEHMAN: I'd love to. He wrote a lot of poems on his lunch break at the museum. He was sort of in constant motion, and so he would dash off poems that are very spontaneous and seem to chronicle their own coming into existence.

These are collected in a book called "Lunch Poems," and one of them written in 1959 -- which was a great year for O'Ha
ra, he wrote lots of these poems and some of his best. One is called "Personal Poem." I'll read the last two stanzas because they're very characteristic of O'Hara's style.

I walk through the luminous humidity
Passing the house of Seagram
With its wet and its loungers
And the construction to the left
That closed the sidewalk

If I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat, please
And get to Moriarty's where I wait for Leroy
And hear who wants to be a mover and

The last five years my batting average
Is .016 that's that,
And Leroy comes in and tells me
Miles Davis was clubbed 12 times last night
Outside Birdland by a cop.

A lady asks us for a nickel
For a terrible disease, but we don't give her one
We don't like terrible diseases

Then we go eat some fish and some ale
It's cool, but crowded
We don't like Lionel Trilling, we decide, we like Don Allen.

We don't like Henry James so much
We like Herman Melville
We don't
want to be in the Poet's Walk
In San Francisco even

We just want to the rich
And walk on girders in our silver hats

I wonder if one person out of the eight million
Is thinking of me as I shake hands with Leroy
And buy a strap for my wrist watch and go back to work
Happy at the thought, possibly so

TUCKER: That's really terrific. As you say, it's so conversational. The Leroy referred to is Leroy Jones, the poet and playwright. It's just a wonderfully immediate kind of work.

Of th
e four poets in your book, three of them are gay and Brad Guchas' (ph) biography of Frank O'Hara a few years ago seemed to place enormous importance on the poet's homosexuality in the creation of that work. What's your take on the significance of his sexuality on Frank O'Hara's work?

LEHMAN: Well, I think O'Hara was a very sexy poet. I think it's hard to read his poems and not feel in the presence of a certain kind of sexual glamour. Although I think that that glamour transcends the particular sexual preferen
ce of either the poet or the reader.

These are just plain sexy poems. One falls in love with the poems. O'Hara himself favored certain sexual metaphors in describing his work. In a critical piece about himself he said that as for form and meter is kind of practical matter, he likened it to wearing a pair of pants tight enough to make everyone want to sleep with you.

So, in a way I think there is a real sexy or sexual dimension there. And I also think it's significant that three of the four poets were homos
exuals because in a way their work as a protest against the sort of moral seriousness of new criticism and poetry generated from that sensibility -- their work opposes a kind of homosexual aestheticism, I think.

But I shouldn't want to exaggerate the importance of this aspect, and I think a limitation of Brad Guchas' book, though it had its virtues, is that it overemphasized the who went to bed with whom aspect of the lives of these poets. That's interesting, but it sort of more of the gossip and it leads to the
overlooking of the poetry in favor of the juicy gossip elements.

TUCKER: Well, in contrast to Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery was, at least initially, less gregarious, a more shadowy figure in this group. He wasn't around much for the birth of the New York School because he had spent, what, a decade in Paris I think around this time.

You describe him as "The one who was not there, the one who had gone to Paris like a hero in a medieval romance." How would you describe Ashbery and the evolution of his work?

LEHMAN: Well, as you say, he was very different from O'Hara. He wasn't the charismatic figure, the center of attention that O'Hara was. He has become a very charismatic figure over the years who has attracted many many admirers and disciples and (unintelligible) but at the time he was a much quieter presence and then a major absence.

I think that the fact that he spent 10 years in Paris is very vital because it's an example of the way that he practiced a nonconformism. Even if the group itself was a group of
nonconformists he, you know, wouldn't even conform to their nonconformism in a way.

He absented himself from the country -- he left New York at the very moment when New York was the place to be, and put himself into a kind of self-imposed exile in Paris.

