Readers of these posts about failure are offering lots of excellent responses to my provocations, and I am grateful for the interest. Some of you have suggested that the avant-garde indulges in asensual, abstract writing that disowns "figural" devices rooted in our "experience" of the world. I have tried to suggest, however, that (on the contrary) much of the avant-garde concerns itself with an unmediated experience of material language itself—a language full of empirical sensation free from essayistic abstraction. The Black Mountain poets, for example, deploy concrete language in order to transcribe the act of paying attention to the "proprioception" of the body during the act of thinking; moreover, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets go on to deploy concrete language in order to display the material texture of words themselves, doing so in order to subvert the exchanges that (for the sake of abstract meanings) otherwise suppress our direct, "opaque" experience of such overloaded signifiers. I believe that, far from failing because such poetry is simply "too conceptual," both movements (and other flavours of the avant-garde) succeed because of their passionate commitment to the creation of "sensational" experiences made out of nothing but words. I am hoping that, by offering these concluding sentiments, I might close the topic of "failure" for now, in the interest of opening up a newer topic for discussion….

Beckett recognizes that, ironically, the success of poetics in the modern milieu must predicate itself upon a poetic desire to “fail better.” The avant-garde argues that, because modern poetry has become complacent, reiterating its own outworn formula for success, thereby reassuring us rather than disturbing us, any future, poetic endeavour must foreswear the success of this formula for the sake of revolutionary investigation. The avant-garde does not abide by any official standard of success, and thus its practice presumes its own failure, betting itself upon its own forthcoming exoneration; moreover, the avant-garde recognizes that, in its attempt to redress the failure of poetics in the modern milieu, such a doomed labour risks compounding one failure with yet another failure. The worst of our poets can exploit such an untenable situation, because it grants them permission to succumb, with no incentives to prevail. Who needs to succeed, when failure is considered both inevitable and acceptable? We blame the declining literacy, if not the expanding banality, of our culture for the fact that poetry is losing its marketshare to online nudity—but in fact we have no one to blame, but ourselves, for the absence of our success in the face of such a decline. We can, if we want, write poems that compete favourably with the best work in other media, but we lack the ambitiousness of such entrepreneurial experimentation, which (as a matter of course) puts itself at risk for the sake of newness and anomaly. If we want to succeed in the future, we may need to range outside the catechism of our training in order to write poems more addictive than any neurotoxin, more seductive than any centerfold, and more infective than any retrovirus.

Originally Published: September 28th, 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 28, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    "much of the avant-garde concerns itself with an unmediated experience of material language itself–a language full of empirical sensation free from essayistic abstraction"
    Well, anyone who's read Ezra Pound knows the dictum "go in fear of abstraction." These days, the rule is far more widespread among the traditionalists than the avant garde.
    As I've written elsewhere, the proper rubric for the avant garde is not some tired old rule that you (Christian) and others seem to think of as the recipe for "good poems", but rather a specific, but expanded, notion of freedom.
    As for the idea that the avant garde doesn't care about sense and just goes about making tone poems from words -- please! Take Gertude Stein, for example, a touchstone for the 21st century avant garde. She's obsessed with sense, with making sense; obsessed with abstractions (no dictionary-hunting for clever words with her!); to describe her and her descendents as nothing more than scat singers is bizarre.

  2. September 28, 2007
     Henry Gould

    wait a minute - I thought Avant-Garde was a kind of toothpaste.

  3. September 28, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    While we are here, if I may use this space to address Ange's and other's demands for figuration. The anxiety here, as I understand it, is specifically an ambivalence about the ultimate extension of Kant and then his successors into a radical doubt in the existence of reality itself: what one might call the "brain sitting in a vat" notion, where all perception and representation is suspect, where language is intrinsically estranged from the world and is suspect and, at the far pole, nothing exists beyond language. Despite all the evidence of our daily lives and processes to the contrary, this was the harrowing place that thought had taken itself to by the end of the 1980s. Hence the distrust or unease with the figure, the impoverishment of language by the conception of it as pure ideology, the swallowing of literature whole by philosophy, the cynicism about whether there had ever been an actual wheelbarrow, or indeed, chickens. It was natural that this cynicism should infect poetic self-reflection, hence certain theoretico-aesthetic "movements" and manifestoes; I suspect, although I wasn't there to witness what actually happened, that Ange is right in saying that certain avant garde poetry had tried to deliberately retreat from the figure; however, in retrospect, one finds that all poetic practice, in practice, was never really able do completely without the world or its actual things. (Nor, on the other side of the fence, without rhetoric, but I'll come back to that shortly.)
    That language, and specifically figurative language should be mistrusted is now beyond argument: language does reduce and replace the world; we live in a dream of language that, while it facilitates our movement through it, obscures the world at every turn. On the other hand, we are returning to the notion that the world exists and will not go away, cannot be constructed out of its own existence; moreover that part of poetry's continuing duty is to describe, ennumerate and point to the existence of that world. A fact (in science) and a figure (in art) are both constructions, deliberate, elaborate constructions, the data they draw on has been altered in the making-- and yet, the data does come from somewhere. As Bruno Latour says, the map is not radically estranged from the territory-- it is linked to it by several little steps of translation. The brain does not sit in a vat but in the body.
    We know this to be true in our everyday lives; we cant escape it. And hence, the continued value of figuration in poetry, as a testament to this truth.
    For myself, I take this to mean also that poems may, and should, have subjects.
    So I am sympathetic to representation. HOWEVER, it seems equally ridiculous to outlaw all other kinds of abstractions beside figuration. Or indeed, all abstraction. That seems like a hopelessly anglo-american approach to poetics and philosophy. In fact, language, and also the poem, is also about the communicative act, the speech act, and about rhetoric. There is no shame in rhetoric or abstraction: Laura Riding was a true poet. And: what about tone, what about gesture, please. Or put it this way: the most essential building blocks of poetry are not this! and that! but you and I. You could dress up your "you"s and "I"s in all kinds of figurative jewellery but that would only be counter-productive. Both "you" and "I" and I are almost by definition, by nature, abstractions. Thou, too. And thou is still there, hanging around.
    And then there is the materiality of language, which more than anything else is poetry's special province, but which I consider as something separate from figuration.
    Language as figuration, language as abstraction, language as material: why choose, why privilege one over the other or institute a hierarchy-- why not work with all three? Listen: the people on the street nearest you are doing it.

  4. September 28, 2007
     Don Share

    I'm glad Vivek brought up Laura (Riding) Jackson, who's certainly the one to turn to on the subject of poetry and failure; in fact, just published is an extrapolation of her opus The Failure of Poetry, The Promise of Language. She famously argued that the truth begins where poetry ends and rejected the authoritative character and attached to the "poet-role." Is something like her renunciation of poetry - what she calls her "discontinuance of being a poet" - a logical extension of some of the remarks in this thread?

  5. September 28, 2007
     Marty Elwell

    The idea of poetry being read by a more wide audience is certainly attractive. However, I still return to my original comment that your definition of success is too focused on a present day American definition of wealth and fame. If a poet achieves an audience as wide spread as celebrity gossip, pop music, or internet porn, does said poet risk being rejected by the poetry world for selling out? Is this also a form of failure?
    "If we want to succeed in the future, we may need to range outside the catechism of our training in order to write poems more addictive than any neurotoxin, more seductive than any centerfold, and more infective than any retrovirus."
    First, this statement portrays a narrow view of poets as academics. Many poets are trained in business, entertainment, etc... If the solution to expanding poetry’s audience were jazzier packaging or better marketing, you would find plenty of poets capable of putting this strategy into action.
    I believe labeling poetry as Avant-Garde, traditional, revolutionary, etc... is irrelevant. The definition of a poet's success lies in her or his ability to craft lasting and moving art that provides perspective on the world in which she/he lives over a long period of time. Other than the poet’s bank account, it doesn’t matter if the immediate readership is five or five million. If a poet influences multiple generations into the future, success has been achieved. Poetry will truly fail when it is consumed by defining itself rather than continuously producing relevant artwork.

  6. September 28, 2007

    Rat's. Vivek nailed what I was thinking on all of this, and obviated the comment I was composing. I would only add that there are certainly parallels in the other arts. In the music world, for instance, all sound, and all activities that produce sound, can now fall within the purview of music-making. Furthermore, the music of all the world's cultures and of all historical periods are fair game for performance, analysis, anthologizing, deconstruction, reconstruction, etc. Just because music can be made using computers or trash cans certainly doesn't make the violin an anachronism (or mean that a good violin player any less of an amazement), but it may alter our idea of where the violin fits in the larger scheme of things.
    Searching for an artistic movement that is somehow the next necessary step for the progress of art is rapidly becoming a fool's errand. The task now is far more complex, more challenging, and - I think - more exciting: how to create and communicate meaning effectively now that the playground is so huge (and so full of new equipment)

  7. September 28, 2007

    This thread moves fast; I keep mulling over my responses, and the comments surpass me at every turn.
    Don, your excerpt from John Latta's blog was apropos - I would only add his final quote from Shklovsky, "I am trying to show that the immortality of art lies in correlations." Or correspondences, Baudelaire would say. If you believe that, you would have to part ways with LRJ.
    Vivek, I agree with your account and I can't disagree with your conclusion. I mean, I don't eschew abstraction, even non-figurative abstraction, but I think that past attempts to overthrow figuration (and syntax, and reference) was a fun bonding experience for certain homosocial coteries, and it left us with a lot of rhetoric. And much of it essayistic rhetoric, Christian's protestations aside.
    So yes, let's have more of everything, and fewer rules, and see what shakes out.
    Christian, I just have to add -- your bile toward the essayistic is amusing because your posts are the most essayistic of all us bloggers; like old-school LP, you compartmentalize the essayistic and the performative. More than anything, it perversely makes me want to write an essayistic poem myself.
    Thanks everybody. -- A

  8. September 29, 2007
     Francisco Aragon

    I've been marginally following this discussion and once again, the part of it I sometimes find frustrating is this notion (and I haven't read these comments close enough to know if anyone has already said this) a poet writing today somehow has to "take sides".
    As someone who grew up in San Francisco and went to UC Berkeley in the 80s, I found it extremely liberating and nourishing that there seemed to be so much aesthetic diversity around me. I had different teachers exposing me to so many different kinds of poetry that I found things to like in poets whose poetics one might say are diametrically opposed. I enjoyed being exposed to poets like Robert Duncan on the one hand, and then reading poets Robert Pinsky would recommend (Louise Gluck, Frank Bidart), on the other. I felt lucky to be introduced to Basil Bunting by Thom Gunn on the one hand, have Ishmael Reed expose me to Victor Hernandez Cruz, on the other. I would attend a reading by Gunn in the Haight, and then one by Michael Palmer in Noe Valley. In short, I never felt like I somehow had to choose and pit on against the other.
    Last point, sort of related: isn't it possible to learn something from poets whose work we don't especially like, even hate?

  9. October 1, 2007
     Don Share

    Francisco Aragon's last point is important, and his account of being exposed to different kinds of poetry is heartening. As William Empson famously said back in 1966: "It seems to me that the chief function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people are very various, many of them quite different from you, with different 'systems of value’ as well; and the effect of almost any Orthodoxy is to hide this..."