If I were to say what I feel most a part of, it’s not the New York school, but it is the generation of women poets who are my age, who cut across all of the ways that American poetry is written.
I was a senior at the University of Richmond the first time I read Barbara Guest’s “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher,” from which the title of this feature comes. I’d taken a few poetry courses before and, though I fancied myself a writer, I hadn’t yet called poets my tribe. The class, taught by West Branch contributor Brian Henry, concerned the New York School. I learned about the key poets in the first and second generation of the movement and about the abstract expressionist painters who inspired them. When it came time for me to focus on particular poets for written assignments, I quickly turned my attention to Barbara Guest and Alice Notley.
My focus on the women of the New York School in my research grew out of my frustration with David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School, a frustration that sparked the present feature. Lehman states that the New York School was “the last authentic avant-garde movement that we have had in American Poetry.” It has been years since I read that sentence, but the more time I spend in the world of poetry, the more perplexing I find. It would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that Lehman wrote this over fifteen years ago, and that he may feel differently now, but something other than just the boldness of this claim stuck in my craw. Not only did I feel his statement was hyperbolic, but I was also frustrated by the fact that the supposed last avant-garde movement, according to Lehman, was decidedly male.
In The Last Avant-Garde, in which O’Hara, Koch, Ashbery, and Schuyler all receive their own chapters, Barbara Guest, a first-generation New York School poet like the aforementioned men, is referred to only tangentially. I was miffed that this “last” truly avant-garde movement, which Lehman defined as one not rooted in the university or focused on politics, was decidedly white and male. And though I could forgive Lehman’s excising of Notley, because he focused on that first generation, I could not forgive the minuscule attention he paid Guest, who was in the thick of the male quartet Lehman presented. In The Last Avant-Garde, Guest was only an aside to the greatness of Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, and Schuyler.
Lehman, though, is not alone. In Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, Maggie Nelson cites that, before her book, “none of the full length considerations of the school … offers a feminist perspective, and none includes Barbara Guest (the only first-generation female poet) as a principle subject of interest.”I am grateful to Nelson as well as other poets and critics such as Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kathleen Fraser, and Sara Lundquist, who have responded to this erasure of Guest from major New York School recognition.
Nelson in fact has a more forgiving reading of Lehman’s book than I do, arguing that “Lehman and others are right to diagnose the disturbing and daunting impediments facing the avant-garde impulse today—the ever-increasing commodification of literary production; the absorption of so many writers and intellectuals into the academy…” But she is willing to look past Lehman’s concerns about commodification, politics, and the academy to “ask hard questions of any nostalgia for a time” and acknowledges that this “cycle [of nostalgia] while arguably quite human, can engender a blindness to new impulses and movements that do not fit into previous models.”
So, in this feature, you’ll find poetry by Felicia Zamora, Hannah Brooks-Motl, and Elaine Kahn, a lyric experiment contemplating the avant-garde by Diana Khoi Nguyen, and a critical essay concerning Claudia Rankine’s and Bhanu Kapil’s use of the prose poem by Linda Voris. I chose these women because they cut across aesthetic lines—each working in her own mode—but also because there’s a beautiful urgency in their works. My solicitation request referenced Harryette Mullen’s definition of innovation—“explorative and interrogative, an open-ended investigation into the possibilities of language”—and my desire to respond to Lehman. I invited these writers to respond to ideas of experimentation in whatever way was meaningful to them. Ultimately, I decided it was more important to present practitioners than to attempt to comfortably situate a group of female writers into a specific aesthetic camp beyond the bounds of experimentation.
—Chet’la Sebree, 2015-16 Stadler Associate Editor