I often remind my students that, despite their belief that they have important knowledge to communicate to the world at large through their poetry, their status as poets already suggests that they have failed to make any momentous discovery that might have otherwise contributed to the history of knowledge; otherwise, the students might have exploited this insight in far more lucrative vocations, like the sciences or even business. I remind my students that they are probably taking my class in poetry because "math is hard"—and since they have no other worthy skills, they have chosen to accept their demotion to a lowly caste of literate nobodies. I get a few nervous giggles from the students after these waggish tirades—but then I underline my argument by saying that, if students really do believe that they are communicating, heretofore undiscovered, revelations to the public, then the proper genre for transmitting such a discovery is definitely not a poem, but a press conference....

Writers of the avant-garde must often work in a state of relative obscurity, if not outright dismissal, languishing until later appreciated—and if such writers ever do succeed, they almost always garner their fame, postmortem, at the behest of a future critic, who recognizes belatedly the importance of such work, arguing that, unlike older philistines who might appear oddly prejudicial, wiser arbitrators have since become newly enlightened. While critics flatter themselves repeatedly in this way for the sharpness of their hindsight, they do not often celebrate nor even recognize the merits of the avant-garde already in their own midst. Why does this cycle of recurrent, critical neglect and attendant, creative failure occur for each generation of the avant-garde, despite the fact that cannier critics might anticipate the future appeal of such newness and anomaly, and thereby promote such poetry during its self-conception instead of after its self-immolation. The reasons for this myopia are probably manifold, but no doubt originate primarily from the fact that, like any experiment, which uses methodical procedures of both trial and error in order to make an unplanned discovery, the avant-garde risks making many blunders on the way to its one epiphany—and if a modern critic deems that such experiments fail because the results are “inconclusive,” perhaps the results are so, not because they are too obdurate or too hermetic for consideration, but because such a cryptic outcome often demands that critics who address it must unlearn the very lessons that certify their ability to analyze it. The avant-garde thus demands innovation not only from the outgrowth of its experiment, but also from the criticism of its readership.

Originally Published: September 15th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. September 15, 2007

    Yes, critics do usually overlook things that later turn out to look great (not just to later readers but to later critics, and to later generations of writers). I'm not sure the overlookage happens to works you would calll avant-garde much more often than it happens to other sorts of memorable works. Was Niedecker avant-garde? I wouldn't say so-- she wrote well in a particular tradition, wrote better in that tradition for my money than any of its originators save Williams, but she wasn't a radical break with those originators. (By the way, where is she?) Was S.M. B.Piatt avant-garde? Certainly not... but she's been ignored for a while. Was John Clare?
    Certainly works produced far from the cultural center, whatever their cast, are more likely to avoid their contemporaries' notice than are works produced by people familiar in that center. But that's not-- primarily-- an effect of style; it's an effect of sociology (from which, yes, style is never completely separable, even though never completely assimilable either).

  2. September 15, 2007
     Jerome McGann

    Christian Bok's provocative remarks are well said and much needed -- indeed, long overdue, it seems to me. But I would demur from this: "Do not critics who study this holocaust always express dismay at the squandered potential of such talent and the unrewarded foresight of such genius? We always seem to say that, alas, these poets have failed, not because their work lacks aptitude, but because a philistine readership has failed to appreciate the contemporary significance of such art." That's a common view among critics -- and not just academic critics either. But "all"? I don't think so. It's by no means the only view available. As a marvelous poetical failure once said, for those who have ears to hear, let them hear. If you're reading critics who follow that deboshed line of thinking, well, stop reading them. As Swinburne said, "are there not other gods for other loves?"

