There has been a continuous, because continously risked and reinvented, avant-garde in American poetry since the opening decades of the twentieth century: independent, dissident, restless for aesthetic and social transformation, responsible for most of what is today considered significant in the nation's poetry. This avant-garde's distinctive demandfor the autonomy to compose a socially relevant poetic outside (and often in opposition to) the constraints of the capitalist markethas received as many historical inflections as there have been significant shifts in what some historians call "the short twentieth century." Working with a modest and vulnerable but persistently renewed set of expressive meansthe typically short-lived, privately-funded, small-circulation magazine; the non-commercial, non-institutional publishing house; the low or zero-budget public peformancethe generations emerging in the 1910s, 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s envisioned understandably different projects in light of their specific intersections with the large-scale foreces that shaped the century. If such terms as modernism, "Objectivism," the New American Poetry, and language-centered writing capture only in the vaguest of profile an indescribably various set of successive poetic practices spanning four generations, they do nevertheless mark out a discrete series of actual historical accomplishments, a temporal trajectory that is at the same time a densely communicating web of interpersonal and intertextual relations; in short, though the word scandalizes superficial observers of the avant-garde, a tradition.You can quibble with this or flat out reject its premises (many people will I think have trouble with Evans' claim that the a-g tradition is responsible "for most of what is considered significant in the nation's poetry"), but I find it pretty persusasiveor, what is perhaps more to the point, generative, even inspiring. My world seems poorer when the avant-garde is defined too narrowly.
On the third hand, there are denser and more concrete objections to be made, not about the definition of the avant-garde but its value. I've been exchanging some e-mails with Reginald Shepherd on the topic, and he's given me permission to reprint his e-mails, which appear below in the order he sent them. I'm off to Boston this weekend to see old college friends and then up to Providence where I hope to lay my grubby mitts on Fourier Series for the very first time. (If I may interject: Woo-hoo!) When I return, I hopefully will have something intelligent to say about Reginald's formidable array of arguments:
To: Joshua Corey
From: Reginald Shepherd
This is just a brief note to let you know that you should be receiving your contributor’s copies of Bayou very soon. I think that it’s a very interesting assortment of rather diverse writers; I hope that you’ll be pleased to be among them. I also wanted to send you an essay on which I’ve been working—it’s a longer, more polemical version of the introduction to The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.
I am more and more disturbed by the reflexive dichotomizing among avant-gardeners (a great phrase) between avant-garde work (too often and easily equated with real poetry) and soi-disant “School of Quietude” poetry (i.e., everyone and anyone who’s not in my club and doesn’t wear my uniform), and not only because it seems that by definition (I’m published by a “mainstream” press) I would be SoQ. So often it seems that work is not judged on its own merits (and that the possibility that different kinds of poetry might be doing different and equally worthwhile kinds of things is not even considered), but pre-judged and preemptively dismissed or lauded in terms of the author’s institutional affiliations. Ron Silliman is the most egregious practitioner of this kind of smug, self-satisfied dismissal and praise, which is a shame because he’s not an unintelligent man, just a highly and willfully blinkered one. Given the avant-garde’s supposed commitment to exploration and the acknowledgment of the unknown, such prejudgments are particularly glaring. (And yes, I do realize that a degree of prejudgment is an unavoidable and necessary part of mental functioning as such.) After all, when Prufrock says that he has known them all already, known them all, it’s a lament, not a boast.
You at least grapple with the problem as a problem, though I think that you also are too willing to accept such categories as “School of Quietude” (a phrase that frankly I’ve come to despise) and to dismiss work accordingly (I’m not sure how Ron Silliman’s poems are going to more effectively save or even change the world than Marilyn Hacker’s, and frankly I find most of her work more compelling as poetry than his, though many of his essays are very interesting), and also too willing to praise work based on its author’s intentions and affiliations rather than the work itself. I frequently see little difference between work labeled “avant-garde” and work labeled “mainstream”—too often it’s all in who one’s friends are.
What gets lost in all this territorialization (and didn’t Deleuze & Guattari teach us that was bad bad bad?) is poetry, and more specifically, actual poems. You definitely care about (and even enjoy, something else that gets neglected, perhaps because it seems unsophisticated) poetry, and not just poetry, but real poems as experiences and aesthetic artifacts. I don’t get the feeling that many people do, though. Does Ron Silliman? I don’t see how one can when one has always already read any poem (or rather, any poet—the poems themselves tend to disappear) one comes across, which it seems that he has.
peace and poetry,
To: Reginald Shepherd
From: Joshua Corey
Thanks for your e-mail and essay; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but your reservations about the SoQ designation and clubbishness and pleasure have already stirred me to some thought, reflected indirectly in my latest blog post (last night’s). I am always searching for a flexible yet strong critical instrument to separate wheat from chaff; at the same time I am convinced that disinterested aesthetic evaluation is neither possible nor desirable. Questions of affiliation and publication history—what Tim Yu calls “the context of production”—are always going to be part of the mix, though not, I hope, overdetermining ones. I myself am perhaps a little hard to track when it comes to evaluating my context: both my books are on small presses, but they’re also both contest winners, with the judge of one being a former poet laureate and the judge of the other being one of the best known experimental poets in Canada. Plus my ambitions for a larger audience mean that I am going to seek more established presses for at least some of the books to come: I’d like to publish Severance Songs, for example, with a good university press or even—why not?—a big publisher like Knopf. I may yet write other things more suited to a small press; I think the new book, Fourier Series, is perfectly suited to the micropress that’s publishing it. Anyway, I think about this stuff, as I’m sure you do too, because it’s impossible to appreciate the gem without being affected by the medium in which it has been set.
