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Who You Callin’ “Post-Avant”?

By Reginald Shepherd

I was prompted to write this entry by the citation of my blog entry “Orwellian Me” in article called “Blogging the AWP, Part Two,” on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “*Footnoted from Academic Blogs” page. Author Jennifer Howard cited me discussing the shifting boundaries of “inside” and “outside” in the poetry worlds; noting my use of the phrase “post-avant,” she asked for a definition, which I provided on the site. It occurred to me that it might be useful to do so in more expanded form here, especially since Don Share’s most recent Harriet post notes that “Harriet readers frequently see calls for a definition of what, precisely, ‘post-modern’ and ‘avant garde’ poetry is.” (And no, Peter Campion’s uninformed dismissal doesn’t cut it.)
The phrase “post-avant poetry,” to my knowledge first coined by Joan Houlihan in a jocular mood, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world (I’ve never seen it in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both). It’s used with the assumption that “we all know what that is” but, like the phrases Don mentions in his post, the term is rarely defined. Here follows my attempt to do so, for whatever use it may be.


“Post-avant” (as in, “post-avant-garde”—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant, such writing “intentionally blurs the distinction between ‘difficulty’ and ‘accessibility,’ preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.” Though many of these poets have projects and even systems, there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation”), but not many manifestoes. (Flarf may be an exception to this, but I don’t understand what flarf is or is supposed to be. And no doubt I’ve missed a lot—there’s a lot to miss.)
Some of these writers have been called Elliptical poets by Steve Burt, but though I’ve read his essay and I’m scheduled to participate in an online symposium on Ellipticism organized by poet Chad Parmenter, I don’t understand what it is either, though I have a better grasp of it than I have of flarf. Some of them have been called “third way” writers by Ron Silliman. Some of their work has been called “lyrical investigations” by me, in the introduction to my new anthology Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, to which I will devote a later post. (You didn’t think I’d let an opportunity for self-promotion slip by, did you?)
Post-avant writers tend to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don’t just discard the self as an ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative of any variety. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle. They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical impulse of Language poetry. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism, that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don’t try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions (let alone grand narratives) of artistic “progress” or “advance,” though they are fascinated with the processes of poetic construction.
This cross-fertilization has been happening in poetry for a long time, but there are a lot of people on various “sides” who either don’t see it or vehemently oppose it, perhaps because it undermines their own carefully constructed identity formations (which many of them conceive of as having been forged under fire). Hardcore avant-gardistes, as well as hardcore defenders of a narrow and reified “tradition,” are at this point both ideologically backward; they’re still fighting the poetry cold wars. The avant-garde isn’t ahead of the guard anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. There are, of course, many people who haven’t yet passed through the avant-garde and never will. (It would be nice if some of those people would at least read Eliot. But then, it would be nice if some of those people would read Keats.) But once you have passed through that avant-garde door, there is no ahead, no destination or telos, just an open field. Art critic Arthur C. Danto, in such books as After the End of Art, Beyond the Brillo Box, and The State of the Art, and music critic Alex Ross, in his brilliant book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, both make this point about, respectively, visual art and music. Ross’s book includes a wonderful 1992 quote from composer John Cage, whose avant-garde credentials are impeccable: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.”
My partner Robert Philen, a cultural anthropologist who maintains a brilliant and wide-ranging blog, tells me that the same phenomenon is occurring in the social sciences where, for example, the dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative research are breaking down.
There are doubtless many “post-avant” poets who would not recognize themselves in this description and would even vehemently reject it (practitioners of flarf, for instance, which I can’t describe, might do so), and some wouldn’t consider themselves “post-avant” at all. But I think this is a fair though broad description of a significant area of contemporary poetic activity.
Some established poets whose work maps out or creates this third space are Michael Anania, Paul Auster (though I don’t know if he still writes poetry), Bruce Beasley, Martine Bellen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Gillian Conoley, Carolyn Forché, Peter Gizzi, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, C.S. Giscombe, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Ann Lauterbach, Timothy Liu, Jane Miller, Michael Palmer, Suzanne Paola, John Peck, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright. Most of these writers are included in the aforementioned Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, edited by moi and just out from Counterpath Press, with generous blurbs from Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff.
Some “emerging” or less-established poets who work in this space are Christopher Arigo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jasper Bernes, Laynie Browne, Brigitte Byrd, Julie Carr, Jeff Clark, Joshua Clover, Joshua Corey, Cynthia Cruz, Jocelyn Emerson, Amy England, Lisa Fishman, Graham Foust, John Gallaher, Michele Glazer, Noah Eli Gordon, Matthea Harvey, Brian Henry, Joan Houlihan, Christine Hume, Catherine Imbriglio, Julie Kalendek, Joanna Klink, Joshua Kryah, Joseph Lease, Malinda Markham, Mark McMorris, Rusty Morrison, Jenny Mueller, Laura Mullen, Amy Newman, Geoffrey Nutter, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Tracy Philpot, D.A. Powell, Heather Ramsdell, Rebecca Reynolds, Brenda Shaughnessy, ‘Annah Sobelman, Brian Teare, Karen Volkman, G.C. Waldrep, Tyrone Williams, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Sam Witt, Andrew Zawacki, and Rachel Zucker. Many of these writers are included in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2004.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, or even a list of all the poets whose work I enjoy who write “that kind of poetry” (as Joan Houlihan writes that editors refer to it).

Comments (116)

  • On February 7, 2008 at 2:06 am Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Hello Reginald,
    Thanks for such an articulate and inclusive definition of “post-avant.” The idea behind my original label was simply to satirize the idea of a kind of poetry that was beyond avant-garde since the term itself is meant to convey the newest techniques, styles, thinking, etc. What could be newer than new, and what comes after the avant-garde if not the post-avant-garde (or the post-avants)? Then there is the post-POST avant poetry, which I satirized in my 2003 essay “Post-Post Dementia.” In an effort to try and define that kind of poetry (T.K.O.P.), I conducted a discussion around the same time called Avant, Post-Avant, and Beyond. But all of this is of bygone days and older frays. I’m now working on post-ellipticial poems to keep ahead of the curve.
    Cheers,
    Joan

  • On February 7, 2008 at 5:40 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Dear Reginald,
    thanks for this sharp and valuable post, one that I plan to keep handy, which sidesteps a lot of muddled thinking and clears some genuine ground for me. Your definition of post-avant makes sense because it actually takes the “post-” part seriously — which is to say you are moving beyond the avant-garde’s traditional (!) belief in simplistic narratives of “progress” in literature (and elsewhere) and its barely hidden instinct for complete, exclusionary world domination, ie. its insistence that it alone knows and should be allowed to determine what the future will look like. These contradictions have, time and time again, led precisely to the failure and implosion of avant-garde movements. So thanks, and I’ll be sure to follow up on the fallout of all this on your blog!
    I’d like to add one small question, if I may– the poets you cite, to the best of my knowledge, are all American. It’s my belief that any meaningful new movement in should be thinking about how to locate itself in the context of the global, including its relationship to English and other languages, and should be preparing itself to think beyond the nation. That would also be an important “post-post” to consider.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 8:07 am Letras Latinas wrote:

    Dear Reginald:
    I too found this a very useful post. Thank you. It’s a term (“post-avant”) that I’ve seen in print alot recently and so welcomed this.
    I had the pleasure of hosting Cynthia Cruz at a reading series in Chicago I co-curate (PALABRA PURA) and a number of us think her work and book (RUIN) is terrific. To her name I would add these, in no particular order, some of whom I had the pleasure of hearing read for the first time last Friday in NYC at an AWP off-site event:
    Rodrigo Toscano
    Edwin Torres
    Roberto Tejada
    Roberto Harrison
    Rosa Alcalá
    Carmen Giménez Smith
    John Chavez
    Gabriel Gomez
    Monica de la Torre
    Peter Ramos
    Valerie Marínez
    María Meléndez
    Scott Inguito
    FA

  • On February 7, 2008 at 8:07 am Ange wrote:

    Reginald,
    With all due respect — I believe the poets of the “New American Poetries” are turning over in their graves at the suggestion that they spawned most of the poets on your “post” list.
    There is no “third way.” A third way supposes a compromise of lyric and anti-lyric, but the New Americans largely weren’t interested in style: they were committed to visionary politics and noncomformism. Their poetics was an outgrowth of that. There is no comparable movement now, but that doesn’t mean we can paper over the differences between poets who were genuinely negative — who knew the value of negativity — and poets with great c.v.’s who organize themselves around Mommy anthologies and niche readings at professional conferences. There is no point of overlap whatsoever.
    Ange Mlinko

  • On February 7, 2008 at 9:07 am Steve wrote:

    But Ange, the New Americans– defined as the people in the New American Poetry anthology editd by Don Allen almost fifty years ago– included people as unlike one another as John Weiners, Gary Snyder and John Ashbery! Some were interested in style, some weren’t. Some were committed to visionary politics, some (Kenneth Koch) really weren’t. Some were lyric all the time (Creeley, at that time), some were never lyric and didn’t want to be.
    There is no one “third way” (a phrase I dislike because it comes from Tony Blair, whose lack of faith to his own promises, and to those of his Labor Party, used to depress me whenever I read news from Britain).
    But there are plenty of people (Ange, you’re one of them!) trying to figure out how to incorporate both lyric and non- (if not anti-) lyric impulses, and trying (not coincidentally) to put modernist fragmentation together with Romantic expectations about voice and form. Most of those people (like most of any large set of writers) don’t strike me as very interesting; some (Ange, you’re one of them!) strike me as always worth reading, and sometimes wonderful.
    Another one of those people (and one of the people in Reginald’s Iowa anthology) is Tracy Philpot, who stands alone among them in that she has a very nonacademic social services job in super-rural Alaska. Is she writing these days? Does she read this blog? Anyone seen new poems of hers since her third book, which I just loved?

  • On February 7, 2008 at 9:43 am Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Joan, Vivek, and Letras Latinas:
    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad that my piece has proven useful. It does seem that “post-avant” (and various other “posts”) get tossed about with a sense that we all already know what it means. Which leaves a lot of room for confusion.
    Dear Ange,
    Thanks for your note. It’s exactly that kind of either/or, we’re good/you’re bad exclusionary rhetoric that I think our best poets have gotten over, along with the pretensions to a monopoly on virtue, poetic or otherwise.
    I don’t think that any of the poets on my list compromise lyric and anti-lyric, what Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity and I would call (after Auden) enchantment and disenchantment. I think that they bring them together into new relationships, new constellations, and even synthesize them.
    A wholly negative aesthetic, like a wholly negative politics, produces nothing. Negativity is not a value in and of itself. (As the old Billy Preston song reminds us, nothing from nothing leaves nothing.) People often forget that for all his negativity, critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s refusals were in the service of a great hope, that of a more just society, the ever-deferred promise of happiness. Unlike too many today (I won’t name names ), he wasn’t engaging in negation for its own sake, which is too much like a toddler repeating the word “No” just for the pleasure of refusal (and knowing that, no matter stubborn he or she is right now, he or she can say “Yes” again whenever he or she feels like it).
    If you think that the New Americans weren’t interested in what you dismiss as “style,” that is, in poetry and poetics, then you simply haven’t read them properly.
    Who are the presumably uncompromised poets you would set against the poets I list, since you do seem so against them? Self-righteousness, derogatory rhetoric like “spawned,” and a conviction of one’s own superior virtue are no bases for any worthwhile aesthetic.
    Reginald

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:13 am jimmy wrote:

    Should the fact that Mr. Shepherd’s innovative poetry anthology is already out-of-print tell us anything? Ahem!

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:17 am Jordan wrote:

    To speak briefly to Steve’s aside re visionary politics: I’ve heard several people characterize Kenneth Koch’s poem “The Pleasures of Peace” as a visionary political poem. As for Kenneth’s personal commitment to political action, you might consider his participation in faculty caucuses at Columbia in the spring of 1968, as well as his having been arrested in at least one demonstration, and the subject of a (mock) assassination attempt at a poetry reading. Or, you might not.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:21 am Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Hello, Reginald—
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. Your touchstone paragraph (beginning “Post-avant writers tend to eschew…”) is the best nutshellization I’ve seen of the procedures these poets share. And the historical context you lay out earlier on is useful, too.
    The nub of the issue for me, though, is that reading some (not all, by any means) of these poets gives that prickly, heebie-jeebie feeling of being conned. (Remember when John Lennon described Yoko’s “conceptual art” as “con art”?) Your Rebecca Wolff quote is a good example. This writing, she says, “blurs the distinction between ‘difficulty’ and ‘accessibility.'” Unless I’m mistaken, this distinction is made by the reader, not the writer—although, as Ted Kooser would argue, the writer can intentionally choose to shape a poem with one or the other side of that distinction in mind. Of course, this process depends on the poet inventing an ideal reader and writing for the reader, and the aesthetic danger it presents is that the poet’s ideal may in fact be an underestimation, even a condescension—which may be at the root of the vitriol that’s been directed at Kooser’s approach. My point is that Wolff’s description also assumes an ideal reader: one with whom the post-avant poet aims not to communicate (Kooser’s stated aim is to communicate above all), but to manipulate—to con.
    The second half of Wolff’s statement exemplifies another aspect of my antipathy. Post-avant poets prefer “to address a continuum of utterance.” This is jargon at best, and at worst just vapid writing. What exactly is the “continuum of utterance” these poets address? Assuming she means the flow of everyday speech, from the hubbub on the cross-town bus to the talking-head babble on CNN, one has to ask: what genuine poem does not address that continuum? In other words, Wolff claims a distinction without a difference. As so often happens when we examine the pronouncements of poetic theorists, we find there’s no there there—as the queen of no-thereness put it!
    Ultimately, although Ange denies it, there is in fact a “third way,” and it doesn’t suppose a “compromise of lyric and anti-lyric” (her formulation indicates that she’s misread you). The third way explores and seeks to maintain a radical openness. It doesn’t bow to theories, it doesn’t join the club, it doesn’t do the high-priest manipulation act, it doesn’t ignore the reader, and it doesn’t pretend that the writer’s self is simply a concatenation of reflections in a fun-house mirror.
    But now I’m back to another, final, pet peeve. If all these poets and theorists are so innovative, why don’t they come up with an alternative to “post-” this or that? Being “post-” means being defined only in relation to the Man, the Overworld, the anointed Canon. What a failure of imagination!