TUCKER: When we talk about John Ashbery having left for Paris at a crucial moment in the formation of the New York School, in what sense did he remain part of the New York School of Poetry. I mean, wasn't he kind of giving up his membership? How did he ki
nd of retain his position within that community of poets from such a far distance?

LEHMAN: Well, Koch once mentioned that one of the great advantages they had as a group is that they were the last sort of generation that really wrote letters to each other. It was expensive to make phone calls, it was unheard of to make a transatlantic phone call. Of course there were no computer modems and E-mail and all of that stuff.

So, they were great correspondents. Ashbery went to Paris in 1955 as a Fulbright fell
ow, and except for one year when he came back to America and lived in New York with Schuyler, in fact, in O'Hara's apartment, he spent, except for that year, the next 10 years in Paris.

And if you go to the John Ashbery Archive at Harvard University -- which I did, I spent a month there -- you'll see the volume of correspondence between Ashbery and Koch and Schuyler and O'Hara and Jane Frielicher. They wrote to each other two or three times a week, and the letters are marvelous.

They are three or four pages
long, they are bursting with poems, full of excitement, full of anecdotes. So, they kept in very close touch, and O'Hara went to Paris, Koch went to Paris, and Ashbery visited New York and would, you know, would come for a week at a time. So, he was very much a part of this group and that did not stop.

In fact, he -- what he did was, in a way he enlarged the group by going to Paris. He met there, an experimental writer -- an American called Harry Matthews, and without recruiting Matthews for the group he attr
acted Matthews and Matthews put up the money for an avant-garde literary magazine that Matthews, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler edited called "Locust Soulless."

And Ashbery, Matthews edited it out of Paris. So, that was another literary activity that bridged the gap -- the oceanic gap separating them.

TUCKER: Could you read a bit from an early poem of his that I like a lot, it's called "The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers?"

LEHMAN: I'd be glad to. I like the poem too, it was -- the titl
e is a takeoff on a poem by Andrew Marvell called "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers." This poem by Ashbery was written while waiting for the perennially late Kenneth Koch to show up for an appointment.

I think Koch came an hour later -- an hour late on this given Sunday. And Ashbery made good use of the time, was reading "Safe Conduct" by Boris Pasternak, finished the book, loved the last sentence of the book, which is a description of Myakovski (ph), lifted that sentenced to be the epigraph
of a poem, and wrote the poem.

This is Section Three, the concluding section of that poem, "The Little Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers." He's contemplating a photograph of himself as a boy.

Yet I cannot escape the picture
Of my small cell in that bank of flowers
My head among the blazing flocks
Seemed to pale in gigantic fungus
I had a hard stare
Accepting everything, taking nothing

As though the rolled-up future
Might stink as loud as stood
The sick moment the sh
utter clicked

Though I was wrong
Still as the loveliest feelings
Must soon find words and these
Yes, displace them

So I am not wrong in calling
This comic version of myself the true one

For as changes horror
Virtue is really stubbornness
And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards

TUCKER: The rap against Ashbery is that he's, frankly, incomprehensible a lot of times which I realized from reading your book came right from the start, where you quote a Hudson R
eview evaluation of his very first book in which the reviewer said: "I have no idea most of the time what Mr. Ashbery is talking about beyond the communication off an intolerable vagueness that looks as if it was meant for precision."

Why do you think Ashbery is so highly regarded now, as almost the emblematic poet of our time, I think?

LEHMAN: Well, first of all it seems to me that not understanding a poem immediately may not be a limitation of the poem, but may be a virtue of the poem since it may compel o
r even oblige the reader to read it again.

In fact, if a poem were to disclose all of its secrets on one reading, would we like it a lot or would we just shelve it and not return to it?

With Ashbery, it seems to me, when you read a poem of his that he wrote last year or last week you may find it confusing, but I've noticed that if you read a poem of his that was written 20 years ago -- even though it may have mystified you 20 years ago -- somehow in the 20 years since it has acquired this luminous clarity.
It's remarkable.

