Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tim Yu intervenes in the discussion with two points about that vexed and vexing term, avant-garde: 1) "Avant-garde is not just a style; it is always also a statement about a work's context of production: the manner in which it appears and circulates, the place it takes within the institutions of art, the extent to which it displays (and demands) a critical awareness of all these things." 2) "More importantly, the question of avant-garde can't be settled by looking at an individual writer in isolation; fundamental to the idea of avant-garde is, ultimately, the idea of group or movement, one that's hard to reconcile with (and is, perhaps, actively opposed to) the image of a canon in which Poet A jockeys against Poet B for membership in a lineage of heroic greats. Shedding such group allegiances remains one of the prerequistes for being taken seriously as a Great Poet by mainstream critics; but membership in such a community is what allows the avant-garde writer to generate an aesthetic that might differ from the dominant." He's absolutely right. What avant-gardes accomplish, at least potentially, is the creation of awareness about the "context of production" for all works of art. I'm going to retire "School of Quietude" from my personal vocabulary because I think its underpinnings are very shaky; but I do think there has been and continues to be what Charles Bernstein called an "Official Verse Culture," albeit a greatly diminished one, that maintains a Bloomian discourse of "greatness" (superimposed over a bourgeois discourse of the subject) that blandly effaces anyone with any other ideas about what poetry might be for. It's the avant-garde activity of Bernstein and others (more in the apparatus around their poems than in the poems themselves) that made OVC visible in the first place, just as it took homosexuality (for example) to create the concept of heterosexuality. This in turn makes it possible to notice finer gradations (another Kinsey scale!): where do we place a poet who produces normative free verse but publishes it with small presses and keeps blog? Did Ashbery lose his avant-gardener status the moment Auden chose him as a Yale Younger Poet? If Jorie Graham wrote the exact same poems but published with O Books instead of HarperCollins, would the poems somehow be different, or at least read differently?

So it's not the avant-garde per se that interests me so much as the dimension of extrapoetic experience they've opened. I would revise Monday's negative statement ("I am simply unlikely to be really satisfied by an encounter with a poem that does not use some aspect of form to problematize its ready reception") to read, "I am simply more likely to be interested in a poem whose context of production is in some way palpable." That could manifest in any number of ways: in the poem's engagement with a particular literary tradition or predecessor; in the poem's awareness of its own historical moment; or simply in being published in a magazine or on a press that has published contextually complex work in the past. A poem doesn't have to be "difficult" or "inaccessible" to qualify as interesting under these conditions—though it's likely to be "inaccessible" in the sense of not being distributed by some Official Verse Organ, which is still where literate non-poets are most likely to encounter poems. But I am ALSO still interested in poetry that problematizes its ready reception that isn't particularly interested in context—that is, plain old difficult poetry, which Jorie Graham's work certainly qualifies as. (For the record, I am extremely fond of her books Materialism and The End of Beauty.) But I want to affirm that it's still primarily pleasure that drives me as a reader, and not any tendentious sense of duty; I'm fully on board with Ezra Pound when he says, "Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man"? I'm going to close with part of a comment I just posted to Chris Lott's blog:
I’ve already copped to enjoying difficult poetry and I don’t think there’s anything puritan about that; if anything, I’m a decadent aesthete reveling in having trained my palate to appreciate oysters and choclate-covered grasshoppers. I still enjoy a burger and fries, but not so often from the fast-poem joints. More to the point: it’s true you have to understand something about a poem to enjoy it: few of us truly enjoy hurling ourselves headfirst into the dark. But I want to use “about” there in the archaic sense as when someone asks if you have your keys about you. If you understand something of the poem’s context, that gives you just enough of a foothold to risk encountering what might appear opaque at first glance. The point has been made by others that undergraduates often have an easier time reading an experimental contemporary poet than they do a Shakespeare sonnet or a poem of Browning’s because the contemporary poet at least shares their context. Only those who have been trained to recognize specific historical configurations as poems are going to balk at new configurations they don’t recognize. In short, the more you read, the more contexts become available to you–and the more likely you are to become bored with off-the-rack stuff. My affection isn’t finite but my time certainly is.

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