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:23 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Hi Reginald,
    I think maybe you’re confusing Ange Mlinko’s plain speaking with derogatory nay-saying. There’s no need to scold. As I understand it, she’s emphasizing the historical milieu and context, which so easily gets lost in these abstract trend-summaries & general amnesia. The “New Americans” of 50s-70s were, for the most part, also participants in various intentional sub- and counter-cultures, most of which, as she says, no longer exist. Neither the current “post-avantists” nor their supposed “third-way” relatives have much in common anymore with that earlier era, which was marked by open cultural conflicts between Estalblishment and Resistance. Nowadays, supposedly radical culture-crit, poetry school, and organic vegetables are hip market commodities. I appreciate Ange’s historical sense – & we should remember that both poetry & history are too messy, complex & ever-changing to settle down into our neat pigeonholes.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:26 am jimmy wrote:

    I mean, one might think that the world needs a *new* anthology of all of the usual 50ish suspects from all of the Writing Programs around the country. Talk about a negative aesthetic.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:28 am Ron Silliman wrote:

    Reginald,
    My earliest use of “post-avant” was in 2002, the very first month of my blog. I was specifically thinking those poetries that extend out from the New American poetics of the 1950s where the military-metaphor aspect of the avant-garde is largely dropped and writers become more aware of their own work as functioning within a tradition, one that would extend back to Baudelaire & Blake. I’ve expanded on that definition on numerous occasions since then in my blog.
    I’m sympathetic with Ange Mlinko’s complaint that there is no “third-way,” tho I definitely know many writers who would like one to exist. Your own list here seems a little too scattershot to me.
    Ron

  • On February 7, 2008 at 11:11 am Regianld Shepherd wrote:

    Thanks to all for their comments. I am gratified and somehat surprised that this post has already generated such response.
    I’m grateful to Steven Burt for pointing out the diversity amongst the “New American” poets (a name that was basicall coined as a marketing tool). Some, like Spicer, were deeply committed to their own version of negation (in Spicer’s case, of the individual lyric as opposed to the book and of the romantic/Romantic notion of personal expressivity); some, like John Wieners (not “Weiners”) and Robert Duncan, were thoroughgoing Romantics–Duncan chided Denise Levertov for sullying her role as a poet by involving herself in anti-Vietnam war protests.
    I also think that Steve’s characterization of many contemporary poets as “trying to figure out how to incorporate both lyric and non- (if not anti-) lyric impulses, and trying (not coincidentally) to put modernist fragmentation together with Romantic expectations about voice and form” is very useful and on target. We would doubtless disagree about who is doing so well and interestingly, but we definitely agree that Tracy Philpot (who is indeed in my Iowa anthology and for whose third book I wrote a blurb) is one of them.
    Speaking of my Iowa anthology, I don’t know what commenter “Jimmy” meant to imply by saying that it’s out of print (that I am already over, old-fashioned?), but it is quite emphatically still in print. And Lyric Postmodernisms, far from being already out of print, has just come out this month, although Amazon doesn’t seem to have copies yet. It would be nice if facts entered more frequently into these conversations.
    I am a little baffled by Ron Silliman’s comment regarding the phrase “third way” and his criticism of my “scattershot” list, since the phrase, along with many of the established poets I list, comes from a blog post of his (a generous one about me, as it happens). My piece makes clear that I take the phrase from him. Perhaps he has since changed his mind about the possibility of such a “third way.” But I emphasize that such a path is not one of compromise. That notion is still tied to the binary thinking that I and the poets I write about are interested in breaking down and transcending.
    My apologies if I misattributed the origin of the phrase “post-avant.” I have not been part of the online poetry world very long, and have not tracked down its history. I am greatly in favor of dropping the military metaphor in favor of a sense of history and tradition, very much including what Harold Rosenberg calls the (paradoxical) tradition of the new. Such greater historical awareness might spare people from reinventing the wheel over and over again, and congratulating themselves on each occasion.
    While I appreciate Henry Gould’s comment regarding the importance of recognizing historical milieu and context, a phrase like “poets with great c.v.’s who organize themselves around Mommy anthologies and niche readings at professional conferences” sounds like derogatory nay-saying to me. It’s certainly not meant to be complimentary: it’s dismissal, not discussion.
    Though Joseph Hutchison and I disagree–cordially–on several points (I, for example, don’t think that there are a lot of poets out to con readers, though there are definitely some), I would strongly second (and third) these words of his:
    “there is in fact a ‘third way,’ and it doesn’t suppose a ‘compromise of lyric and anti-lyric’ ([Mlinko’s] formulation indicates that she’s misread you). The third way explores and seeks to maintain a radical openness. It doesn’t bow to theories, it doesn’t join the club, it doesn’t do the high-priest manipulation act, it doesn’t ignore the reader, and it doesn’t pretend that the writer’s self is simply a concatenation of reflections in a fun-house mirror.”
    Thanks again to all for reading and commenting.
    Reginald

  • On February 7, 2008 at 11:14 am Lawrence Giffin wrote:

    Mr. Shepherd,
    The langpo critique of narrative and of the assumption that the poet is transparently represented in the poetic subject is an old one, yes, but I think it is important to keep in mind that the language poets tied this critique to criticisms launched in other disciplines against statism, nationalism, power, and capitalism (whether classical Marxism or Tel Quel textual analysis). This was true, albeit in a more limited sense, of the first avant-gardes (most surrealists were members of the French Communist Party, Gramsci praised Marinetti, the original avant-garde was Soviet, Georg Grosz and the Herzfeld brothers were active involvment in the Communist Party of Germany).
    So to say that the “post-avant” amounts to a simple rejection of both narrative and identity is missing something important. And this something important is what draws a continuity between the language poets that are critical of hegemonic imperatives in both the production and consumption of texts, and what might be called the post-avant proper (though, this term is a “sillogism” and is in itself quite mystifying), a group that includes some of the writers listed in Letras Latinas’ comment (Toscano, Torres, de la Torre, Tejada) as well as other poets publishing on Atelos, Krupskaya, O Books, New Star, etc. Atelos and Krupskaya are probably the “post-avant” venues par excellence, publishing poetry that mixes the North American avant tradition as conceptualized by langpo with other traditions, specifically minority traditions, and this is because this generation politicizes the distinction that language poetry worked to understand critically, and recuperates in critical dimension narrative and identity *practices*.
    While I too question the value of a continuation of langpo’s signiture violent subtraction from their work of any and all determinate statement, I also believe in a politically unconscious continuity of writing practices critical of institutions that perpetuate social inequality. If those institutions are constantly changing masks, why shouldn’t oppositional writing. If Breton were alive today, he wouldn’t be writing like Matthew Rohrer, Mathea Harvey, Matthew Zapruder, Tate, or Simic; he would fall somewhere between Andrew Joron and Steve McCaffery (sure, that’s a wide berth, but you get the picture).
    What it comes down to is the fact that your position as a critic is totally circumscribed by your position as a writer, and your intellectual discourse never breaches the extensive horizon set down by institutions such as AWP under which you are totally subsumed. This is why you fail to see the radical difference between Rebecca Wolff (and the whole “Fence” aesthetic) and a continuation of the tradition of literary interventions that are specifically poetic. If you’d like to see what that kind of thinking might look like, I’d suggest reading “The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises” by Steve Evans (http://www.thirdfactory.net/resistible.html), I believe the article says all this better than I could.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 11:48 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Quite relevant to the topic, there is this forum discussion, with participants Oren Izenberg, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Burt, H.L. Hix, Alan Golding, Joe Amato, and me, on the meanings or unmeanings of the “post-avant.”
    I heard recently that there are plans to translate it for republication in a leading magazine in South America, interestingly enough.
    http://www.bostoncomment.com/debate.html
    Kent

  • On February 7, 2008 at 12:05 pm Ange wrote:

    Reginald,
    Can I presume it is your “conviction of one’s own superior virtue” that deigns to tell me that our “best” poets have “gotten over” exclusionary rhetoric? Our best poets have certainly not “gotten over” negativity, if Rae Armantrout’s poems and Collected Prose are any indication. Her pessimism and skepticism is refreshing to me, if not to everyone — but then, she is not ashamed to imitate a toddler (see her great poem “Attention.”)
    I find a great many different kinds of poems pleasing. But I don’t insist they are “innovative” when they’re not, or that they have some magical relationship to mid-century avant-gardes when they do not. And, by the way, the variousness of the poets in the Allen anthology doesn’t negate anything I said. Ashbery’s relationship to Riding and Roussel, O’Hara’s to Wieners and Jones — these are part and parcel of their “styles,” which is to say, they were imbricated with the oppositional and the outside. Too bad the outside doesn’t exist today. You can despise me for that wish all you want, Reginald!
    Cheers,
    Ange

  • On February 7, 2008 at 12:20 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Ange Mlinko asserted:
    >Too bad the outside doesn’t exist today.
    Now *there’s* a proposition upon which to base a sociology of contemporary poetry!
    Kent

  • On February 7, 2008 at 12:28 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I dont’ consider the important writing trends outlined by Lawrence Giffin, with their substantial critical-historical underpinnings, to be poetry at all. I think of these presses & writers as manufacturers of aesthetic epiphenomena for what is really a set of ideological discourses.
    That being said, I think both he & Ange Mlinko are providing a more accurate sense of literary history here, and an antidote to the pervasive, suffocating academic mentality, which exhibits poetry as a kind of effusion or emanation from Official Pedagogy – a place where hopeful would-be poets aim high for the proper Accreditation of nice Magazines and friendly-famous Professors of Poetry Writing.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 12:51 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Kent,
    Interesting that my web-based roundtable debate is being considered for publication. I’ll look forward to substantial royalties from South America (along with the participants). ;-)
    Thanks for providing the link to it. People may also want to see from whence it sprang:
    Boston Comment #7
    Ok, Ron, if you want it, the term “post-avant” is all yours. No charge.
    Cheers,
    Joan

  • On February 7, 2008 at 1:34 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    I guess “post-avant” would be “after-before” which is the flatline death-hyphen “now.” (Which was the poetic biz world of the 1970s.) Acting independent of time and space, a person as a being-in-space-and-time is their message. How history and others treat and interpret that message is an independent act of will. Language itself–nouns in particular become reified and deified as shown by Pinsky with his “thing” bit in Gulf Music–in this kind of argument is the elaborate confidence game we aging children play on ourselves–the addicted mark in the capitalist/materialist grift–whistling in the dark to comfort ourselves as we pass the cemetery. The trouble with being poetic is that is takes up all of your time.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 1:57 pm Steve wrote:

    Jordan is right about “The Pleasures of Peace,” and Reginald is right about John Wieners’ last name; my apologies. I never meant to question (nor to bring up) what Koch did or didn’t do in politics when he wasn’t writing poems. (I have some problems with the idea of a “visionary politics,” since visions are something individuals have and politics is something we do, or try to do, together– but they are my problems, not yours, and not the poets'; certainly Blake had a visionary politics, without which we could not have had Blake’s poems.)
    I think Ange is trying to make a point about institutions– most of today’s supposedly post-avant poets, the ones in Reginald’s list, the ones with books out, have some institutional support (though some do not), whereas most of the New Americans didn’t have much (many, perhaps most, had none). If that’s all she meant, then I’ll agree. It’s the claim about style (about lack of interest in style as such) that raised question marks for me.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 2:52 pm capps wrote:

    Much as I enjoy holding opinions, I can’t see my way through clearly enough on most of these issues to have formed a solid opinion. (Thank goodness–I tend here lately to regret opinions as soon as I’ve brandished them.) Non-opinions notwithstanding, these are the issues I care most about–and struggle the most with–in poetry. So I just wanted to add that I’m very, very grateful for posts like this one. This post, and its thread, are honestly as useful and helpful to me (and my writing) as many books I have read, and many great seminars I have taken when a student. And I would like to be a student–that is to go on learning, and changing–in one form or another, well, forever–and I have come–almost in spite of myself, at first–to count on this blog and its diverse, wicked smart writers as one way to continue my education. Much gratitude.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 2:58 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    I had no idea that this post would prove so controversial or so threatening to various people’s carefully nurtured sense of being not only outsiders but superiors. It’s also interesting the assumptions many people make about me in their responses. But as a black gay man who grew up poor in the Bronx ghetto, I am used to people not actually seeing or hearing me. How’s that for playing an identity card? But I do think it important to point out that there is in fact a real outside that has nothing to do with poetry and is invisible to most people in all the assorted poetry worlds. Most people in academia and the literary world who presume to talk about the real world know nothing about that world. This is one reason I have so little patience with all these poetry-world catfights.
    With regard to some of the responses, I don’t know what you read, but I know I didn’t write it.
    On which note, thanks, Lawrence Griffin, for explaining my limitations to me. It reminds me of Louis Althusser descending from the mount of Marxist science to enlighten all of us trapped in the total system to which he is miraculously immune. I’m glad that you have no such limitations. By the way, I’ve read Steve Evans’ essay. And I never said that the post-avant amounts to a simple rejection of narrative and identity. If you’d bothered to read what I actually wrote (why must this point be made so often?), you would have seen that.
    Ange Mlinko, I don’t despise you, and I don’t know why you think I do. I am rather taken aback by your vehemence and the personalized form it takes. And I don’t understand what you were saying about the Allen anthology, since Riding and Roussel aren’t in it. I’d appreciate it if you could clarify those remarks. I have no idea what you mean when you write that “these [relationships] are part and parcel of their ‘styles,’ which is to say, they were imbricated with the oppositional and the outside.” How is style an imbrication with “the oppositional and the outside”? The outside of what? Assertion isn’t argument.
    Kent, I’m glad that you brought up Joan Houlihan’s brilliant online symposium on “Avant, Post-Avant, and Beyond,” which can be found here.
    Henry, I never said nothing ’bout no “suffocating academic mentality, which exhibits poetry as a kind of effusion or emanation from Official Pedagogy – a place where hopeful would-be poets aim high for the proper Accreditation of nice Magazines and friendly-famous Professors of Poetry Writing.” But it sounds purty bad.
    Next time, I’m writing about Britney Spears remixes. Fo’ real, y’all.
    kisses,
    Reginald

  • On February 7, 2008 at 4:55 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Really, I had no idea that this post would get folks so riled up. I was just trying to describe a phenomenon much discussed but not much defined. I’m getting a little tired of dealing with people’s misreadings, so I wil just maka a few points here.
    With regard to Vivek’s very cogent comment, I was writng of American poetry, which, like most things American, and even acknowledging the influence of translations, is remarkably insular. Most American poets of all kinds know nothing or almost nothing even about Canadian poetry, though Anne Carson and, to a much lesser extent, Christian Bok and Lisa Robertson have a bit of a vogue these days. I have a Canadian poet friend who”s been very generously sending me books, and it’s opened up a new world to me. Interestingly enough, Canadian poet Tim Lilburn, who is now one of my favorite poets, and with whom I’ve had a bit of correspondence, told me that the Canadian poetry world is sectarian and vicious. I had to tell that the American one is too. As for British and European poetry, their historical and aesthetic contexts are entirely too different to be part of this discussion, at least in my opinion, and I don’t know about those contexts to confidently discuss them.
    With regard to Ange Mlinko’s comment, I never said that I was against negativity. I am pretty damned skeptical and pessimistic myself. What I said was that I was opposed to negation for the sake of negation (or for the sake of being in the negation club, like the Goth kids I went to college with). There are lots of things in this world that need to be negated, like the Bush administration, but there’s no point in setting up negation as a graven idol. Or in confusing poetry with politics. Another point that apparently can’t be made too often.
    When I met Rae Armantrout at AWP last week she seemed quite nice and not negative at all. :-) Her presence at AWP (I met her there last year as well), and her now being published by Wesleyan University Press, not to mention her teaching job at UC San Diego, in themselves say a lot about how these insider/outsider poetry world boundaries so many people want to affirm don’t really hold up anymore.
    On the matter of institutional affiliations, several people in both of my anthologies are not affiliated with academia. Nor am I. At the moment, writing for the Harriet blog is pretty much my living. As for Steve’s point about people having published books, I’m not sure how we’d know about their work otherwise. I don’t see any transgressive subversives refusing to publish. Writers want to be read, as well they should. It would be odd to write if one didn’t want to be read. But if Ange Mlinko objects so much to people being co-opted by “official verse culture” or “the hegemonic institution of bourgeois literature” or some such shibboleth (these are not phrases she has used, but they are consistent with the her comments and with Steve’s elucidation of those comments), then perhaps she should not have entered and won the National Poetry Series, which is as about as inside and official as the poetry world gets. As I’ve said before, it’s kind of ugly to join the club and then complain about what a terrible club it is.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 5:17 pm Ange wrote:

    Hi Steve – Yes! It’s good to be reminded of the lack of institutional support for these poets, although it seems harder and harder (for some) to imagine how important that was, and how it abetted the fierce tribalism that is so reviled now. Like you, I have trouble with “visionary politics.” I don’t think it was all good; some of it was troubling. But it can’t be denied. One simply can’t read, say, Duncan or Spicer or Blaser without recourse to their holistic views on life and art. And so, it’s hard to imagine a “third way” vis-a-vis these poets.
    Well, what about Ashbery, O’Hara et al.? They were not programmatic and didn’t create overarching visions of society. But they kept company with people who did, and they “discriminated. Well/ who doesn’t?” O’Hara remarked. There are underlying affinities: Duncan and Ashbery’s mutual indebtedness to Stein reveals a deep affinity, for instance. Ditto for Riding. Reginald, those people — Stein, Riding, Roussel — didn’t have to be in the anthology; they were the forebears. To dismiss the “New American” thing as “marketing” is wrong because it denies these affinities and influences, which were far from the mainstream.
    Reginald, if I’ve misread the tone of contempt I detected in your response to me, you’ve in turn misread my responses as “personalized.” What do you imagine I have at stake? I merely don’t want to see the political and social ideas that animated most avant-gardes totally erased from the discussion. Friendships, alliances, were forged — and broken — over this stuff. Many would never have accepted your Radical Openness. Lots of great poets at one time or another did all of these things: “bow to theories … join the club … do the high-priest manipulation act … ignore the reader … pretend that the writer’s self is simply a concatenation of reflections in a fun-house mirror.” They did. And we got some great poetry out of all of these things, at times.
    Speaking of personalizing — Reginald, your attempt to get some moral high ground by reiterating your background doesn’t impress me. I am the child of uneducated immigrants, English wasn’t my first language, and I fought for my right to cultural capital, too. You trivialize the ideological differences between serious poets because it’s not as meaningful, somehow, as the real “difference” of growing up poor and black. That’s as anti-intellectual as it gets.
    Ange

  • On February 7, 2008 at 5:35 pm Ange wrote:

