Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I love it when Ron Silliman gets synthetic, today providing a wide-ranging response to the question of how to characterize the avant-garde. Sticking to the notion of the School of Quietude vs. post-avants, today Ron is less interested in defining the former as Anglocentric and the latter as a confused mix of American nativism with Continental cosmopolitanism than he is in defining both theoretical entities by their engagement with history—more specifically, a Marxian view of history as being undergirded by the progress of the forces of production. I think he's on firmer ground here, although obviously many, many poets who get lumped into the SoQ engage with history on the thematic level. Recently there was the example of Anne Winters' The Displaced of Capital, a book of conventional (tho elegant) free verse with an explictly Marxist bent. I also recently received a new book by a poet named Ron Slate, Incentive of the Maggot; Slate is a business executive cum poet, but unlike Dana Gioia seems to have an ambivalent and searching eye regarding the operations of capital, though his verse style is again conventional free verse (you can read a rather lovely elegy of his over at his namesake). The avant-garde, or post-avant, or whatever, is distinguished by engaging with history on the level of form as well as (instead of?) content. But it's a pretty fine distinction that I'm not sure could survive a confrontation with individual poems: we are forced to rely on extra-poetic determining factors like affiliation or manifestos or statements of poetics to reliably recognize the avant-garde (the absence of such things, of even acknowledging the need for them, is the quickest way to recognize the Quietudinous). Ultimately you can't rely on these categories, though it's impossible to evade them. When I write about the avant-garde, I have to go to content as well as to questions of formal engagement and affiliation: Ezra Pound's importance to a specifically leftist tradition of American experimental poetry is one of the primary puzzles I wrestle wtih. Mostly the SoQ category has come to serve as a useful filtering device for someone like me who is trying to keep up with a formidable array of poetic production (mostly American, alas) and who simply doesn't have time to engage with poets whose publishers, blurbists, or magazine histories suggest to me that I'll be bored by their writing. Unquestionably I miss out on some good poetry this way. And I'm more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to poets like Winters or Marilyn Hacker whose political engagements interest me—and isn't even a perfectly classical sonnet somehow changed at its root by being about a lesbian relationship, for example?

"It seems history is to blame," the condescending and self-satisfied Englishman Haines remarked to the Irishman Stephen Dedalus, who thought to himself more or less in reply, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken." That I think describes the basic polarity pretty well, though like all polarities it is dangerous to the details in which God and the Devil are both said to reside.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Gee, and I'm such a natural fibers kind of guy.

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