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Avant-Garde and Modern, Part Two
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.