    “But if Ange Mlinko objects so much to people being co-opted by “official verse culture” or “the hegemonic institution of bourgeois literature” or some such shibboleth (these are not phrases she has used, but they are consistent with the her comments and with Steve’s elucidation of those comments), then perhaps she should not have entered and won the National Poetry Series, which is as about as inside and official as the poetry world gets. As I’ve said before, it’s kind of ugly to join the club and then complain about what a terrible club it is.”
    Okay, you should stop now before you really embarrass yourself. In addition to winning the National Poetry Series, my book was also a finalist for the James Laughlin Award, was mentioned favorably in The New Yorker, and was nominated for a Pushcart by 2 different poets that year. I’ve appeared in Poetry magazine 5 times (6 as of next month), blogged for Harriet — was, in fact, one of the first bloggers on its earlier incarnation; I’ve been nominated for the Rome Prize and the Whiting. It would be pretty funny if I were to complain, wouldn’t it?
    Which is why your putting words in my mouth is so obnoxious.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 6:41 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Ange,
    Your comments seem pretty angry and personalized to me, each one more than the last. I don’t know what somebody told you I said about your mama, but it ain’t true.
    I’m sorry that mentioning my background doesn’t “impress” you. As we used to say, whatever. But ideological differences among poets are not (repeat, not) as important as real (no quotes) differences like race and poverty. Anybody, whatever their background, who thinks they are is living in some scary fantasy world. But then, all too many academics and literary types do live in that world, where they play around at politics to make themselves feel virtuous and superior. Which I guess is why you want to dismiss those realities.
    Poetry matters a great deal to me–in many ways it saved my life, or at least my sanity–but, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, it is not meat or drink, and whatever William Carlos Williams said, I’m pretty sure that no one ever died for want of what was found there.
    Again, this pseudo-politicization of poetry is both silly and offensive. There’s a real world out there, and it ain’t about poetry and stupid poetry-world feuds.
    Oh, and thanks for reciting your vita. I’m sure we all appreciated it.
    Honestly, I don’t know what your damage is. But I no longer want to be involved in it. This is obviously an unproductive interchange. I do plan to stop, but I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed.
    Reginald

  • On February 7, 2008 at 7:51 pm jane wrote:

    If there’s one tihng we can agree on — unlikely, I know — it’s that the antagonism between those who think there should be an antagonism between social-aesthetic positions and those who wonder why we can’t all get along remains fresh and fervid.
    I’m uncomfortable with “third way” rhetoric not because mean ol’ Tony Blair said it, but because its “way” is neoliberalism’s endlessly deregulated and endlessly opening world market — which is to say that the “third way” the first way with a new public relations pitch. And that would be my concern here: that this proposed “third way” in poetry is more-or-less the collection of poetries that compose, aggregately, without planning any great conspiracy, a dominant style. It’s the style, to choose one vocabulary, on bourgeois individual subjectivity, updated for period developments.
    This is another way of returning to the irreducible kernel of truth in Ange’s first post here. It’s actually not such a complicated line of reasoning, and has been made many times before (for a current example, see here). To wit: If you have two “ways,” and one of them is dominant, and has historically proceeded by synthetic recuperation of challenges to its dominance, in turn recycling these challenges as stylistic markers that don’t disturb its own way/worldview; and the other way has historically proceeded via opposition to, or negation of, the first way/worldview…then a synthesis of these two “ways” isn’t a “third way” at all — it’s the first way updating itself.
    Lastly (we can hear god laughing every time we say this), the accusation of “negation for negation’s sake” may have some truth content, as least conceptually — but historically, it’s been hurled at every oppositional movement without fail until the very phrase is as vacant as it is stale. It was a popular imprecation for royalists in France; the czar made the same accusation even as the Winter Palace was under siege. And Lenin in turn turned it on the anarchists as he consolidated the revolution. Spiro Agnew had his own famous version of the claim. It was said about Malevich too; I’ll take “Black Square” over period style.

  • On February 7, 2008 at 10:06 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Damn, y’all. It’s like Knots Landing in here. Somebody, call Wallace Stevens!

  • On February 8, 2008 at 7:18 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Reginald writ:
    “Henry, I never said nothing ’bout no “suffocating academic mentality, which exhibits poetry as a kind of effusion or emanation from Official Pedagogy – a place where hopeful would-be poets aim high for the proper Accreditation of nice Magazines and friendly-famous Professors of Poetry Writing.” But it sounds purty bad.”
    Hey, Reginald – from my perspective up here on Mt. Helicon, it IS pretty bad.
    Ange Mlinko was exactly right to contrast the different atmospheres of poetry culture, Now vs. circa 30 yrs ago. In them days, poetry was not a career option in Academia. In them days, English class (elementary to college) taught these particular skills :
    1) basic literacy
    2) literary criticism, interpretation and appreciation
    3) literary history (great poems, great books)
    – this was the extent of their offering. Poets and creative writers were left pretty much on their own. To be a poet or a writer was an independent step – a step OUTSIDE the realms of pedagogy per se. And this is important, because the role of independent writer, thinker & poet – the mission of independent art in its own right – is still supremely meaningful in our culture.
    The tangled issue of creative writing pedagogy is not clear cut. & you & I have had this debate before (over on your blog). I’m not prepared to issue some ridiculous blanket condemnations of all the beautiful people & activities which go on in academic writing programs. But neither am I prepared to go quietly along with the “professionalization” of poetry, the creeping herd atmosphere & careerism – which is a consequence, in my view, of the decision to extract & separate “creative writing” from ordinary English programs, to make “academic poet” a viable career option.
    Poetry is the ultimate wild thing. Let’s not forget that….

  • On February 8, 2008 at 7:40 am Ange wrote:

    Thanks, Henry, for the support. From my early years in Boston among non-academic poet mentors, I know it is difficult to feel dignified as an unaffiliated poet in a company town.
    One good lesson from all this: never underestimate the backlash against the linkage of poetry and politics. I have never been criticized for championing a poet’s autonomy, but the second “political vision” enters into it, the tide’s unloosed.

  • On February 8, 2008 at 9:34 am Daisy wrote:

    I’m afraid I can’t see the use of lumping such disparate poets as, say, Peter Gizzi, Susan Stewart, Matthea Harvey and Malinda Markham in one category called the “third way.” Though I certainly see the use, or, may I say, rather, the pleasure, of reading them. Ok, on the one hand, categories like this are a way of promoting people–which is good. On the other hand, it makes them easier to dismiss–which is not good. Talking too much externally to the words on the page is a way of dismissing the work itself. And is a hell of a lot easier than talking about the work itself.
    Daisy

  • On February 8, 2008 at 10:46 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Ange Mlinko said:
    >In addition to winning the National Poetry Series, my book was also a finalist for the James Laughlin Award, was mentioned favorably in The New Yorker, and was nominated for a Pushcart by 2 different poets that year. I’ve appeared in Poetry magazine 5 times (6 as of next month), blogged for Harriet — was, in fact, one of the first bloggers on its earlier incarnation; I’ve been nominated for the Rome Prize and the Whiting. It would be pretty funny if I were to complain, wouldn’t it?
    Well, with all due respect, I’d say this does shed some poignant light on the sentence “Too bad the outside doesn’t exist today.”
    Kent

  • On February 8, 2008 at 11:33 am Ange wrote:

    Daisy, well put.
    Kent, what’s your point? I never claimed to be an outsider; I don’t think there’s an outside because there’s no appreciable inside: just hundreds of overlapping circles. If you have something to say, say it; if not, stop sniping.

  • On February 8, 2008 at 12:51 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Ange,
    Whatever our obvious differences, we do share one thing in common. I too spent several years in Boston aspiring to be a poet and being snubbed at every turn, while I was doing a succession of humiliating, poorly paid menial jobs. I was definitely “an unaffiliated poet in a company town,” and could find no mentors of any kind, academic or otherwise. The only support I got at all was in the gay literary scene, from the folks at Gay Community News and Fag Rag. But, nice as they were, they were more interested in the politics (and the sex!) of poetry than in the poetry of poetry, which was pretty much beside the point.
    Part of my reaction against that is the prevailing dismissal of literature as a social symptom (or mere social documnt) or an ideological mystification, especially among academics, theory-heads, and those who think of themselves as leftists. If you’ve not encountered this, you’re lucky, because it’s pretty pervasive.
    Reginald

  • On February 8, 2008 at 1:10 pm john wrote:

    There is an outside. Which means, there is an inside. It may be that one does not appreciate one’s inside status, and it may be that there are several insides that overlap circularly and without appreciating each other. But some poetry circles are far outside any sort of the political and economic power signified by Professorships, Publishers, or Prizes.
    Access to any of the 3 P’s = inside. Lots of poets lack that access; lots are so far outside that it never occurs to them to seek them.
    The first P, Professorship, has been a going and widespread option for insider poets (of whatever aesthetic ilk) for 35 or 40 years. The other 2 P’s have been happening for much longer. E. Weinberger, whom I mostly adore, was tripping when he put E. Pound in an anthology of “Outsiders.” Pound, who was feted by festivals and prestigious prizes from the ’20s through the ’60s; Pound, who had a good friend and supporter very high up in the State Department. (A. MacLeish.) Can’t get too much more inside than that.
    I don’t know why people romanticize the outside. But it’s had an intense romantic attraction for a couple of centuries now.
    Thanks to all for the entertaining vituperation.

  • On February 8, 2008 at 1:18 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Ange,
    I hope that we will be able to continue our dialogue on a more civil and reasoned level.
    Another reason that I object to the politicization of literature is that it tends to replace real political action: it becomes a knd of virtual politics, in which literature bears all the sins and burdens of the real world that’s too overwhelming to confront directly, let alone try to change, which is hard, slow, painful and inevitably compromised work.
    That’s one of the reasons I was so upset by your dismissal of the realities (again, no quotes) of race and poverty. Besides inexcusably trivializing my experience and the experience of millions of poor people, of black people, of gay people, of people who are not white and financially comfortable, and of people who are white but aren’t financially comfortable, it also seems to be saying that the proper realm for politics isn’t the real world but the world of poetry, which to me puts things exactly backwards.
    sincerely,
    Reginald

  • On February 8, 2008 at 2:20 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Ange said:
    >Kent, what’s your point? I never claimed to be an outsider; I don’t think there’s an outside because there’s no appreciable inside: just hundreds of overlapping circles. If you have something to say, say it; if not, stop sniping.
    Ange,
    I’m fully aware you didn’t say you were an outsider. Insofar as you clearly believe there is no longer an “outside” to the poetic field, you could hardly think of yourself as representative of the category!
    As for “sniping,” well… I hardly know what to say.
    But I will say, in response to your request that I say whatever I have to say, that I have, in fact, said quite a bit on the issue under discussion, and in various venues. (The forum discussion Reginald and I linked to is one example–there are quite a few other things I could point you to, as well, if you’re interested.)
    No, I’m afraid your comment above is as revealing as your previous one. And in an ironic sense you are right: the “inside” we are inside has become so pervasive it is now not “appreciable.” Kind of like ideology in that sense… And “oppositional poetries” are like business cards, flashed around by purpoted poetic radicals at the company picnic.
    Kent

  • On February 8, 2008 at 3:09 pm New Guy wrote:

    Reginald, if you think Ange is promoting politics in poetry, you must have missed her anti-political-poetry post a few months ago, for which she got yelled at by many people.

  • On February 8, 2008 at 7:59 pm Ange wrote:

    Reginald,
    Thanks for extending the olive branch. I didn’t intend for the discussion to devolve into “Knots Landing.” :-) And “New Guy” is absolutely right — I’m usually the one taking heat for the position you hold.
    So let me explain. At the moment, I’m researching Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov’s relationship, which flowered through a voluminous, intimate correspondence that explored craft and “political vision” simultaneously. As did other relationships in the loose network of mid-century avant-gardes. It’s hard to overstate how imbricated the two — craft and political vision — were for many of them. And the break-ups over these issues were equally traumatic.
    They didn’t meet one another in school, or at conferences. Whatever — we live in a different historical moment. But I think it’s important to keep alive the possibility that affinities grow between persons not bound by merely professional or collegial obligations … protocols … good manners. And whatever you think of the ferality, the negativity, of those old guys (and some women), it produced some genuinely new and thrilling poetry. Same for some poets we don’t think of as feral exactly, but who performed refusals with a stamina that had to come from some great negative depth: Niedecker, Oppen, Ashbery, O’Hara.
    So to claim these people as influences demands that one takes their ideas seriously; their ideas were inseparable from their poetry. In other words, young poets can’t simply pick and choose stylistic tics: field composition, syntactic disruption, etc. and then be “post-avant.” I suppose you could pick and choose their stylistic tics and be something else, but it wouldn’t be a particularly informed response to these poets, nor would it honor them.
    I have indeed encountered the kind of people who use poets and poems as a social symptom, as you put it, Reginald. I’ve spoken out against it on Harriet. And I’ve rejected the Marxism of the
    incredibly privileged academics I’ve known. But to equate all political visions with the loopy left of the present day is really to miss out on the beauty of someone like Duncan’s anarchic, quasi-Dantean holism.
    I don’t wish to dismiss your background, your knowledge, your experience. I also agree that direct action is the answer to political problems, not protest poems. But there have been larger, deeper, more comprehensive ideas of political poetry than the ones we’re currently stuck with. Duncan tried for a vision as large as Blake’s or Milton’s or Dante’s — I’m trying to think of what that might be for us, without turning my own poetry into a bloated idea-driven thing, or retreating into a pure formalism/autotelism.
    Hope this helps clarify my position.
    All best,
    Ange
    *
    And just for the record (once again) to all and sundry: I am not complaining about “official verse culture” or bemoaning my status or positioning myself as an outsider. Plenty of poets with prizes, professorships, and publishers publicly or secretly steer clear of conferences, poetry buses and hokey anthologies. Some people are temperamentally as well as ideologically unfit for them. Conflict and art have a long history. Its not all kumbaya, as a commenter on another thread reminds us…

  • On February 8, 2008 at 11:16 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    “So to claim these people as influences demands that one takes their ideas seriously; their ideas were inseparable from their poetry. In other words, young poets can’t simply pick and choose stylistic tics: field composition, syntactic disruption, etc. and then be “post-avant.” I suppose you could pick and choose their stylistic tics and be something else, but it wouldn’t be a particularly informed response to these poets, nor would it honor them.”
    Greetings, Ange,
    I have been following this discussion off and on and I am especially interested in your statement above about needing to take the ideas of (some? all?) poets seriously in order to claim them (the poets) as influences. I can hardly think of a poet whose work I admire enough to count as an influence whose ideas I respect as highly or even know much about (though I’ll be driven to research poets whose work affects me, simply out of interest). I’ve often cringed on hearing a poet in the throes of an idea, especially some grandiose political one, but can be engaged completely in that poet’s poetry. Unfortunately, poets, like other artists, and other people, are sometimes full of bad ideas, or stupid beliefs. There’s no automatic connection whereby a poet’s genius at writing poetry extends to other activities of the brain. Yes, the poet’s ideas are inseparable from the poem, but only insofar as both arise from the same place–that poet. One hopes, for the poet’s sake, that the poem always trumps any idea of it, or any idea in it. As for the trying on of “stylistic tics”–copying a poet’s style seems to be a much more fruitful activity for a young poet than poring over the poet’s ideas. In fact, style itself is nothing if not an embodiment of idea if you think (as I do) that there is no such thing as mere surface in a poem, that style is more often an indicator of depth (thinking of Vendler’s “Breaking Style” here) or a way of entering a depth in the poem. Imitating style, like assuming an emotion or behavior one doesn’t have, will often bring about a knowledge of its origin and a deeper understanding of the “idea” or emotion behind it. In fact, assuming the style of a poet in order to learn from that, is a good way to honor them, don’t you think? Perhaps what’s truly inseparable is the poem and the way it is written (style) rather than the poem and the ideas of the poet.
    Cheers,
    Joan

  • On February 9, 2008 at 12:03 am john wrote:

    Ange,
    Your observation about Duncan’s aspiration to a scope comparable to Blake, Milton, or Dante recalls to mind the dictum (from Northrop Frye? don’t remember with certainty) that the traditional range of the epic poet reaches from Heaven, across the earth, and into Hell. A contemporary (non-religious, or quasi-non-religious) substitute for Heaven could be Utopia, and, at least since Blake (and Goya), earth has often been (understandably) conflated with Hell in poetic (and political) vision.
    How vividly your comment sheds light on the radicalism of Pound’s revisionary dictum, that the epic is a long poem containing history!
    “Bloated, idea-driven thing” is a funny image. Maybe “bloated” is exactly the type of poetry that would suit these times!
    Cheers —
    John
    p.s. My truculent comment about “outside” stems from years of social work with homeless people. Yes! Social work! The only profession despised by Rexroth as much as he despised literature professors! I’ve known a lot of homeless poets, many of them published (not in literary journals), with exactly zero remuneration.
    “Outside” is a loaded term, as any admirer of Edward Thomas’s “The Owl” should understand.
    Anyway, thanks for the suggestive observation about Duncan.

