Ron Silliman and others have taken to calling this moment in contemporary literature and art “post-avant.” I don’t know whether Silliman has defined that term, and my suspicion is that in some ways he may be using it pejoratively. What I take the term to mean is that we live in a moment when characterizing contemporary writers in terms of their adherence to specific literary traditions (especially when divided along lines of “avant garde” vs. “traditional”) has become an overly limiting approach. Increasingly, many writers do not define themselves as working in a tradition so much as they borrow from many traditions and depart from them as well. What’s good about such a situation is the liberated potentials it offers a host of literary and related practices. There’s flexibility, looseness, a playfulness regarding the history of literature and art that rejects easy categories and straitjackets of lineage. What’s dangerous about it is a possibility that I might characterize as “amorphous blob”; writing whose fuzzy relation to historical influence is not marked by liberated daring so much as by the vagueness and incoherence of not trying to find out where you came from and not knowing where you are. There’s possibility in not knowing the past too certainly and not being too directive about the future. But that’s not the same thing as walking around in a daze. Being unaware of material conditions and literary history is not the same as being free of them.
But I need to be careful here, because when looking at the poetry of other people, it’s easy to confuse the difference between vagueness and a struggle you haven’t yet learned to understand.
Besides, too much of the talk about contemporary poetry, whether formal criticism or casual conversation, seems to carry a nostalgic sense that there ought to be less worthwhile ways of writing poetry.
There’s a difference between insight and making individual aesthetic preferences into absolutes.
Notes toward a talk in the History department - Here's the announcement for my talk next Wednesday, "Forgetting History: Alzheimer's and Documentary Writing." Some thinking out loud: --Headnote, from a ...
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