On the evening of Rosh Hashana this past fall, I sat listening to my stockbroker and lawyer cousins freak out that the stock market had just dropped nearly 800 points that day. They were sweating bullets as I sat quietly and listened. When the conversation came around to me, I shrugged and quoting Brecht, stated that it's always bad time for poetry. In the United States, it was lousy during the boom and promises to be lousy during the bust. It was crappy to be a poet during the Bush years and will most certainly remain crappy under Obama.

This week in the New York Times' Week in Review, an article appeared about how the boom affected the design world. It began, "Few of the arts benefited from the late economic boom more than design. After all, when the wealth is flowing, people don't covet the concerts you see or the books you read. They covet the couch you bought, and then they buy a cooler one." The piece goes on to discuss how the excesses of the period produced decadent works of design that were premiered amidst equally decadent scenes. It called for a reckoning, a sobering, stating that prior downturns were good for design, that the WPA during the Depression and the scarcity of materials during World War II made design lean, mean and efficient again. One commentator said that, "It was a chance to make good on the Modernist promise to make affordable, intelligent design for a broad audience."
Dems is a scary word to an avantist, recalling the exile of adventurous art during the Depression when intelligibility wiped innovation off the map: when Aaron Copland's populism trumped the ultramodernism of Edgard Varèse and Henry Cowell; when the avant-European aesthetic of Alfred Steiglitz was pushed aside in favor of American regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton; or when the radical typographical investigations of E.E. Cummings were decimated by Archibald MacLeish who, according to Al Filreis (author of the indispensable Counter-Revolution of the Word), was the poet people turned to when they wanted verse to explain democracy to them. It pretty much derailed the avant-garde in the United States for two-and-a-half decades, until the mid-1950s, when the likes of Cage, Greenberg, The Beats and The Objectivists began to pick up where the avant-gardists of the 1920s left off. A lot of good was tossed out. One example that comes to mind was the multicultural -- yet ultramodern -- efforts of the Pan-American Association of Composers (which included Latino composers such as Carlos Chavez and Amadeo Roldán as well as their American counterparts) was dismantled and effectually blacklisted. It killed the career of someone like Nicolas Slonimsky, whose advocacy of challenging music created such controversy in early 30s, that he was banished entirely from conducting.
This is not to say that a WPA scenario will play out the same way today. Culture, in this time of wide horizontal digital distribution, is in the hands of many as opposed to the few in the 1930s, and there is an accessible and strong international community for support of challenging work. And even in the headiest of times, it's lousy for the avant-garde: witness the consistent refusal that such work exists in conservative publications like The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and, yes, even in Poetry.
Back in May, when Charles Bernstein premiered his Recantorium at the Conceptual Poetry and its Others conference in Tucson, it seemed cheeky, a bit clever, satirical, even overstated; it was easy to shrug off. Half a year later and in the context of an entirely different world, it no longer seems so improbable, instead appearing eerily prescient:

"I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised. I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion. And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line."

Originally Published: January 13th, 2009

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (, and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

  1. January 13, 2009
     Mark Nowak

    "A Worker's Speech to a Doctor"
    We know what makes us ill.
    When we are ill we are told
    That it's you who will heal us.
    For ten years, we are told
    You learned healing in fine schools
    Built at the people's expense
    And to get your knowledge
    Spent a fortune.
    So you must be able to heal?
    Are you able to heal?
    When we come to you
    Our rags are torn off us
    And you listen all over our naked body.
    As to the cause of our illness
    One glance at our rags would
    Tell you more. It is the same cause that wears out
    Our bodies and our clothes.
    The pain in our shoulder comes
    You say, from the damp; and this is also the reason
    For the stain on the wall of our flat.
    So tell us:
    Where does the damp come from?
    Too much work and too little food
    Mark us feeble and thin.
    Your prescription says:
    Put on more weight.
    You might as well tell a bullrush
    Not to get wet.
    How much time can you give us?
    We see: one carpet in your flat costs
    The fees you earn from
    Five thousand consultations.
    You'll no doubt say
    You are innocent. The damp patch
    On the wall of our flats
    Tells the same story.
    --Bertolt Brecht, from -Later Svendborg Poems and Satires, 1936-1938-

