11 February 2008

Avant, Post-Avant, Pre-Avant...

Crucial to my perception of the avant-garde is how the act of traversing new territory of expression is both tied to the spirit of the forms that preceded it to that end, but not dogmatically to the forms themselves. Ron Silliman’s term ‘post-avant’ or Paul Hoover’s ‘pan-avant’ signify poets whose style relates to a lineage of styles that have been utilized for experimentation. Emphasizing the lineage of style is what creates these discussions where ‘post-avant’ is falsely synonymous with ‘parataxic,’ while the School of Quietude represents the lyrical. The nature of the avant-garde is that all stylistic bets are off, but it is through the spirit of the avant-garde that an avant-gardist would have natural affinities with a lineage such as Silliman’s and the potential utility of the forms created by that lineage. Silliman, though passionate about his views on form, does not limit the term ‘post-avant’ to exclude poets not sharing his stylistic views, as his loose use of the term over the last five years attests.

I am in agreement with most of the basic premises of Renato Poggioli on this topic: that the avant-garde arrived with Romanticism, is a force of nature, and is not comprised by a linear development of dogmatic style but presences of form and personae that light the way to its next incarnation. Poggioli views Rimbaud’s 5-15-1871 letter to Paul Demeny as the document where the spirit of the avant garde is best expressed:

“I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and rational dissoluteness of all the senses... For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone else! He reaches the unknown, and when, terrified, he ends up by losing the meaning of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die of this bound through the unheard-of and countless things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where the other has succumbed!”

Ignoring now the gender aspects of this letter, we see the qualities of the ‘unknown’ and ‘horizons’ sought, relating to the character of perception, using form as a mere vessel to transport the poet to the undiscovered. I have been most interested in poetry where opacity is rooted in a desire for expression: in Vallejo, Dickinson, Pound, Zukofsky, and Peret, rather than poetry satisfied with its utilization and refinement of form. In new platforms: vispo, soundpo, hypertext, we see both the creation of new vessels and altered landscapes of beauty and expression, and I would be pleasantly surprised if, say, the Poetry Foundation showcased work in these fields, but vessels can only be justified by the selves that guide them, gold delivered from self (Breton: “I seek the gold of time.”) The infinity of the page and line is unchanged amid its familiarity, so I consider the work of Buck Downs more avant-garde than what comes now from new platforms.

Stan Apps and Ron Silliman in their own ways cite the problematics of Eliot’s position towards tradition after Pound’s editing gave Eliot avant-garde credentials. Apps characterized as ‘rear-guardist’ attempts to link an avant-garde to a tradition of the avant-garde, which I disagreed with at the time on account of the examples he cited. As I said above, the avant-garde is both intrinsicly connected with the spirit of the avant garde of the past and the effect of this spirit has had on form, so without any prescribed allegiances to literary form the avant-gardist is bound to echo and reshape what came before. The avant-garde generally knows the forms of the past so as not to reinvent them, and can emerge without such knowledge only by good fortune.

So yes, I believe in the avant-garde both as a matter of faith and as an objective analysis of phenomenon. The avant-garde is neither pacifistic or militaristic so disassociating oneself from the military sound of the term, as Ron does, seems to me an irrelevant contrivance. ‘Post-avant’ is a term more invested in the avant-garde traditions of the past century than the infinite term ‘avant-garde.’ Silliman’s term School of Quietude relates to the systematic hostility of the SoQ to the spirit of these traditions of form, rather than a stylistic tradition of its own of a single lineage. He does place certain stylistic traditions, such as narrative poetry, at odds with the post-avant, but this is a minor aspect of the term and can be seen as a stylistic symptom of antagonism to the avant-garde traditions he defines.

Circles of the avant-garde can be administered but the avant-garde is not administered on a whole and, while determined by historical and economic forces, is not so determined in a uniform pattern or in any singular manner which cannot be overcome.

The statements ‘there is no avant-garde now,’ ‘there is no outside now,’ or ‘everything has been done’ are self-referential admissions of the individual will, unrelated to phenomenon. I am incapable at fathoming the artistic outside now, I wish to do so: a simple and enjoyable state of curiosity.


Ryan W. said...

you have my sympathies, especially here...

I have been most interested in poetry where opacity is rooted in a desire for expression: in Vallejo, Dickinson, Pound, Zukofsky, and Peret, rather than poetry satisfied with its utilization and refinement of form.

...and here...

The infinity of the page and line is unchanged amid its familiarity, so I consider the work of Buck Downs more avant-garde than what comes now from new platforms.

I have a lot of end-of-history feelings about poetry lately, tho such feelings may be, as you say, self-referential. To some extent. I find that lately I'm a little repulsed by "utilization and refinement of form," even in works by poets like Hejinian who I tend to like a lot.

Can't quite figure out what I want... poetry that isn't primarily concerned with linguistics... but how is that possible? Poetry that says things... but how is that possible?

I sort of want to feel like a poem has something other than its words. One gets that from Dickinson, and perhaps also from Downs. I think that would count as a Romantic idea... something hovering around or behind the poem that isn't its words. I'm not really even sure that's what I want. I don't want end-of-history.

Perhaps if there is something next, it's something that's already happening: different attitudes toward the author, performance, individuality, the products of labor. In other words, things that are not so much about what's in poems so much as how they are made, how they are regarded, what we think they are, how we value them, how we talk about why we value them, if we value them, when we value them. How we talk about what a poet is. Things like that. There still seems to be a great deal of potential for newness with respect to our attitudes toward the enterprise overall, even if much of what makes up that newness is already in evidence. I think maybe it hasn't been stated systematically or emphatically yet? Can you think of examples where it has been stated? I have to say "it" because there isn't, to my knowledge, a word for it, and maybe that's good. But perhaps there are a smattering of words for it.

Ian Keenan said...

There is that thing other than words that you look for in Buck ‘n’ Emily, or don’t look for, like Stevens (Of Mere Being) with the feathers on the bird on the tree on the space on the mind. The bird doesn’t explain the earth and neither does the tree. Emily has an amazing imperative: every poem seems so necessary to her, and your mind tends to follow what makes it so.

I think the last paragraph is true, but I don’t want to sell people on a new ways to think about poems or poets. I like that stuff on your blog where Tom takes your words, and that has its antecedents in the last few decades around here - and how it gets right to the reader as a heteronym of sorts. Perhaps you’re getting at the way poems are received by certain groups when poetry is plentiful, and made differently, breaking from the critical traditions... There could be new terminology for that. I can say firsthand that there could be new terminology because that last sentence was confusing to write and I don’t know that I really said anything! Theorizing a poetic experience other than the traditional one; that may be what you mean.

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