From the haze of fever, fatigue, and nausea emerge further thoughts on the title topic. I hope that they will prove to be of interest. If not, I've got more up my sleeve...
The poetic avant-gardening (to adapt Ron Slate’s clever phrase) of the past sixty years or longer has largely been a process of rediscovering the Moderns, turning over the soil, rediscovering things that had been buried or at least lost sight of (including re-seeing a figure hiding in plain sight like Eliot, who in his poetry and in much of his critical prose is far from the conservative curmudgeon he’s made out to be or that he later made himself out to be). There is very little in today’s self-proclaimed avant-garde that wasn’t done by the Modernists: collage, montage, pastiche, quotation, parody, juxtaposition ironic and non-ironic, fracture and fragmentation, ungrammaticalities, catachresis, and syntactic deformation, decentered subjectivity, non-referentiality (whatever that can mean as applied to language, which only exists as such in and as the nexus of concept, sound, and physical mark—in language, sense and reference are not the same thing), critical or celebratory incorporation of popular culture, critique of mass culture, bourgeois society, and/or capitalism, critique of art as a social institution, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with such reusing and even repurposing per se (as someone said once, there is nothing new under the sun). After all, none of us invented the English language either, or the Roman alphabet, which doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to use them or the potential to do interesting things with them. But there is a great deal wrong with pretending that one has invented these techniques, modes, and approaches oneself, especially when one then goes on to congratulate oneself for one’s daring and perspicacity and to denigrate the literary past for its backwardness.
If one is in the “avant-garde,”? then one is part of the leading formation of some army or another. Besides questioning the teleological nature of such a conception (what exactly is the goal of poetry in this progressivist conception? I feel a grand narrative coming on), I also wonder just what army one imagines oneself to be in the vanguard of, just what other army is one pitted against in this violent struggle, and just what are the spoils of victory? Why, to mention two of my favorite poets, is the work of Jorie Graham, whose work at its best is as complex and challenging as anyone’s, not “avant-garde,”? while the work of Ann Lauterbach is? (Or is Lauterbach also not properly “avant-garde”?—she has written of her sense of marginalization with regard to Language poetry—because she is published by Penguin?) I am asking about the work not the people (though at this point Lauterbach is only barely less established than fellow MacArthur Award winner Graham). And why, for that matter, must interesting, challenging, difficult poetry be labeled or accountable as “avant-garde”? or “post-avant”? in order to be taken seriously? The term “avant-garde”? too often turns into a synonym for “the poetry that I like”? or even just “good poetry.”? Perhaps it’s time to retire it.

Originally Published: June 12th, 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 13, 2008
     Vivek Narayanan

    Thank you so much! The clarity of your formulation is bright. Incidentally, on looking into your list of modernist modes and techniques, it seems to me that all of those can be found in non-modern / ancient poetries as well... So the question is, what would it look like-- an exploratory, changing poetry that does not pretend to start from a tabula rasa, that does not propagate ideas of progress, evolution or development naively?

  2. June 13, 2008
     Don Share

    George Oppen: "The avant-garde is not a matter of rushing ahead of everyone -- -- it is a matter of TURNING A CORNER."
    (Oppen was quite suspicious, by the way, not only of the avant-garde, but of Modernism, to which he objected on political and economic grounds. Of his old friend Pound, he noted that EP "understood nothing of work, much less of economics." He referred to "Stevens and his little elegances," and complained that "the modern temper" was remarkably tolerant of "Yeats' Theosophy, Eliot's Catholicism, Pound's fascism" - and said they were "reactionary to the point of insanity." His epigraph to The Materials was a rewrite of Yeats's lines from "Meditations in Time of Civil War" - "They fed their hearts on fantasies / And their hearts have becomes savage." See Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism), where I got all this...

  3. June 13, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Oppen's attitude, as you describe it, Don, sounds close to Edmund Wilson's evaluation of the Moderns in his book AXEL'S CASTLE.

