Wednesday, April 20, 2005

So Roger Gilbert, my committee chair, has reservations about my using the category of the avant-garde in my dissertation; in a recent e-mail he writes, "It seems to me that the contrast you draw between avant-garde and non-a-g poetry is really just a contrast between good poetry and bad poetry," and then footnotes this with, "I suppose you could refute this by giving an example of a poem you genuinely believe is good that nonetheless exemplifies the qualities you ascribe to the non-avant-garde poem. Could you do that?" And this connects in my mind with the interesting problem presented by poets like Anne Winters and Ron Slate: the former manifests an explicitly Marxian politics, the latter having critical affiliations as suggested to me in a recent e-mail: "I'm very serious about trying to understand the different positions poets have taken viz power, politics, history. Cavafy, Celan, Seferis, Mandelstam, Milosz, Brodsky." He then sums up his general position and his problem with the a-g/SoQ opposition with the following paragraph:
I know what Silliman means when he insists that avant-gardened forms smack power in the face -- and I do read all sorts of poetry and love to be challenged by poets who sense my complacency in advance -- but I still listen for those unique, fictive voices -- in whatever form they arrive. The avant-gardeners don't get extra credit (politically or
aesthetically) for being especially inventive about form. This silliness about poets-of-quietude sounds to me like a rejection of lyric poetry - and I admit, I'm not ready to rid my shelves of it. Zagajewski in one of his essays in Ardor says lyric poetry has two chief concerns - 1 - it provides forms for our inner lives, and - 2 - it watches out for history, since we can't rely only on private experience. Brodsky says the same thing: "The word 'history' is equally applicable to the endeavors of nations and to private lives. In both cases it consists of memory, record, and interpretation."
Nice turn of phrase, "avant-gardeners"; I'm surprised I haven't heard of it before. I'm sympathetic to most of this, and I'm by no means willing to rid my shelves (or notebooks, or indeed published books) of lyric poetry either. On the other hand, I do give "extra credit" to the a-g, not for simply being "especially inventive" (though I enjoy that) but because I do believe that form is the principal loci for the negativity that I think is crucial to any artwork that wants to resist the easy recuperation and consumption of the market. The medium is the message, the message being: Hell, no! But the reverse isn't true; the message can't be simply the medium (i.e., pure form); it can't even be the message—it has to be mess-ier than that. Content, in other words, which while hardly restricted to them, certainly includes the referential, superstructural a-g no-no's of narrative and voice. Not that "conventional" poets are indifferent to form; it's just they seem to have more faith in the notion that poetry is already sufficiently radical and oppositional without all those hijinks—already capable of the necessary double-mindedness Zagajewski writes so beautifully about. It seems to me, however, that even the way that double-mindedness is put by Zagajewski privileges the "inner life" (for which poetry provides "forms") over history, which the poem "watches out for," as if history were an unpleasant intruder on your bourgeois property rights. Ultimately I suppose an avant-garde gets extra credit not for being inventive with form, but for including form in the larger project of a poetics that must contain at least a significant kernel of negativity if it is to be successful in remembering the tension between private and public life that the vast preponderance of our media serves to ameliorate and conceal from us.

But if that negativity appears solely as poetic content—the much-hated "subject matter"—is it rendered impotent by the conventionality of the surrounding form? Consider for example this poem from a section of Winters' book titled, "A Sonnet Map of Manhattan":
MacDougal Street: Old-Law Tenements

We're aware in every nerve end of our tenement's
hard-mortared Jersey brick, the plumbing's
dripping dew-points, the electric running Direct,
and on each landing four hall-johns fitted

to the specifics and minima of the 1879
Tenement Housing Act. We live in its clauses
and parentheses, that drew up steep stairways
and filled the brown airwells with eyebrowed

windows. Unwhistling, the midwinter radiator
lists in its pool of rust. A lightcord winds
through its light chain; from a plasterless ceiling-slat

topples a roach, with its shadow. Downstairs, our Sicilian widow
beats the cold ribs with a long-handled skillet,
and faucets drum in twenty old-law flats.
I don't think Winters' leftist sympathies are mistakable here; her heart is unquestionably in the right place. At the same time, there's no mistaking this for avant-garde work, even though the sonnet doesn't quite rhyme (there are slant rhymes aplenty, however). The most interesting move in the poem for me is the metaphor of living within the "clauses / and parentheses" of an obsolete law: but that text, that signifier, is not given material reality by the poem, committed as it is to rhetorical elegance (even "our Sicilian widow," an emblem of the lower classes, is dignified with a "long-handled skillet"—perhaps to make her more comfortable to identify with). Is it a bad poem? It is not a bad poem: it pleases the ear, its images are vivid, and I respond emotionally to its attempt to put private (many of these poems include childhood memories, specifically of the poet's father, an actor) and public together in the reader's mind. I do find myself feeling that the poem is somehow overcooked: the poem is top-heavy with an aestheticizing dignity that puts me at a considerable distance from the experience of rust and roaches. There's also very little intellectual work demanded of me by this poem, and if I'm not going to have a bracingly physical encounter with language, I want at least to think. Here my personal aesthetic judgment begins to collude with ideas of the avant-garde and the primarily formal modes in which its negativity manifests. Such writing contains more truth, I think, though often at the expense of beauty (that is, what most of us would recognize as lyricism); which is not to say that other powerful affects (like laughter) aren't possible. The greatest poetry—I'll say "great," why not—achieves the Keatsian merger of truth and beauty, or rather engineers things so that the one produces the other. But it still seems easier, or at least more common, to synthesize private truths with beauty at the expense of public truths. There's not much pretty to say about the public, except that it offers the only possible arena for meaningful love, and should serve as well as a common reminder that, as Dickens put it, we are all fellow passengers to the grave. Which is to say, of course, quite a lot.

My point, as usual, is to improvise a usable rudder for steering the seas of poesy with—and to commit myself to perpetual improvisation rather than getting too comfortable with any particular jury-rig. And to say there are good and moving poems out there that are very far from avant-garde in construction or intent. But I think they're rather rare; I do pick up magazines with conventional lyric poetry in them from time to time (the new Parnassus is in, for example), and, speaking gnerally, I just don't find as much of that energy of inspiration that I posted about earlier being transmitted by such poetry. Whereas energy and fire— black fire, a black energy, negativity antimattering with hope—seems to be literally everywhere in the prolierating arenas for avant or post-avant writing. That's where the action is, for this reader. I won't close my ears to other kinds of writing, but my eyes are committed to the horizon.

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