  2. January 13, 2009
     Don Share

    Kenny's behind the times.
    Poetry has recently published, and will soon publish again, work by Charles Bernstein; has published (dunno who you like to categorize [or pigeonhole] as avant) folks such as Rae Armantrout, Elaine Equi, & Jack Spicer - in a preview of the new book with material that isn't even in it. Upcoming is a manifesto by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr on behalf of the "Hate Socialist Collective." We recently, under Geof Huth's guidance, published a full-color portfolio of contemporary visual poets. Dunno if they qualify. Or maybe you're saying that if those poets appear in Poetry they're not avant-garde anymore!

  3. January 13, 2009

    Bernstein's recantation is indeed prescient. When he spoke at his daughter's funeral, he quoted Tennyson and Swinburne, as well as Stevens and Dickinson.
    So terrible, such painful emotions -- overwhelming. I'm so sorry for Ms. Bernstein's suffering and her family's and friends'.
    I'm not too worried about the avant-garde declining in a new Depression. "If people don't need poetry bully for them."
    And if we love it, including the avant-ish kinds, bully for us.

  4. January 13, 2009

    It's great if there's one or two experimentalish poems per issue, but why not make it more like 10 or 20? We know you're trying; it's just a question of proportion. Just a l'il more, maybe? Pwetty pwease?

  5. January 13, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    "[T]he radical typographical investigations of E.E. Cummings were decimated by Archibald MacLeish...."
    I'm a fan of Cummings, but it's unclear to me how another poet–MacLeish–could "decimate" (that is, "kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of" or "drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of") his "investigations." Cummings had difficulty getting published at times (hence his famous listing in No Thanks of publishers who'd rejected his work), but he did publish consistently and won a number of prizes, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Shelley Memorial Award, the National Book Award, a Bollingen Prize, and a Ford Foundation grant. At least eight of his books, including his novel The Enormous Room remain in print, which implies that his innovative work is still reaching large numbers of readers.
    If MacLeish set out to "decimate" Cummings's work, he did a lousy job of it.
    But your overall point remains: "[D]uring the Depression [...] intelligibility wiped innovation off the map." Well, let's pretend that's true. Could it be that the audience, faced with economic decimation–that is, destruction of their lives and livelihoods–needed intelligibility more than avant-garde innovation? Could it be that innovation is typically created and appreciated by a minority of artists and audiences in any given period?
    Could it be that your wanting to have it all ways–to innovate among the avant-garde and to attract a large audience and to win the attention of powerful critics and anthologists and to have your self-apportioned slice of fame–is really nothing more than an expression of egotism? Of the famous "I" the avant-garde so badly wants to expunge from the American literary vocabulary?

  6. January 13, 2009
     Linh Dinh

    Yo Kenny,
    As a self-proclaimed avant-gardist, you shouldn't hanker for recognition from "conservative publications." If you were tolerated, or championed, gawd forbid, by the rearguard, stragglers and AWOLs, you wouldn't be so avant, would you? The day you find yourself in the New Yorker, swallow half a bottle of somnapril, slash both wrists, place a strong plastic bag over your head, then jump out the window!

  7. January 13, 2009
     Don Share

    You bet, Matt! Just trying to be eclectic, I ought to add: not doctrinaire,which I leave to others.
    By the way, check out Al Filreis' blog for a look at what would have happened to Poetry had Hayden Carruth taken Yvor Winters' counter-revolutionary advice in 1949 to publish:
    [] Edgar Bowers ("on his way to being a great poet")
    [] Donald Drummond (brilliant although uneven)
    [] L. F. Gerlach
    [] C.R. Holmes
    [] Wesley Trimpi (anothner Stanford guy who went on to a distinguished academic career but not much as a poet)
    And you think THIS is a bad time for (P)oetry, eh?
    Click here for the whole blog post.