  4. June 13, 2008
     Jonathan David Jackson

    Dear Reginald:
    Thank you so much for saying so clearly what is often not said. And Vivek Naravanan: you are spot-on that the formulations Reginald mentioned are hardly only modernistic or contemporarily innovative.
    As a child I memorized a few words from the great (yes, great) SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE that appear as an epigraph in the frontispiece of my 1962 edition of John Gardner's The Forms of Fiction:
    "Nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise."
    This quotation appears in Chapter 14 of Coleridge's 1817 BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA in which he talks about the timeliness (or not) of poetic meter and rhyme. This statement by Coleridge also reflects back on the work of his one-time collaborator, William Wordsworth and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Some may even remember that this chapter also includes the passages where Coleridge introduces the idea of a willing "suspension of disbelief" (yup: that is, to my knowledge, the term's origin) and contrasted imagination with mere fancy....and that brings me to these homilies:

    • work that is not mere fancy;
    • work that does not promulgate tricks or surperficially valorized trends;
    • work that does not traffic in polemical aesthetic positions at the sacrifice of explorations that cannot be easily labeled or championed;
    • work that does not miscall or misapply the jargon used to identify it (like the recent identification of certain classes of wordplay as "conceptual" or "nonconpetual" in a manner that ignores the dazzlingly obvious notion that any creative or critical act is inherently conceptual by dent of its structural and thematic efforts);
    • work that is not an openly shameless vessel for aesthetic partisanship in a world where true antagonisms and bias deeply hurt others and where arguing about what you think a poem should be or what you would want it to be if it were yours (as opposed to what the poem is or may be doing on its own terms) is laughable while so many people are genuinely suffering;
    • work that does not wallow in pretensions--
    • all this kind of work may always be hard to come by because it isn't trying to be in someone's canon (whether that canon is perceived to be traditional or innovative) or trying to be in someone's prize-group or complaining that it has not yet been anointed, for crying out loud.
      I came to your work, from your first book from UPitt on, because your work was this kind of work, Reginald: all of its own accord, its own peace/piece, not trying to be anything other than what it is, not given to easy condemnation or praise, dazzling in its rhetoric: truly saying things meaningfully, substantive in its ideations, richly phrased, never fly-by-night or merely fanciful...What I find so striking about you is that your craft embodies your vision for art. If you didn't say anything about your aims or art's aims in general I would still understand the work offered by your poems. No one would have to tell me the poems are conceptual or, better still, beautiful.
      Hoping you are well and blessings to you.

  • June 13, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Frank Bidart:
    Everything made is made out of its
    refusals: those who follow make it new
    by refusing its refusals.

  • June 14, 2008
     Don Share

    Henry, by gosh, you're right! (Geez, I hope it's ok to talk about Wilson on this thread, though!)
    Here's more Nicholls on Oppen: "Witness to its own redundancy, the avant-garde can stake its claims to the new only in the realm of the aesthetic which... is doomed to mirror the totalitarian structures which it had failed adequately to recognize or to repudiate. This was, finally, the fate of modernism, as Oppen now [i.e., postwar] saw it."

  • June 14, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Don, I think Reginald's right, that the U.S. experimentalists of the last 40 yrs or so are actually more like IMITATORS of the modernists (see Peter O'Leary's essay nearby here, on the promotion of Objectivism, & the Language poets' repetition of same). But what Reginald hasn't said yet is that Edmund Wilson wrote the definite critique of the entire trend about 60 yrs ago (Axel's Castle). Which critique - in its fairness & unfairness, its accuracy & its prosaic philistinism - maybe, perhaps, has yet to be reckoned with by American poets (as they flail about with their experimental/formalist/recherche/gimmicky/slick verse, trying to make some kind of authentic style out of the gumbo of premodern, modern, postmodern).

  • June 15, 2008
     Allan Peterson

    Very welcome and very well said, Reginald. Now, how about we retire "experimental" too?

