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Writing and Failure (Part 2)
I often remind my students that, despite their belief that they have important knowledge to communicate to the world at large through their poetry, their status as poets already suggests that they have failed to make any momentous discovery that might have otherwise contributed to the history of knowledge; otherwise, the students might have exploited this insight in far more lucrative vocations, like the sciences or even business. I remind my students that they are probably taking my class in poetry because “math is hard”—and since they have no other worthy skills, they have chosen to accept their demotion to a lowly caste of literate nobodies. I get a few nervous giggles from the students after these waggish tirades—but then I underline my argument by saying that, if students really do believe that they are communicating, heretofore undiscovered, revelations to the public, then the proper genre for transmitting such a discovery is definitely not a poem, but a press conference….
Writers of the avant-garde must often work in a state of relative obscurity, if not outright dismissal, languishing until later appreciated—and if such writers ever do succeed, they almost always garner their fame, postmortem, at the behest of a future critic, who recognizes belatedly the importance of such work, arguing that, unlike older philistines who might appear oddly prejudicial, wiser arbitrators have since become newly enlightened. While critics flatter themselves repeatedly in this way for the sharpness of their hindsight, they do not often celebrate nor even recognize the merits of the avant-garde already in their own midst. Why does this cycle of recurrent, critical neglect and attendant, creative failure occur for each generation of the avant-garde, despite the fact that cannier critics might anticipate the future appeal of such newness and anomaly, and thereby promote such poetry during its self-conception instead of after its self-immolation. The reasons for this myopia are probably manifold, but no doubt originate primarily from the fact that, like any experiment, which uses methodical procedures of both trial and error in order to make an unplanned discovery, the avant-garde risks making many blunders on the way to its one epiphany—and if a modern critic deems that such experiments fail because the results are “inconclusive,” perhaps the results are so, not because they are too obdurate or too hermetic for consideration, but because such a cryptic outcome often demands that critics who address it must unlearn the very lessons that certify their ability to analyze it. The avant-garde thus demands innovation not only from the outgrowth of its experiment, but also from the criticism of its readership.