  • On February 9, 2008 at 8:45 am Ange wrote:

    Hi Joan,
    I simply can’t agree with you.
    Also, I never said a young poet should pore over a poet’s ideas rather than imitating their style. And of course a poet’s ideas can be wrong, or dumb. But I object to bracketing poems off from their time, place, and climate. I object with every fiber of my being.
    Thanks,
    Ange

  • On February 9, 2008 at 9:02 am Don Share wrote:

    O’Hara’s “refusal” emerges in his (ironcially famous & wonderful) manifesto on “Personism.”
    I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? they’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.
    Discuss?

  • On February 9, 2008 at 9:34 am John Gallaher wrote:

    Reginald,
    This has certainly been an interesting read.
    There does seem to be a different sensibility, a different idea of what makes for a poem’s unity, in some poets writing now, versus most of the poetry previously written. That’s purely descriptive, not evaluative. Think what you want of the poetry itself, it is different.
    Henry Gould, writes, “Neither the current “post-avantists” nor their supposed “third-way” relatives have much in common anymore with that earlier era, which was marked by open cultural conflicts between Establishment and Resistance. Nowadays, supposedly radical culture-crit, poetry school, and organic vegetables are hip market commodities.”
    This position makes it obvious to me that there is, indeed, a real and open cultural conflict here. For whatever that’s worth. The tone and stance against these poets and the act of attempting to name their poetic tendencies reveals the value in attempting to define this way of being in language these poets (or most of them—or some similar formulation of names) exemplify.
    Or something like that.

  • On February 9, 2008 at 10:03 am jane wrote:

    Joan writes: “In fact, style itself is nothing if not an embodiment of idea if you think (as I do) that there is no such thing as mere surface in a poem, that style is more often an indicator of depth.”
    This seems at once reasonable, and not at all a counter to Ange’s claim. Certainly poems have some kind of depth — idea, concept, emotion, worldview, dynamic — of which the style is its expression, or visible face, or etc. Form is never more than the expression of content, I’m told.
    But that in no way suggests anything other than that there is a tether between depth and surface, idea* and style — a tether which can be broken. I take poets quite seriously — as seriously as, say, “theorists,” who I can’t say I find any more threatening to my consciousness than I find poets (the bad ones numb and annoy; the good ones help me be more in the world). If I were to choose a pretty phrase of Adorno (e.g. “Sunday fails to satisfy, not because it is a day off work, but because its own promise is felt directly as unfulfilled; like the English one, every Sunday is too little Sunday”) to defend the autonomy of the individual under capitalism, I would merely have misunderstood his idea and be guilty of “cherrypicking” or a convenient usury. I would have broken the tether of idea and style, and lost the force of both. It would not just be vapid, but politically disingenuous to say the least — as well as being a violence to Adorno’s commitments. We try not to force the dead to testify against themselves, even if their borrowed breath puffs up our chests.
    I take poets just as seriously. Imagine just adopting Brecht’s “style”! Or Creeley’s or Stein’s, Hughes’ or Notley’s! Their styles have intimate relations with worldviews, and while one certainly doesn’t have to agree with them to enjoy the poetry — thankfully — it would be the peak of crudity to cherrypick the style without having a curiosity about the ideas from which it springs. One would merely be like that kind of boy who wishes the pretty girl would just shut up already.
    * I don’t understand people who claim to distinguish thoughts and feelings, and by “idea” here I mean both.

  • On February 9, 2008 at 11:36 am Jim Finnegan wrote:

    Paradoxically, the avant-garde seem obsessed with lineage. Perhaps they fear illegitimacy, so they must constantly reach back to claim forbears . One would think their claims would center on originality: Their works as offspring, Athena like, springing fully-formed from their own heads.

  • On February 9, 2008 at 3:29 pm Nathan wrote:

    Two things:
    IMO avant-guard, whatever, is not simply an act of negativity, ie flouting major tenets of some central poetics or praxis, dominant tradition etc. . . ( like, we can’t use linear narrative) but rather finding and working out of formerly uninhabited interstices of the genre. I mean discovering wholly new conceptual frameworks is great (ala Duchamp). But if someone affixes an OUT OF ORDER sign to PEES in or ATTACKS the URINAL (all except one of these acts has been attempted) I’d consider that a good artistic advancement — a matter of filling in the cracks. This is the typical nature of change isn’t it. Everyone do what little part you can.
    Too. Poetry does not need the influence of another political paradigm. This argument ignited by Reginald’s article evidences the conflicting “visionary politics” of poetry itself.

  • On February 9, 2008 at 6:35 pm capps wrote:

    Jane, I’m always interested in what you have to say. I wondered what you meant when you said you fail to undesrtand people who distinguish between thought and feeling. Maybe I haven’t read enough theory (that’s not a jab by the way–I do read–it just seems I am always playing catch-up)–but I didn’t understand your comment. Do you mean that when I have the feeling of being angry or sad, my anger or sadness is also a thought? Or are we using different connotations of these words? It’s interesting to me. If I was saying to someone, “Well, I was just sad,” I might also say “Well, I just felt sad,” but I don’t think it would ever occur to me to say (or think) “I had the thought that I was sad.” “I thought I was sad.”…………….Hey! Now that I’ve typed that, for some reason I feel like I’ve read a poem that has the line “I thought I was sad.” Anyway. Just wondering.

  • On February 10, 2008 at 11:21 am Matt wrote:

    Capps, my take on it would be that as soon as you become aware of having a feeling, it’s also a thought. The question is, can you have a feeling and not be aware of it?

  • On February 10, 2008 at 11:28 am Arthur Durkee wrote:

    And yet, divorcing the artistic product from the ideology that produced it—viewing all things as value-free and therefore able to be equally sampled—is exactly what artistic post-modernism is all about. The idea of the global village being a level playing field, and all of it equally available, is one of the core values of “post-avant” poetry, it seems to me, be it the LangPo camp or Ashbery’s randomized stream of consciousness. That Minnie Mouse and the Mona Lisa have the same cultural value, or lack thereof, is central to the postmodern viewpoint.
    (I completely agree with the comments that “post-” is a label that indicates that whatever one is being “post-” to has still not been dealt with, or “gotten over,” or the “post-” wouldn’t need to be on the label. I’ve said similar things for years.)
    I enjoy reading comment streams like this, because one can pick out some useful perspectives. At the same time, I completely agree with Reginald’s comments about the real world vs. the (intellectual/academic/insular) world of literary criticism (in which I am also obviously complicit). As another poet friend of mine once quipped, “The reason arguments about poetry get so incredibly vicious is precisely there is so very little at stake.”

  • On February 10, 2008 at 11:55 am jane wrote:

    • actually I don’t have any big theoretical apparatus around the claim that I don’t experience thoughts and feelings as different in kind. Just a report on how it seems to me. They happen in my head, they have great or weak intensity, they seem both abstract and sensual, they keep me up at night, they seem often to be the point(s) of consciousness, they want a language and a form of language to be made account of.
    • Arthur, that’s certainly a relevant note. The irony then being that Joan Houlihan, often so busy taking the soi disant post-avant to task for such postmodernisms, turns out to have endorsed such procedures rather aggressively (though we should be leery of suggesting there is any one “postmodernism”; there certainly isn’t any one modernism!)
    • Re all this finding “post-” to be a marker of an incomplete aesthetic: Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Redon, Signac and all the other Post-Impressionists are going to be sad to hear about this.

  • On February 10, 2008 at 12:50 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Hi all –
    Ange, since, as you know, my respect for you & yr work is on record, I won’t dilute my remarks. I think you have a legitimate point regarding the ideological affiliations & oppositions of the soi-disant avant-garde, but I think you idealize them as well, & underestimate the extent to which such constructions were often ex-post-facto justifications of stylistic operations. I won’t recite Peter Bürger to you, but I’m sure you know how historically determined these conceptions of literature are, & how trivial they rightly seem to just about everyone else on the planet.
    The differences between Jack Spicer & John Berryman just ARE stylistic, & everything else comes later. Likewise, Jennifer Moxley has as much in common with Paul Muldoon as with Rae Armantrout, & a good thing too. There is no “third way” because there is no first or second way. There are only people who see poetry as divided into two camps & people who don’t. Is Frederick Seidel not “innovate” or “experimental”? If not, why not? Because he writes in complete sentences or because of his confessional subject matter or because he’s fabulously wealthy or publishes in the “wrong” magazines? These arguments are sadly ridiculous, & too often keep young writers from reading as widely as they otherwise might.
    – Michael Robbins

  • On February 10, 2008 at 12:56 pm john wrote:

    Arthur,
    I used to work for a former sociology professor, also former SDS, who left the academy to work in social services. Skilled rhetorician, well-informed, and hot-tempered (unapologetically mean, really), and a very talented administrator though terrible personnel manager, he once, in a mellow mood, said to me, “There’s an old saying: Why are academic politics so vicious? Because the stakes are so low.”
    But the viciousness is entertaining (from the, ahem, outside) — better than Big Time Wrestling! (As it used to be called when I was a kid.)
    And it’s sweet when the combatants kiss and make up at the end too. Yea! Happy ending!

  • On February 10, 2008 at 1:06 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    By the way, that quip about academic politics is probably the most famous bon mot in the academy. It’s often misattributed to Kissinger, though Wallace Sayre seems to have said it first.

  • On February 10, 2008 at 3:09 pm Arthur Durkee wrote:

    Sorry, I should always proofread a third time before posting. I left a word out before:
    “The reason arguments about poetry get so incredibly vicious is precisely BECAUSE there is so very little at stake.”
    Jane commented: Re all this finding “post-” to be a marker of an incomplete aesthetic: Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Redon, Signac and all the other Post-Impressionists are going to be sad to hear about this.
    To my mind, your thought mostly underlines my own thought about how silly the use of “post-” really can be, how unrevealing it is. How meaningless the term can be—which of course means one can also turn it towards whatever jargon one wishes to apply it to. Are we all post-print poets yet? or merely post-poets?
    I suppose technically that I too am a post-avant poet, and so are we all, because although I’m not writing in any known avant-garde style or group, I’m living after the Modernist great lights have all burned out—although I have nothing in common with most poetry that is labelled post-avant. So does the label mean a particular school or “style” of poetry, or does it refer to a historical moment? or neither. Thus we go ’round the mulberry bush.
    In the case of the Post-Impressionists, from my years studying art history I was always left with the impression (ahem) that that was a catch-all term for a period in art history that no-one had a better label for. Basically, they were the wave of painters who alll strongly influenced the Modernists, but didn’t fit comfortably into the Impressionist mold. It’s a meaningless label, ultimately. Cezanne and van Gogh had little in common except extreme eccentricity, after all.
    It’s hard being an “in-betweener.” Maybe that’s why everyone is fighting so hard to identify themselves these days. Maybe all that post-Modernism and post-avant alike really mean is that they’re in-betweeners.

  • On February 10, 2008 at 4:01 pm jane wrote:

    Arthur, as to whether Cezanne and Van Gogh had nothing in common, I’d really disagree, and suggest a (re)visit to Gallery 203 at the Art Institute of Chicago; it may persuade you otherwise. But that is a genial debate. And indeed, I take your point that “post-whatever” isn’t a very effective description of aesthetic precepts. However, that wasn’t my point; my point was that, the descriptor “post-whatever” doesn’t necessarily indicate an incomplete or unfinished or unconsolidated aesthetic on the part of individual artists so grouped, and thus that it can only be a nomenclatural matter. It certainly can’t be used an an evaluative fact regarding any given poet, or even serve as suggestion of belatedness, failure to get over whatever, and etc.

  • On February 10, 2008 at 7:25 pm Ange wrote:

    Hi, Michael —
    The very last thing I want to do here is encourage young writers to be less curious. I want them to be more curious, about poetry and also about its history. But firstly, poetry: I would recommend Muldoon to anyone, any day. As for Seidel — your review of Ooga-Booga is evidence that real oppositional force resides not in a set of recognizable styistic gestures, but that same negativity I’ve been talking about — the negativity that you identified in his book. I thought to myself at the time: Aha, Robbins (and other men I know) love FS because he makes most Langpos look like Robert Pinsky.
    So to be perfectly clear: I want more of all the good poets you mention, because they’re good poets and not because they fall into the right camp. Complete sentences in poems: I’m for it.
    I’m really sort of surprised that my remarks are being read as an attempt re-reify the notion of “two camps.” As I tried to make operatically clear, my own work wouldn’t fit the hardcore mold (and never has). Now that everyone knows I read Muldoon, well, my cover’s really blown!
    Best,
    Ange

  • On February 10, 2008 at 8:47 pm Ange wrote:

    P.S. Michael …
    “… you idealize them as well, & underestimate the extent to which such constructions were often ex-post-facto justifications of stylistic operations.”
    I just want to add that it’s hard not to idealize a moment that situated poetry closer to a vocation than a career, which is evident in essays, correspondences, “magic workshops” and tribal allegiances. What we have now are careers and hobbies. Is that all there is? I hear Peggy Lee singing…
    Are you suggesting this is incompatible with wanting poems to matter on their own terms and for their own sake?

  • On February 10, 2008 at 11:06 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Ange,
    Fair enough – I suppose I think of subject matter & even attitude as stylistic in nature, which I realize undermines my earlier position. (Damn you for using my own review against me!) But I do believe that much of the content of tribalism arises from a felt need to differentiate one’s style from that of others, & tends to hypostasize what is really an affectation of opposition & negativity.
    I agree it’s tempting to idealize a moment that seemed to grant poetry a now-unobtainable prominence (& yes, I think that careers & hobbies are all there is – I don’t think poetry matters much; it matters to me, obviously, to us, but I don’t think it “matters” in a sense I’m too bummed out at the moment to elucidate further). But I worry that idealization can lead to fetishization (I’m not suggesting this applies to you). I’ve had students (maybe we all have) – promising young poets who publish in the hip journals du jour – who not only don’t read Donne or Wyatt but don’t even see the point of reading Lowell or Bishop, because they know they’re the “wrong” poets. Their reading rarely extends past the New Americans, & when it includes Pound or Stein, you can be sure it won’t include Housman or even Yeats. I find this much more depressing than the monopoly certain “establishment” poets & publishers hold.
    So I come across as a bit of a reactionary, partly because it seems to me beyond question that much of “official verse culture” is very bad (if there’s a worse well-known poet than Edward Hirsch, I don’t want to know his or her name), & partly because people like Ron Silliman & his coterie strike me as simply stupid & uninformed about their own practices. I appreciate someone like you all the more, so I felt I should respond to what seemed to me a strain of tribalism in yr own earlier comments. Apologies if I misunderstood, & best wishes.
    – Michael

  • On February 11, 2008 at 12:37 am Arthur Durkee wrote:

    Jane, perhaps I overstated the case about Cezanne and van Gogh to make a rhetorical point (gee, that never happens around here!), but I’ll stand by my overall assessment, since it’s based on several visits to the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, several visits to the Chicago Art Institute, reading and studying a great deal about both painters, and also having read Rilke’s illuminating “Letters on Cezanne” that he wrote to his wife Clara, a sculptor who was a student of Rodin. The methods and aims of both painters were quite different, I feel. Their means were different, and the way they set about changing the art and act of painting—their methodologies of vision, if you will—were also quite different. But that’s just one artist’s interpretation of what he sees in other artists. Don’t take my word for it.
    As for Post-Modernism: Sorry, still not convinced to change my opinion. There may be some merit to the idea that as a movement PM is itself complete and self-contained—although that’s impossible to judge, because PM is by its very worldview and its own theories de-centered, or rather multiply-centered, discourse-based in response to Modernism, and politically aware of the privilege given by status-positioning between those who have (or had) the power, and those who don’t (or didn’t). So PM is unlikely to ever present itself as a monolithic -ism or movement, or want to. There is no sergeant-at-arms to enforce who is a PM and who isn’t, the way the Surrealists had Breton as their manifesto-wielding strongarm man. That sort of tactic is actually rather anti-PM, it seems to me. So, the “incompleteness” of PM is built right into the theories that support the PM wordlview. One might cite Godel’s incompleteness theorem at this point; but I’ll let it stand.
    My point was that PM still hasn’t finished dealing with M. If they really had done so, they’d start callling themselves something else entirely. Many PM artists seem to be still reacting very strongly against the -isms of the Modernists; that seems to be in part what “post-avant” is all about, at least some of the time. Maybe that’s why the “post-avant” label was attractive at first, but in the end it’s still just another responsorial “post-something else” label. I’d be happy to entertain suggestions for other labels. It’s probably time for that to happen, anyway.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 1:24 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    God knows when, or if, my last post will appear – I submitted it four hours ago. But I wanted to clarify that of course I think poetry is more than a career or hobby: it is, at least for me, equipment for living. I trust that my larger point about poetry’s cultural relevance is clear. I don’t think it has any, unless we count hip-hop (as we probably should – I know that Clipse & Ghostface & Lil Wayne & Jay-Z are at least as important to me as Muldoon & Ashbery & Moxley & Seidel). But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 5:40 am Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Ange,
    I have deliberately stayed away from commenting for a while, as the level of vitriol and vituperation was upsetting me to the point at which I was losing sleep. I just don’t have the shoulder-pads or the big hair to engage in pool fights on Knots Landing: nor these days (especially with my chemotherapy regimen, which starts again on Monday), do I have the energy. I’m relieved that now the conversation has steered away from me–Reginald Shepherd has left the building! There are a lot of things I could say in response to various comments, positive and negative, but I need to put this whole brouhaha behind me, especially since, though much of it was directed at me, I don’t feel has much to do with me or what I actually wrote.
    Though we have been communicating privately, I did want to publicly thank you for accepting the olive branch. I don’t know how things escalated between us, but I was very unhappy about it. I felt that we were writing past one another, but now I think (I hope) that we are actually communicating with one another. The conflict was especially dismaying to me since when I read your old posts (I haven’t been a Harriet reader for very long), I agreed with pretty much everything you wrote.
    I have gone back to the Donald M. Allen anthology The New American Poetry (interesting how we’ve pluralized it–for him it was a single and singular entity), to see just what those folks were doing and saying. That will be the subject of a future post, in anticipation of the reception of which I am already stocking up on Klonopin and Ativan.
    Take good care, and I’m happy not to be enemies or even adversaries.
    peace and poetry (especially, at the moment, peace),
    Reginald

  • On February 11, 2008 at 9:07 am Ange wrote:

    Dear Reginald,
    I’m rather sorry to hear you’re preparing a new post on this subject rather than Britney Spears remixes! Or covers — I remember, in another lifetime, sitting in a “tea bar” in Brooklyn when a I felt a little prickle on the back of my neck. Some acoustic guitar hovering subliminally in the background had begun the slow inevitable chord progression toward “Hit me baby one more time,” and all around me I saw hipsters looking up, eyes shifting in nervous confusion. It was hard not to laugh..
    Anyway, if you do post on the Allen anthology, I am going to butt out. I didn’t mean to direct any hostility toward you in my first post, but it did look that way to some. My fault. As it is, a minor point I wanted to make about historical differences has blossomed into much misunderstanding, and I’d better go back to the non-controversial work of changing diapers and finishing a manuscript. Good luck with your treatment this week; I’ll be thinking of you.
    Michael, I’m relieved we’re in agreement. Your description of students who only read the “right” poets is just depressing: no artist worth her salt is anything less than a voracious consumer of everything. Besides, someone in Spicer’s circle told me one of his favorite poems was “The Rape of the Lock.” Whoever thinks they know exactly who the right & wrong poets are is full of it. Even those terms — right & wrong — whoa! I mean woe.
    Best,
    Ange

  • On February 11, 2008 at 9:09 am Don Share wrote:

    As Robert Bringhurst points out, thinking, if it gets to be a habit, turns insiders into outsiders. The idea of separate camps, poetries, and schools gets reified in some parts of this discussion – but aren’t things actually more fluid than such nomenclature reflects?

  • On February 11, 2008 at 11:30 am Paul Hoover wrote:

    I’m coming a bit late to the discussion that has resulted from Reginald’s comments regarding AWP and a post-avant world of poetry, but here goes.
    (1) There is no post-avant poetry culture, but there may soon be a pan-avant one. Large numbers of poets are writing under the influence of established avant-garde practice, from the Ashbery-Guest aspect of the New York School, to language and post-language poetry, Newlipo, and Flarf. What we have called the outside is increasingly dominant. Reginald himself has edited an anthology, Postmodern Lyricisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries (Counterpath Press, 2008) , that includes many poets who would self-identify as “postmodern” or “innovative.” Of the 23 poets included, only 5 were included in my anthology Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1994), but 18 have appeared in New American Writing, which I edit with Maxine Chernoff. Why only the five, Nathaniel Mackey, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Marjorie Welish? Why the eighteen? And how many of those eighteen were published in NAW before 1994? Two forces are at work: (a) Many poets of an “Iowa School” history have moved from the mainstream to the innovative (b) The innovative camp has been swept into the larger general economy of the university system, where the standard of legitimation is quite different from the bohemianism and urbanity of the New American era. In answer to my question at the end of part two of this post, Kasey Mohammad and Christian Bök DO have tenured academic positions, and there is no doubt whatever of their avant standing. Fearful outcries about innovative practice largely conceren the “Will it come here?” question–the recognition that one’s mainstream work be marginalized or transformed when the innovative mainsteam is installed.
    Finally, there’s no point in attacking AWP from the perspective of MLA. English Departments and MFA programs are equally part of academic professionalism.
    (2) As head of AWP, D.W. Fenza should be representing the interests of all of its members and participants, not one quadrant. But AWP has had controversies of this kind before. I’m pasting in below an excerpt from my blog that relates to being inside or outside generally, but especially in the AWP context.
    “For much of our lives as editors, the inside in American poetry was utterly distinct from the outside. You were “experimental” or you were not. At my first AWP meeting, in San Antonio, in the 80s, I heard Donald Justice stir up a roomful of Iowa School poets by attacking the “charlatan” Beats, “juvenile” New York School, and the “fascist” Black Mountain poets. Before he began to speak, he asked that the ballroom doors of the hotel be closed and guarded. I had known there were oppositions, but I hadn’t realized how keenly the insiders felt the threat of change. At that time, outsiders had no role in the academy, so they congregated at places like St. Mark’s Church, Beyond Baroque, The Poetry Center at SFSU, and Chicago’s Body Politic. This was true throughout the 70s, 80s, and much of the 90s. Everyone knew what it meant to cross the boundary into academic territory, which unfailingly relied on the received mainstream dominant–for example, the free verse poem of personal epiphany. Those differences have been blurred by the tremendous growth of creative writing programs, the desire for many of the so-called Iowa school poets to join the innovative camp, and the marginalization of independent boheman sites. Whether you call it the mainstreaming of the avant-garde or the vanguarding of the academy, the result is a compromise, or mutual collapse, in which the avant-garde risks losing its signal powers of opposition and originality. At the Palm Springs AWP, 2001, Maxine Chernoff and I walked around looking for someone to talk to and found only Aaron Shurin, who was equally alienated by the Carolyn Kizer / Yusef Komunyakaa program dominant. Now all of that is changed. If you want to locate the avant-garde, you can find it in the Nassau Suite at the NYC Hilton, second floor. I don’t exclude myself. I’m on two panels at the forthcoming meeting in NYC, one of which I proposed on contemporary Vietnamese poetry. The other is Newlipo: Proceduralism and Chance Poetics in the 21st Century. I’d like to be persuaded that literary professionalism is not dulling innovation’s oppositional edge, or, worse yet, subsuming marginal practices in order to make them seem its own. Are Newlipo and Flarf the unrepentant, indigestible poetics of the new? Would it matter if Christian Bök and Kasey Mohammad had tenure-track positions?

  • On February 11, 2008 at 1:49 pm Matt wrote:

    Joseph Hutchison says:
    “My point is that Wolff’s description also assumes an ideal reader: one with whom the post-avant poet aims not to communicate (Kooser’s stated aim is to communicate above all), but to manipulate—to con.”
    You know, some people communicate differently from others. I’m ashamed to report that I only speak one language. When my co-workers speak in Spanish, I have no idea what they’re saying, but it seems to work for them. If you don’t yet speak the language(s) of Fence, why not learn? All you have to do is read and keep an open mind.
    And if I wanted to communicate like Kooser, I wouldn’t even need poetry.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    I should probably just keep my mouth just, but I was never very good at being a quiet little boy. I originally posted this on Paul Hoover’s web log, where he first posed the questions of inside and outside, mainstream and margin he poses here, but it bears repeating, or at least I think it does, though he responds to some of what I wrote in his comment here.
    Whatever his caveats regarding the book, I appreciate Paul mentioning my anthology, though it’s actually called Lyric Postmodernisms.
    With regard to the question of insiders and outsiders in the poetry world, according to his Harriet biographical note, Christian Bok “is currently a Professor of English at the University of Calgary,” which would make him not just tenure-track but tenured. According to Wikipedia (and references on his blog to his academic postion), Kasey Mohammad is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Philosophy at Southern Oregon University–again, not just tenure-track but tenured.
    So, despite the fact that Ron Silliman (who has written that he has turned down several offers of academic positions) has labeled me a “School of Quietude” poet (and apparently not a good example of the mangy breed), both Bok and Mohammad are much more academic insiders than I am, as I have no academic teaching position. Charles Bernstein, of course, holds an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school.
    In addition, Bok has won the Griffin Prize, a highly prestigious (and lucrative) and hardly avant-garde oriented award. The boundaries of “inside” and “outside” are very porous, and many insiders have a will to feel themselves outsiders (and even excluded or oppressed) that is not supported by the facts.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 7:32 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Reginald, I think you’re absolutely right to imply (I hope this is what you’re implying) that “inside” & “outside” are fairly useless as designators in a field as sociologically complex as that of contemporary poetry. I find it either depressing or amusing, depending on my mood, that men & women of vaster privilege than almost any poet has ever before enjoyed strike clownish anti-establishment poses. Silliman has said, tongue in cheek but revealingly, that he’d never take an academic position because he couldn’t stand the pay cut. The very notion of the School of Quietude is indicative of his inability to read the field with any subtlety, with any comprehension of how many variables are involved in categorical determinations. The whole thing reminds me often of the Spartacist League, whom I encounter on the University of Chicago campus hawking their Workers Vanguard newspapers. I’m all for anti-capitalism, but somehow I doubt the efficacy of composing paeans to the glorious Workers State of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. The sooner we cease to reward such inanities with our attention the better.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 7:58 pm jane wrote:

    It’s fascinating that there seems to be at least some agreement that the matter of “inside and outside” or “post-avant and school of quietude” or “oppositional and mainstream” or etc can be arbited via the data of folks’ jobs.
    Which is to say that we have general agreement that the material circumstances of a poet’s life — where he or she works, how, for whom, where the money comes from, what networks she or he is part of — should be understood to have a determining force on their aesthetics.
    Which is to say in turn that we seem to agree that there is a fundamental link between actual social conditions and structures of consciousness.
    Finally — you’re all a buncha Marxists!

  • On February 11, 2008 at 8:23 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Is there a single person, anywhere, at any time, who has ever denied the existence of a fundamental link between social conditions & structures of consciousness? I mean, someone capable of understanding the terms? The LINK isn’t the question. Anyone would agree that there is some relation between growing up in a slum & the structure of your consciousness. The question involves the NATURE of the link. I’m happy to endorse a strongly determinist relationship, without denying the operation of other factors.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 9:29 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    DETECTIVE STORY
    Jane is like the guy that knows something we don’t know.
    Jane is the guy that like we knows something they don’t.
    Jane knows the guy we something know we don’t. Is.
    The guy we know is Jane though we don’t know something.
    Guy Jane was is the something don’t is know was like.
    The something thte guy Jane was is the knows we.
    Jane was something West Coast check collecting smart guy is.
    West check Coast was something Jane was. Smart guy.
    Jane guy was collecting check Coast West. Or something.

  • On February 11, 2008 at 10:15 pm nick lolordo wrote:

    jane speaks of a “determining force”, michael of a “strongly deterministic relationship”; bourdieu’s sociology of culture seems to me directed precisely toward more fully understanding the nature of this determination. he describes the literary field as overdetermined by the field of power while opposing productivist accounts of determination that ignore the refracting function of the literary field, and speaks of the “determination” imposed by the literary field upon individual writers while still asserting that “there is nothing mechanical about the relationship between the field and the habitus”. what he provides is, I think, a relatively weak determinism; or, to turn it around, a account which sees artistic autonomy as historically determined without dismissing it as mere ideological mystification…..

  • On February 11, 2008 at 11:47 pm john wrote:

    There was a neat article in the New Yorker more than 10 years ago about how Marx’s economics have been mainstreamed into just about everybody’s economics (talk about paradigm for a lot of this discussion!); that it’s impossible to talk about globalization, the tendency of capital toward monopoly, the tendency of profits to outstrip wages, the tendency of competition to inspire innovation, the corruption of politics by the “malefactors of great wealth” (whoops, that was a Mount Rushmore guy) — without echoing Marx.
    Here’s an abstract.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 3:35 am Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Obviously there is a link between art and society, but I must part company with Michael Robins in asserting that this link is not direct and deterministic, though it is overdetermined (which means that the determinations are so complex and interwoven that they can’t be simply or directly teased out). Art has what Louis Althusser (a highly problematic thinker) calls a semi-autonomous status to the economic base and to the social field build upon that base. It is not a mere epiphenomenon.
    As Adorno points out again and again, art is a product of society (and is deformed by society) that also speaks back to that society, both reproaching it and holding out the ever-deferred promise of happiness. To make my point again, this is not in fact sheer negativity, as reading Aesthetic Theory makes clear. Making this point–that negativity for its own sake produces nothing–does not make me in any way comparable to Spiro Agnew, an implied comparison made particularly odious by the fact that Agnew was a racist of the first water, and an architect of Richard Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy,” which the Republican Party has been deploying ever since. And Kasimir Malevich was not a negationist–he was a mystic, seeking through his art (and specifically through Suprematism) to reach a higher spiritual reality. Whether any of us now believes in such a reality is quite beside the point.
    I have not read Bourdieu (who has the time to read everything, even everything that might be interesting and relevant?), but Nick Lolordo’s account of Bourdieu’s idea of the relationship of art and its social habitus seems very accurate and useful.
    If art were totally a product of its social overdeterminations, we would not care about it. Refrigerators are, after all, equally bourgeois social constructs, as are Mack trucks (and you will find out that social constructs are quite real if one should ever hit you). It’s the degree to which art (including, at times, popular art) escapes social determinations and social definitions that makes it interesting and valuable, that allows it to offer something not found elsewhere in our society. And if any writer really believed herself or himself to be a mere Foucaldian discursive nexus on the grid of specification, I doubt that he or she would feel much incentive to write. It’s always the other guy who’s the ideological automaton.
    My problem with academic and literary Marxists isn’t the Marxism but the hypocrisy. And if we’re talking about “insiders” and “outsiders,” “mainstreams” and “margins,” what else are we talking about but material circumstances, unless we’re going to reify them into metaphysical categories, as Paul Hoover seems to do, so that one remains purely avant-garde or purely Bohemian whatever one’s circumstances. Such a stance can only be maintained by exactly the distinction between poetry and politics that so many here have argued against. I would say that I am not one of those. I think that the different words denote different things, and that’s as it should be.
    And don’t even get me started on the Spartacist League, who are the very picture of reason compared to the Revolutionary Communist Party or especially the Revolutionary Community Youth Brigade. Coterie communism is a sad and ugly thing. Come to think of it, it was an ugly thing in the October Revolution…

