I am in the hospital with complications from my previous illness. In the meantime, my partner Robert is posting this piece of mine for me.
Despite its many accomplishments over the past century or more, poetic experimentation for its own sake has gotten become rather routine, even rote. By now it has frequently come to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion: never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you’re wearing next season’s clothes. This is part of what Jack Spicer means when he writes to the long dead Federico Garcia Lorca that “Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.” Those trendy outfits also strikingly resemble the clothes they wore in the Nineteen Teens and Twenties (many things new are old), which too many people too often forget. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz noted in the mid-Nineteen-Sixties, “the avant-garde of 1967 repeats the deeds and gestures of those of 1917.” So many of the “experiments” in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, Moore, Williams, et alia, long before any of our current practitioners was born. There’s nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there’s something unseemly about claiming that you invented them yesterday.

The Modernists, let alone the poets who preceded them (both those who inspired them and those with whom they struggled) cannot be merely wished away. “You cannot experiment with only the history of experimentation as your archive,” in Ann Lauterbach’s acute admonition (The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience 65).
The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” contains two parts. They concentrate so much on trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn’t in fact available to all) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that newness is not a value in itself (no human being is “new,” though each person is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously, of our experience of and in the world). Ann Lauterbach points out that “In re/citations of Ezra Pound’s injunction to ‘make it new,’ emphasis has invariably fallen on the word ‘new,’ the word which most conjures the operations of commerce. We have been in thrall to the new, even as it has worn itself through with recyclings, a kind of déja new, which has exhausted our attention and made us all victims of fashion. As Jean-François Lyotard says, ‘Hidden in the cynicism of innovation is certainly the despair that nothing further will happen.’ We have ignored the other two words, ‘make’ and ‘it,’ as if they were of no significance” (The Night Sky 44).
Though it has produced many wonderful works of art, fracture has become too easy, even evasive: it’s become simply another style. Rather than just cutting things up or claiming that they just are cut up (a reductive view of art as a reflection of the world shared by many avant garde writers, at least in America), it’s much more difficult and interesting to put things together despite or in the face of fragmentation, not to create false wholes or a false confidence in wholes, but to see and show that things are related, however random their surfaces may appear. That randomness is an ideological illusion, and this is as much the Marx in me as the John Crowe Ransom. Marx wrote in the Grundrisse of the distinction between the apparently real and the actually real, the chaotic, disconnected surfaces of the world and the interrelated, interconnected whole (however riven and fissured) which that world actually comprises. In Terry Eagleton’s explication, “it is a mistake to equate concreteness with things. An individual object is the unique phenomenon it is because it is caught up in a mesh of relations with other objects. It is this web of relations and interactions…which is ‘concrete,’ while the object considered in isolation is purely abstract” (How to Read a Poem, 142).
Totalities are always contradictory, but they are totalities, and we live in, among, and with them. Part of the work of thought and the work of poetry is to trace out their lineaments: poetry, language, and thought are about producing and revealing relation, about making connections among disparate things often seen as disconnected or even opposed or contradictory: contradiction and opposition are also modes of relation. Barbara K. Fischer notes in The Boston Review of some of the transgressive or subversive claims of “experimental” writing that “From the vantage point of our current historical-political moment, ‘sense, order, and coherence’ don’t seem like such terrible things,” and goes on to warn against “the dangers of enshrining yet another chaos that cannot redeem itself.”
Our experience is (falsely) fractured, atomized, and my self (like my society) is likewise fractured and atomized, in pieces. But it is also a whole, of a piece, a complex unity of contradictions. As Fredric Jameson writes in “Reflections in Conclusion,” the afterword to the Frankfurt School compilation Aesthetics and Politics, “An aesthetic of novelty today…must seek desperately to renew itself by ever more rapid rotations of its own axis…when modernism and its accompanying techniques of ‘estrangement’ have become the dominant style whereby the consumer is reconciled with capitalism, the habit of fragmentation itself needs to be ‘estranged’ and corrected by a more totalizing way of viewing phenomena” (211). Paul Hoover puts it another way in his essay “Murder and Closure: On the Impression of Reality in American Poetry” (included in his collection Fables of Representation) when he asks, “ if this interruptiveness is inspired by electronic mass media, which is controlled by powerful capitalist interests, how is such a literature revolutionary?” (14). Far from being transgressive or subversive, it becomes just another social symptom and reflection.
It’s much more difficult to articulate things together than just to toss out the pieces and say “Nothing can be done with this,” or even, “I have seen the future and it is broken.” As Jack Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser, “Things fit together….Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence.” My interest in syntax, the relation of words and phrases to one another, arises from the desire to make or reveal connections among the elements of my poems and my world(s). My questions are always, “How can these things be put together? What constellation do they form?" Which is not to claim that a reconciliation of self and society, or self and self, can be effected in or by means of language, let alone linguistic art.