I was reading last night at poem of Ashbery's called "Melodic Trains" from his houseboat days in 1977. So, 21 years have gone by since that book, and it seems to me to be perfectly lucid and extremely easy to follow. And I remember liking it a lot in 1977, but I didn't think then that it was as easy to follow from, you know, the beginning to the end as, in fact, it is.

So, in a way, Ashbery really is, it seems to me, ahead of things or ahead of this time.

TUCKER: I'm talking to David
Lehman, he's the author of "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets." Let's take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.


TUCKER: My guest is David Lehman, the author of "The Last Avant-Garde," and we're talking about four New York School poets. Let's move on to Kenneth Koch, who was sort of the joker in this deck.

You refer to him as "Dr. Fun," and he has always seemed to be the most lighthearted of modern poets, yet also, I find very disciplined in the fact that he's tau
ght for many years, and of the four takes the most delight in kind of formal structure and rigorousness. Where does he fit into the configuration here?

LEHMAN: Well, Kenneth Koch, as you say, is a great comic spirit. And one thing that the New York School of Poets was in favor of, and put into practice is the idea that poetry can be funny, can be humorous, can be high-hearted and comic without forfeiting its essential seriousness.

It needn't be light verse just because it makes you chuckle or laugh out lo
ud, and Kenneth is probably the, you know, the funniest poet in America. And was willing to allow poetry to be ridiculous and sublime at the same time. He was a great friend of O'Hara, Koch, and Schuyler -- they were all, indeed, great friends.

He was also a great collaborator, he loved collaborating on a poem. He would get Ashbery and O'Hara together, and then they would sit down and write a play. In fact, that play was never finished because O'Hara died. Ashbery and Koch hung out at the Rodan Museum garden
in Paris and wrote "Sustinas (ph)."

He was a madcap kind of figure, but as you say, he was a great teacher, a terrific professor who had amazing poetry ideas. Ideas that sort of reveal a kind of assumption which is that poetry needn't arise from experience, poetry can be generated from a collaboration with language.

The inspiration for a poem needn't come from lightning that is heaven sent, it can come from playful acts of collaboration with the language or inventive games or procedures.

he's also very self-conscious, and wrote about kind of writing about poetry itself. I wonder if you could read a brief excerpt from his fairly long beautiful poem called "The Art of Poetry?"

LEHMAN: I'd love to. This is one of his most explicitly pedagogical poems. He wrote a whole book called "The Art of Love" in which he takes the persona of the professor and writes poetry from that point of view. And perhaps the most -- sort of crucial lines in "The Art of Poetry" he instructs the poet as follows.

Remember your obligation is to write
And in writing to be serious without being solemn
Fresh without being cold
To be inclusive without being asinine

Particular without being picky
Feminine without being effeminate
Masculine without being brutish
Human while keeping all the animal graces

You had inside the womb, and beast-like
Without being inhuman
Let your language be delectable always
And fresh and true.

TUCKER: It's a wonderful poem. It seems to me that one characteristi
c of this whole school of poets is there almost egolessness. Unlike so many other poets, they were willing to, as you say, to collaborate, to, you know -- one poet would write down one line of poetry, hand it to the other and he would write another line, and there was that kind of free-flowing give and take. Do you think that's right?

LEHMAN: Absolutely. That's exactly right, and it's something that appeals to me as a poet, and it's something I like to foster in the poets that I teach when I teach writing. Y
ou know, it's funny -- it just occurred to me that the name of our program is FRESH AIR, and one of Koch's most famous poems was called "Fresh Air," -- it was written in the mid-'50s.

And it's a hilarious diatribe against academic poets. As he puts it:

The men with their eyes on the myth
And the Mrs. and the mid-terms.

TUCKER: That's great. That's David Lehman, don't put your rhyming dictionaries away just yet, we'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show.

I'm Ken Tucker, and
this is FRESH AIR.