  3. September 15, 2007
     Portland Trailblazer

    Wondering what critics you might be thinking of who today are neglecting the avant garde? I mean, who call themselves critics of poetry anymore, save Stephen Burt, perhaps the venerables like Vendler and Perloff, a handful of others? If you look at online zines, you'll find a fair trove of writing about the avant garde, even if most of said writing is extremely poorly written, it is still there, describing. And as print further fades into its specific oblivion, you'll find the avant garde, whatever that really means, and the mainstream experimental poets, will be the ones defining, I think, the critical discourse. Why? Because those quieter poets out there still, surprisingly, turn their collective noses up at online publication; and thus, with a few exceptions, they do very little exploration online. They will either find a way to co-opt down the road, or they will suffer for it.
    But again, what critics are you talking about? Do you mean recognition from mainstream awards (you've done better than most, there)? Newspapers? Little magazines? Academia? Is there an avant garde criticism, one that isn't in fact located inside the halls of academe? Most avant garde writers, at least the ones who self-identify as such, are academics. Nothing wrong with this, simply pointing out that most avant poets of our time are situated in the same place as the so-called mainstream or conservative poets.

  4. September 15, 2007
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Where's the quote from: "who once said, for those who have ears to hear, let them hear"? Not Cage, I think. Cage said, "Music is all around us if only we had the ears to hear it."

  5. September 15, 2007
     Henry Gould

    Writing is easy, the easiest thing in the world, simpler than toasting bread. Poetry is just a daydream, poetry is a snap. Neglect is the best thing that ever happened to anyone.

  6. September 16, 2007
     Matt Cozart

    Neglect isn't the best thing that ever happened to anyone, but I would agree that it really isn't that bad (literarily speaking). This also applies to sports–even though I've never won Wimbledon, I still enjoy playing tennis.

  7. September 16, 2007

    Umm, about that quote, "those who have ears, let them hear...," isn't that from the NT's Revelations?

  8. September 16, 2007

    No, it wasn't John Cage. (It's also the source of a moderately famous typo.)
    I think it's true that poets and readers in Pound-Williams-Stein tradiitions have made more use of web publication than have poets and readers who see themselves as indebted from Frost, but the self-declared avant-garde hardly has a monopoly. The more web-publication, the better, I think. (Oh, and sorry about Greg Oden.)

  9. September 16, 2007
     Jerome McGann

    "He who hath ears to hear, let him hear": Matthew 11:15 (also in Mark and Luke)

  10. September 16, 2007

    I think Steve's first comment deserves a response.
    John Ashbery's _Other Traditions_ gives us a better picture of what poetic outliers look like. Literary history is not a straight line; it reflects a measure of contingency that your version does not admit, and tends to resist efforts like yours to totally masculinize it. You rather mind me of Tolkien trying to purge feminine latinates from good old Anglo Saxon.

  11. September 16, 2007
     Don Share

    With regard to the experimental, is the implication that the "avant-garde" does most of the experimenting? Is there a real opposition between the "avant-garde" and those who, to paraphrase Steve, see themselves as "indebted" to Frost? As Jarrell pointed out over a half-century ago in "The Obscurity of the Poet," critics failed to understand Wordsworth at first, Dryden was thought to have tread on the brink where sense and nonsense mingle, and Dryden himself Shakespeare's phrases scarcely intelligible. Maybe all poetry can be seen to be somehow "obscure," at first; time clears that up when it comes to the poems that survive an age. (The great thing about Ashbery's "other traditions" is how, well, traditional they are!) Anyhow, I think it was Helen Vendler who said that "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world."

  12. September 16, 2007
     Christian Bök

    Steve, you seem to suggest that neglect of a poet arises purely from the accidents of sociology (for example, distance from the centres of culture) –and this neglect has affected both traditional work and progressive work in equal measure. I might counter by saying that the avant-garde has always worked in proximity to the cultural hotspots (like Paris or New York), where it has never been ignored, except through staunch dismissal and wilfull disregard. I might also point out that, usually, the rediscovery of a neglected, traditional poet only reaffirms what the critics already know, thus requiring an enlargement of the norm, but the reappraisal of a neglected, progressive poet only questions what the critics already know, thus requiring an abandonment of the norm –and these effects have not in fact occurred with equal measure throughout the history of poetics….
    Jerome, I might respond to your point by suggesting that, in an effort to find the critics whom the poets might care to hear, such poets have had to become such critics, supplying all the counterpoints for themselves….
    Ange, I see no evidence in the language of my comments to suggest that I am making any effort at all "to masculinize" the history of poetics, nor do I see any evidence to suggest that I am trying to "purge" women from my discussion of this topic. I freely admit that the history of the avant-garde "reflects a measure of contingency"–and in fact, I might go so far as to suggest that the avant-garde always sets out to create the innovative conditions for its own obsolescence….