  8. January 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Interesting, I doubt Brecht would have been much a champion of Conceptual poetry, or Flarf, or the New Sentence, that sort of thing. His wrangle with Lukacs wasn't an argument for an intellectualized formalism, much less (as case of most Flarf) for sophomoric forays of mockery of "subaltern" discourses.
    And Poetry Magazine is now quite open to "avant" writing (Spicer, anyone?). The New Yorker is comfortably including the post-avant now-- Rae Armantrout has appeared thrice, I think. Fred Seidel, much maligned, is actually about as edgy as it gets (his rhymes are perfectly nasty and ironic). Michael Robbins, whose sharp voice has been around here, has the strangest poem the magazine's ever published, in current issue. Etc.
    The idea that there is some kind of institutional monolith of "Official Verse" publications out there keeping the "avant-garde" from the big table has become laughable (and the matter of why it seems so urgent to sit at that table is another poignant and fascinating topic critics will someday be dissecting).
    "Post-avant" isn't even a fashion anymore, it's a period style. And the ever more desperate Outsider claim has become a poignant trope inside a pathetic denouement-- a claim made, consciously or not, in attempt to justify and blur the "post-avant's" now-obvious accommodation to literary power centers and venues, namely the Academy and its cultural surrounds.
    The avant-garde's recuperation is the old story, and the plot repeats itself here. The only difference is that it's never happened with such speed and open, eager collaboration.

  9. January 13, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    In my little tantrum there, I seem to have gotten carried away with the scare quotes!
    Oh well, a "scary" time for U.S. poetry...

  10. January 13, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    Surely "avant garde" is the most derriere garde word around, and "experimental," the most likely to be used by academics.

  11. January 13, 2009

    I don't know if Linh Dinh was trying to be funny or just cruel, but his comment makes me want to pick up the beautiful New Yorker and hold it and beg it to never to go out of business in this day and age when so many magazines are going under (it won’t, it can’t). It makes me think of the first time I opened the New Yorker as a "New Yorker" and read an amazing poem by Philip Levine and for one second, even the subway I was riding seemed to stop. And he was talking about people I knew. Down and out people who were trying to make a living, and it was a quiet poem with this huge heart and I thought, 'Someday I want to be in the New Yorker so I can make the train stop too.' And even now, that seems better than being a disgruntled artist who praises "fringe-ness" and yet still wants an audience. Maybe the New Yorker isn't right for everyone. And maybe that's okay. Although, in this economy, I think, as writers, we should keep praising magazines (viva la print!) that are still in business despite all the odds against them. And it publishes poetry no less! WEEKLY. It may not publish your poetry, but aren't we all one big hungry poetry family? Why must we really begrudge our poetry-brothers/sisters for getting the word out? Is it poetry we want to promote, or only our own poetry we want to promote? I say, keeping printing all of it. Bring it on. Make the train stop because of a good poem–or even if you don't like the poem, make it stop just because it's a rare poem in print.

  12. January 13, 2009
     K. Silem Mohammad

    I think your position is simultaneously overstated and lacking in force, Kenny. It is overstated in its claim that establishment publications and institutions steadily "refuse" to admit "avant-garde" work into their pages. As Don Share and others point out, there is perhaps even a concerted move to be inclusive of poetries that seem "cutting-edge" or "alternative." A paranoid take on this might be that this inclusion is motivated by an impulse toward inoculation: let just a little bit in in order to effect an immunity on the part of the larger, more conservative tendencies vying for dominance. At the very least, it allows the editorial entities to say, "look, you can't complain--we put a [Conceptual poet, Language poet, Flarfist, etc.] in this issue." And thence the lack of force in your argument: the problem is not that (say) Poetry doesn't publish enough avant-garde poets. It's not even that it doesn't publish enough of them. It's that the avant-garde is not in complete control of the magazine--indeed, of the entire literary apparatus in the US. Not until we have humiliated and incapacitated the whole nest of genteel vermin who have polluted poetry in this country for the past few decades with their docile inanities can we relax our vigil. Indeed, not even then, for in order for vitally intense writing to continue to flourish, it must continually assert its superiority to the flabby complacencies of an aesthetic lumpenelite ... and to the enervated pretensions of those who would claim to be "supportive of our cause," but who in fact weaken that cause by their tolerance for the pablum that can only deteriorate whatever resolve and principles they may initially possess.