To: Joshua Corey
From: Reginald Shepherd
I did indeed read your web log of last night, which I found quite interesting and thought-provoking. We are clearly diametrically (though cordially) opposed in our views on the question of text and context. All artworks have contexts, but we only care about the context of a work because we care about the work, or at least that’s as it should be—I am old-fashioned enough to believe that all response should start with and return to the text. If one is interested in the context for its own sake, then one is interested in biography or history or sociology or economics, et cetera, but not in literature. All of these interests are completely legitimate, as long as one is clear about what one’s interest is. (And of course all of these things relate to literature in various overdetermined ways—but they do not define it as such, and literature’s being in relation to these forces and structures doesn’t distinguish it from, well, everything else in our society or any society which has ever had such a category of discourse as ‘literature.’) I recently read a very interesting and somewhat polemical book on Postmodernism by Christopher Butler (part of Oxford University Press’s” A Very Short Introduction” series) in which he discusses the problem of artworks whose entire meaning (or, in some case, even their existence as artworks) depends upon their accompanying critical apparatus. As Susan Stewart points out (I quote this in the essay I sent you), “art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to be mere allegory [or illustration]; and…theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to [be] apologetics.”
As for the “mode of production” of poetry, the analogy simply doesn’t hold, and it trivializes real economics and real politics while aggrandizing poetry writing as some sort of political act (why not aggrandize it as an aesthetic act?). To talk about the mode of production in relation to poetry is pseudo-economics, pseudo-politics, and pseudo-Marxism. Poetry is not an economic good. In this regard, its use in intellectual discourse resembles the bandying about of the term ‘cultural capital,’ a glaringly imaginary—dare I write ‘ideological’?—construction, except that at least in the case of poetry one can point to actually existing poems. In economic terms, poetry has no exchange value and no use value, nor is surplus value extracted from labor in the pursuit of profit in the writing of poetry. Indeed, Marx discusses the artist as an example of unalienated labor, and Adorno points out that art sublates social alienation into artistic objectification. And in more general social terms, art and high culture in general have never had the kind of legitimating functions in America, which has been proudly philistine and anti-intellectual from its colonial inception, that they’ve had in much of Europe. I sometimes feel that people forget in their wholesale importation of European theory that America is in fact not Europe, for better and for worse.
If one is interested in politics, one should engage in politics (as I know that you have to a certain extent), not the metaphorical (at best) or compensatory (at worst) ‘politics’ of ‘cultural activism’—posing at politics, as social commentator Adolph Reed so trenchantly calls it. There is such a thing as politics, and it is distinct from art, whatever their interconnections. Actually engaging in political, social, or economic action is much harder than sitting around talking about containment and subversion.
I think that we’re in agreement that poetry’s greatest gift is its uselessness, its refusal to
bow before the demands of utility and profit. Poetry is an example of all that’s in excess of necessity, of all that escapes social and political definition and domination. Poetry defies what Adorno called instrumental reason and what Lyotard calls performativity: the demand that everything do something, that everything be “good for” something. It’s an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and in that way it’s a model of the ideal life and the ideal world, in which things exist for their own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Kant called freedom the kingdom of ends, and that’s what I think poetry presents the possibility or at least the image of: freedom, which is always an asymptote, an unattainable aspiration toward which we’re still obligated to strive.
What poetry does is add to the world, presenting us with an image of a world (the poem) in which each element exists both for its own sake and as part of a larger gestalt in which each part contributes to the whole and the whole enriches every part. But this is a creative and not merely a critical task: it’s too often forgotten that Adorno’s relentless negativity, his refusal of things as they are, was in the service of a great hope, the possibility, however often deferred, of a just society, a world to which one could freely assent.
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.
Since I seem to be on a rant, I might also mention that I’ve grown weary of experimentation for its own sake—it comes to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion, never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you’re wearing next season’s clothes. Those trendy outfits also bear a strong resemblance to the clothes they wore in the teens and twenties, which people too often forget. So many of the ‘experiments’ in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, et alia, long before any of us was born. There’s nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there’s something rather unseemly about claiming that you came up with them yesterday. The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” contains two parts—they concentrate so much on trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn’t in fact available to all—if this were truly a society of over-abundance, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that newness is not a value in itself (no human being is ‘new,’ though each is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously at least, of our experience of and in the world).
I do wonder, with regard to judging work by its author’s institutional/social affiliations versus judging work as a text (as a, dare I write the New Critical words, autotelic artifact), what is the difference between Jane Miller and Michael Palmer (or, from his more recent work that I’ve seen, between Michael Palmer and Charles Simic?). Inquiring mind wants to know.
Take care, and know that though we disagree quite profoundly on many questions I appreciate the serious thought that you put into them (it’s quite rare), and your obvious love of poetry and poems, which is not so widely shared among those who call themselves poets (and I include poets on either side of whatever fence you care to build).
peace out and about,