While you’re actually writing a poem, how conscious are you of the history of poetry? Are you constantly thinking about how your poem will relate to the poems that have come before, or do you not think about that at all? Are you somewhere in between? Are you overwhelmed by the anxiety of influence, indifferent to it, perhaps hostile?
I’m not looking for right and wrong answers here; I’m just curious. Although I do think the answers will tell us things worth considering.
I don’t mean history more generally, by the way, just the history of poetry. And I don’t mean what you think about before or after writing, I mean literally while involved in the process of composition. And lastly I don’t mean in terms of the history of your own poems, but the history of poems written by others.
I would also welcome answers about this relative to fiction writing and the history of fiction, or song writing and the history of music.
At the Postmoot Literary Festival at Miami of Ohio in April 2006, one of the conversations focused on libraries and the idea of the archive. Many people felt disturbed that even libraries significantly invested in archiving contemporary literature often didn’t have the resources to preserve significant texts, especially in their original material form as books, pamphlets, distinct art objects. Questions were raised about the implications of turning some or even much of this material into digital material and sacrificing the original object.
As both Borges and Eco have suggested in their fiction, the concept of the absolute archive in which all material can be stored is not only a fantasy but one that has usually been used in the name of controlling information and those who wish access to it.
It’s obvious to say both that material will be lost and that, therefore, it doesn’t do much good to bemoan that loss in any generalized way. The issue becomes more interesting when we imagine that we have some control over what gets saved and what gets lost, or that we’ll have key choices to make in some instances. If it is inevitable that material will be lost, what should be saved? And since even if we could decide what material should be saved, some of that will not be saved, what then?
Unlike in earlier eras of history, it’s now possible to imagine that some things will never get lost.
Which depends, of course, on the time period that we imagine the word “never” can actually span.
Yet it would be easy to be smug about the inevitability of loss. Just last week, a synchronization glitch in my computer system erased these notes from my computer. Furious and disturbed, I drove hurriedly to my office. Luckily this file and several others were backed up on the university computer H drive, and I lost no work. The relief I felt when I realized that the work had been saved! It was the relief that I had gotten back, in my work, to where I already had been. The relief of knowing there was an archive where I could find my own work.
To get back to where you’ve already been seems to me at least as much the promise of the archive as it is to see some essential objects you’ve never yet seen. To see again what you’ve already seen, and perhaps to see it again in a new way. I have seen the James Joyce collection at the University of Buffalo library and if I go back there, the collection will still be there and I can see it. Again.
Unless of course it isn’t there or someone prevents me from seeing it. One can only have so much trust in an archive and those who guard it.
Tom Orange is back in the blog saddle again, with a new set of spurs and boots to match, responding in detail to my questions about the contemporary condition of the notion of the avant garde. Well worth reading.
From an interview of Aime Cesaire by Rene Depestres at the Cultural Congress of Havana, 1967
A.C.: I don’t deny French influences myself. Whether I want to or not, as a poet I express myself in French, and clearly French literature has influenced me. But I want to emphasize very strongly that—while using as a point of departure the elements that French literature gave me—at the same time I have always strived to create a new language, one capable of communicating the African heritage. In other words, for me French was a tool that I wanted to use in developing a new means of expression. I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French that, while still being French, had a black character.
R.D.: Has surrealism been instrumental in your effort to discover this new French language?
A.C.: I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. It was a weapon that exploded the French language. It shook up absolutely everything. This was very important because the traditional forms—burdensome, overused forms—were crushing me.
R.D.: This was what interested you in the surrealist movement...
A.C.: Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor.
R.D.: So you were very sensitive to the concept of liberation that surrealism contained. Surrealism called forth deep and unconscious forces.
A.C.: Exactly. And my thinking followed these lines: Well then, if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.
R.D.: In other words, it was a process of disalienation.
A.C.: Yes, a process of disalienation; that’s how I interpreted surrealism.
R.D.: That’s how surrealism has manifested itself in your work: as an effort to reclaim your authentic character, and in a way as an effort to reclaim the African heritage.
R.D.: And as a process of detoxification.
A.C.: A plunge into the depths. It was a plunge into Africa for me.
R.D.: It was a way of emancipating your consciousness.
A.C.: Yes, I felt that beneath the social being would be found a profound being, over whom all sorts of ancestral layers and alluviums had been deposited.