  13. January 13, 2009
     Don Share

    I agree with Kasey, with the exception that if folks really have what he calls the "paranoid take," then I'd have to wonder. I can't imagine the meaning or usefulness of inclusiveness as inoculation. If the implication is that we do it... we don't.

  14. January 13, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    @ Don: I agree with Matt and Kasey. You're not doing enough. Spicer avant-garde? 50 years ago. Armantrout? Perhaps 30 years ago. Not now. Doesn't your magazine wish to be more exciting and relevant than it is?
    @ Joseph: dear, Joseph, we shall never see eye-to-eye on anything. If you're really interested in the need for intelligibility over innovation and / or exploration, there's a world that awaits you in law, politics or business. And if audience share equals non-elitism, there's always the Super Bowl. Everyone can appreciate that.
    @ Linh: Everyone wants power. And money. And fame. Get over it.
    @ Daisy. You're being very 80s about this. Today, there are no words more "avant-garde" than "avant-garde."
    @ Kasey. Hosanna! I apologize for being so polite. Full annihilation of anything other than the most radical avant is what we strive for. Onward comrade!

  15. January 13, 2009
     New York Crew

    Maybe things just got a little better for the literary avant garde! The international artist collective "New York Crew" has announced that they are staging a series of gallery exhibitions and public performances in which the coolest of the cool in the art world will focus their lens on our favorite tiny ghetto of literary discourse: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-derived experimental writing. Some works from their first show "Flarf Fixie" can be seen here:
    Avant Poets! No need to embrace National Poetry Month! Just get hip to the art world! Seriously.

  16. January 14, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    @Kenny. You're being very '00s to say "You're being very 80s." And very '90s to declare dead the death of the avant garde.
    But seriously, I believe the avant garde can't possibly happen in America anymore. China maybe. Indonesia. Anyway, it sounds cute to say so.

  17. January 14, 2009
     Mark Nowak

    It must be wonderful to write from some pinnacle in which the world is so neatly cordoned off: social concerns, leave them to lawyers (like your cousins?) and politicians! the working class, leave them to their Super Bowl (btw, given tax-payer dollars for stadiums, million dollar a minute tv spots, and luxury boxes for the corporate elite, well, that's hardly the case of non-elitism in either superstructure or base). And to blithely shrug off an 800 point loss in the stock market, well, that matters quite a bit to those of us whose parents and grandparents and entire families spent their 9-5's in some factory or typing memos for some boss for 40 years and now have to go back to work at McDonalds or WalMart ("the only companies out of the 30 that make up the Dow Jones industrial stock index that had a higher stock price at the beginning of December than a year ago," according to the Wall Street Journal). I'm not nearly as concerned with who's in the pool and who's reclining on their beach chairs as I am with the argument that "form is never more than a decimation of content." People are hurting, Kenny. Flesh and blood people. And if innovation in poetry means merely shrugging at the economic, social, racial underpinnings of that, well, count me out.

  18. January 14, 2009
     Don Share

    Kenny: I don't know what "not doing enough" means. We're not trying to "do" anything in particular for or against or in any regard to the a-g, SoQ, or any other kind of poetry, in or out, that you can come up with. Nor does it necessarily follow that "doing more" for the a-g (which conveniently remains undefined in every single Harriet post about it) would make us "more exciting and relevant."
    Spicer, as I'm getting tired of arguing, is avant-garde in the sense that he is of importance right now to contemporary poets who consider themselves a-g - but also to many, many others who do not - this is why his new collected poems has completely sold out its first printing. If the other folks, e.g., Armantrout, aren't a-g- enough, sorry. You don't mention Charles, so I wonder if he's avant or not anymore!
    The point is that what's "relevant," what's "exciting," and what's "experimental" is not confined to what passes for "avant garde" these days. Your mileage will, as they used to say, vary; one person's excitement will lull another to sleep, as we know from H.L. Hix's recent question about what lulls people.
    Anyway, I'm sure eclecticism must sound like a very dull instrument to those with axes to grind and sharpen. This further convinces me that it is valuable and necessary.
    NOW: all that said - I would urge avant garde poets, experimentalists and anyone who feels part of what Kenny, Matt, and Kasey are describing, to SEND US YOUR WORK. Because of the kinds of things said about the magazine, not many of you do. If it's not cool to be in Poetry, OK fine - but if you think it should change, then we need you to send us work. You can't complain about what you won't or fail to change. Paranoids need not apply!