  13. September 16, 2007

    Christian - It's not that I think there *ought* to be more women represented in your cohort; I am merely pointing out a possibly interesting *fact.* I refer you to your own interview here (, where there are hardly any women mentioned in connection with your intellectual cohort. Queyras is an afterthought in this paragraph:
    CB: Among my peers, Kenneth Goldsmith is still the man to beat--but I take inspiration in varying degrees from a variety of contemporary writers, most of whom take their cues from conceptual artistry of one sort or another: Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Kevin Davies, Jeff Derksen, Craig Dworkin, Dan Farrell, Steve McCaffery, and probably most of all, my best friend Darren Wershler-Henry (co-author of the recent book "Apostrophe"--an awesome work of avant-garde poetry, written entirely by a machine that scours the Internet for interesting phraseology). I have also been very excited by the recent book entitled "Lemonhound" by the feminist poet Sina Queyras.
    Now, the fact that women are scarcely to be found exploring such projects says something about women; their absence is a significant absence, not an oversight on your part. And therein is the reason your project will never be representative of poetry's full potential.

  14. September 16, 2007

    Sorry "signifying" absence rather than "significant" absence. That is, women are willfully absent from this history.

  15. September 16, 2007

    Christian, it seems to me that your division of all poets (or is it all neglected poets?) into 'traditional" and "progressive" says more about the sociology of literature-- or about the Whig-history-via-Marxist-polemic heritage that afflicts so much otherwise useful discussion of poetry from Whitman forward-- than it does about what most of the poets who interest me were trying to do.
    By the way, was Pound "traditional" or "progressive"? Which one was Niedecker? which one was John Clare?

  16. September 17, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    This is an interesting discussion that brings up many issues which are not only important to the avant garde. After all, all kinds of talents have managed somehow to thrive despite of (or because of?) critical neglect or misunderstanding. (And I'm not sure about equating avant garde with experimental--I like Wallace Stevens' "All poetry is experimental poetry.") Wouldn't the avant garde cease to be so if it won instant mainstream acceptance? Doesn't it thrive off being "edgy"--marginal in some way? Isn't that part of its cachet, that not everybody gets it? Some kinds of success can be more harmful than neglect. (A Nobel prize often preserves a working writer's style in amber, or aspic; winning a Yale Younger can often be more paralyzing pressure than encouragement.) Do poets write for an audience of critics? Where a new poetry needs a new criticism, it often seems to homegrow one, which is perhaps as it should be. Maybe that's why I so appreciate reading (to touch on the subject of reviews) appreciations of poets I haven't been able to get much purchase on, to help me see what's there.

  17. September 17, 2007
     Christian Bök

    Ange, thanks for the continuing commentary–but I confess that I still do not understand how a male list of peers influencing my own experimental idiosyncrasy might constitute an indictment. You suggest that few women pursue avant-garde poetry (when in fact lots of women are "exploring" such projects, including, among many others, Caroline Bergvall, Nicole Brossard, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Karen Mac Cormack, Lisa Robertson, all writing in a diverse variety of styles). I do not think that women have ever really been "absent" from the avant-garde at all–so I am struggling to figure out what you mean when you say that their absence "says something about women." I am also curious about your last statement– since I have never claimed anywhere that my project "represents the full potential" of poetry (although I might suggest that whatever "potential" any poem might have consists uniquely in its capacity for linguistic innovation, however that "newness" might manifest itself…).

  18. September 17, 2007

    Christian, I completely agree that "any potential a poem might have consists uniquely in its capacity for linguistic innovation, however that 'newness' might manifest itself." Well, one may interpret that rather broadly, but on the face of it I agree.
    Since I agree with you on this basic premise, in fact, it seems more useful to highlight differences. Even when women do avant-garde work (and, of course, I know of all the women on your list), it's never *quite* as avant-garde as men's (think core Language Poets, or the Four Horsemen, compared to women like Howe, Notley, Guest, et al.) -- there are soft and hard avant-gardes, weak and strong avant-gardes; and perhaps nothing is so strong and hard as excising all lyricism, subjectivity and links to experience from one's work. Not many women do it.
    I don't expect you to reply to this right now, but perhaps sometime. And I don't want to have to argue this alone; other women should chime in, especially since I know firsthand that they grumble about it.
    As for suggesting that you think your project represents the poetry of the future ... well, you do, don't you?