A lot has been going on in blogland lately, what with conversation happening on Lorraine Graham’s and Simon DeDeo’s blogs about Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s recent article on a continuing need to assert the value of feminism, as well as a discussion on the blogs of Stan Apps and Nicholas Manning regarding whether there’s a need to assert the notion of an avant-garde. Both issues, though very different, seem to me connected in the sense that they revolve around the question of whether an assertive and therefore to some inevitable extent divisive rhetoric is necessary, or whether such divisive rhetoric is an outmoded form of discourse, something that we have gone beyond and need to stay beyond in order to continue with the essential task of learning how to get along with each other in a complex and troubled world.
I’m going to focus on the issue of the avant garde here because to me at least the continuing need for outspoken feminism seems more or less obvious, while other people are going to be better than I am at working out what that might look like both theoretically and in local applications. But an avant garde? Do we need that anymore? Stan Apps has been saying that we do, and has been describing his vision of what that might look like.
Now, many of my friends and readers of this blog perhaps remember an earlier era in this problem. It was an era in which it felt important to me and lots of others to critique the limits of a notion of an avant garde and its problematic relation to progress, militarism, and gender, race, and class, not to mention all the limitations of social group formation. Those critiques remain important, but does that really mean that the idea of an avant garde is no longer necessary at all?
Speaking for myself, I’ve never thought so. The goal of critiquing certain problems within the history of the avant garde was, to my mind, not a way of restraining aesthetic excesses but freeing up more possibilities that might challenge settled notions of what literature is and can be. I was hardly interested in a return to safer modes of writing or thinking, but to note how many more unsafe modes of writing and thinking might be possible. My sense has been that the idea of an avant garde can be found in a restless refusal to accept that what literature looks like in the past must determine its limits for the future. To me, the notion of an avant garde is valuable as a kind of impulse that must be put into practice and that can be found in multiple contexts—and not just in those that assert avant garde rhetoric.
That said, the idea that there are limitations to avant garde practice is one that has gone around widely, so much so that many people think that the idea of an avant garde is now a useless notion. In various ways, this dismissal of the idea of an avant garde has the habit in practice of discouraging or even outright ignoring more extreme aesthetic approaches. Of course, the discouragement works differently than the 80s mainstream poetry way of ignoring language poetry entirely and being hostile to any mention of it. The way, now, is to claim that one has been exposed to those ideas and has moved beyond them.
The classic example, to my mind, is Jorie Graham, who has gone on record as claiming to be more radical in her approach to writing than more definitively avant garde writers. But on what grounds does she make this claim? It mainly seems to be that in incorporating certain more supposedly extreme concepts (indeterminacy being the key one perhaps, since it’s often considered the central tenet of avant garde writing by people who don’t really read that writing or know it mainly through reading Marjorie Perloff) and linking them with the high-toned philosphical lyric a la Richard Wilbur or Wallace Stevens, she’s more radically consolidating a new center in poetry than fringey experimenters who are caught up in old school avant garde rhetoric. Get it? Moving to the center is more radical than being on the fringe. And defining a new center, it turns out, is best achieved by incorporating a few avant gestures without letting those gestures so deeply take over the text that the work becomes offensive or incomprehensible to readers of more conventional lyric or narrative verse.
But let’s be fair (not that most of us ever are). It’s not only writers who don’t seem to know what the avant garde was who think that the idea of an avant garde may now be bankrupt. Ron Silliman’s notion of the post avant, which he says quite sincerely that he thinks of as a positive development, clearly contains the implication that the idea of an avant garde has played itself out, and Ron knows as much about what it means to be an avant garde writer as anyone alive. In his formulation of the post avant, remnants of avant garde practice remain a possibility, but its intensity, its severity, its refusals and rejections are no longer tenable.
So what do you think? Is the time of any idea of an avant garde over with? Do we need more insistence on the value of aesthetic extremes? Is it important to remind people that it’s not really possible to reject the avant garde before you understand what it was in the first place? Can avant garde possibilities be found in a Stan Apps-style defining of avant garde practices, or in an impulse to unsettle accepted pieties in numerous contexts that’s both broader but perhaps dangerously general? Both? Is the idea of an avant garde old news, or one that we’ve already gone too far in forgetting? How would we know, right now, avant garde work if we saw it?