  19. January 14, 2009
     Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl

    I'm feeling Kasey's sentiment deeply - it echoes in my bones, my throbbing skeleton (which might be a saying in my language, but you'll never know for sure). And for what it's worth, I'm also feeling Kenny on this, although I'll dare say what we're all thinking, that while 2008 was obviously the year of hope, 2009 will show itself to be the year of annihilation - the year avant-garde poetry loses its patience and starts "unloading on the boy" (to quote Joe the Plumber).

  20. January 14, 2009

    I'm surprised that no one has disputed the history that Kenny provides here. The idea that the 30s represents some kind of retrenchment for art and writing has little purchase on reality, in my view, and probably says more about Kenny G.'s anxiety about the political charge which most of the art from this period carried.
    But let's do a quick tally: Djuna Barnes, Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston; Brecht, Celine, Vallejo, Lorca; Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker. And surely, it would be absurd for anybody who cares about film to think of the 30s as barren. Avant-garde painting, indeed, may have mostly played itself out, but that's because it got an earlier start than the other media. And we did get Guernica, no?
    It's really the 40s and the McCarthyite 50s that bring a retrenchment. But if disinterested formalism is what you care about, then the Popular Front and McCarthyism probably look the same.

  21. January 14, 2009
     Lydia Olidea

    I hate to see such lovely people fighting. I wonder if I could ask just a couple-three questions.
    a) I would scarcely consign the idea of an avant-garde to the dustbin of history. Indeed, now more than ever! But Kenny, doesn't the conception of an avant-garde which is indifferent to political and economic situations sort of weaken your claim on the heritage of the historical avant-garde which stood in open (and often risky) opposition to the same (and did indeed refuse to appear in various venues, even at cost of power, money and fame?
    b) But Mark, does this mean that if the wealthy successfully tie the fortunes of the poor to their own (as is obviously the strategic function of "the ownership society," pension and insurance fund investments in the market, etc), are we then compelled to root for the wealthy, that is to say for the health of the stock market, since to do otherwise is somehow to root against the poor? "People are hurting," just as you say; must we hope then for the interests of the companies that might employ them?
    c) Don, nobody doubts your good intentions, but are we supposed to believe that the antagonism between Poetry and what we'll for the moment call "the avant-garde" is somehow an atavistic habit of the latter, while the former is neutral and open-minded? Given the notably antagonistic and closed-minded writings of the Poetry Foundation's President, and of the magazine's editor, on these topics, this idea is a little hard to credit (citations, as you know, easily available). I believe you want to include more such poetry, for what it's worth, but I hope we can be honest about the recent history here.
    As ever, etc...

  22. January 14, 2009
     Don Share

    Lydia, those are some good questions! As for the one addressed to me, sorry it's hard to credit but the answer is: "Yes." As you well know, the magazine is editorially distinct from the PF. (And why wouldn't the latter's president and former's editor not be entitled to their opinions?) More usefully, "recent history" is still past history, and I'm talking about the present and future. You will perhaps assure me that there's no escaping history or at least a dialectical view of it, in which case why, indeed, are we "fighting?" I hope we can be honest enough, though, to explain 1.) who the avant garde poets are, so we can be clear about who's being excluded or marginalized; 2.) why avant work (or any other, including SoQ) should be privileged in some way; 3.) why it's not ok for a magazine to publish work by a variety of poets with opposing views on poetics, politicking, and everything else under the sun; 4.) why it's apparently better to complain in a comment box about what we publish than to send some poems to us. Or are we back to paranoia?

  23. January 14, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    I do pick up Poetry from time to time, with an open mind, and have yet to see the rigid hugging of the left margin break but for the recent vispo feature, which I have already applauded, but will happily applaud again: bravo. I don't object to the clinging, but am not enticed by a sameness of vision, tone, and sensibility in any way. Surprisingly people don't seem to recognize when that is happening.
    But my students do. My students make it very clear what poetry matters, what makes them shiver, what is generative, what causes such outpourings of excitable verse. Sometimes what excites them is also hugging the left margin, but it is very often not. And certainly not only.
    Avant garde, formalist, whatever, people know what's exciting, what has integrity, what inspires, and no one of us can corral that. Here's to the next generations of poetry.

