Once more illness has kept me away from the blog for a while, this time due to surgery to kill the tumors on my liver. The surgery was successful, or so I'm told, but I ended up in the hospital for several days due to complications.
It recently occurred to me (I’m not sure why it took so long) that there’s a decidedly disproportionate representation of the self-proclaimed avant-garde in the online poetry world. Bloggers in particular are much more likely to be what poet Ron Slate calls avant-gardeners than to be more “mainstream”? poets. (When I first started my own blog a little over a year ago, someone wrote to say that she had been waiting for “a mainstream Ron Silliman”? as a counter-balance, an indication of his iconic status in the online poetry world.) There seems to be a high degree of technophilia among “post-avant”? bloggers. This is in part due to the fact that most of them are relatively young white men, who tend to be aficionados of all things computer-related: blogging, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, which I confess to being too old to know much about and too stodgy to care, computer and video games, text messaging, iPods and iPhones and Blackberries and Bluetooths, etc.
On a more intellectual level, this may also be due to the historical and metaphorical association of the sense of technological progress and the sense of aesthetic progress (just as there has been an association, wholly inaccurate, between being aesthetically “progressive” and being politically progressive). Perhaps because of the prestige of science and technology in the modern world, those who see themselves as artistically progressive have often conceived of their project in technological or at least technical terms. Christian Bök’s recent proclamation on this blog of “the manifold, literary advances since the time of Johnson and Coleridge” is a good example of such conceptualization and valorization of technical progress in the arts.
There is a long history of such technophilia in the artistic avant-garde, most notably in the the Italian Futurist and the Russian Constructivist cult of the machine. It’s interesting that such impulses were strongest in two of the more technologically backward countries in Europe, and specifically two countries undergoing rapid but highly uneven development, disappointing the hopes of both idealists and militarists. In such circumstances, dreaming of the gleaming future, the romance of the machine would hold great appeal: I think of Ivan Leonidov, El Lissitzy, and Vladimir Tatlin’s impossible monuments to the Russian Revolution.
While many American poets tend to appeal to notions of the natural, the authentic, and/or the sincere, American poets who see themselves as avant-garde tend to appeal to notions of progress (including social progress) and technical advance or innovation. This technological conception of artistic progress has persisted in American poetry (it doesn’t seem to apply to contemporary British or, from what I can tell, French poetry) long after it has been abandoned in music and the visual arts. Perhaps this is because of the inherent (due to the nature, or non-nature, of language as a medium) conservatism of literature in comparison with the other arts.
There’s an important distinction to be made between artistic "progress," presumably toward some goal (which the very phrase "avant-garde," with its military associations, conveys), and innovation or experimentation, which is a matter of exploring, exploiting, and expanding the possibilities of the medium. In the history of visual art there have been some developments that could be considered progress, such as the development of oil paints or the invention of single-point perspective, but I'm not sure one could even say that about literature. Certainly there's no technique in use today that wasn't being used one hundred years ago; many “advanced” literary techniques can be found in Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy or in Richard Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. The agedness of the avant-garde has often been commented on: the new ways of thinking are all rather old by now.
New works, new techniques, or new modes of art (unlike new scientific paradigms) don’t render previous works, techniques, and modes obsolete, though they can change the way we look at them. As T.S. Eliot writes, “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, 38). For that matter, it’s important to remember that even in science, Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics haven’t rendered Euclidean geometry or Newtonian physics obsolete or irrelevant: they still apply in normal areas of life and experience, though our perspective on them is different. All the art that's ever been made, although it was produced sequentially, exists in a space of simultaneity, what T.S. Eliot called “an ideal order…which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) among them” (ibid.)
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...