TUCKER: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Ken Tucker, and I'm speaking with David Lehman, author of "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets."

Let's move on to James Schuyler. You describe him as being "the fourth Musketeer of the New York School." In what sense is that?

LEHMAN: Well, he was himself conscious of his belatedness. The other three all went to Harvard. He, Schuyler, went to a small college in West Virginia. The other three meet each other soon
er, Schuyler met them a couple of years later in, I think, 1951 or '52.

So, he was conscious of being the fourth person, the other three had already formed a kind of nucleus, and he was a very sensitive man. He was the last of the four to be published. For most of his career he was overshadowed by the other three.

The least famous, the most underrated, I think that changed -- it changed beginning with the publication of the "Morning of the Parm" (ph) which was hailed by Howard Moss, a terrific essay in Amer
ican Poetry Review. Then the book won the Pulitzer Prize, and since then -- since 1980 -- Schuyler's following has increased and there are more and more avid followers, and people who absolutely adore and love his poems.

One reader, Judith Moore, was saying to me that she thought nobody did snow or flowers better than Schuyler. Also, you mentioned homosexuality before -- Schuyler is the poet who most explicitly addresses that it in his poetry, and is a very, you know, frankly personal autobiographical poet, but
unlike confessional poets he's very matter of fact in talking about his life.

Even the most unhappy aspects of his life, such as the nervous breakdowns that he had. He didn't melodramatize in the manner of Lowell. He wrote with a certain detachment and interest and exactness of observation.

There's a poem -- there's a series called "The Paine Whitney Poems" written, in fact, when he was confined, and I could read one of them that I characterize as quietly harrowing.

TUCKER: Yes, please do.


Wigging in, wigging out
When I stop to think
The liars in my head cross
How many trips by ambulance
Five -- count them, five

Pill addiction
In and out of mental hospitals
The suicidalness

Once I almost made it
But I go on? Tell you all of it?
I can't

When I think of that
That at 51, I, Jim the jerk
And still alive and reading deeply
That, I think, is a miracle

TUCKER: He's much more, it strikes me, of a kind of lyric poet. And
as you said earlier, in the -- when you cited that remark about snow and flowers, he's more interested in nature than the urban and urbanness of the others. You agree about that?

LEHMAN: Absolutely, he's the most pastoral of the four. I mean, there's a sense in which you could say that Frank O'Hara wrote urban pastoral poems, but Schuyler is a pastoral poet. He writes well about the city, but he writes, perhaps, even better about gardens and the view from his house -- from the house that he lived in. Fairfiel
d Porter's house, the painter Fairfield Porter, in South Hampton.

One of the great paradoxes of Schuyler is that for someone who is so unhappy, for someone who is so unstable and whose stability was so precarious -- he wrote happy poems. He wrote poems of extraordinary contentment and was really capable of capturing moments of human warmth.

TUCKER: Yes, there's a painting by Fairfield Porter of him sitting in a chair that, I think, really captures that calmness of his. I often think of that painting when I
read his poetry.

LEHMAN: Well, I love that painting.

TUCKER: And Fairfield Porter, also a first-rate critic as well as a painter, seems to have been part of this New York School in that sense of being an influence -- somebody who influenced the poets, the poets influenced him.

LEHMAN: Right. He was a very important figure for them, though older, of the generation of deKooning in age, he was part of this set -- this set of poets and painters. He was a great friend of Larry Rivers, Jane Frielicher, a
nd the poets O'Hara, Koch, Schuyler, Ashbery.

He wrote poems, he was inspired by their poems to try his own. He and Kenneth Koch corresponded by sustina for about a year.

TUCKER: A sustina we should probably explained is a beautifully intricate form of poem. It has a very specific rhyme scheme.

LEHMAN: It has 39 lines, and there are only seven -- well, excuse me, there are only six end words for all 39 lines. The six end words have to appear and reappear in a predetermined order. So, it is sort of a
feat to write a sustina. Although, I think for the non-poet it seems much more intricate and complicated than, in fact, it is for a poet.