  • On February 12, 2008 at 8:55 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    (tried to send this in yesterday, in rererence to Paul Hoover’s, but it didn’t go up)
    Paul Hoover wrote:
    >I’d like to be persuaded that literary professionalism is not dulling innovation’s oppositional edge, or, worse yet, subsuming marginal practices in order to make them seem its own. Are Newlipo and Flarf the unrepentant, indigestible poetics of the new? Would it matter if Christian Bök and Kasey Mohammad had tenure-track positions?
    An interesting commentary, Paul. And I think you make a clear observation here: “Whether you call it the mainstreaming of the avant-garde or the vanguarding of the academy, the result is a compromise, or mutual collapse, in which the avant-garde risks losing its signal powers of opposition and originality.”
    (Though I wanted to ask: Don’t you think your Norton anthology helped impel, a small bit, this w(h)ither-the-avant-garde crisis now well underway?
    A little anecdote: I remember back in 1990, I think it was, talking with Bob Perelman at the MLA (after I’d given a talk on the role of the “book review” in Langpo community-formation, something along those lines, and Bob had come to my panel after interviewing for a position). And I said to Bob that it seemed strange, even shocking to me, that a prominent Language poet such as he should be seeking a job in academia. Bob was very congenial, and I can’t remember his reply word for word, but I do recall his alluding to the pressing necessity of a “Long March” into the academy, that its institutions were a contended, strategic front in the struggle for a radical poetics, that this was “where the fight is now at.” Something quite close to that, in any case.
    Well, things change really fast, who can predict anything anymore, and as with China, so with Langpo and its young Red Guard…
    I am confused, though, Paul, by your suggestion that Flarf may represent the “indigestible poetics of the new.” What’s indigestible about it? Flarf seems to me something like a poetry version of grunge (except flarf was inside the machine, so to speak, from the get-go, and its “rebellious” hipster practitioners were/are mostly thirty or forty-somethings.
    Kent

  • On February 12, 2008 at 10:28 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    So now that everyone seems to agree that the “academic habitus” will exert some kind of evolving force (however refracted its operations may be) on avant vision, risk, and praxis, what do we say should be done?
    The “collapse, ” as Paul Hoover puts it, into institutionalized sites of production, is now nearly complete–so complete, its state of affairs has begun to seem natural.
    Can we begin to outline some of the ways these social conditions preclude or deter counter-practices that might point poetry, whatever poetry is, beyond the “Inside” (as it’s been called here) that so many seem resigned to inhabiting?
    And is there perhaps something fundamental in the very *mode* of standard poetic production and presentation that offers itself to institutional capture and containment? A mode that the avant itself takes for granted and practices eagerly, in full consort with the “traditional” poetry it ritualistically critiques?
    Are there ways, that is, of stepping outside the obvious frame of authorship and the cascading determinations it enacts, and to initiate, instead, provisional practices (individual and collective) that might complicate the usual expected rules and power flows of the literary field?
    I think there might be some little tried pathways, myself.
    Kent

  • On February 12, 2008 at 12:44 pm Bobby wrote:

    Kent, you ask (somewhat rhetorically, I acknowledge):
    >Are there ways, that is, of stepping outside the obvious frame of authorship and the cascading determinations it enacts, and to initiate, instead, provisional practices (individual and collective) that might complicate the usual expected rules and power flows of the literary field?
    If complication is what you want, then you know as well as I do that the answer is yes. The work of Kenneth Goldsmith, the Flarf collective, and (in a related sphere) Richard Prince can all be described as attempts at just such an effort.
    But if what you’re after is a true “stepping outside,” then the answer is probably no. Goldsmith can be as uncreative as he wants, but after some initial huffery and puffery by the regnant establishment, he’s eventually (as now) going to end up treated according to the same old “expected rules and power flows.” Ditto Flarf and ditto Prince.
    But wait, you object: all three of those examples were consciously seeking that treatment. Like the Language gang their radicalism remained at the level of the work rather than at the level of the artist’s relation to the work, not to mention the level of the artist herself.
    And that suggests another “tried pathway” that you keep hinting around: heteronyms. And here, sure, there’s the possibility of a true stepping outside, but the problem is that such a possibility remains open only as long as the heteronym’s creator remains a pure secret. As soon as even one other person knows, the same old rules and power flows get to work again establishing the one-to-one artist-to-work relationship. And, odd as it is to say this to you, that’s a nearly impossible secret to keep, both because the freelance agents of the culture industry have a very real incentive to figure these things out and also because of the internal, psychological pressure to claim one’s due.
    To put a concrete example before us, we can consider what happened with Luther Blissett in Italy. (We could also talk about Joe Klein or Laura Albert.) For a time after their novel Q was published, no one knew who they were (Umberto Eco?) and that mystery really did throw a wrench in the literary works. Who’s going to be interviewed about the book? Who’s going to go on TV to support it? Who’s going to accept the prizes? But as soon as they came clean, everything settled down again. Now, even though they’ve regrouped under the name Wu Ming (‘nameless’ or ‘anonymous’ in Mandarin) it’s clear to everyone that the authors involved are anything *but* anonymous, and while they’ve done a number of really admirable things artistically and politically since the ritual suicide of “Luther Blissett,” they’ve also found themselves, like everyone else, subject to the same old rules and power flows. (But they still won’t go on TV.)

  • On February 12, 2008 at 1:00 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Hold on, now, I never said the “link between art and society” was deterministic!! I was speaking of structures of consciousness & social conditions. For the record, Althusser is fine with me, although both Bourdieu’s & Jameson’s corrections of him are necessary, I think. Also cf. Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society.” I officially resign from this particular thread of the conversation, because I just dropped way too many names. I will say only that, Reginald, you definitely should read Bourdieu’s Field of Cultural Production, & also that I’m not “Michael Robins” with one b. That’s someone else.
    – Michael Robbins

  • On February 12, 2008 at 1:28 pm jane wrote:

    Oh sure, Bourdieu (who has much to offer but, as sociology after Weber is heir to, a limited account of the historical dynamic) or Althusser or some other model of determination. My jest was meant to point out only that this conversation happens on shifting grounds regarding determination as such: now we are insisting that art’s wonder is in its autonomy from determinations, that all positions are fluid, that we should all just get along, that style is detachable from “political vision,” and so on; and then we are insisting, when it suits us, that the artists who make this art must have their claims (in and out of their art) measured by material conditions — and not just any, but economic/labor conditions! And it turns out that both positions serve to delegitimate a model of oppositional art (“critical negativity,” as Adorno had it*) And periodically someone runs off a cliff trying to make these two views compatible, and there they are, legs cranking frantically in mid-air.
    * How many times will Adorno, who was entirely committed to the overturning of capitalism (even when he was living in Pacific Palisades, that hypocrite!) be invoked here to justify the greatest mildnesses? The mind reels. As for Malevich, I rather think that black square above his deathbed was not a mystic black square but the anarchist flag, the very flag of the negative. Can I recommend the great “God Is Not Cast Down” chapter of T.J. Clark’s book, Farewell to an Idea? The title’s from Stevens, so poets are welcome.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Jane,
    Here are some things no one in this conversation has insisted: “that art’s wonder is in its autonomy from determinations, that all positions are fluid, that we should all just get along, that style is detachable from ‘political vision,’ and so on; and then we are insisting, when it suits us, that the artists who make this art must have their claims (in and out of their art) measured by material conditions — and not just any, but economic/labor conditions!” What has been suggested is that artists who claim oppositional legitimacy but nevertheless enjoy the most privileged of material conditions are about as “oppositional” as people who frantically flag their own intellectual superiority in comments streams.
    And thanks for recommending another book everyone’s read.
    – Michael

  • On February 12, 2008 at 2:16 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Michael Robbins, I apologize for misspelling your name. People misspell my name all the time, so I know well how annoying it is. It was a sleepless night and this tiny print is hard to proofread. Forgive me. However, while I have very much appreciated your interventions into a conversation that has veered pretty far away from my original topic, I don’t think that I misrepresented you, since you wrote that “I’m happy to endorse a strongly determinist relationship, without denying the operation of other factors.” My partner, a brilliant cultural anthropologist, has some Bourdieu and I will definitely take a look at it.
    As for Joshua Clover, a/k/a “Jane Dark,” who once again insists on misreading and condescending to me, if not outright insulting me (as with the Spiro Agnew smear), I will quote Tonto to the Lone Ranger: “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?” I’ll also say, once more, that I don’t believe that poetry and politics are the same and I don’t believe that a writer’s politics or social position determine his work. Neither did Marx, as his discussion of Balzac makes clear–style is detachable from political vision; if it weren’t, there’d be a lot of writers we just couldn’t read. I do think that if you claim to believe that, you should be clear and consistent (I have tried to be so, without being rigid).
    And it was I who wrote that Althusser was a highly problematic thinker. I find his idea of semi-autonomy useful. It’s not necessary to agree with everything a thinker says to make use of some of his or her ideas, any more than it’s necessary to agree with or even take into account every aspect of a writer’s work to be usefully influenced by that writer.
    I have affirmed Adorno’s deep and passionate opposition to capitalism on many occasions. What I wrote was that his critical negativity was not for its own sake (he was no nihilist), but in the service of a positive goal. Why is this so difficult to understand?
    As for what one would “rather think” about Malevich, I’m reminded of a bumper sticker my partner has on his office door: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Or to put it more bluntly, just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true. Malevich may have been an artistic revolutionary, but he was no political revolutionary, and he was a social revolutionary only to the extent that he believed that spiritual transformation could change the world.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 2:20 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Also, I don’t know which “mildnesses” you refer to, but the supposed contradiction you cite results simply from the rather coherent attempt by participants in this conversation to make sense of what has been recognized for some time as the central tension of the socioeconomic conditions of artistic production. To quote Adorno for the first & last time: “My thesis is that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism. But since the objective world that produces the lyric is an inherently antagonistic world, the concept of the lyric is not simply that of the expression of a subjectivity to which language grants objectivity. Not only does the lyric subject embody the whole all the more cogently, the more it expresses itself; in addition, poetic subjectivity is itself indebted to privilege: the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves.” What you fail to note is that the critique of would-be oppositional artists is grounded on their failure to grasp this dialectic: it is they who reduce their own negativity to a totality. A totality for kids, if you get my drift.
    – Michael

  • On February 12, 2008 at 2:23 pm Bobby wrote:

    >And it turns out that both positions serve to delegitimate a model of oppositional art (“critical negativity,” as Adorno had it)…
    But Jane, aren’t both positions also constantly invoked *on behalf of* oppositional art? I mean, I’m all for critical negativity, but on the one hand we say want to smash every essentialism and on the other we say that the other guys are bad because they have the money, the tenure and the means of production. Don’t those come down, mutatis mutandis, to the same thing?
    I too would like to see more rigorous consistency in all these fights, but your cartoon cliff-runner seems to have discovered a more basic and effective polemic principle: hit ‘em where it hurts and do the justifying later.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 2:48 pm John Gallaher wrote:

    Paul Hoover writes:
    “(a) Many poets of an “Iowa School” history have moved from the mainstream to the innovative
    (b) The innovative camp has been swept into the larger general economy of the university system, where the standard of legitimation is quite different from the bohemianism and urbanity of the New American era.”
    This just reminds me once again that what were once deep divides have become, at least for some, all just fodder for the compositional mill. One can also tag the move to theory that many English departments underwent in the 80s and 90s as another factor in this “legitimation” process. At least it seemed that way from my experience as a student.
    Hoover continues:
    “(2) As head of AWP, D.W. Fenza should be representing the interests of all of its members and participants, not one quadrant. But AWP has had controversies of this kind before. I’m pasting in below an excerpt from my blog that relates to being inside or outside generally, but especially in the AWP context.”
    I’ll just nod in agreement with this and continue along.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 2:53 pm john wrote:

    Michael, thanks for that quote. I’ll have to remember it.
    “the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves.”
    Good ol’ metaphysical, elitist Adorno, saying only rich people get to grasp the universal.
    2 probs with that:
    1. Poor people always have made lots of the happening art.
    2. Try to grasp the universal and you fall into the abyss. The abyss of abstraction. The abyss of it-don’t-exist.
    Now, I may be *doing violence* to Adorno by misinterpreting him, but I highly doubt that even an elitist like him would believe himself to be a unitary subject lacking in self-contradiction.
    Let the chips fall where they may. (And they always do may.)

  • On February 12, 2008 at 3:13 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    The Red Queen said, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Poetry is experiencing the effect of a Red Queen’s arms race where the conditions are not being met for a Nash Equilibrium. Poet/professors or Poet/editors or Poet/critics evolving more effective means to seek notoriety while their notoriety rests in the hands of those who are after the same, evolve more effective means of evasion from those who would seek notoriety.
    The ideal conditions would be:
    1. The poets all will do their utmost to maximize their expected publications as described by the MFA program.
    2. The poets are flawless in execution.
    3. The poets have sufficient intelligence to deduce the solution.
    4. There is common knowledge that all poets meet these conditions, including this one. So, not only must each poet know the other poets meet the conditions, but also they must know that they all know that they meet them, and know that they know that they know that they meet them, and so on.
    The fourth criterion of common knowledge may not be met even if all poets do, in fact, meet all the other criteria. Poets wrongly distrusting each other’s rationality may adopt counter-strategies to expected irrational play on their opponents’ behalf.
    This all refers to a situation in which there is a competition for a shared resource and the contestants can choose either conciliation or conflict. Also known as the game of Chicken or, if you like nuclear war, mutually assured destruction.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 4:15 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joshua/Jane – My apologies in advance of any justified expression of umbrage on your part for the tone of my earlier comments. Apparently I left my superego at home.
    Best,
    Michael

  • On February 12, 2008 at 4:50 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Aaron – I’m not sure if I’m laughing at your Red Queen post because it’s funny or sad. Mutually assured destruction – heh. Glad I’m a Poet/nobody.
    Henry, DETECTIVE STORY is hilarious.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 5:10 pm jane wrote:

    Ah — yes, well, “Don’t believe everything you think” begins at home. I’ll certainly take the historical record on Malevich (whose visionary interests didn’t much interfere with his commitment to political negation, which was fervent, obvious, and documented), and Adorno (if you think he’s an elitist prick and/or trapped in a dance of death with the Third International, fine, then don’t cite him as needed to support your argument; but if you mean to use him as a bludgeon against the very poets who take his relentless negation seriously — Negative Dialectics, anyone? — best of luck.)
    PS: two lighter notes. One: Regarding the discussion above about distinguishing between thought and feeling, it was Adorno who remarked that separating the two was a mere replication of the logic of division of labor. And two: speaking as someone who used to work in a nightclub where Reginald went to dance — o vagaries of chance! — I can indeed testify that he was a wonder on the dancefloor.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 5:48 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    I am actually starting to find it funny how endless this comment stream is becoming (I’m sure this must be a record number of comments), and how far it’s strayed from my original topic.
    I would like to say to John that the Adorno quote was neither elitist nor metaphysical, but just a statement of fact. If you have a real job, certainly if you have a proletarian job, you really don’t have much time, energy, or education to develop as an autonomous individual. That’s one of the bad things about being a worker–one’s lack of autonomy, one’s lack of control over one’s life, one’s lack of the opportunity to be more than a cog in the machine. I spent three years doing such menial jobs, after dropping out of college, and I well remember how hard it was to sustain a sense of myself as a human being at all, let alone to continue reading, writing, and thinking–and I had the advantage of my education.
    It’s often true that only rich people get to grasp the universal, because in hierarchical, stratified societies they’re the only ones to get the chance. Adorno wasn’t recommending that state; he was criticizing it. In the ideal, free society, in which people are treated as ends rather than goals, everyone would have that opportunity.
    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “poor people have always made lots of the happening art,” but unless you’re referring to folk art (which pretty much doesn’t exist anymore), I just don’t think it’s true, for the same reasons I’ve mentioned above. In terms of formal art, poor people have been denied access and opportunity, let alone the time and energy to devote themselves to it. Again, this is one of the bad things about capitalism and about hierarchical, stratified societies in general.
    Thanks for the compliment, Joshua. But I’m still not sure what your problem with the idea that Adorno’s negativity was in the service of the positive goal of a better, more just society, something he explicitly addresses in Aesthetic Theory, is. I don’t see how that neuters him or makes him “mild.” He didn’t hate capitalism just for the sake of hating; he hated it because it deprived people of their full possibilities for an authentic life. If he were just into negativity and destruction for its own sake, then he’d be like the Italian Futurists, who ended up as Fascists. (Not “fascists,” but actual historical, political Fascists. I like words to mean things.)
    I don’t know how living in Pacific Palisades (wherever that is) made Adorno a hypocrite. Unlike many privileged faux-leftists, he didn’t romanticize poverty. The point, as I understand it, isn’t that everyone should be poor but that no one should be poor.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 5:50 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Bobby,
    Thanks for the comment in reply.
    Good examples with Goldsmith and Flarf, since they tend to be touted as outer-limit cases, exemplars of the institutionally indigestible (as Paul Hoover put it here), and so on. One could add, too, the poetry of a Watten or Joshua Clover, whose hyper-critical Marxist surfaces would aspire to be somewhat upsetting to the Institution Art’s belly, as well.
    Yes, I would, as you suggest, argue that such cases are only transiently “unassimilable”: There is much iconoclasm on the canvass, but the signature and the frame are ready-made (accidental ironic pun) for hanging in the Museum– and it doesn’t take long, as we know, for the iconoclastic to find its cozy way there.
    I’ve said before that to point this out is in no way to impugn the motives of anyone, nor to disdain any (often impressive) talents involved. But I do think we’re at a conjuncture–some might call it a crisis–in U.S. avant poetry where it’s worth taking some time to problem-pose a process of absorption that appears to be unfolding at ever-increasing rates of velocity–a process of absorption that’s beginning, I’d say, to show some first strong glimmers of accommodation. And asking, as we do, if you’ll pardon the old Marxist in me, what might be tried beyond the obvious, reified relations of poetic production and exchange.
    In that last regard, I disagree a bit with you, Bobby, on some of your comments regarding “heteronyms” (an ugly, unwieldy term–sounds like a scalp disease, and we need, with apologies to Pessoa, to find another one). You say,
    “And that suggests another “tried pathway” that you keep hinting around: heteronyms. And here, sure, there’s the possibility of a true stepping outside, but the problem is that such a possibility remains open only as long as the heteronym’s creator remains a pure secret. As soon as even one other person knows, the same old rules and power flows get to work again establishing the one-to-one artist-to-work relationship.”
    But there are secrets and there are secrets. In fact, I’d say there’s a whole spectrum of the possible (i.e. still awaiting exploration) as far as experiments with authorship are concerned, a whole range of variable associations that empirical authors, or groups of authors, may enter into with created, apocryphal ones. And were poetry to step more widely into such fictional space–or, maybe better said, were paratext removed from its institutional, legal sanctuaries and taken up as a dimension to be folded into “poetic labor” itself–all manner of unsuspected branchings (ones that would easily slip enforced attributions and classifications) might begin to occur. Attributions, genealogies, claims, and refusals, I think, would also become, within a developed pseudographic field, fluid poetic elements too. I am not talking about *replacing* or even foregoing, standard modes altogether, as these will always be with us; I’m proposing that we imagine the work of creating a parallel poetic area, a kind of extra-legal liberated zone, that has some chance of resisting the now nearly automatic purchase and domestication of everything.
    And I believe this is something worth imagining not only for “political” purposes, but for poetic ones, too, because new kinds of conceptual energies are likely to be untapped in the bargain.
    Which is utopian in its ring, for sure…. but not completely without semblance of precedent: Back in the last decades of the 18th century and first decades of the 19th, a huge amount of literary works in English were published anonymously or pseudonymously, authors moved about evanescently, and people went nuts for it. How, from that more relaxed there, have we gotten to this uptight Here, where “avant-guard” heroes like Ron Silliman or Charles Bernstein glare out of their Author head shots like some bust of John Crowe Ransom?
    Well, enough for now.
    Kent