  19. September 18, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Thanks, Ange, for raising this issue, one that to me seems impossible to separate from how our social relations as poets play out. Is there a pattern of avant-garde male poets hanging together, brewing manifestos and then promoting their work as representative of it; while female poets choose, out of necessity or otherwise, to withdraw to their studios? Think of those photographs of O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler at Soho galleries and coffee shops. Think of similar photographs of Spicer, Duncan, and Snyder. Where is Barbara Guest?
    Think of Zukofsky fabricating his “Objectivist” theory, marshalling his friends for an appearance in Poetry while one of the best of those poets, Lorine Niedecker, retreated to the rural Midwest, corresponding with Zukofsky to keep in touch with the social avant-garde swirl in New York. Think of Williams, Creeley, Bernstein. I think these social/poetic clans are essential and generative to the poets who belong to them, and so important to value. Yet it’s interesting to me that the two twentieth century poets whom other poets from wildly different aesthetic perspectives agree to revere are Elizabeth Bishop and Lorine Niedecker. Both of them retreated from urban literary scenes to work, yet both kept in touch with them through the scene's central male poet: Bishop through Lowell, and Niedecker through Zukofsky.

  20. September 18, 2007
     Cathy Wagner

    I don’t have a comment right now on the xx vs. xo argument, but I do have a comment that might be related.
    Christian said: “if students really do believe that they are communicating, heretofore undiscovered, revelations to the public, then the proper genre for transmitting such a discovery is definitely not a poem, but a press conference....” Here’s an off-the-cuff comment from Marjorie Perloff on the same topic: “There's no better way for me to put it than to paraphrase Wittgenstein: do not forget that a poem, even though it's published in the language of information, is not used in the language game of giving information.”
    The avant-garde has a longstanding habit of cleaning up artforms by announcing the illegality of various dirty habits; communication is a no-no because it means an imposition of a particular value-system on the reader. I understand this argument but I am nevertheless determined to risk the imposition because 1) I think the reader can take it and 2) it’s important for me to explore and criticize my own values using the material tools only poetry gives me. Subject matter, information, and communication are not exclusive of linguistic experiment and innovation.
    Because a press conference is not a work of art, it doesn’t therefore follow that a work of art can’t be a source of information or even of revelation; and not just by means of its form but in and of its form. I would rather not squelch students’ desire to connect their writing to the world (“No you may not communicate; that’s not good poetics”). I’d rather ask them: if there is an attempt to communicate a revelation, does the revelation seem to happen through the poem – that is, is it OF the poem, and OF the poem’s letters and phonemes and rhythm and breaks? or is the poem an advertisement for a prior revelation? The problem of the bad poem is a problem related to a writer’s investment in the material of language; it’s got nothing to do with her attempt to discover or communicate information with that material.

  21. September 18, 2007
     Catherine Daly

    1) in the case of paradigm shifts, such as that between victorian poetry and modernist poetry, that between modernist poetry and postmodernist poetry, or postmodern poetry and lanugage poetry, or confessional poetry and language poetry, etc.; or those between newtonian physics and relativity, or at the dawn of modern algebra / the french revolution, it is customary to note that ideas and practices seem so new that those who have been wholly devoted to the previous ideas are unable to accept the revolutionary ideas, and must die out before the new ideas can reach wide, "official" acceptance
    2) I find this reinscription of Cal Bedient's "soft avant garde" and especially the use of adjectives herein objectionable. I don't think anyone would argue that Lyn Heijinian's or Leslie Scalapino's or _____'s writing is "softer" or "weaker" than that of any other writer.