Originally Published: July 9th, 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. July 9, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Doubt is a product. Privacy is protected by chaos.

  2. July 9, 2008

    For what it's worth, "Make it new" is the second half of a quotation from Pound's translation of the Analects of Confucius, the first half being "Day by day..."

  3. July 9, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Reginald, I'm sorry to hear you're back in the hospital. They can be as grim as airports. But it's wonderful to see you're still managing to post your typical, incisive musings. Hang in there!
    By the way, I just posted something on my blog that bumps up against the same issues you discuss here: http://perpetualbird.blogspot.com/2008/07/comment-on-rupture.html
    Joe H

  4. July 9, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Reginald Shepherd wrote:
    >By now it has frequently come to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion: never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you’re wearing next season’s clothes. This is part of what Jack Spicer means when he writes to the long dead Federico Garcia Lorca that “Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.”
    I hope, and we all do, of course, that you will be better soon. Stay strong.
    I do have to make a comment on your above: for Spicer's After Lorca is one of THE strangest and most "inventive" books of 20th century poetry in English, hands down. There was nothing like it before and there has been little like it since (what there is wouldn't exist without it).
    I guess all I would want to say for now is that Spicer, a very complicated poet (and person!), can't usually be read as straight up as you seem to want to read him here.
    Best wishes to feeling better!

  5. July 9, 2008

    Mr. Shepherd,
    First of all, I hope your recovery is speedy and complete. I have really enjoyed the last several posts (the posts on modernism plus this post), and I am mostly in agreement with your assessment of contemporary experimental poetry and its regressive relationship to the historical avant garde.
    What I would love to see, though, is a positive elucidation of what you see as the most fruitful (i.e., politically relevant, to the extent that poetry intersects with the political) direction for contemporary American poetry. Maybe you would do us the honor in a future post.
    I am interested in the dichotomy you suggest between a poetry of experiment and a poetry of experience (especially since the French word expérience translates both).
    Also, you seem to be thinking through the concept of fragmentation in a way that isn’t often done. I feel like I often see writers accepting fragmentation either as a fact of social existence (which is usually a way of ignoring concrete relations or of foreclosing a critical totalizing moment) or as a subversive technique (which seems to forego direct engagement for a flimsy radicalism if not a capitulation to an “atomized” social reality).
    You begin to offer a positive critique toward the end of your post. I’d like to see a full-post’s worth of it: Why do you ask the questions you ask (How to put together? What constellations?), and what do your answers assume about your relation to the historical past and to tradition? What is your interest in reconciliation?
    I think that the interrelations between words (both the words in the poem and the words outside the poem, in other poems and other texts, other uses) is an interesting way to rethink the “materiality of the signifier” beyond the character of abject finitude that that concept has had for the major experimental poets of the past 30 or so years, and move towards, to borrow your line of thought, a concreteness of poetic discourse (which I could see, maybe, in poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Jeremy Prynne, just to name two).
    I hope that you will oblige me when you are up to it.
    -- Lawrence

  6. July 9, 2008
     Johannes Goransson

    There is much to say about this post, but I'll limit myself to a couple of brief comments:
    1. I think it's unconvincing to keep on attacking this un-named "avant-garde" and assuming that they hold certain caricatured positions. In order for this type of rant to be valuable you're going to to have to find some specifics. Who are these barbarians?
    2. The historical avant-garde was a huge influence on the Modernists (Eliot, Pound, Williams etc). It's absurd for you claim that these supposed avant-garde types ignore the Modernists when the High Modernists you mention are the most canonized, most written-about poets in literary history. How often in discussions of High Modernism do scholars and critics pay attention to the influence of the historical avant-garde? In classes on modern poetry? How many people have even read Huelsenbeck's Fantastic Prayers? (For example). There are texts of the historical avant-garde that have not even been translated into English!
    Also: Best of luck with your health!

  7. July 9, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Recommend Elder Olson's essay "An Outline of Poetic Theory" (in the book Critics and Criticism, ed. by R.S. Crane), for any consideration of wholeness, fracture, etc. in poetry.
    A poem is, among other things, a made object, like a shoe; Olson contrasts the wholeness of a shoe to the "totality" of a piece of wire.
    Those who promote fragmentation, collage, juxtaposition, etc.,on the basis of their relevance to contemporary experience, are "slice-of-life" realists in disguise. It's possible to think of poems as something other than transcripts.
    & those who, more radically, criticize aesthetic "wholeness" on the grounds that such (supposed) wholes maintain oppressive social forces (hegemonic ideologies, etc.) - this represents a kind of iconoclasm. If art objects are denied independent status as unique aesthetic (beautiful) entities, then the iconoclasts, if they don't want to contradict themselves, will have to toss out all the "fragmentary" art too.
    & maybe that's exactly what they ARE doing : satirical phenomena like "language poetry", "conceptual poetry" and "flarf", for example, come across as ritualistic removals of self-tainted "abjects"...
    so much depends upon
    what is the
    beautiful &
    what & how
    we feel
    about it

  8. July 10, 2008

    This is an excellent, excellent article Reginald. I'd love to see it flushed out as a long, if you haven't already done so.