John Ashbery said of writing a sustina that it was like riding a bicycle downhill and letting the pedals push your feet. It's true, once you have the sustina in motion, those six end words, they tend to write themselves in a way.

TUCKER: It seems to me, chronologically, that the New York School of Poets kind of overlapped with the Beat generation of poets: Allen Ginsbe
rg, and Jack Kerouac, and people like that. I know in your book you cite this famous example at a reading when Jack Kerouac gets up and says to Frank O'Hara, "You're ruining modern American poetry," I'm paraphrasing, and O'Hara shoots back, "That's more than you've ever done for it."

What was the relationship between these two kinds of schools of poetry?

LEHMAN: Well, as you say they came about at roughly the same time, and there was some overlap. And again, O'Hara was the key catalytic figure connecting o
ne group to the other by the strength of his personality and his charm.

He was friendly with Allen, he was friendly, with Corso, and so he was sort of the link between the New York School of Poets and the Beat poets. But there was, you know, some -- also antagonism or competition between then, and they are very different stylistically in every way.

The Beats were very explicitly rebellious, you could tell by the clothes they wore, by the facial hair they sported, by the accoutrements, by their, you know, dop
e. Whereas the New York Poets did not look like rebels, you know, they were in chinos, and sneakers, and short hair, and alcohol was their drug of choice.

So, they were far less vocal, and "Life" magazine did not devote to the New York School the sort of scandalous article that they devoted to the Beat movement in the 1959. There were cordial relations for a time, and then they were strained.

I think Ginsberg and Koch wound up later on becoming pretty good friends, and they would interview each other all th
e time.

TUCKER: Yeah, as you were talking I was remembering in my -- years ago I was at a reading at St. Mark's in the Bowery, the kind of the headquarters to a certain extent, for the New York School at a certain point, and Kenneth Koch was given a reading. He was dressed very natty, he had this kind of turtleneck and sport coat and was very nattily attired, and Gregory Corso, I realized, was in the audience and was kind of inebriated I think.

And just started shouting in the middle of Koch's poetry, and
just started kind of denigrating Koch in general, and was sort of gently, you know, led from the scene. I think that was probably typical of the kind of competition or adversarial nature of that time.

LEHMAN: That sounds entirely characteristic of Gregory Corso. Corso was teaching at Allen Ginsberg's Nuropa Institute (ph) in Colorado, and he counseled his students to bring water guns with them to poetry readings, and to squirt the poets that they didn't, you know, like what they were hearing. I mean, in a w
ay, Corso was sort of a godfather of poetry slam where people feel free to heckle from the audience.

TUCKER: My guest is David Lehman. We're talking about the New York School of Poets. We'll be back after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.


TUCKER: My guest is poet and writer David Lehman.

You speak of the avant-garde and the last part of your book is devoted to the question of whether or not it's possible to even be an avant-garde artist in these times. I wondered if you could summariz
e that argument since it seems almost taken for granted in art circles now that there's no -- there's no kind of rear guard to react against. How can you be avant-garde if there's nothing to react to?

LEHMAN: That's right. I think if you -- if you consider the term avant-garde as a historical term, in a historical context, then, you know, you will find that avant-garde as a turn or a category or an ideal -- came into being in the very early years of the 19th century as a revolutionary concept.

The concept
that art should be in the van or the vanguard of radical political and social change. And then avant-garde as an idea sort of developed or evolved into a part that obeyed its own imperatives, and was revolutionary on its own terms irrespective of any political implication it might have.

And it seems to many observers that this idea of the avant-garde has played itself out -- that we've had the last avant-garde because in order for there to be an avant-garde there has to be a resistance to it -- there has to be r
esistance to overcome.