  • June 17, 2008

    Hi, Reginald,
    I was a bit wary to publicly disagree with you when I know you're unwell, but I thought hard about that problem and I’ve decided to make the assumption that you find principled disagreement stimulating and maybe even flattering (I do, anyways). If I’m mistaken and you don’t feel that way, I hope you’ll find a way to let me know: life really is too short for aesthetic arguments that aren’t in some way pleasurable.
    I do agree with you in some limited ways. I acknowledge there's both etymological problems with the term avant garde (the military roots you bring up), and also problems in it conceptual signification (what you call its teleology, i.e. that inescapably pompous and usually wrong notion of the avant garde artist being in advance of the masses, as the antennea of the race leading the way, which at the very least tends to make some very worthwhile avant garde writers seem like failures just because the masses still find their works mystifying and off-putting 100 years later, and at worst justifies a lot of megalomanical hubris and bluster).
    But here’s what I would question about your desire to retire the term:
    1) The first problem is simply historical. In the zeal to do away with an admittedly imperfect term, it’s important to not erase the many great poetry movements that sprang up around its banner in the early 20th century. Even when the term is used today, it’s often used to evoke the spirit of some of those movements, with complete knowledge that most the formal techniques had forerunners back then. In fact the term “modernism,” which you use, has far less historical precision or even legitimacy for the early 20th century than avant garde.
    2) The deeper problem, however, and what I think you’re getting at, is whether the term is currently actually referring to anything. If one thinks it DOES refer to something actual, then it’s just a question of what to replace it with. There’s candidates out there–experimental, innovative, outrider–yet to my ear they tend to connote the formal and stylistic surface elements too strongly, and miss some important things that are at stake with “avant garde.” But what do I do think is at stake and being referred to? Let me put it this way: when people express distaste for the term AG, they often suggest we should only be talking about good poetry and bad poetry instead. Yet to me 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. If someone wants to divide poetry only into good and bad, ignoring the economic context of the writer, ignoring the social structures that give or withhold legitimacy from some types of poetry and not others, in short ignoring the whole complex politics of poetry, then that’s fine to do, but it’s not what “avant garde” proposes and evokes, and I’d still like a term to refer to that other way of proceeding. When you write “I am asking about the work not the people” I wonder, first, why you think it’s so easy to separate those two things (isn’t the work on every level saturated by the people who make it, their hopes, their fears, their social power, their initiating beliefs about the artform, etc.?) , and second even if you want to separate them and think you can, why not leave the term avant garde (or some better term if you like) for those who don’t think it’s possible or wise to do, that rather we should be talking even more about how the writer and the work are interlinked and socio-historically situated?
    Well, there’s my points as succinctly as I can make them. Of course, many of those wanting to retire the term are secretly objecting to what they see as the exclusionary power of the term. But that’s equally a power that any formulation, any anthology, any poem, any positive or negative statement of aesthetics, also has. Furthermore it’s a power that can be fought for: if somebody wants into the avant garde, they can start staying what the avant garde is to them and why they’re in it–rumors to the contrary, I've found there’s actually no avant garde tribunal out there that can rule against you.
    I really very much hope you’re well…

  • June 17, 2008
     Henry Gould

    War, hunting & military defense have always provided a focus for technological development. So it's no surprise that a term standing for innovation or radical change would have a military source ("avant-garde"). But this term is the locus classicus for lots of other modern words : innovative, new, experimental, "language", "conceptual"...
    There's some self-promotional branding at work here. But perhaps the main function of these phenomena is that they represent, or claim to represent, a technical advance in the process of making poems. The basic tenor of the metaphors is not military but industrial. A real technical advance, in these terms, is like a new invention or engineering feat, which triggers a complete shift, remakes the entire field. Old methods are rendered obsolete. The new is vital & exciting. It's like the advent of the Universal Wrench, or the Threshing Machine.
    This is the appeal of these terms (like "conceptual") : they act like levers, applied to remake the climate of reception.
    The problem is, do the terms refer to anything actual in poetry itself? Or do they create their own worlds of self-enclosed discourse, similar to the theorizing, unsupported by evidence, that sometimes goes on in physics (as in some phases of "string theory")?
    It turns out, as Reginald suggests, that the Moderns invented all the techniques of later generations... but then, the Moderns based their own new products on the re-introjection of older poetries (Metaphysicals, Dante, Homer...)... & then you find out that the Victorians, God bless them, were doing similar things a generation earlier (say, Longfellow's adaptation of a Finnish bardic meter in "Hiawatha")....
    I'm not saying that all change is illusory. Rather than poets engage in conversations across centuries and generations, by way of adaptations of "deep technique" - the subtle rhetoric of poetry, which has been with us just about since the dawn of speech itself. & in the context of which, the impact of vaunted innovations in 20th or 21th century conceptual software comes across as... a little soft.

  • June 17, 2008
     Don Share

    OK, more Oppen:
    "The avant-garde has become a mass movement, a mass concern."
    "The Advance guarde [sic] goes where the whole army is going. Meanwhile, someone steps off into open, undevastated country..."