  22. September 18, 2007

    Seeing this comment thread veer toward the topic of the avant-garde and gender, I wanted to direct folks to a piece in the new Chicago Review. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young have an engaging essay there which involves a lot of counting of the number of women in recent anthologies, recent prizewinners, publication in innovative and university presses, etc. One of their points is that despite a lot of "feminist interventions" since the 1980s, experimental poetry (or whatever you choose to call it) is still far from having achieved gender parity. The piece responds to one of the premises (but not the main thesis) of a recent essay by Jennifer Ashton, a scholar at the U of Illinois at Chicago, who asserts rather casually that such parity has more or less been reached. In both essays this "numbers game" reflects on what are really, to most everyone I think, the more interesting aesthetic and philosophical debates. The idea Ange is suggesting here--that there is a female experimentalism that is different or somehow softer than male experimentalism--would be interesting to consider in the light of these essays. While recognizing that Ashton's argument is careful & complicated, to temp people to look at it I'll go ahead and reduce it by saying it revolves around the philosophcial problem of gender "essentialism" and its relation to innovative form. While Ashton doesn't spend much time on the concepts of essence or essentialism (or innovative form for that matter), she does boldly suggest that a number of avant gardists women writers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Kathleen Fraser most prominently) have, according to Ashton, claimed to hold "anti-essentialist" positions while being in fact embroiled in essentialist logic from the moment they connect innovative form to their or anyone's social & political experiences as women. Anyways that's what I took away from it, others might read it different, but I certainly found both essays worth the time.

  23. September 18, 2007

    Brent, I have a subscription, so I'll definitely read it. I want to emphasize, though, that the idea of female experimentalism being soft or weak is not *my* characterization, but, I believe, ambient. I don't accept the terms myself. The fiercest experimental writing, from women and men, is always related to experience in some way.

  24. September 19, 2007
     Brent Cunningham

    Hi Ange,
    Yes, lax phrasing on my part at the very least. You're saying that female experimentalist work gets read, presented, framed, maybe even unconciously experienced, as different and less rigorous than male experimentalism even though there's no evidence that such lack of rigour exists anywhere in the work/s. Is that closer? Something like that is initially persuasive to me, but at the same time I'd be interested if you have some places where you see this manifesting? To me the absence of women on Christian's list doesn't seem like the most pointed demonstration of what you're saying, even if it's arguably an effect. It might be worthwhile to try to locate a work by a woman that formally, philosophically, aesthetically & in every other way can be agreed to be the equal to a similar work by a man, and point to ways it's being talked about differently in reviews, on blogs, in marketing copy, etc. But then--and this is what I was gesturing towards--such a scientific testing of your hypothesis would still be left grappling with the dilemma of essence I think Ashton is concerned with. It's often presented & reduced this way: either there is something about being a woman that is shared in a given culture among women of similar race and class, and which is different from being male in that culture/class/race, or there isn't. If there is, people can always explain the different way a poetic work is being talked about as just a way of noticing that difference, and it's hard to determine when someone is just noticing such difference versus when they're out and out being sexist. On the other hand, if there there isn't that commonality among women of similar experiences it makes the patriarchy look, uh, kind of relative and not as dehabilitating as it really, to my mind, is and can be. A lot of the energy of these discussions is, to me, driven by desire to find a way through this apparent contradiction. In other words: how to see gender inequality & male power as a fully real force while at the same time not restricting individual women, or their experiences, to being mere or constant ciphers for that force.

  25. September 19, 2007
     Ben Friedlander

    Not to question your larger point–that Niedecker suffered intense isolation and neglect, of a sort that makes Zukofsky's situation (for he too suffered those things) seem like Stein's in Paris–but what you write is a little misleading, since Niedecker first wrote to Zukofsky after reading that issue of Poetry.
    What this thread shows, I think, is that someone, really, should write a book on poetry and neglect; it's a far more profound (and potentially saddening) subject than polemics over which poets deserve attention would lead one to think.
    As anyone who has ever fallen in love with a minor poet already knows!

  26. September 19, 2007

    Brent, I see what you're saying, and I'd love to get drawn in, but I want to read Ashton & her interlocutors first. Can we take a raincheck on this debate? I presume I'll see the CR in my mailbox soon....

  27. September 20, 2007

    Ange writes that,"the fiercest experimental writing... has always been related to experience in some way." Ange, could you expand on that? It seems to me like a huge statement and I'm not convinced it's true. I suppose I'm not sure what you mean by "experience," exactly. Can it mean experience of vocables, moods, other writing? Or does it mean going to war, changing diapers, and so forth? Can "experience" possibly be "sensation"? Does experience of things like tastes, temperatures, textiles, and the like count as experience?
    Also, if fierce writing is related to experience, does that make the writing somehow representative of that experience, or is the writing itself the experience?

  28. September 20, 2007

    Hi Nada - I'll be more than happy to elaborate in a new post in the not-too-distant future. I like to think that by experience I mean sensation, yes. But I'd like to post more substantially on the subject than a comment box allows. More soon. - A

  29. September 20, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Thanks for pointing out my mistake: according to Poetry's historical index, Niedecker didn't appear in the magazine until 1933.
    And, I agree that someone should write about neglect's profound effect. Niedecker's poems, afterall, didn't appear in the magazine again until 1963.

  30. September 21, 2007

    Everybody has their own strenghs and are all unique in their special way. I have no authority on the subject of poetry or writing but I could not help myself being INSPIRED by Van Walton's message in ff. article.
    “The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life", Proverbs11:30 (NLT)
    While walking through my neighborhood following a strong summer storm, I noticed a “dent” in the landscape. Upon closer investigation I realize that one large tree had succumbed to winds of the storm. Down it went, taking several other trees down with it.
    Pondering nature’s lesson, I thought about the winds that blow through our lives. I thought about how the strong stand tall and the weak fall. I flashed back to times when I’ve experienced the storms of life. I looked at that big tree and thought, “It wasn’t enough that you fell. You took others down with you.” Unfortunately, the choices we make don’t just affect us. From our decisions flow consequences that not only destroy our lives but also those in our realm of influence.
    When I taught high school, I had many opportunities to listen and comment. My students bragged about their off campus, weekend activities. They thought they were having fun. Most often they were. But as in the case of most kids, their fun spilled over into unreasonable practices. When I questioned the wisdom of their choices, they inevitably replied. “Oh it’s just me. It’s not like it’s going to affect anyone else!”
    I stole money from my mother to treat my classmates at the concession stand. When the teacher thanked my mom for her generosity, she was shocked. She had not given me money for class treats! Not only did I “fall” in the eyes of my teacher, I took my mother’s esteem as a parent down.
    My son played a prank while all his friends watched. When confronted, no one confessed. They all suffered the consequences together.
    A cell phone rang during a team meeting. All players lost phone privileges
    A group of boys decided to spend the night at a friend’s apartment. They drank alcohol late into the night. The next morning while driving home, sirens and flashing lights pulled up behind the speeding car. The still intoxicated driver was handcuffed and taken to jail. His abandoned passengers, meanwhile, were taken down too with no way home. This is not the end of the story. One of the boys’ mothers listened to her phone messages and incredulously heard a police officer on the other end taking about the incident. With a broken heart she broke the news to her husband. Two more fell.
    Thankfully, no one had died. But I remember other times kids made decisions that resulted in death.
    A bonfire on a summer night can be loads of fun. Add alcohol and it becomes dangerous. Throw in a jeep, a quick run to the store and the result is deadly. That is exactly what happened a few blocks from my house. A decision not only killed a budding young adult, but it also took down the driver by terminating his career in the Air Force. It took down a mother who lost her son. It took down a group of kids who lost their reputations and credibility. It took down a community that became polarized. It took down relationships when trust was lost. It took down individuals’ character, as cynicism and doubt crept in.
    Winds blow. Storms gather. A tree sways. Roots rip. Down it goes. It never falls without damaging the landscape around it. On the other hand, a strong tree that stands upright is a blessing to the entire community.
    Dear Father, You know how many times I have fallen, taking others down with me. Thank You for this illustration. Remind me when I make decisions that I will not experience the consequences alone. I do not want others to suffer because of the choices I have made. Thank You for Your faithfulness, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.