Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Beyond Avant Garde/Mainstream and Back Again

Based partly on the discussions about third-way and hybrid poetics that we had on this blog some weeks back, Michael Theune have been playing around with some ideas for conversing at more length in a public forum on the issues involved. Perhaps a panel at AWP or other conference, perhaps a one-day or even weekend conference if we could find a location and the resources.

Below are the ideas we have at this point for a potential event of this kind. Both of us would appreciate hearing any thoughts you may have. Additions, questions, problems, annoyances, accusations of heedless arrogance or willful ideological bias are all encouraged.


Recent years in poetry and poetics have seem numerous attempts to break out of, blur, or undermine distinctions between ideas of “mainstream” and “avant garde” poetics, a distinction that from the 1950s well into the 90s often dominated discussions about new directions in contemporary poetry. Yet after as much as fifteen years of attempts to move beyond this often unnecessarily limited distinction, it’s important also to move beyond assertions that the distinction has collapsed or is irrelevant. Instead, it now seems time to evaluate the specific attempts that writers and anthologists have made to create a hybrid poetics. Are we really living in an era when the mainstream/avant garde distinction no longer has value and significant common ground has been found among poetic approaches long considered opposites? Or has this new era simply adjusted, replaced, or perhaps only re-named this older boundary? Do the terms “avant garde” and “mainstream” still have any contemporary value or have they become the marks of a bygone age? If, as Hegel suggested, any synthesis of earlier ideas is always followed by a new antithesis that challenges it, what future poetic ideas will challenge any common ground that actually has been achieved or has been claimed as achieved?

This panel will feature diverse answers to these and related questions that have intrigued writers, editors, and anthologists involved in the issue. Are boundary-crossing, hybrid aesthetics a moderate, moderating force that smooths distinctions in a homogenizing and perhaps bland way, or one that allows for radical conjunctions not dreamed of in earlier generations of the “poetry wars”? Have anthologies promoting the collapse of the mainstream/avant garde distinction created genuine bridges across aesthetics or simply new poetic coteries? Do we now have no camps, new camps, more camps than ever? Have a variety of aesthetics really been included in the hybrid approach or have they instead been offered only token inclusion? Is the attempt to eliminate or downplay coterie inevitably a good idea, or is the often intense argument and difference between coteries a crucial source of vitality in new directions for poetry? What fringes and margins remain, if any? To what extent has the debate been framed too often as simply a problem within American poetry and thus remains wedded to a nationalist vision? What role do poetries in different languages, multiple languages, and translation play in complicating the notions of what it means to cross boundaries, whether aesthetic, linguistic, or cultural? What roles do race, class, or gender issues play in this new environment? When if ever are there reasons to assert the importance of maintaining or recognizing boundaries? What aesthetic, cultural, or ideological boundaries remain most relevant?


baj salchert said...

Whatever an author feels comfortable with. I think many have grown tired of encampments and skirmishes. Earlier this evening on my Kyphotic Hermit blog I posted "Post-Industrial World and Poetry". It is a single paragraph, but it answers some of the questions in your post. There is a link to KH in the sidebar of my node blog: Baj's Lodges (aka Rhodingeedaddee). One poem I wrote last year mixes regular words with phonetic words. In 2007 I wrote one that uses field theory and colors. Todd Swift recently published in Manhatten Review an essay on 16 young British poets. I found a poem by one of those poets online. It is a short serious rhymed poem lightly written. I rather liked it. Silliman, as you may know, in a recent post wonders if Cole Swensen might be a conceptual or even a flarf poet sometimes. Interesting, but does it matter?

I think the verification word is:

Michael Theune said...


But don't you think this is--in part, when it's at its worst--what's problematic about the idea of the American hybrid: the hybrid seems to posit itself as a kind resolution of poetic and aesthetic encampments and skirmishes, but in fact it ends up creating its own. For example, "American Hybrid" certainly excludes some other major trends, movements, projects, and poets, including work by conceptual poets Goldsmith or Bok.