  24. January 14, 2009
     Mark Nowak

    As for the one addressed to me: I didn't root for Republic Windows, just the workers who occupied it to get what they deserved. In my perfect post-(neo)liberal world order, we might root for companies because they'd be collectively owned and run by their workers (and all paid about the same, like the occupied factories I visited across Argentina five years ago). But for the "now," I'm one for hoping that another 524,000 people don't lose their jobs in January like they did in December (& unemployment its worst in 16 years). It's the beauty of wearing two shoes: that we can work on the ground to change the system while simultaneously hoping that those who have paid so dearly into it their entire lives don't get screwed over by it at the end. The poor don't have fortunes: it's not a question of buying a Volvo instead of a Benz or selling the summer house; it's, as a 50-year-old autoworker who came to one of my readings told me, not having to give his Lipitor prescription to his 70 year old mother because Walmart where she now works won't cover it while the UAW would (or, did). As we work to fix/change the f'd-up system, let's find ways for working people to survive this economic crisis, here and across the globe... And I, for one, would love to hear more poets in this conversation.

  25. January 14, 2009
     Ange Mlinko

    As someone whose publication history since 1992 has encompassed both mainstream and avant-garde, big and little magazines, I can tell you the stylistic spread between poets in Shiny, or Sal Mimeo, or The Poker, or With + Stand, or Litmus, or the Hat or Conjunctions (to name 7 xeroxed or otherwise a-g mags I’ve published in) is never very large. And their audiences are fairly homogenous, racially and economically. So whatever makes them more exciting than Poetry or The New Yorker must rely on their aura of exclusivity or hipness–same values that draw students like Lemon Hound’s to Williamsburg Brooklyn.
    Can’t argue with Brooklyn. But I wouldn't want to live there at my age!

  26. January 14, 2009

    Sameness of vision, tone, and sensibility is ubiquitous in contemporary poetry across the board: a bad time, indeed, and visual poets, avants, and post-avants are not immune.

  27. January 14, 2009
     michael robbins

    Wow. Are these soi-disant avant folk reading their soi-disant avant peers? I am. I read them all. You wanna talk "sameness of vision, tone, & sensibility," hell, pick up one of the post-avant journals Ange mentions (some of which I've been published in, in addition to The New Yorker).

  28. January 14, 2009

    Without lunging too lustily for Kenny's debate-bait, I'd just like to second Jasper's corrective, with the qualification that even the "McCarthite 50s" had their share of interesting poets--not by McCarthyites, obviously, but Creeley, Ashbery, and Olson all published books the same year the Army-McCarthy hearings started (1953). And someone, somewhere will probably be able to dredge up some counterexamples from the 40s as well. Which is not to say that every decade gets its fair share of "adventurous" poets, but most of them get at least a few...
    I also don't think that the analogy with design is a very good one. It's pretty clear that design (like the high-end art market, its kissing cousin) does respond stylistically to ambient affluence--the richer "we" get, the more extravagant art seems to get (e.g.). But that just doesn't seem to happen in literature. (To take just one example, from mainstream prose, not experimental poetry: Raymond Carver-style minimalism took hold in the Gordon Gecko eighties.) I'm guessing it's a result of the fact that there's not much price differentiation among books, as there is in art/design. But Kenny, do you really think that poets get more ambitious as the country gets richer? Or, conversely, that poverty makes poetry more cautious? Where/when do you see this happening? God knows I'd love it if this economic downturn drowned Flarf and in its late-capitalist bathtub once and for all, but Kasey's comments above suggest I'd be wise not to (pardon the tortured pun) hold my breath.
    Finally, I for one sure wouldn't mind another installment of the WPA right about now, especially if it will help support the next generation of Rexroths, Ellisons, Algrens, Cheevers, and Bellows. But again, I'm not betting on it.

