Another county heard from on the avant-gardener question: here's the text of an e-mail Simon DeDeo sent me:
Why is there this great concern among so many talented people to properly define and encompass what is and is not "avant garde"? I understand the need to occasionally fight the man's circulation of signs, and I think self-described members of the avant garde have done a great deal to invent and practice poetries that accomplish this sort of thing.Let me add, incidentally, the name of Jasper Bernes to the list of those who've commented on the avant-gardener issue. At this point the accumulation of opinion feels too large for me to address in a comprehensive way. Let me instead try to answer two questions of my own invention that I think at least touch on what many people have been saying and wondering and claiming:
But in the end, why is there this need for a supplemental identity above and beyond the (always to-come, never accomplished) identity of "poet"?
Perhaps figuring out the labels and how they fit into the sociology of poetry is an aid to reading, and perhaps knowing that someone fits in some camp C gives us a better handle on how to engage their works. But I doubt this: the truly important poets create their own conditions for being read that go way beyond the mechanics of their production.
I'm not trying to dismiss the debate, as I've said, a lot of people I respect seem to be involved in it. But I want to add my voice from "the outside", so to speak, from which vantage point this whole engagement seems to be missing the point for anybody other than a hard-core unreconstructed Marxist who truly believes that the particulars of production (the narcissism of small differences, I mean, is life that much different at SubPress than Ecco?) create the aesthetic.
At the risk of missing the point of what you and Tim and Ron and Steve and Reginald and Chris are getting at, let me add: leave labels for the zoologists!
(Or are you interested in the question from the POV of a dissertation student's need for said zoology?)
1) Why pigeonhole poets? Don't we lose sight of the poem when we do that? What is to be gained?
Part of my impulse to discover a meaning for terms like "avant-garde," "mainstream," "innnovative," "experimental," "official verse culture," "school of Quietude," etc., is indeed academic. I am writing a dissertation in which I am trying to dialecticize the very conventional-seeming genre of pastoral with a tendency in 20th and 21st-century poetry that is hard to pin down, so much so that in contemporary discourse people are often reduced to calling it "That Kind Of Poetry" or TKOP for short; like pornography, you know it when you see it. As a critic, I'm attracted to the social dimension of poetrywhat Bourdieu calls the rules of artand interested in the ways in which what's on the page interacts with the context of its production. (To address one of Reginald's complaints, I think the metaphor of economy is as useful for describing what goes on in poetry as it is in, say, psychoanalysis, if we speak of the economy of the libido. for example. I'm not sure if poetry is a restricted economy set off from the "real" economy or if it's a Bataillean version of "expenditure" within that real economy.) But as a reader/writer/lover of poetry I find I'm more interested in the effects of the social on the text than the other way around. In other words, I'm a decadent aesthete stimulated by a wide range of poetries that generate exciting texts from a more or less explicitly socialized stance (from within a group, movement, or school, however hazily defined). Frank O'Hara, Kathleen Fraser, Barrett Wattenthese poets have little in common with each other except that their particular poetic gifts catalyzed around the formation of some kind of collective. They actively constructed the environment for their production and reception instead of passively permitting themselves to be processed by existing institutions. I speak, incidentally, as one of the processed, having gone through four years of writing programs at Montana and Stanford before I began to discover the manifold DIY alternatives to being a poet. Are there many, many talented and brilliant poets who were similarly processed? Of course. And it seems improbably that any of us could truly claim to be avant-garde unless we were willing to completely drop out of the machine and make our own way. So I don't claim to be avant-garde; I'm just fascinated by the impulses toward experimentation and self-doubt and collective imagination and negativity toward what is that tend to coalesce around the idea of the avant-garde. Partly because they give me a sense of hope and connection, because they're my path to the utopia of reading, the privileged moment in which one can experience solitude and solidarity at the same time. Partly because they've tended to produce kick-ass poetry that seems to have more spit and vigor than the stuff that fills the dying mainstream poetry magazines. Which leads me to...
2) Doesn't politicizing poetry trivialize both politics and poetry?
This is the statement of Reginald's that haunts me the most; it's worth requoting:
These days many people have transferred their hopes for social, political, and economic change into the cultural realm, out of despair and out of (frankly) laziness and unwillingness to do the hard, dirty work that’s involved in trying to change the material world in which we live. It’s a lot easier to critique art for being a bourgeois mystification or ideological occlusion than to fight for fair labor laws or clean water or civil liberties. I also think that kind of transference is a mistake: it places inappropriate demands on art (culture isn’t the source of oppression in the world, no matter how many “cultural activists” claim that it is) and it deprives art of what it can truly give us, of what it truly can do for us. As Gary Indiana wrote, as democracy seeps out of our social and political lives, it invades our cultural lives, where it doesn’t belong.The man has a point: no amount of cultural activity, however well-meaning or "radical," can have an immediate, direct impact on our increasingly shitty world. You can try to detour around this question; for example, many people who take a populist apporach to poetry and its promotion believe that if poetry were somehow removed from the embrace of a decayed "high" culture it would have a more immediate appealthat it could have the same impact on our political scene as, say, a Bob Dylan song in the 60s. The problems with this idea are obvious: for one, whether or not you're willing to stand up for high culture, to strip poetry of a large dimension of its possibilities (for engagement with literary tradition, for requiring concentration and negative capability from its reader) is to neuter it. For another, can we really give Bob Dylan or any other "protest singer" (Dylan is actually far too ambiguous an examplehow about Buffalo Springfield?) credit for bringing about, say, the end of the Vietnam War? Or can we only credit them for the morality of their response to that war? Still, though I readily concede that poetic activity is no subsitute for poitical activity, I'm troubled by Reginald's separation of the two spheres, which strikes me as a version of Plato's banishment. That is, since poets create alluring representations that may distract citizens (especially young citizens) from the real work of polis-buildingeven fool them into thinking that art-making and polis-building are the samethey must be kicked out of the Republic into a hazy zone of autonomy. The benefit of this is that poetry then becomes what Reginald so beautifully quotes Kant as calling the kingdom of ends. But doesn't this vision, especially if it becomes the active locus of intense imaginative activity, have some impact on the polis it lurks below and above? If you believe that poetry, being physical, alters however slightly the physical body of the one who reads it by rewiring neural pathways, then our own bodies become the bridge between polis and poetics. It's my belief that poetry with a social orientation of whatever description, especially poetry that tarries with the negative, will tend not to anesthetize its readers/writers but aestheticize them: activate more nerves, help them experience that the bounds of their own body extend into the larger world, renewing their resolve to care for it more actively. That's why I object to middlebrow poetry that circulates exhausted pieties, covers up uncomfortable truths, and encourages passive resignation. I have a more ambivalent relation to what we might call poetry of praise, the poetry of the beautifulmy dissertation is one attempt to discover if beauty can be in some way progressive if Keats' equation of truth and beauty is somehow correct. So I will continue to read my contemporaries with antennae tuned to this overall projectwhile trying to remain open to the likelihood that I won't always recognize it when I see it.