  9. July 10, 2008
     Brent Cunningham

    Hi, Reginald,
    I'd have to agree with Kent here about your use of Spicer--he's a many-edged sword. For instance, you say:
    "My interest in syntax, the relation of words and phrases to one another, arises from the desire to make or reveal connections among the elements of my poems and my world(s)."
    But elsewhere in AFTER LORCA, Spicer is explicit to the contrary: "Things do not connect; they correspond."
    This isn't simply a rhetorical hairsplitting between the term "connect" and the term "correspond"--rather, Spicer's thought about whether, in art, things can or should be made to connect, whether art really must be "about producing and revealing relation" as you put it, is quite ambiguous. What he does more than anything is refuse to declare one or the other side of that particular binary realer than the other. He's actually tormented by that irresolvability, and time and again tries to harness various versions of the whole/part paradox to make writing. I know your stated value is for work, i.e. for letting poetic work be and speak for itself without undue theoretical presuppositions, but in this false binary of connection vs fracture, with the latter as your strawman, you end up schematizing and reducing Spicer's actual writing and thought on the matter.
    At the same time I, too, wish deeply for the improved health of my own favorite foil & provocateur...

  10. July 10, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Reginald wrote: My questions are always, “How can these things be put together? What constellation do they form?"
    Perhaps fragmentation is a way of avoiding the backbreaking work of the poet/god creating a "constellation" - a beautiful term for a poem. Make it whole, I'd say. Every word is a star in the constellation. We look up at the night sky, at billions of stars like random words, and we want to create form and meaning there. Once we see that the stars form Orion, we remember that constellation forever (just as I always remember you, Reginald Orion).

  11. July 11, 2008

    Dear Reginald,
    Your recovery is on my wish list.
    I'm glad to see you quoting Spicer, and glad for the ensuing discussion. The quote intrigues, and he is indeed wily.
    Who's to say that poetry doesn't need enemies? That enemies don't give it tensility? As long as poets Make enough It along with the New, the invention can vivify the poetry; too much New without enough It or Making can break the tension, make it slack. (Not forgetting Jordan's reminder that such making shall be Day by Day.)
    I was reading a 1950s pocket paperbook edition of "New World Writing" the other day and noticed the back-cover blurb, "Avant-Garde Means YOU!"
    Yeah yeah yeah!

  12. July 11, 2008
     Lydia Olidea

    Hello. And indeed wellest wishes to Reginald.
    I know this is a blog and not an academic panel, and that we're trying to avoid endless abysses of taxonomy. I hope it's useful anyway to point out that this term "avant-garde" has enough current meanings to be worth hesitating over. Two very common senses that the term seems to have these days are (1) poetry that employs a series of formal devices derived (or simply repeated) from the formal experiments of the historical avant-garde in endless and old pursuit of the new, and/or (2) poets who are supposedly not part of the "mainstream" and have a hipster-intellectual cred, deserved or not, for what seems often enough just to be a kind of fucking about or willfulness.
    But it seems to me that there's another description of the historical avant-garde that's not simply formal, and not simply subcultural, which is – along Burger's lines, though I can't entirely get with his program – art which expressly fashions itself as a political negation (and, rather consistently, negation of capitalism as far as I can tell). This gets mentioned here occasionally, and just as suddenly disappears from the discussion, and so we're back to discussing the avant-garde in terms of "the new," or specific formal choices like fragmentation/fracture – as if these things are the avant-garde.
    Reginald has justly skewered both the first two categories, often in ways I agree with. The leap that puzzles me is how these complaints about knee-jerk "experimentalism" or about specific formal strategies are then used for a general tarring of "the avant-garde," rather than an equally reasonable question about how its project of negation – call it what you want – might be better prosecuted in current situations.
    Which is to say, I'm all for jettisoning failed bullshit. That doesn't make less pressing a "ruthless critique of what exists."
    To proceed as if the avant-garde is the sum total of the failures of the avant-garde seems to get it wrong, and to be a method no one would want applied to their own tradition. So by all means let's critique fragmentation, or the fetish of the new, or cliquishness – but let's also maintain some distinction between baby and bathwater?

  13. July 11, 2008
     Diane K. Martin

    Hi Reginald,
    I join the others in wishing that you be well soon.
    Re your discussion -- I'm very interested in what you say here, in part because I think paying attention to syntax is crucial and, at the very least, fun. I was wondering if the fracture might have been more important in the days of the High Modernists as a response to historic literature and to what was happening then in the early 20th century -- but that now, when all is fracture, from Sesame Street to new music to our YouTube distracted minds, it might not be as necessary to take apart and dislocate as it is to locate and connect.
    Hope this makes any kind of sense.