I don't think Silliman's main point is that Swensen is sometimes conceptual or flarf--rather, he is pointing out that in contast to conceptual artists like Goldsmith and Bok, Swensen is in many ways a very traditional, or much more mainstream, writer. Silliman, I think, is clarifying a distinction that the hybrid theoretically does away with, but in reality maintains...


baj salchert said...


Your reading of Silliman's post does make more sense than mine. Still, American Hybrid (Third-Way, Elliptical, or ???) could be all-inclusive and not just relegated to Mainstream poetry. From my perspective, I've written several Language poems, but I doubt I would ever write a Flarf or Conceptual poem. I simply do not have an affinity for those modes of writing. I prefer not being labeled because (in spite of how my MFA experience influenced me) I never did try to cultivate a voice. Each poem has a voice. If a hybrid poem has to exhibit a synthesis of some kind, then generally I do not write hybrid poems. So maybe I have the whole idea wrong. Perhaps if I read Burt's definition of Elliptical--don't know.

Brian (but Baj is fine)

Michael Theune said...

Brian (apologies for my wrong form of address),

The hybrid does posit itself as a kind of synthesis, and most of the hybrid anthologies do think of the poems they re-present as syntheses of a sort. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, of course. But it's much less bridge-building and much more more boundary- (or distinction-) making. Nothing wrong with that, in itself, either. The problem comes when one thinks one is building bridges when in fact one is making further distinctions--this, I think, is the case with much hybrid thinking.

Your own notion of the hybrid is, to my mind, more interesting, and, frankly, more descriptively accurate: LOTS of poets are hybrid now in that they employ varied aesthetics in their various poems and projects. That's excellent, and a very interesting phenomenon which should be further explored--but it is not what the hybrid truly promotes or is really about.


Henry Gould said...

This sounds like a good idea. our thoughtful list of questions underlines how useful it could be.

I wouldn't expect anything close to a consensus of opinion to emerge - just more supposed alignments & affiliations, based on what comes across as the most convincing view(s).

Here are a couple of areas that come to my mind as worth exploring :

1) the shifting & conflicted status of theory itself in relation to practice. The resistance of artists, & the art-making process, to theoretical abstraction (alienation).

2) the idea of "experiment" in poetry as an epiphenomenon of 20th-century cultural & industrial "modernization" in general.

3) "Hybrid" as an umbrella term for poets whose actual practice is a traditional combination of "craft technique" (imitation of fashionable styles) & professional (academic) advancement.

4) "Experimental" or "avant-garde" as umbrella terms for poets whose actual practice is a traditional combination of "craft technique" (imitation of fashionable styles) & professional (academic) advancement.

5) Art as a process of surpassing, enfolding, transcending, humanizing, personalizing, individualizing, technique in general (imitation). Art as "individuation". Encapsulated in the classical aphorism, "Ars est celare artem" (Art is to hide art).

Henry Gould said...

p.s typoe - that's "YOUR" thoughtful list, not "our"...

tmorange said...

all very useful questions, mark, but is there much interest in theorizing the avant garde at the AWP?


mark wallace said...

Alas, Tom, I'm afraid there's a great deal of interest in AWP in doing that. It turns out that the avant garde, despite its foolishness and excess which we're now glad we've gotten beyond, did have a few ideas that can help people write a more contemporary and philosophical lyric poem.

brian (baj) salchert said...

Mark, as to those "few ideas": would you be willing to elucidate further?

mark wallace said...

Hi Brian:

Johannes Gorannson's 2008 post on "What He Learned At Iowa" should answer the question quite succinctly. I linked to it in a post last year on my blog so you could find it that way or through his blog directly. But let's just say it all starts with the concept of "slightly imagey."

JP Craig said...

I think notions of becoming or process move beyond the avant-garde's emphasis on dialectical struggle. I think that's a notion that was a useful gift from the Moderns, maybe Pound, certainly Williams, and people coming from that direction, like Olson and Duncan later. Anyway, the idea of process grants you a fat license to not develop a voice, to let each new poem find its form/voice, because it implies a sort of organicism. Which, today, can be a "machine" organicism, given how poets have the models of Mandelbrot or Markov and so on as comparisons (or tools) for their practice.