As there was resistance when Jackson Pollock made his drift or port (ph) paintings, there was resistance that you could feel that was palpable. People thought: Oh, my child could do that. That looks like macaroni.

He took a major risk, Pollock. If he failed he would be worse than -- he would be just like a house painter. "Life" magazine did a big piece on Pollock in 1949 saying: Is this America's greatest living painter? And they meant to mock him. Of course, unwittingly they help
ed advance his cause -- that's the way of the media.

But at that time there was tremendous resistance. Today, however, it seems that anything you do to protest is sort of part of the system. I mean, if somebody gets up with a guitar and start singing, "Bring the system down," that person is marketed, they can sell records by that person. What kind of adversarial impulse is there?

So, once you've removed the grounds of resistance, what possibility do you have for an avant-garde? However, it is possible to
find avant-garde in such a way as to make it possible that there always is an avant-garde. If you to define it loosely and say: "Avant-garde just means the best poetry, the most advanced poetry, the most energetic poetry of the time," then, I suppose, we have an avant-garde today.

TUCKER: I mean, I think, especially in the latter half of this century the avant-garde has been kind of co-opted by pop culture. The rebelliousness in rock music and popular culture in general -- it becomes part of the culture immedi
ately, and I think in a paradoxical way it makes the work of these poets that you're writing about, this older generation, although more accessible because I think readers, people in general, are just more able to pick up on adventurousness in language and style in a way that they maybe even weren't 20 or 30 years ago.

LEHMAN: I agree. I think that one great consequence of this avant-garde movement is that it has prepared us for the poetry of today. It has prepared us to be better poets. When one says that th
ere is no avant-garde, one isn't saying that therefore the poetry of the time is bad.

One could be saying that the avant-garde has led us to a place where we have terrific poetry following up on the examples of the poets of that last avant-garde.

You know, these poets mixed high and low diction -- high and low culture. They were very revolutionary when they did that -- today it's more commonplace, I think -- but when Ashbery wrote a sustina about Popeye the Sailor, or when Kenneth Koch wrote a novel about
the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, these were not considered orthodox things to do in poetry.

And so, they had a kind of shock effect at the time. They were original and daring. Now, it wouldn't be as daring to write a sustina about that Batman or an ecologue featuring Archie and Veronica.

TUCKER: In fact, all too many have probably already been written, in fact.

LEHMAN: True. True. But that doesn't choke off the idea.


LEHMAN: It just places a certain burden on the contemporary
poet to come up with something original and fresh and new, and not just a copy of what's already out there.

TUCKER: Well, thank you very much, David Lehman.

LEHMAN: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk to you, Ken.

TUCKER: David Lehman is the author of "The Last Avant-Garde." He's also the editor of "The Best American Poetry" series.

Here's a 1960 recording from bassist Charles Mingus. See if you recognize the two melodies in this arrangement.


That's Billy Strayhorn's song "Take the A Train," which Frank O'Hara rode quite often. It's from the recording "Mingus Revisited." The other melody was the Jimmy McHugh (ph) - Dorothy Fields tune "Exactly like You."

Coming up, Milo Miles celebrates the return of blues guitarist Peter Green.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


: Ken Tucker, Washington, DC
Guest: David Lehman
High: Writer DAVID LEHMAN is the series editor of "The Best American Poetry." His new book "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets" is a cultural history about a group of poets in the 1950s in New York whom he says helped to reinvent literature.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Poetry; Literature

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserve
d. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Lehman

Date: NOVEMBER 10, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 111002NP.217
Head: Peter Green
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

KEN TUCKER, HOST: The British blues guitarists Peter Green and Eric Clapton started out on the same track, but took different paths. Green founded Fleetwood Mac, dropped out, stopped performing, but now is back with a new album and playing well on a smaller scale.

Music critic Milo Miles takes a look at Peter Green's career.


MILO MILES, MUSIC CRITIC: Why isn't Peter Green as famous as Eric Clapton? On the surface the question seems absurd. Eric Clapton has been an international rock star for 30 years, he's become such a gray eminence that he recently had to spout some sexist lyrics to prove he wasn't a statue.

