Saturday, May 07, 2005

Responding to another e-mail of Reginald Shepherd's generated the following:

You are of course correct that few of the poets I've favored with critical attention are avant-garde in the strict sense defined by Burger. However, I've come to believe that avant-gardening is a continuum: pure avant-gardeners are rare because few of us have the courage or cojones or insanity to erase every barrier between art and life. But I do think there are a number of strategies--repurposed Modernisms, if you will--by which artists selectively attack that barrier and put it into question. For example Rankine's naive stance, which rankles you as false, strikes me as an attempt to portray how vulnerable we really are to mass media and the extremely limited and limiting categories it offers us for subjectivity, especially collective subjectivity. Instead of a poem which either ignores mass media entirely (as most middlebrow poetry does) or asserts a self strong enough to surf its waves without damage (Frank O'Hara and his postmodern epigones), Rankine gives us a poem in which the speaker takes on the challenge of being affected, shaped, and then goes on to try and reshape her damaged self with only the language of her sympathetic imagination. In other words, her poetry stages a vulnerability to "life" (modern mediated life) and is willing to at least partially compromise its autonomy to do so; this strikes me as legitimately avant-garde, maybe a 6 on a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being utterly conventional, 9 being Duchamp's Fountain when it still had power to shock, and 10 being something probably never yet achieved--maybe the Situationists came closest.

At this point I'm becoming interested in another dimension of the question which I suspect leads to a lot of misunderstanding between people: the poetry of transcendence vs. the poetry of immananence. (I know, another bloody dichotomy: well, I'm assuming that like all dyads, this one too can be dialecticized.) I saw a blog post recently by "Sisyphus Walking" claiming that what we really have in these discussions is "poetry of the religious mind" and "poetry of the irreligious mind." The first, which the writer clearly favors, seeks after some kind of positive meaning, which he or she seems to conceive as existing in some "out there" and we just have to go find it. The second is purely negative: "Because these minds find meaninglessness in the world, their poetry's attitude (and likely their own) exhibits disdain for the human population at large. It is a poetics not for the many. Examples would be any Post-Structuralist poetry, most commonly Language poetry." I think this is hogwash but it might be rephrased more usefully as a post-Romantic vision of poetry as religion by other means versus a post-Modernist poetry that is concerned with this-worldliness and sees all meaning as a human construct (which is by no means equivalent to "finding meaninglessness"). Neither type of poetry has an exclusive claim on political virtue or aesthetic quality, but the post-Romantic sort is less likely to feel that formal breakage and re-making is necessary to its project; instead it seeks some sort of continuity with a tradition that is nonetheless inadequate as is. I don't know whether I for one have an "irreligious mind"; I still like what Fanny Howe has said about how atheists take God more seriously than those who insist on personalizing him. But I do tend to agree with Vico (who said that we ought to be able to understand our world since we are the ones who made it) and Marx (who said that changing the world, not understanding it, is the point). I think we are just beginning to catch up with the implications of the Modernist project, which recognized the fungibility of the world and reflected that in its artistic techniques. So I continue to favor an experimental, innovative, post-Modern poetry with avant-garde tendencies as having the best chance of being the axe to break up the frozen sea (of reification, of mediated life) within us and between us. Which is not to say that I'm completely unmoved by the post-Romantic poetry of quest and redemption that a few poets still have the heroism to practice (Jorie Graham is one). And I'm interested in the blurry line between them, as suggested by the career of someone like John Ashbery, celebrated by Harold Bloom and post-avants alike.


Johannes said...


There has been a lot of talk about different theories about the avant-garde (Burger etc), some of it useful, some of it bordering on absured (the Modernists did it all, lets just be boring). It might be useful to just line up an actual poem from the historical avant garde with any number of post-avant poems or poems you claim avant-garde status for. Just reading a poem by Hugo Ball or Mayakovksy or Marinetti I think most people will be struck by how different their sensibilies are from much of contemporary American poetry, even that with avant-garde claims. It becomes very hard for example to see Jorie G. inhabiting the same dimension. I don't mean to limit the concept of avant-garde to a historical (though very varied) bunch of poets, but I think it may be a useful experiment and I would be interested to hear what you have to say.


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