  • On February 12, 2008 at 6:10 pm Jake wrote:

    Bobby wrote, “aren’t both positions also constantly invoked *on behalf of* oppositional art?” Which is a very fair point. But its not so accurate in this venue, which–truth to tell–does seem to have a tendency to want to depoliticize art/deny the political efficacy of art/declare such politics hypocritical, and generally to efface the kinds of demands they used to call “radical.” Whether or not those demands are bullshit or not is an open question, but it isnt unreasonable to point out that Harriet isn’t exactly a hotbed of envisioning radical change, aesthetic or political.
    And I think that’s sort of the point. Clearly lots of regulars have sincere political commitments. But still however “loud” anyone gets in individual posts around here, the politics that the colloquy seems comfortable with are pretty quiestistic. If thats a word. Is that a word? My browsers spellcheck thinks it isnt.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 7:56 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I want to take this comment stream out behind the middle school and get it pregnant.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 8:02 pm Bobby wrote:

    Dear Kent,
    Of course I hope you’re right, I simply fear that you won’t be.
    Yes there are vast swathes of unoccupied parauthorial territory out there for the taking. But pressing the metaphor a little, we might ask: why do people pay thousands of dollars a month to rent a closet in New York when they could own acres in West Texas? They’re following the money. And it’s not just the positive attraction of lucre and fame and fame and lucre; the downsides can be seem pretty steep as well. The machine doesn’t like being duped, as Laura Albert and James Frey can well attest.
    So to hell with the machine, right? Well, you know better than I do what the price tag of that phrase actually is, but if someone were asking me, I’d say they’d be smart to find themselves a coterie of empathists and a source of inflation-protected investments in a hurry.
    As long as tenure committees and prize panels and book reviewers are deciding your economic fate, the author shot will always be the money shot.
    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Bobby
    PS. It’s worth mentioning , too, since I narrowed the discussion, that heteronyms (or whatever we decide to call them) obviously aren’t the only alternative model. JH Prynne has seemed to put up a pretty heroic resistance to the mechanisms of literary stardom in the UK and he didn’t have to abandon his name to do it. But he did have to find a coterie and a secure job.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 8:46 pm Bobby wrote:

    Dear Jake (Jane? (Joshua?))),
    Regarding this:
    >But still however “loud” anyone gets in individual posts around here, the politics that the colloquy seems comfortable with are pretty quiestistic.
    I think I take the point–quietistic is the word you’re looking for–but maybe you can clarify which point I’m actually taking. Is it:
    a/ That the forum/discussion setup of Harriet, which is so clearly exemplary of one of the basic conceptual models of liberal democracy, doesn’t really inspire anyone to think outside said setup and said conceptual model
    or
    b/ That however loud or obnoxious someone gets around here, a group survival instinct combined with a kind of regression to the political mean ensures that their radicalism will be muted at worst and shouted down at best
    or
    c/ That however sincere our political commitments may be, we’re still a bunch of bourgeois ninnies if we think spending time in forums like is even possibly commensurate with radical politics.
    or
    d/ Something else or some combination of the above…
    I would probably have to accept some version of (b) as true and (c) as applicable to myself, though for reasons we hit somewhere up around comment #64 on this thread (I have no idea actually), I’d like to think that (a) is actually not true. But I’d be curious to hear more about this from you. (How’s *that* for a lib-dem signoff…)
    Bobby

  • On February 12, 2008 at 10:11 pm john wrote:

    Reginald,
    First of all, I’m with you 100% on the question of to hell with poverty. Right on: No one should be poor, and I’m glad to know that Adorno was on board.
    But he was still elitist. His most famous pronouncements on the subject — notorious, I should say — are about jazz and popular music. Talk about negativity! Yucky might be another word.
    Extended to our day, his yucky attitudes would definitely extend to dance music (which I love too, though, to my regret, I was never much of a clubber, and now I’m middle-aged & married with a kid — yeah, yeah, excuses excuses).
    In the realm of music, we see myriad contributions made by people who grew up in families whose parents worked in machine-cog trades, or poorer. Jazz is replete with astounding icons who were extremely poor, from Louis Armstrong growing up on the streets (as did Irving Berlin) to Eric Dolphy living for months at a time on white beans to Pharoah Sanders being homeless in his adulthood. In pop and dance music, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis grew up poor, techno was born in the “poorer quarters” of Detroit, hip hop in the Bronx — I’m sure you know a lot of history I don’t here. (Joshua knows tons more about this than I do too.)
    To Adorno, all of this music would be crap. He didn’t distinguish between, say, Duke Ellington and Kate Smith, or Charlie Parker and Perry Como. (No offense to Smith or Como fans — I like them both.)
    In poetry, John Clare is the extreme example of an impoverished laborer achieving aesthetic autonomy, though Samuel Greenberg in the 20th century was extremely poor and wrote gorgeous poems that had a real influence on Hart Crane, and Blake worked a trade all of his life, having been apprenticed as a young boy.
    Now, I know you have softened Adorno’s hard edge. You said: “If you have a real job, certainly if you have a proletarian job, you really don’t have much time, energy, or education to develop as an autonomous individual” — much time or energy — as opposed to Adorno’s, “the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves.” Now, it is true, he didn’t say “rich people.” But the “pressures of the struggle for survival” implies economic struggles. I would say that, at the very least, Adorno overstated. It seems, from the way you softened his edge, that you might agree. “Overstating” and “stating the facts” are not the same.
    As for “grasping the universal,” I must confess that I follow “period style” in rejecting the notion of the universal. Perhaps I need a guaranteed income in order to have the time to develop my individuality to the extent where I can leave period style behind and grasp, if not the universal, at least the possibility of someone else grasping the universal. But I’ve never seen it. Do you have anybody in mind? Who has grasped the universal?
    The poetry / music divide in the arts world is deep and intense. Most poets who might read or take part in this discussion are deep believers in the worthiness of their recondite endeavor — dare I say, their elite endeavor — and good for them! But it seems that most are equally comfortable with pop music, and many if not most have no interest in recondite music. (4th generation middle-class semi-pro musician, I grew up with and love both recondite & pop, and have never known a hierarchy between them.) Considering Adorno in this context intrigues me, but I have no answers. It strikes me that the only person who has ever quoted Adorno to me in any way that made me feel I was learning something that made sense to me, that helped me understand the world better, is the composer and critic Kyle Gann, who grew up not liking pop, and who, I suspect, doesn’t like it much now either. Maybe when my ship comes in, or after the transformation of our society into a post-scarcity-and-competition mode, I will find time to read more Adorno to really see for myself, but for now, he’ll remain for me an elitist snob with an old-fashioned sense of the universal, and who was seriously wrong about a lot regarding aesthetics.

  • On February 12, 2008 at 10:32 pm john wrote:

    p.s. I am sure I have trampled on Adorno’s subtleties. It’s been a long time since I’ve read him on jazz, and he could well have made distinctions between jazz and pop that I have forgotten. If so, my apologies to him and to those who hate to see violence done to him. (And I appreciate the call for non-violence!)

  • On February 13, 2008 at 2:07 am john wrote:

    OK, I had a translation of Adorno’s 1941 essay “Popular Music” on the shelf, and I just read it, and it’s mostly an un-argued, irrational harangue about how the shape of a popular song is standardized and its parts have no intrinsic relationship to its totality, by contrast with serious music — in particular, good serious music — where every detail has a relationship to the whole. Seriously, there’s no argument there — no “there” there. Just a rant. A detail tells the tale: While discussing a book on popular music, written by people who like it, Adorno quotes the other authors’ assertion that the formal strictures of the 32-bar standard song form allow for as much creativity as the sonnet. Adorno doesn’t argue the point; he dismisses it with a scoff. His counterargument could be summarized with, “As if!” This is not to say that the 32-bar song form was not standardized some time in the 1910s, but Adorno never provides one jot of evidence that the parts of the songs have no relationships to their wholes, and that their parts are interchangeable. It’s ignorant crap.
    The essay is pre-bop, so Parker doesn’t figure, but Adorno stereotypes the improvisation of jazz as being stereotyped (that is to say, much jazz improvisation is indeed stereotyped and predictable, but by no means all). His insult of choice is “pseudo-individualization.”
    He has some nice stuff about the role of sentimental songs in providing a release for people who realize they are unhappy and unlikely to become happy, but have no opportunity to express it. It’s the one sympathetic, persuasive moment in the essay. He’s scathing about dance music, likening its adherents to the followers of “anthropophagous collectivism.” Fascist cannibals! Sounds like a punk band.
    All of this he contrasts to the true individualism found in classical music. He was very knowledgeable about classical.
    But he was ignorant and pompous about pop. Elitist all the way in his un-argued assumption that classical fans were exempt from the delusions of pop fans, and that classical played a critical, truly individualizing role while pop merely provided diversionary placebos.
    The quote from Michael and the “Popular Music” essay both murmur seductively about the pitiable, distasteful ignorance of the masses while they cordon off true individualism exclusively to the elite. I can see why people like him. He makes his readers feel special!

  • On February 13, 2008 at 9:24 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    No, Mary, I am not serious serious. Just having serious fun. The humorlessness of this “state of the art” stuff concerns me more than the ideas; if that is what they are. Most of the conversation strikes me first as a collection of compound abstractions that are completely beside the point. Presumably we all love language and poetry. I tend to be one of those happy idiots that has not broken the habit of believing in the power of love, but I hate language and poetry or rather what they have become. And there is no finger pointing involved in that comment. I just put my head down and do the best I can. I see most of this as an dramatization of Sartre’s concept of bad faith.

  • On February 13, 2008 at 10:07 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    >As long as tenure committees and prize panels and book reviewers are deciding your economic fate, the author shot will always be the money shot.
    Bobby,
    In talking about poetry, I’d choose to say, ahem, “cultural capital shot.” But I absolutely agree with your point.
    The post-avant is very much in erotic bondage now to “tenure committees and prize panels and book reviewers.”
    As Bob Perelman put it to me (somewhat idealistically, in retrospect) back in 1990, at the dawn of the denouement, “It’s where the fight is now at.”
    And Michael Robbins, dude, I think this comments stream is “already” quite prego…
    Kent

  • On February 13, 2008 at 11:04 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I see the “battle” in contemporary poetry as primarily a theoretical dispute among poets, not really political. This is MY battle, anyway.
    I think poets took a wrong turn when they bought into the whole stream of philological theory, beginning with Saussure, I guess, down through Deconstruction – which posits language as a kind of objective phenomenon, entity, thing, ambience, system of differences, etc. etc. & what have you – rather than primarily a tool with which human beings do specific things (like pointing & communicating & describing).
    The trend to identify poetry itself with language-as-system or -entity is the basic wrong turn, taken by New Critics, Postmods & Language Poets. Poetry, as I see it, is a human art, primarily involving intellectual/affective GESTURE (as I posted over on C. Bok’s latest entry on this site). Language per se is only one element of a larger aesthetic whole, as Aristotle and the Chicago Critics, among others, have emphasized. I’ve written essays about this.
    I’ve been “battling” for a long time in favor of a sense of poetry which underlines PARTICULARITY, SPECIFICITY, HISTORICAL ACTUALITY, HUMANISM, EMBODIMENT, PERSONAL IDENTITY, REALISM, REFERENTIALITY, DEFINITIVE ACCOUNTABILITY…. all those actual consequences of an art of indication and gesture – which tend to be “elided” when art is subsumed to some framing epistemological-linguistic “system”.

  • On February 13, 2008 at 11:08 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    The Countess of Flatbroke has been moved by Reginald’s post that begins I am actually starting to find it funny how endless this comment stream is becoming. She has granted me permission to post her sonnet.
    The Bitter Side of Flatbroke
    Some people lead an easy life, from birth
    to death, connected, pampered, lucky, rich,
    convinced that smiling fate defines their worth,
    quite safe and snug and settled in their niche.
    I wonder why I can’t be one of them.
    If I had money, I’d have time to write
    and read and socialize with any femme
    or butch or in-between who came in sight.
    Or spend my time alone or take a trip.
    Then I could call my life a life and not
    this constant jungle fight to get a sip
    of water, find a place to rest, too hot,
    too cold, too worried, hungry, lost, alone.
    Perhaps someone will throw this dog a bone.