British blues guitarist Peter Green has spent most of the same 30 years out of action, neither recording nor performing, sometimes not even playing. Yet the two started in the sa
me place. Green replaced Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers band where he wrote "The Supernatural," an instrumental that inspired and defined the whole of Carlos Santana's guitar sound.


MILES: As Clapton went on to form the stadium-shattering power trio Cream, Green soon founded the most respected and enduring British blues band, Fleetwood Mac, which has only the rhythm section in common with today's superstar outfit.

It's popular to refer to the earlier incarnation as Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. An ideal collection of Green's "Young Man Blues" has never been available in this country. Good luck finding any copy of his tune "The Green Manalishi," (ph) the bad acid equivalent of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin."

You can easily find copies of "Then Play On," his final album with Fleetwood Mac, and it offers more consistent pleasure than any regular album by Cream.


Tell me anybody
Now do you really give a damn for me
I say I tell you everybody
Do you really give a damn for me

Oh 'cause I just got to tell you
About a thing that's bothering me
I was a (unintelligible)
I was (unintelligible)

MILES: That strange, bitter number is called "Showbiz Blues," and combine it with "The Green Manalishi" and you have a portrait of a personality meltdown. Clapton turned his crises into "Layla." Green turned his into silence.

One heard that Green develope
d a moral revulsion against stardom and wealth, that he joined an aesthetic religious commune, that he was in and out of mental hospitals. Unexpectedly, in 1978, he released a sinewy but delicate collection called "In The Skies," and later three more albums.

A very smart selection of this material has now come out as "Green and Guitar," on the Music Club label. Green plays a remarkable combination of the chiseled notes that B.B. King and the eerie atmosphere of Robert Johnson with a beautiful sense of flow in h
is best solos.

"Green and Guitar" clinches the case for him as one of the very few important white blues stylists.


MILES: But after 1983 came 12 more years of blankness. As a symbol of his total renunciation of guitar, Green grew long fingernails. Just as abruptly as before he began performing again in 1996, this time with a renewed interest in old blues masters.

He has beaten the odds again by turning in a very satisfying reading of 14 songs b
y Robert Johnson called, naturally, "The Robert Johnson Songbook." With especially sensitive help from second guitarist Nigel Watson, and Green's own precise harmonica-blowing, the album does not sound much like Johnson's original work. There's a sly, engaging touch like a quiet roadhouse jam.


Every time I'm walking down the street
Some pretty mama she starts breaking down with me
I'm breaking down I'm breaking down
And I've got a busted place no
w baby

I can't walk the streets now
Can't cross (unintelligible)

MILES: Green can always be seen as Eric Clapton's lesser shadow, and "The Robert Johnson Songbook" can be heard as his version of Clapton's rootsy album "From the Cradle," but with Green it's not just an interlude before the next fat over-produced best-seller, but something close to his essence, the only option he has.

So, part of the answer to why Green is not as well-known as Clapton is that Green si
mply became what both of them seem to stand for back in the middle 1960s -- a very subtle modern blues men devoted to the fundamentals.

Would I exchange Clapton's accomplishments for Green's humility? Of course not, but I sure as the devil would rather listen to "The Robert Johnson Songbook" than Clapton's latest release.

TUCKER: Milo Miles is music features editor at

Sitting in for Terry Gross, I'm Ken Tucker.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may b
e updated.


Dateline: Ken Tucker, Washington, DC
Guest: Milo Miles
High: Critic MILO MILES has a retrospective of British blues guitarist Peter Green who founded the group Fleetwood Mac then dropped out and stopped performing. Now Green has a new album, "Robert Johnson Songbook" (Artisan label). Two earlier Green albums are: "Then Play On" (Reprise) and "Green and Guitar."
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Music Industry; Peter G

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Peter Green
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue