Like the previous post, this fourth and final post on this topic was largely prompted by Brent Cunningham's comments on the second post. Some of it will be more clear if readers refer back to that post and its comment stream while reading this entry.
I like the terms “Modern” and “Modernist” because of their bare descriptiveness: they make few claims but the chronological, their efflorescence coinciding with the transformation of western culture and society into what we now call the modern world. Modern art is the art of the modern world: perhaps one could call modernist art the art that is self-consciously so. Though Bürger undoubtedly means a disparagement in comparing avant-garde and modern/modernist art, the art that has lasted has been that which, like Cubism (again, his example) has set itself to explore the possibilities of the medium.
If by “experimental” one means “trying something out to see what happens,” then that still seems useful as a term and a procedure. Wallace Stevens wrote that all good poetry is experimental poetry; that may be an overstatement, but there is a great deal of truth to it. It’s when the term “experimental,” like the term “avant-garde,” begins to be used evaluatively rather than descriptively that it becomes problematic. The attitude and activity of exploration and experimentation was and isn’t restricted to those who either proclaimed themselves or were proclaimed to be “avant-garde.” As Henry Gould has pointed out on a different post’s comment thread, much of John Berryman’s work is in style and attitude as wildly exploratory as anything in The New American Poetry, about which there was so much discussion some time ago.

One of my objections to the use of the term “avant-garde” in relation to contemporary work is exactly that it’s often used as a synonym for “good poetry” or “the poetry I like,” or “the poetry I’m willing to respect. (Stevens’ reminder that “It Must Give Pleasure” is frequently left by the wayside: one doesn’t get the feeling that many people enjoy the poetry they champion as avant-garde.) Too often these terms aren’t used to make distinctions among different kinds or work doing or attempting to do different kinds of things, but as marks of virtuousness or sinfulness. I don’t think that at this point they refer to actual entities but instead announce attitudes and positions: “I am of the angels’ party and you/they are of the devil’s party.”
Brent Cunningham writes that “one of the main articulations of the historical avant garde was that good and bad are not transcendent judgments, but are always closely determined by specific, lived contexts.” It strikes me on the other hand that Dada, Surrealism, Situationism have no interest in producing works of art at all, let alone in making aesthetic judgments among such artworks. That, it seems, would strike them as mere “art appreciation.” Their interest is in process, by whatever name that process is called—the Surrealists and the Situationists called it revolution. Andé Breton wrote that the supreme Surrealist act would be to discharge a loaded pistol into a crowd.
With regard to separating the work from the person, with much historical literature we do this a matter of course, as little is known of the author. It’s a necessary condition of reading at all: Shakespeare has been dead for a long time, and yet we can still read his plays and poems. The work is separate from the person; as Picasso allegedly said, art is called art because it is not life. In any case, for me at least, my interest in the author derives from my interest in the work. (Though there are some authors whose works don’t interest me but whose lives do, like Ronald Firbank.) If my primary interest is in an historical period, a social context, I read about that, rather than trying to read a piece of literature as a social document or record—a novel or a poem is a very inefficient way to learn about history.
By the end of his comment, Brent Cunningham seems to end up defining avant-garde not as a kind of art or a way of proceeding in the making of artworks, but as a way of reading and interpreting already existing artworks. An avant-garde reading would be one which we “[talk] about how the writer and the work are interlinked and socio-historically situated,” whereas a non-avant-garde reading (whatever name one would give to that) would ignore “the whole complex politics of poetry.” I have written on many occasions that a work of art, that art itself, emerges from a specific social/political/economic matrix, from a specific individual on what Foucault has called the grid of specifications. My point is and always has been that it is not defined and wholly determined by what might be called the conditions of its production.
And with that, I bid everyone a fond good-night.

Originally Published: June 20th, 2008

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...

  1. June 20, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I hope my dissertation adviser Oren Izenberg won't mind my hijacking his, to my mind, definitive answers to these questions from a roundtable Joan held over at Boston Comment (nothing of what follows is mine own):
    Obviously, there are poets today who view themselves as part of the avant-garde of American poetry. Those who claim the honorific use it quite variously–to name a range of styles or compositional techniques, to signal an attitude toward particular institutions, to indicate a set of theoretical commitments, to identify an artistic lineage, to claim an affiliation with like-minded contemporaries. Most of these uses of the term marry shorthand (we have fair sense what kind of thing to expect when it appears) to advertising (its appearance conveys a sense of urgency about the values its bearers wish to be associated with). For the most part, our avant-gardes no longer burden themselves with the political utopianism for which Peter Burger relegated it to history, nor do they set themselves up for the endless failures that led Paul Mann argue that death is the avant-garde's form of life. The designation “avant-garde” (or, in its somewhat more modest form, “post-avant”) may indeed tell us something about the poet's imagined or actual coordinates within a literary and intellectual culture, and in that sense it can be of real sociological interest. But I don't find the idea of an avant-garde very useful to describe the achievement of poetry.
    For my own purposes, I tend to prefer the term “experimental” (though it, too, can certainly be used vaguely, or variously, or for promotional purposes). Although it does imply some normative values (it would be a trick to justify so labeling a poet who believed that the primary function of poetry was to cast in memorable form learning generated elsewhere, for example), the notion of poem as experiment does not determine in advance the directions that poetry may go. It does not always indicate novelty, for example: one can experiment en arriere as well as en avant. Nor, to my mind, does the term experiment make it easy to perform the sorting task that would take certain poets off the table in advance. There is no telling ahead of time who can or will perform an experiment!
    The idea that poetry aspires to experiment has been particularly useful to me in considering certain parallels between literature and philosophy of mind–particularly philosophy in the analytical tradition, in which there is a convention of working with elaborately conceived thought experiments. Poems are particularly interesting in this context because they have a double aspect: on the one hand, they exemplify and demand the exercise of mental capacities (the mental capacities that go into the making of or reading of a poem–at the very least linguistic capacities, but no doubt other kinds as well). But they also dramatize other capacities–like sense perception, or memory, or feeling, often under the guise of merely exemplifying them. When Emily Dickinson writes a poem that dramatizes her reaction to reading poetry as the alteration and inversion of the senses,
    And whether it was noon at night --
    Or only Heaven -- at Noon --
    For very Lunacy of Light
    I had not power to tell
    I would like to argue that she is engaging in a thought experiment no less serious than Ned Block's “inverted earth” argument about the nature of qualia. While its implications are not discursively elaborated, they are, arguably, more complex–the poem raises not just the problem of the reality of first person experience, but the problem of its communicability, and it does so from the inside as well as from outside; it raises questions not just by pumping our intuitions about experience, but by being an occasion for having an experience ourselves, under conditions of heightened self-scrutiny.
    In a similar vein, when William Wordsworth writes a poem in which he describes his return to a place he knew in childhood in order to measure the difference between his reactions then and his reactions now, he too is enacting a thought experiment; one that is not so different from Derek Parfit's teletransporter experiment that begins his great book Reasons and Persons. Both, that is, require us to re-examine our intuitions (some of which come in the form of feelings and ethical judgments) about the minimum necessary requirements for the continuity of the self over time. And I should say that Wordsworth's thinking here is not less original for being syntactically or metrically regular.
    It may be worth noting that of these two poets, Dickinson is the poet more commonly claimed as a predecessor in the avant-garde tradition (whether by Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout, or Michael Magee), despite the fact that Wordsworth is the poet for whom the term avant-garde is actually a better fit–stylistically and politically. My main point here is that these issues of filiation, stylistic innovation, and political activism, interesting as they may be on their own merits, can't tell us what we will find in poetry when we look. Which is fine, but they don't even, by themselves, tell us that we ought to look. The working hypothesis that a poem is an experiment enjoins me, as a reader, to find out what the poem wants to find out.

  2. June 21, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    Hi, Reginald,
    Thanks for taking my comments seriously, and for your ideas here. I think we're near to, or maybe even past, that legendary point where we can "agree to disagree" as they say. Still, there are some things I want to get out there in response.
    First I think you're articulating something a lot of people do feel when they read or hear about--let's call them--self-identifying experimental poets. But where a lot of such people decide their gut aversion is self-justifying, I hear you trying to think through your doubts in relation to literary history and to theory. That investigatory attitude is why I'm willing to engage with you in the first place, and I really applaud it.
    Still, let's start here: apparently these avant gardists you have in mind, even if they are using the term avant garde as a cudgel with no there there, are still actual people, yes? So who are you talking about? Almost certainly, I'm going to bet the sin/virtue duality you describe wouldn't be *their* terms for it. At the farthest extreme maybe they'd say the work you care for is, what, sentimental, overly-lyrical, bourgeois, reactionary, conservative? Some would say the same of my taste too. There's all kinds of views out there, so of course there are people who would consider your writing and the writing you care about a compromise, and that's not going to change even if the term avant garde was retired tomorrow. In other words, if you feel people are making unfair or random distinctions between sinful and virtuous poetry, tarring good poetry with the bad poetry brush, putting work you care about into negative categories, and so on, you won't do much simply retiring the term or banner under which they're doing it. Instead you've got to articulate what makes that work you care about important, vital, world-changing, revolutionary, truthful, etc. (which, yes, I do hear you doing elsewhere). I guess what I'm saying that it's possible, in the current general formulation you make here, to just hear you saying you don't like to have your taste disagreed with or questioned, or that you find a vague THEM to be acting as a coterie while the writers YOU care about are just people who act and acted normally, neutrally, and without partisanship. You see the problem there I hope...
    Overall I do think I hear your point, but I'd say that you're arguing, for instance, that on the basis of the work Berryman should perhaps be considered, despite some of his upper-level social connections, his fondness for traditional forms, and his distaste for a lot of formally adventurous work of his time, as ultimately somewhat avant garde. That'd be an interesting position to take, but it only shows the need for a concept *like* the avant garde (again, I'm not defending the specific term so much, rather what I see as the real aesthetic principles behind it).
    OK, what are those real principes? It would take awhile to go through them all really. But I should say I DO think of the avant garde as a way of proceeding in making artworks, not just a way to read them. Of course making art is also inseparable from how the artist decides reads existing artworks, so it's complicated. For instance, I think there are ways, techniques, tricks, for encouraging a reading that sees the work as more than an hermetically-sealed and time-transcendent object. Problematically, the effectiveness of those tricks can fade, can become cliche, and are themselves socially-conditioned, and this is a deep paradox worth really noticing and pondering, but it doesn't negate the basic notion: you still seek to "expose the device" in Shklovsky's phrase.
    I could go on in that vein, but I feel I've already occupied your comment box way too much. For the record, I really do know there are plenty of avant-garde writers who would likely find my work too lyrical and humanistic for their idea of the a.g. Plenty other clearly radically experimental writers don't use the term "avant garde" and have their own problems with it, and probably wonder why it's generally only the detractors (Ron Silliman excepted) that think avant-anything is a useful way to talk about these things. In other words, I really haven't been trying to speak for anyone, and it's just my own position that there's value and life left in the designation. When the life runs out of it, I think the people who retire it won't do so because its an empty phrase, but because its too full with its own history. And by then there will likely be a better phrase to talk about the social and aesthetic revivification it desires.
    & one last thing: I really think the idea that people who read avant garde work don't enjoy it is a bit presumptuous. Certainly some radical writers do argue that "pleasure" is itself a category their work is purposely questioning, but I choose to think of pleasure as Barthes did, where even such an interrogation would have the pleasure of surprise, and of evidence of desire for the different. In any case, making assertions or suppositions about how desire and pleasure works in other people is, at best, something you probably haven't enjoyed experiencing in reverse.

  3. June 21, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hi Brent,
    Thanks for another very eloquent and well-thought out comment. It's getting late and I'm getting tired, so I just wanted to respond to your last point, regarding the question of pleasure. I was perhaps not making myself clear enough. It seems to me that very frequently "avant-garde" work is explicitly presented not as a source of pleasure but only of instruction, explicitly opposed to enjoyment: it's good for us, bracingly so, like a cold shower on a winter morning. Indeed, pleasure is often denigrated, explicitly or implicitly (I think of Bernstein's artifice/absorption dichotomy, in which if one's absorbed in what Barthes called the pleasure of the text one is an ideological sucker). Many self-proclaimed avant-gardists seem to distrust pleasure as another opiate of the masses, if only the intellectual masses. In all fairness, so did my adored Adorno, who really seems like he was not fun at parties at all.
    In short, I wasn't writing about people as individuals and what they like or dislike, but about an attitude and an approach that condemns pleasure as an ideological mystification, or at least as dishonest in some way, keeping us from seeing the truth. I find a great deal of puritanism in avant-gardist art, as I also do in leftist/faux-leftist politics (and for that matter in vegetarianism/veganism/etc., many of whose adherents seem just not to like food).
    Avant-Garde Puritanism: I may write a post on the topic. A lot of American leftism of various shades seems directly descended from the Puritan/Calvinist heritage.
    I've noticed to my dismay that it's much easier to write about "poetry" and poetics, about "issues," than about actual poems. And yet it's poems that I really care about. I should try to rectify that in my own writing, here and elsewhere.
    Take good care, and thanks again for the stimulating interchange.
    peace and poetry,

  4. June 22, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Brent,
    Now that it is morning and I am more rested and cogent, I realize that your discussion of John Berryman (and not, primarily, of his work) amounts to an ad hominem attack. I don't think that it's a legitimate mode of argument--you aren't really discussing his work, but trying to paint him as a bad person. This is both irrelevant to the work and a brush with which many impeccably "avant-garde" figures could be smeared. Marx pointed out in discussing Balzac that an artist's social position and sociopolitical viewpoints don't determine the nature or tendency of his work.
    You write of Berrryman's "upper-level social connections." It's not clear what this phrase means in general. It's particularly not clear what such connections you're referring to in Berryman's case. He made his living as a university professor, mostly at the University of Minnesota. But if "upper-level social connections" disqualify one from one being taken seriously as an avant-garde/innovative/experimental etc. artist, then that criterion would exclude, among others, Pound (he met Mussolini), Gertrude Stein (who was independently wealthy, and a public and well-connected supporter of Vichy during WW II), Mayakovsky (who was more or less the official poetic spokesman of the early Soviet state), pretty much of all of the Russian Futurists and Constructivists (who did after all get official state commissions, even if their projects remained not only unbuilt but unbuildable), and later figures like Aimee Cesaire and Leopold Senghor (who were both prominent poets and prominent politicians).
    I have often pointed out that there is no necessary relationship between aesthetic tendency and political position, nor is there any such necessary connection between social position (and Berryman was hardly rich in any case--he worked a professional job for a living) and aesthetic tendency or worth. As the brilliant poet Marilyn Hacker recently and eloquently put it to me, "When was literary adventurousness ever connected to class or political affiliation, however morally agreeable it would _be_ if fascists wrote only military marches, and the most innovative poetry came from a woman cleaning city parks to keep her 'workfare' checks." This point connects to much of the comment stream on Lin Dinh's post about Etheridge Knight, "Are You a Poet?", whose troubled waters I hadn't the temerity to enter.
    I still have a great deal of trouble both with the military associations of "avant-garde" (with whom are we at war within poetry or art? is it total war? do the Geneva Conventions at least apply?) and with its teleological implications (what is the goal toward which we are all meant to be marching in formation?--a formation that leaves little room for individuality). To quote Marilyn Hacker again, "I don't know if the 'avant garde' concept is necessary to a critic
    pointing out how a particular poet pushed the envelope, attempted and/or accomplished something in his/her work that doesn't resemble anything else."
    Take good care.
    all best,
    Reginald Shepherd

  5. June 22, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    Well, there would be plenty of groundwork to do before getting to a meaningful conversation about pleasure and puritanism in either avant garde or conventional poetry. Even if you think of pleasure as a simple thing on an individual level, which I personally don't, it's surely complicated once it enters into a social economy, and that's the level these avant gardists are considering it.
    I think there's a vital distinction to be made between an unreflective pleasure that acts as escape, denial, opiate, etc., and a pleasure that's engaged with and aware of its own sources and its actual social status as privilege. Some sort of distinction of that sort would be key, in my opinion, to Bernstein's idea of absorption, a notion I find not only complicated in that essay but also rather lightly and non-puritanically handled (I recall him talking about absorption in relation to his kid's diapers for instance). To me he's quite careful not to make even "absorption" some sort of pure negative, just as Barthes isn't simply saying it's fine to take pleasure in reading.
    Anyways, this is not to say you couldn't find a certain ascetic humorlessness among *some* avant garde types, and it'd be an interesting topic. I suppose they would say the current conditions of our society call for such humorlessness as the proper response. But to me the question is where these lines are to be drawn: many would agree it's a good idea to ask rigorous questions about the "pleasure" someone gets from, say, maximizing profits at an oil company or from beating people up, and that it's not ok to query the pleasures one finds in the bedroom with a consensual partner. Where is aesthetic pleasure on that spectrum? I think the vast majority would agree that you have a right to take pleasure in Berryman, just as others have a right to publish essays that argue that enjoying Berryman is to somehow participate in the denial of real social conditions. In other words, in aesthetic theory it's not (currently) a question of rights. Since we're all presumably operating under the 1st amendment, it becomes a much vaguer question of when my assertions and expressions shade into coercions, when speaking about my pleasure begins to silence the pleasure of others, when group formation becomes group intimitation, and so on. That is, it's really in some ways a question of *manners*, hinging on the violation and transgression of either social protocol or more often just vague feelings of what ought to be done, said and respected. And that's a vast & unruly topic indeed.
    Rest up,'s been pleasurable...

  6. June 22, 2008

    "a pleasure that's engaged with and aware of its own sources and its actual social status as privilege"
    - Why would this be limited to "avant-garde" poetry, and assumed not to exist in "conventional" poetry? These are, it sounds like, a priori assumptions.

  7. June 22, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Isn't there something sort of decadent & leisure-class about spending a lot of time debating the political credentials of a "figure" like Berryman of 40-50 yrs ago? You can't really enjoy or understand his poetry without an appreciation of how different his time and conditions were.
    My own approach to Berryman is rather simple. He was silly like us : from early on, excited & inspired by his reading (of other poets). He wanted to emulate them; he wanted to equal them; he wanted to join their world. He may not have absorbed (or accepted) the byzantine political analyses so highly regarded today; yet he was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, Nixon etc. He was a troubled spirit, struggling to make some redemptive sense out of his own era.
    This on top of his own agonized personal history & weaknesses. The Berryman I know used to come to some of my high school friends' homes (in Minneapolis) & recite his poetry : he was like the visiting bard-genius-freak show. He's the manic -erudite Shakespeare enthusiast. He's the alcoholic, who who jumped off the bridge into the Mississippi in the middle of winter, down the block from my parents' house (only a bridge down from where my 2 brothers jumped, from 2 different bridges, in warmer weather, & survived). He's the one lost in the famous Minnesota detox rehab wellness centers, searching for sobriety & God. Poet; suffering human being.
    This background is inevitably more interesting to me - as a context for the making of poetry - than Brent's very abstract political demurrals, long after the fact. This is not to say that critical judgement and evaluation - even of poets much more ancient than Berryman - is not essential. It's just that for me, anyway, Brent would have to make a much stronger argument, one way or the other, to generate much interest on my part. There's too much real history there for me to relegate this particular poet to some glib poliitcal-acceptibility pigeonhole.

  8. June 22, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    Hey Reginald,
    I really think you're misreading the Berryman comment & taking it out of context. Henry's suggestion that if it was a real attack I'd need to do a lot more than I did is pretty much right. I'm sorry for the vagueness of that "upper-level social connections" phrase but I wasn't thinking of his wealth or lack of it, rather just his friendly and obvious connections to the academic, cultural and poetry establishments of the day. Yes, Stein and Pound also had upper-level social connections of the same sort, as did, say, Charles Olson (via Harvard, via the O.S.S., etc.). But let's take Olson: I would argue that his work, as well as some of his theoretical aesthetic positions, as well as other decisions he made in his life, locate him as part of an avant garde despite those connections. Others may disagree. But I was inviting you to make the same argument about Berryman and his work, if in fact you feel it's as avant garde as any work in the "actual" avant garde. I wasn't even claiming there could only be value and interest in Berryman's work if it passed as avant garde, just suggesting that if you find radical avant garde gestures and structures in his work maybe you should try fitting him into that tradition and see if he fits, rather than ditching the tradition. To me, he doesn't fit, but I'd be interested to hear you make the argument.
    The thing I would argue for, against Hacker apparently, is that there is value in the term "avant garde" even despite its faults and problems, that the term refers to a blurry but real aesthetic pattern and set of writers out there, that those people and works possesses some coherency to their aesthetic values, and that even if some critics find the term useless there are poets who can and do find energy in what it expresses.
    To me, one thing any avant garde values is some kind of icononclastic resistance to the dominant institutions and dominant formal styles of poetry. Although I certainly don't think of any of them as "good" people particularly I do think Stein, Pound and Mayakovsky were overtly concerned with such resistance to at least the dominant hierarchy and dominant formal model as they understood it (Mayakovsky's an odd case, but he certainly fits perfectly in that definition prior to the revolution, and really, true revolutions are rare so I think it's a strange case to try to judge by.) I'm not a rigorous reader of Berryman & haven't yet read the Dream Songs bio, but from the memoir by his ex-wife "Poets in their Youth" I came away with the sense that he felt that the people running the major magazines and institutions of poetry at that time had done a tolerably good job, that poetry wasn't in need of major shaking up particularly, and that on the contrary he wanted to write great but not necessarily radically iconoclastic poetry and receive approval for it. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not the impluse of the avant garde. I'm very open to hearing that that subjective impression was way off, and I do recognize these are tough judgments to make about complicated human beings, and I speak them provisionally and really without a sense that they're more than impressions.
    It is kind of weird to be accused of calling Berryman a bad person, though. As I hear Henry suggesting, there's some question as to whether Berryman himself would have argued he was a good person. When I feel kindly towards his writing, its mostly because he lets his almost larger-than-life faults show up in it, which is something I can value, though the sense of damagedness does also get a bit suffocating at times to me.
    In any case, I'd never argue that the quality of the life determines the quality of the poetry. I'm tempted to say quality judgments aren't even what I'm interested in in the first place, even though they're quite hard to get past. I'm more concerned with how new models of aesthetic thinking have and possibly could come into existence. The problem with quality judgments is they keep implying the construction of a canon. To talk about Berryman again, I remember reading about how he and Lowell spent a lot of their time asking each other to list the 10 best lines of all time, or the 10 best poets who died before age 35, and so on. Just an innocent game in a way, but it seemed really foreign to me, and against the vision I have for the artform since it implies such a simultaneous and non-contextualized understanding of literary history. But that's far afield--here I'd just say I don't believe the life and the work can be separated the way it's commonly implied they can be. I don't place the life or the work higher or lower, I want to deny the cleanliness and reality of the distinction in the first place.

  9. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    (which is not to say, Brent, that you hold such a position: just that I doubt anyone else does either.)

  10. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Hmm. My earlier comment got lost in the interwebs. It was to the effect that the vulgar Marxism implied by "enjoying Berryman is to somehow participate in the denial of real social conditions" is too vulgar for the vulgarest Marxist: I doubt any thinker of the materialist tradition, no matter how undialectical, has ever held that such an obviously stupid 1:1 relation exists between taste & politics. Straw men don't serve a discussion that's already taking place rather below the plane of the actual work that's been done on these questions.

  11. June 23, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Hi Bent,
    With regard to Berryman's actual work (and it is the work, isn't it, that matters?), I refer, particularly in the Dream Songs, to his fractured and sometimes deformed syntax, his incorporation of a wide range of seemingly incompatible levels of diction and kinds of discourse, his incorporation of different voices so as to create a polyvocal text, his reflexity and textual self-consciousness, his use of juxtaposition, jump-cuts, and montage, his use of quotation, parody, and pastiche (as in "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," in which he produces a voice simultaneously hyper-modernist and archaic). These are some of the specific things I mean when I say that, whatever his personal or even aesthetic opinions, that much of Berryman's _work_ can be considered as experimental or radical as, say, Olson's.
    By the way, simply having attended prestigious schools isn't the equivalent of having high-level social connections. I attended several such institutions, and I have no such connections. More broadly, Gertrude Stein, for example, was actually wealthy, what used to be called a rentier. That was her social position: it didn't derive from whatever educational institutions she attended or didn't attend, and it had nothing to do with what she wrote or didn't write, except to the extent that it provided her with the financial and social freedom to do what she wanted with her life. For the right people, prestitigious educational institutions confirm such status; but they don't confer it on those who don't already have it. Even at Ivy League institutions, there are clear distinctions between the aristoi and the hoi polloi. Nor does being a poet or knowing people in the poetry world confer high social status--the poetry establishment is pretty marginal to any establishments that wield real power. High culture knowledge justdoesn't constitute that kind of cultural capital, at least not in America.
    Take good care.
    peace and poetry,

  12. June 23, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    If it has not already been mentioned, I wonder what your thoughts are about Steven Pinker's essay "Toward a Consilient Study of Literature" published last year in Philosophy and Literature. He uses the book The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative as a touchstone for what is coming to be called Darwinian Lit-Crit. To quote:
    "Departments of English (and other literatures) are often the most star-studded and prominent divisions of modern colleges and universities, and disproportionate attention has been given to debates over the content of their curricula. And despite having had several centuries to get it right, the study of literature in modern universities strikes many observers (insiders and outsiders alike) as being in, shall we say, critical condition–politicized, sclerotic, and lacking a progressive agenda."
    Seems like a much more viable path to explore.

  13. June 23, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    One more quote from Pinker:
    "Literary analysis would surely benefit from the latest scientific ideas on human thought, emotion, and social relations.... The field's commitment to the dogma that the mind is a blank slate and that all human concerns are social constructions has led it to focus on cultural and historical particulars, banishing the deeper resonances of literature to transcend time and place. And its distrust of science (and more generally, the search for testable hypotheses and cumulative objective knowledge) has left it, according to many accounts, mired in faddism, obscurantism, and parochialism. For all the reasons, evolutionary psychology and literary analysis seem to be natural companions."
    Perhaps the weird essay The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, The Brain, and Time by poet Frederick Turner and brain researcher Ernst Pöppel that POETRY published in 1980 will have its fifteen minutes before long?

  14. June 23, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    One more quote from Pinker:
    "Literary analysis would surely benefit from the latest scientific ideas on human thought, emotion, and social relations.... The field's commitment to the dogma that the mind is a blank slate and that all human concerns are social constructions has led it to focus on cultural and historical particulars, banishing the deeper resonances of literature to transcend time and place. And its distrust of science (and more generally, the search for testable hypotheses and cumulative objective knowledge) has left it, according to many accounts, mired in faddism, obscurantism, and parochialism. For all the reasons, evolutionary psychology and literary analysis seem to be natural companions."
    Perhaps the weird essay The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, The Brain, and Time by poet Frederick Turner and brain researcher Ernst Pöppel that POETRY published in 1980 will have its fifteen minutes before long?

  15. June 23, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Steven Pinker knows nothing about literature & its study. He's an embarrassment not only to literary criticism, which should be obvious, but to evolutionary psychology, where things are rather more complicated than he would have them. Please see Louis Menand's merciless review:

  16. June 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Many thanks for the cool citation, Aaron!
    (Actually that essay appeared in the April 1983 issue of Poetry.)
    It argues, among many other curious things, that "brain processing is essentially rhythmic, that the human nervous system cannot be separated from "the human cultural system it was designed to serve" and that its "operations are essentially social."
    Also: "It is, we believe, highly significant that [an] analysis of the fundamental LINE in human verse gives little or no significance to breath, or 'breath units,' as a determinant of the divisions of human meter. Thus ... systems of verse based on breath-units, such as 'projective verse' and many other free-verse systems, therefore have no objective validity or physiological function."
    More: Metrical "variation does not occur despite the rules but because of them. Freedom never means a freedom from rules, but the freedom of rules."
    And: "... a linguistic type of analysis of meter ... is likely to be fruitful only when the composer has arbitrarily imposed linguistic meaning on the elements of his composition.... There is no 'lexicon' of metrical forms: they are not signs but elements of an analogical structure."
    Worth looking up, too, for their wild theory of the "three-second LINE."
    But really what it seems to argue is that "free verse, like existentialist philosophy, is nicely adapted to the needs of the bureaucratic and even the totalitarian state, because of its confinement of human concern within narrow specialized limits where it will not be politically threatening."
    I do not endorse, but only report, the foregoing. Conclusion, as Flann O'Brien used to say, of the foregoing: now back to your actual thread.

  17. June 24, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Lewis Hyde has a great pamphlet called "Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and The Booze Talking"

  18. June 24, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Isn't The Literary Animal also by Turner? I have Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought & Language, which, while loopy, is much more informed than anything by Pinker.
    Don, that Arendt quotation is a knockout. Did she reprint it in a book?

  19. June 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Michael, I'll confess to being a bit mischievous with the Arendt quote; though it really is from an essay of hers published in the New Yorker, that essay later appeared as the introduction to her 1968 selection of Walter Benjamin's work, Illuminations, tr. by Harry Zohn.

  20. June 24, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Hello, Reginald! Glad you're back and feeling (quite clearly) much better. I wanted to respond to your series of posts but also wanted to embed a bunch of links, so I did it on my own blog. See if you're curious.
    Keep up the thoughtful work!

  21. June 24, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    I don't subscribe to this din, but I do find the fact that it is out there totally insane and interesting.
    The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative
    By Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson
    with forewords by E. O. Wilson and Frederick Crews
    The book was rejected, perhaps rightfully so, by numerous publishers and finally picked up by Northwestern University Press. Published 2005.
    The jacket copy reads:
    In recent years, articles in major periodicals from the New York Times Magazine to the Times Literary Supplement have heralded the arrival of a new school of literary studies that promises--or threatens--to profoundly shift the current paradigm. This revolutionary approach, known as Darwinian literary studies, is based on a few simple premises: evolution has produced a universal landscape of the human mind that can be scientifically mapped; these universal tendencies are reflected in the composition, reception, and interpretation of literary works; and an understanding of the evolutionary foundations of human behavior, psychology, and culture will enable literary scholars to gain powerful new perspectives on the elements, form, and nature of storytelling.
    The goal of this book is to overcome some of the widespread misunderstandings about the meaning of a Darwinian approach to the human mind generally, and literature specifically. The volume brings together scholars from the forefront of the new field of evolutionary literary analysis-both literary analysts who have made evolution their explanatory framework and evolutionist scientists who have taken a serious interest in literature-to show how the human propensity for literature and art can be properly framed as a true evolutionary problem. Their work is an important step toward the long-prophesied synthesis of the humanities and what Steven Pinker calls "the new sciences of human nature."

  22. June 24, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Well thanks! I just spent a half-hour browsing The Human Condition! [Winky emoticon -- I can't bring myself to actually use emoticons, but they turn out to be useful. So I'm pioneering the use of Irony-Free Meta-Emoticons. I expect to make a bundle from Facebook.]
    Haven't read the Intro to the Schoken Illuminations, in moons, but it seems I should. (It's about the only worthwhile thing left there after Harvard upped the ante -- & the price tag.)
    From The Human Condition: "The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a 'character' in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us."

  23. June 26, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    For years I have had a copy of the Doubleday Anchor Book version of
    Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. On page 295, this:
    "But there are other more serious danger signs that man
    may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing
    into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he im-
    agines he has come."

  24. June 26, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    I realize this thread is rather dead by now, and in the way of blogs rapidly sinking off into the cryogentic freeze of an infinity of online archives, but before it winks away utterly I wanted to mention & link to CA Conrad's new Fanzine. His intro seems deeply relevant to the topic we've been discussing, and it's not only evidence that I'm not the only one who hears the term "avant garde" in the way I'm describing but also evidence that Burger himself (in that Michael Hennessey quote) can be read and used very differently from the death-of-the-avant-garde interpretation that's been presumed here:

  25. June 28, 2008
     Johannes Goransson

    I'm a little late to post on this thread and I'm also a little wary since it seems Reginald's main aim seems not to be to understand the notion of "avant-garde" but to anxiously try to bury the notion (this is not strange since it is fundamentally opposed to his hierarchical ideal of poetry as a chess game for masters).
    However, I'll make a few brief notes for people who are perhaps interested in this issue:
    1) Hal Foster offers some interesting takes on Burger - and answers a lot of Reginald's critiques - in his book "Return of the Real."
    2) Burger changed his own mind about the "neo-avant-garde" later in his career.
    3) The best history of the concept of "avant-garde" (going back to Romanticism) is Calinescu's "Five Face of Modernism." He also offers a lot of the cliche critiques of the concept (which Reginald also uses).
    4) Reginald is correct in that a significant part of avant-garde (or, more so, the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s) are indeed opposed to "pleasure." But other parts of it are not. Of course what is meant by "pleasure" vary - my idea of it will likely be diametrically opposed to Reginald's.