  • On February 13, 2008 at 11:41 am Paul Hoover wrote:

    KENTY JOHNSON WROTE:
    Paul Hoover wrote:
    >I’d like to be persuaded that literary professionalism is not dulling innovation’s oppositional edge, or, worse yet, subsuming marginal practices in order to make them seem its own. Are Newlipo and Flarf the unrepentant, indigestible poetics of the new? Would it matter if Christian Bök and Kasey Mohammad had tenure-track positions?
    An interesting commentary, Paul. And I think you make a clear observation here: “Whether you call it the mainstreaming of the avant-garde or the vanguarding of the academy, the result is a compromise, or mutual collapse, in which the avant-garde risks losing its signal powers of opposition and originality.”
    (Though I wanted to ask: Don’t you think your Norton anthology helped impel, a small bit, this w(h)ither-the-avant-garde crisis now well underway?
    THAT’S AN INTERESTING THOUGHT ABOUT THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY. PERHAPS ITS BEING PUBLISHED IN THE DUSK OF THE LAST MILLENNIUM BROUGHT SHARPLY TO CONSCIOUSNESS OUR PLACE IN HISTORY, PARTICULARLY OUR GENERATION’S BELATEDNESS WITH REGARD TO THE NEW AMERICANS. WE’RE THE JACOBEAN TO ITS ELIZABETHAN IN THAT CONTEXT. THEY WERE THE AWAKENING MOMENT OF EXPANSION, OPTIMISM, AND POSSIBILITY, NEXT TO WHICH THE LATTER-DAY AVANT-GARDE MAY SEEM TENTATIVE WITH WITHDRAWN. BUT THE GREATER ISSUE SEEMS TO BE HOW MANY POETS THERE ARE THE POST-NEW AMERICAN GENERATIONS, EACH DESIRING HIS AND HER 15 MINUTES OF HISTORCIZATION. CLAIMS ARE BEING MADE AND CLAIMS ARE BEING JUMPED.
    I am confused, though, Paul, by your suggestion that Flarf may represent the “indigestible poetics of the new.” What’s indigestible about it? Flarf seems to me something like a poetry version of grunge (except flarf was inside the machine, so to speak, from the get-go, and its “rebellious” hipster practitioners were/are mostly thirty or forty-somethings.
    TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND TO MANY EARNEST PRACTITIONERS OF THEIR OWN GENERATION, THE FLARFISTS ARE HARD TO TAKE. THEY’RE TOO SILLY, THEY HAVE NO LINGERING CULTURAL CRITIQUE, THEY HONORING COMMODITY VALUE EVEN AS THEY MAY SEEM TO SPOOF IT, AND SO ON. WE’VE PUBLISHED THEM IN NEW AMERICAN WRITING, NO PROBLEM. I’LL POST SOMETHING LATER ABOUT THE LINGERING INDIGESTIBILITY OF LANGUAGE POETRY (A GOOD THING).
    PAUL

  • On February 13, 2008 at 12:35 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Hello PAUL,
    I thought we’d agreed that you would only call me KENTY in our clandestine back-channels. Now the cat’s out of the bag…
    Interesting on the New American Poetry and the comparison of the post-avant to the Jacobeans (!). Actually, I would see Language poetry as something like the illicit child begotten from the secret mating of the New Criticism and the NAP. The bastard child denies it, but the evidence is compelling. I’m serious, and I could explain later, if anyone is interested, but this comments thread is already approaching death-toll numbers for U.S. soldiers in Iraq!
    On Flarf, yes, I am aware they are the hot commodity. Pasted below, on that topic, for what it’s worth, is a section from an interview I did on the topic of Satire and Poetry, recently out in the new issue of Plantarchy.
    And Michael Robbins, I meant *already* prego, not “already” prego. Don’t do anything to this historic comments string that will get you arrested.
    Kent
    *
    >KJ: Well, definitions of Flarf are contested. Here’s my somewhat unpopular
    one: Flarf is a fashionable, cliquish grouping of very smart, very gifted younger
    writers who use Google search hits to generate various modulations of
    appropriative collage. Their most common practice is to poach “uneducated”
    discourse from chat rooms, personal web pages, and such (without the original
    writers’ knowledge, of course) and create what some take to be “funny” poems
    and plays. It’s all a bit sophomoric, a kind of urbane put-down of (as they say
    in grad school) the subaltern. And all of it, it bears emphasizing, ends up in
    service of perfectly conservative dress codes of Authorial custom.
    These poets rather grandiosely see their aesthetic as—it’s their preferred
    description—a Neo-Dada expression… as if such expression had any useful function in a
    culture where a “Neo-Dada” simulacral fog has become the greater part of the
    ideational air we breathe. Well, there is satire and then there is satire. As Peter
    Schjeldahl recently put it, in a review of the big Dada exhibit at the MOMA,
    “What young self-styled bohemian of the past ninety years hasn’t got at least
    briefly high on Dada?” The sad thing is that most of these Flarf hipsters who
    are high on it are now in, or approaching, middle age… What was that SNL
    sketch of the pop singer who would shake his rear end and yell, “Look at my
    butt!”? Well, Flarf is more or less like that: a “Look at my iconoclastic hipness!”
    shaking of the Author booty. Well, a glowing article in The Believer magazine
    no doubt awaits.*
    But maybe they’ll find a way of turning things around—becoming “inappropriate,”
    as they like to put it, in more interesting and original ways.
    * [In fact, some months after this conversation was submitted to Plantarchy, a glowing
    article about Flarf did appear in The Believer: .]

  • On February 13, 2008 at 12:50 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Kent,
    I just wrote a comment and the program ate it, so I am going to try to reconstruct what I wrote.
    I don’t see how Joshua Clover’s work is indigestible by the academic institutional belly, especially given its theoretical apparatus. Both of his books are published by academic presses–this is not a criticism, I am published by one as well, and am immensely grateful for their consistent support over the years. His work has been written about in an influential article by Christopher Nealon called “Camp Messianism” in American Literature. (Am I jealous? Of course I am.)
    The “hyper-critical Marxist surfaces” of his work fit perfectly well with the current preoccupations of English departments, where these days everybody cool is some variety of leftist or pseudo-leftist, at least at prestige institutions. Joshua’s new book is in part a compendium of leftist theory (a summary of the totality for kids, one might say), which would have great appeal to academic literary theorists. Again, this is not a criticism, just a statement.
    I’m not familiar with the reception of Barrett Watten’s work (did you know that he went to Iowa, as did Bob Perelman? and did his thesis with Donald Justice? I read it while I was doing my MFA there), but many literary theorists are very interested in Language poetry, because it draws on the same theoretical material they work with–they understand its intellectual underpinnings, its theoretical framework makes sense to them. Indeed, many of them read it not as poetry but as theory by other means.
    Dear Joshua,
    Maybe we’re not as far apart on Malevich as all that. He welcomed the February revolution (as did everyone except the Czar and his family) and the October revolution, as did most Russian artists and writers. But, like many if not most such, the Revolution betrayed him when it turned to more conservative artistic ideas. Even Tatlin found his “un-Socialist” abstractions intolerable. He was not anti-political or even apolitical, but politics was not the motivating force of his art, except insofar, as Peter Gay puts it in his excellently synoptic Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, “his…paintings were the incarnation of a spiritual ideology. He wanted to put something in the place of nothing, artistic sensibility as a substitute for capitalist greed” (135). For a while he saw the Revolution as embodying that ideal. My main point is that he was no negationist; his whole worldview was motivated by hope and possibility.
    Dear John,
    I can understand your being put off by Adorno. He was harsh, priggish, often rigid (though much less rigid than people take him to be–and he was able and willing to modify his positions), and probably no fun at parties. I adore his work, but I wouldn’t want to have hung out with him. He had a deep suspicion of pleasure as a kind of seduction to mindless surrender to the tyranny of what is.
    I can’t say much in defense of his writings on popular music, except that he was writing about stuff like Benny Goodman (one of the only musicians he mentions by name) which really was stereotyped dreck. He didn’t have a deep knowledge of jazz music, and knew pretty much nothing of black jazz music. He was responding to standardized radio and dance hall music, which was the pop music of the time.
    I would also say that he didn’t idealize classical music either. If you think he was harsh on popular music, you should read some of the things he wrote about Stravinsky and Shostakovich in The Philosophy of Modern Music. He was particularly scathing on the pseudo-spiritual feelings of superiority and virtue much of the classical music audience cultivates. He definitely did not believe that “that classical fans were exempt from the delusions of pop fans.” One of my favorite Adorno quotes is when he writes that culture is the enemy of art.
    I myself love a lot of pop music and very recondite music (almost all my favorite “classical” music, besides Wagner and Strauss, is twentieth century). But I’m not typical, and if you like both, you’re not typical either.
    As for the people you mention who were poor and produced art (a much more common phenomenon more recently, when there’s been more social mobility–Clare is a pretty damned rare pre-twentieth century example), part of the point is that they were all exceptions–that’s why one can list them. And most of the people you mention came up through the (twentieth century) popular music industry, which was more open largely because it was (and is) less respected/respectable–that’s one reason black people and poor people have had access to it.
    I certainly didn’t mean to soften Adorno’s edge. Let me put it another, harsher way: our society screws people over and that screws them up. It gives them distorted ideas about their own interests (yes, there is such a thing as false consciousness), makes them work and believe against their own interests, and provides no opportunity to become real people; it turns people into automatons who participate in their own oppression. Not a lot of people have the chance to get out of that. I’ve seen this and I’ve lived it. This isn’t to blame them: it’s something that is done to them, and that’s yet another reason Adorno hated capitalism. But he did think there was a better possibility, even if it might never be achieved. Honest.
    In general, it would be an interesting change if we could talk about poetry here instead of theory or the faux-politics and pseudo-sociology of poetry. Right now I am enjoying and being very moved by Rusty Morrison’s new book, The Truth Keeps Calm Biding Its Story, just out from Ahsahta Pres, and by Suzanne Gardinier’s amazing little chapbook from 1990, Usahn. I’ve also just reviewed Mark Doty’s new and selected poems volume, Fire to Fire, for Publishers Weekly. And I’m planning to reread Sidney Keyes, a British neo-Romantic poet who died in World War II in his twenties.
    peace and poetry,
    Reginald

  • On February 13, 2008 at 2:19 pm john wrote:

    Reginald — thanks for the stuff about Adorno on Stravinsky — very interesting!
    I want to respond to one piece of you what you said:
    “Let me put it another, harsher way: our society screws people over and that screws them up. It gives them distorted ideas about their own interests (yes, there is such a thing as false consciousness), makes them work and believe against their own interests, . . . ”
    I’m with you 100% of the way here. I’ve seen it too. I’ve known homeless people who vote Republican.
    You continue:
    ” . . . and provides no opportunity to become real people; it turns people into automatons who participate in their own oppression.”
    I get what you’re saying, but the rhetoric of “real people” v. “automatons” is disconcerting to me. Dehumanizing people — even rhetorically — ain’t right. People who work against their own self interests are still people.
    And, by the way, Goodman’s music wasn’t stereotyped dreck. He hired many brilliant and individualistic musicians, including Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Billie Holiday, and he himself was a brilliant, individualistic player who later commissioned Bartok to write something for him (a terrific piece, the name of which is escaping me). Even if you don’t like Goodman, beating up on him to defend Adorno’s ignorance of Ellington doesn’t really help Adorno.
    “A deep suspicion of pleasure” is representative of a not-uncommon strain of puritanical Marxism. Bummer.

  • On February 13, 2008 at 2:47 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Hi John,
    Thanks for reminding me that I can also get caught up in over-heated rhetoric. I was probably unfair to Goodman–I think it was the Ebony Concerto that he commissioned from Bartok, but I could be wrong. My point was that most of what we think of as jazz Adorno didn’t know about and wasn’t writing about. He might not have liked it if he had heard it, but that’s speculation. People often accuse Adorno of racism because of his criticisms of jazz, but he’s writing about white musicians and at one point says that there might be something more authentic in the black music on which they were drawing.
    Adorno’s was definitely a puritanical Marxism. He wanted a better society in which people could experience true joy, but until we got there, he wasn’t taking any substitutes. Again, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to spend time with him, as he seems to have been utterly humorous and incapable of relaxing. But I value him for his writing and for his ideas, not for how fun he might have been at cocktail parties, which are the kind of thing I hate anyway. I don’t believe in judging writers or thinkers by their personalities or biographies.
    I’m not saying that some people are real people and some people are automatons. I’m saying that capitalism turns real people into automatons who act out their inchoate frustrations through drinking and taking drugs and abusing one another and themselves in almost unlimited ways, with very little opportunity even to become consciously aware of their unhappiness, let alone do anything about it. Maybe that sounds too harsh, but I live in a very working class area and I see it all the time. When I was working menial jobs in Boston I did a lot of stupid, self-destructive, or just wasteful things to try to block out the fact that I was a wage slave, so I don’t exempt myself.
    Take good care. I think that now this post must have exceeded the Harriet record for number of comments. Cool.
    peace and poetry,
    Reginald

  • On February 13, 2008 at 3:40 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    >I don’t see how Joshua Clover’s work is indigestible by the academic institutional belly, especially given its theoretical apparatus.
    Reginald,
    Could be my poor prose, but my point there is that the theory-charged poetry of Clover *is* perfectly digestible– just as the Flarfers and Goldsmith, whom Hoover mentioned, are digestible.
    Of course, this implies no judgment on Joshua’s work, which I admire in many ways.
    Kent

  • On February 13, 2008 at 3:43 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    I have been posting to much, I am aware, but I just had to share this poem, sent to me today by an MFA student in California who attended the AWP. (I promise the piece is not by me!):
    “In the Bathroom At AWP”
    This one’s a post-modernist,
    this one’s avant-garde,
    this one writes long
    narrative poems
    about horses and blood.
    And yet, though they may assume
    different poses,
    they’re all holding on
    to the same fucking thing.

  • On February 13, 2008 at 4:19 pm john wrote:

    Reginald,
    The critique of self-destructive emotional release through alcohol etc. echoes Frederick Douglas’s critique of the Christmas revels, during which too many slaves spent their too much of their “time off” drinking too much. I’ve seen similar self-destruction (among the lower and upper classes), and have experienced my own self-destructiveness and self-limitations in other ways.
    Woody Herman commissioned “Ebony Concerto,” which I’ve never liked, from Stravinsky. The Bartok is called “Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano.” Goodman recorded it with Bartok on piano and Joseph Szigeti on violin. I’ll email details to you back channel.
    Cheers —
    John

  • On February 13, 2008 at 9:30 pm susan wrote:

    Careful, boys. You do know that when you start talking about your contemporaries by name, you just look resentful? Nietzsche would be proud.

  • On February 13, 2008 at 10:00 pm Paul Hoover wrote:

    Since the subject of Flarf has come up, I’ll offer my blurb for Sharon Mesmer’s recently published Annoying Diabetic Bitch, published by Combo Books late in 2007:
    Who or what’s eating Sharon Mesmer now? Saint Brave tugging on Jesus’ weenie? There’s more to this book than just a bullet to the brain! A kind of Dadaist courage to destroy form through the contents of discontent. She makes the surrealists look like sissies. “Rock and Roll” originally meant Sharon Mesmer. This book could give a girl a stiffy. No one has a more permanent home on the face of the page! “An acerbic visionary” (Lungfull). Half angel, half park ranger. For those who love distraction in poetry and art.
    ______________________
    Here’s what I offered about the indigestible to Christian’s blog which equally belongs on Reginald’s, excerpted. The entry began in response to D.W. Fenza and swerved to:
    But despite all of its influence and the fact that major presses publish some of its authors, language poetry retains its Outside status. No one ever mentions Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, or Leslie Scalapino as a “third way” or “lyric postmodernism.” They resist assimilation. Yet you can read Lyn’s book SLOWLY as meditative lyric; lyric, that is, that doesn’t try to slather the reader in the greasepaint of feeling. The avant-garde practice that has proved least assimilable is, strangely enough, performance poetry. There’s something within the body of poetry that resists its invasion. It never quite makes the mainstream, and by the mainstream I mean those of us, regardless of aesthetic, who make up poetry’s central economy: the Caroyn Forches, Charles Bernsteins, and Christian Wimans. Edwin Torres is fabulous, but why has language poetry, despite its difficulties, had so much more impact?
    All of humanity wants to be considered innovative. It’s disconcerting.
    A student of mine in Chicago, a female Hispanic, first-generation college student, was accepted to an MFA program in the East through an ethnic scholarship. So far, so good. But her work was rejected in the workshops as inaccessible. She could engage the meditative mode, the ‘abstract,’ but her poems were lyrical and so firmly framed as to be narrative. Beautiful poetry, but her workshop instructors claimed not to understand them. They asked her if she wouldn’t like to write some nice poems about being Hispanic. But she already was! The experience was a torture for her. She was perceived to be a carrier of these parasites D. W. Fenza imagines to exist. One of her professors took a summer vacation in San Francisco and returned with startling news. “There’s something called language poetry there,” she declared to her class, “Do you think it will come here?”
    Why was Holderlin such a great poet? He failed at power.

  • On February 14, 2008 at 1:34 pm Don Share wrote:

    Or as Ezra Pound once put it, “it ain’t the splendours that make grouping. And booze is not the river of enlightenment.”

  • On February 16, 2008 at 8:15 am Archambeau wrote:

    Interesting stuff, Reginald! And I like both Henry Gould’s response and Ron Silliman’s, both of which bring context and tradition to bear. I’ve posted a long-winded response called “Negative Legislators: Ethics of the Post-Avant” (I’d had a lot of coffee) over at my blog ( http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/negative-legislators-ethics-of-post.html ).
    Gluttons for punishment are welcome to check it out.
    Bob

  • On February 17, 2008 at 6:21 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    I have come to this/ days too late, and reading through all of it
    has put a knot in my tum-tum. So there’s no need to approve
    this comment, such as it is. Anyway, here’s a little silly:
    . . . . 9
    When his golf ball didn’t
    go in the hole,
    the golfer drilled
    a hole in his golf ball,
    and turned his tee
    upside down. So there.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, February 6th, 2008 by Reginald Shepherd.