Sunday, September 23, 2007

amorphous blob

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.


Ron said...

No, not pejoratively at all. Positively. The primary difference between the two is a concern for community among the post-avants (the New Americans really pioneered that) and a recognition of a tradition going back to, at least, Blake & Baudelaire. Consequently, the military metaphor becomes far less important.

Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

I kind of hate the term "post-avant" (and no offense to Ron, since I know what he's trying to say with it and I agree that the military metaphor is unpleasant) because it sounds geeky and not just geeky but super-lame. "Avant-garde" sounds cool; "post-avant" sounds like you've given up trying to be cool forever, as if poets had no fashion sense, not even on the linguistic level.

I think of myself as operating within an "avant-garde" or "experimental" tradition and I don't feel embarrassed; I think the tradition is a noble one and I think that the idea of a "tradition of innovation" is absolutely not self-contradictory. It just means that to fully belong to this tradition you can't be just an imitator of your teacher, the noted experimental poet so-and-so. You do have to take the call to innovate as a continuing imperative. Breton learned a lot from Tzara and Lautreamont; he's not a sui-generis self-inventor, and if he doesn't have to be, no one else in the tradition has to be that either. But he does substantially reshape what he inherits into new experiments, which seems like it should be the bar.

I also feel like the term "post-avant" tries to usher in a more academicized poetry as a legitimate part of the "avant-garde" tradition; that's another reason why I distrust the "post-avant" term. It seems like to self-define as "post-avant" would be to give up the notion of their being a "call to innovate," replacing the avant-garde tradition with a more domesticated and more typical type of tradition.

mark wallace said...

It's not a term I like much either, Stan, and for some of the reasons you suggest. I appreciate Ron's clarification that he means the term positively, but part of the reason I suspected that the term was partly a negative one is that somehow it sounds negative. And of course a lot of people have run with the term in a negative way.

I've been guilty of using the term "post" too though, in the term "postlanguage poetry," because of the way it defines something historically as opposed to a more specific definition of aesthetic or cultural traits that probably wouldn't hold. But without doubt the concept of "post" is very vague. What matters more, I suppose, are the specifics one attaches to the term. But your point is that the connotations of a term itself also form part of how it's perceived.

I'm not entirely sure I understand your point about an "academicized" poetry as now being snuck in under an avant garde banner; I always wonder how we identify that something is "academic" poetry. Is it simply that teaching for a living disqualifies a writer from participating in avant garde traditions? Or is there some particular quality or qualities of poetry as such that identifies it as "academic"? What would those qualities be? "Academic poetry" sure sounds lousy and I hate it too, but what is it?

I agree that a tradition of innovation is very workable in the way that you suggest, although it does, as you say, require a dynamic of continuing innovation and not simply falling back on the techniques of the past. Of course that begs the question of whether innovation, or as I sometimes prefer, insight, is what one ought to be looking for in poetry. I can imagine insignificant innovation as one of the potential pitfalls of putting innovation forward as the essential term for what matters in poetry. I want a poem to show me something in a specific and insightful way that makes me reconsider the world, and that probably involves innovation while at the same time the concept of innovation isn't entirely sufficient for creating such a poem.

Anonymous said...

Which is the very problem with post-avant; it lends itself far too easily to a fetishization of Make It New because there's nothing new that's newsworthy to be made. I disagree that post-avant suggests a more academic poetry per se, but it does suggest a more insular poetics, more arch, loucher in tighter pants. Apres-garde, on the other hand, has a very fine camp-follower ring to it, implying a happy servicing of what's come before. Or we could be sous- and sur-garde, and wiggle under and dangle over. Perhaps the point is not to position oneself relative to the garde at all.

Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Hi Mark,

I agree that academic poetry, in the pejorative sense, is a little hard to define, but I tend to think of it as work that is marred by an excessive prudence of expression. Of course, good writers work in academia without having this problem, but some do become over-scrupulous. Lately it seems to me that many young poets, especially those being mass-produced at Iowa, want to write poems with an "experimental surface," without having any sort of commitment to a tradition of innovation, i.e. they are writing an academic poetry that follows the work of Ashbery and other noted experimental writers but are not actually trying to formally innovate. The term "post-avant" strikes me as setting up a bigger tent under which these people also can huddle--but I don't want them.

I am not opposed to all uses of "post" and "postlanguage poetry" seems to be to be a perfectly sensible expression which refers to the end of one phase of our tradition. No problem, phases end, so new phases can begin, and "postlanguage" is a temporary name until a better is established. However, "postavant" suggests that the entire avantgarde tradition is over, and we are past the time of innovation, in a retrospective phase. I find this suggestion intolerable, even if it is not intended. The tradition of innovation in poetry is not ready to move into the kind of neoclassical phase suggested by the label "post avant."

mark wallace said...

Vanessa, thanks for these important suggestions and cautions. I like your counter terms much better than the one we've been working with. Why not give it (whatever it is) another name, why not give it multiple names? Why name it and position it at all?

The answer to the third question, at least for me, is that if we can think of terms and positions of this kind as tentative and partial, as a way to begin thinking rather than as the final word, then they can be useful guideposts, ways to learn about the work for people who are outside its context, and also useful ways of thinking about the interconnections between art works and persons. But they can never replace direct engagement with the work itself--and such terms too often they end up doing that.

Stan, you've convinced me that the "post-avant" term is not simply boring, but perhaps significantly mistaken. I never liked it much, and you've given me a more concrete sense of why I shouldn't.

As to the kind of contemporary poetry you're criticizing, I wouldn't call it academic. I'd call it, well, what I already called it: amorphous blob.

I think I feel a post coming on in the next few days about the term "academic poetry," by the way. Please don't take it as any direct criticism of your initial comment, which has actually goaded me into figuring out something that's been bothering me.

Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Hi Mark,

Yeah, the term "academic poetry" is an odd one. I guess its connotations come substantially from the french tradition of arts, where there are typically conservative academicians who are targeted from criticism by outsider-innovators. But this is not quite how it's ever been in the U.S., where the people empowered by the academy are more often populist than classicist (with occasional exceptions, such as people like Donald Justice--even there, his brand of neoclassicism has a populist spin on it).

A squabble over resources between an oppositional poetry with an extensive (some would say "pretentious") intellectual tradition, and a faux-populism with occasional neo-classical tones (especially in its self-descriptions) is quite different from what takes place in French literary history. Either side could be called "academic" in the U.S. context, and it would mean different things depending who was saying it. The experimentalists can be called "academic" because of their intellectual commitments, giving the term an anti-intellectual tone. The populists can be called "academic" because they are better positioned to use the academic resources and tend to reproduce their aesthetics through academic networks.

Hi V,

I'm tempted to say "En garde!" I was very amused by your riposte which, since it seems to have been made in the spirit of play, presumably requires no answer. As for as the word "garde" is concerned though, it's true that I wouldn't want to join any army, except possibly as a general, and that is exactly how experimental poetry least resembles a "garde"--it's all high brass with no one in the ranks. And that is a very moral way to organize an army, or anything, come to think of it.

Anonymous said...

En would be exactly right, for it's prepositions we're after. The preposition of the preposterous, coupled with the brass tacks of the possible. It seems to me the poetic antipathy common to us Americans is less Academy versus AG, and more commerce versus the rest of us. Commerce being everything from the NYer to the FSG sampler. Which is the homespun Academy can include James Merrill and Billy Collins and, now, Kerouac and John Ashbery, and the rest of us are defined not so much as against them as not included in them. No kidding.

Back to my epaulets.

mark wallace said...

Thanks, Vanessa and Stan. Perhaps my new post on Academic Poetry might help continue this conversation about the academy and the economy.