  29. January 14, 2009
     unreliable narrator

    Well, I had a big fancy articulated thing I was going to say; but now I am gobsmacked and stoppered in my tracks by wondering over the fact that, apparently, I don't seem to want power or money or fame. I only seem to want food and shelter, (library) books and good friends.
    And I dare call myself a late capitalist? I kiss my blog with this mouth? What the hell's wrong with me?! What if–maybe I don't even exist!
    (In which case this comment isn't even here; and, really, how much more post-avant-avant can a (nonexistent) poet get? I win.)

  30. January 14, 2009
     Ange Mlinko

    I shouldn't have to add (but these are paranoid times) that I was happy to publish in those mags and I am grateful to their editors. Poetry should be an adventure -- and both a-g and petit-bourgeois poets at their extremes seem to forget this.

  31. January 14, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Seems to me that real surprise and originality in poetry is rooted in the way the poetry moves from a basis in shared literary conventions & discovers something new. But remember, the process is two-fold : you start with the shared conventions or tradition.
    Ergo., if the avant-garde is so easy to recognize & promote, it must not be very surprising.

  32. January 14, 2009
     Henry Gould

    ... & I would further suggest that "literary conventions" & "tradition" are themselves rooted in the unspoken ethos & spoken speech of people at large - readers & non-readers, writers & non-writers.
    & this means that sometimes - in the context of a hyper-literary & sophisticated subculture of reception & evaluation - the most original & most "out-there" poetry is... the simplest & most direct.
    Yeats was interested in "memorable" speech. He insisted that real poets worked with the voice - SAID, rather than just scribbled, their poems. Mandelstam the same. They identified with "people" at large - no matter how arcane or confused they got sometimes.
    Stevens' poem, "Of Modern Poetry". See what it says. Even this elegant connoisseur aligned with Yeats & Mandelstam here.
    Delicate balancing act between art & populism, the individual & the crowd, the prophet as spokesperson & the prophet as outcast, scapegoat.

  33. January 14, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    re: "draws students like Lemon Hound’s to Williamsburg Brooklyn."
    Ange, you're making quite an assumption about my students...and me for that matter, but wait you didn't ask me what I or they thought was exciting?!
    By the way all, I don't think it's a bad time for poetry, I think it's a great time for poetry and I'm happy to be part of it.
    Quibbles and all.

  34. January 14, 2009

    1. I think Daisy’s right. The avant-garde has historically occurred as a response to a rapidly expanding middle class. The gender-bending, cleverly allusive Yip Harburg devotee is right too that the response has typically been politically radical, though we would be remiss not to note that the radicalism in early avant-gardism was almost as likely to be Fascist as Communist or Anarchist. (Don’t have the stats; guestimating here.)
    2. Ange, in addition to what Lemon Hound said, I’d also say that the picture you sketch of Brooklyn is startlingly incomplete.
    3. I don’t see that poetry has a public role to play in our society beyond the university at all. I’m glad Lemon Hound mentioned her students. Yes. They’re the ones. Few other people care, and there’s nothing in the foreseeable future that will change that. Greater accessibility? Nope, doesn’t matter. Outreach funds? Elementary school workshops? Nope and nope. And that’s fine! Go ahead and be all evangelical about poetry if you wanna, but most people rightly will close the door in your face – hopefully politely – just like I do with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    4. The confluence of poetry and higher education would seem to imply that historical conditions are not ripe for an avant-garde in our society, as the main social function of the university is to reproduce the middle class, which the avant-garde has historically been opposed to. I don’t see evidence that history’s predictive power is wrong here.
    5. CV time! Fun! I published one poem and one musical composition (! – it was a conceptual piece) in a magazine called “Beatniks from Space,” a Detroit-area anarchist-affiliated rag (I think!; never met any of the people) circa 1985. And a few poems in short-lived 'zines (Meat City, Hel’s Kitchen) in the '80s and '90s; I knew the editor of the former and was one of the editors of the latter.
    6. Should be obvious, but worth repeating: Avant-garde is not synonymous with innovative.
    7. Aesthetic sectarianism is waaay old hat. But always entertaining! (Lots of entertainment comes in old-fashioned packages.) Thanks, Mr. G., for stirring it up!

  35. January 14, 2009
     Ange Mlinko

    Well, yes, LH, I am assuming your students are young & hip. (Now thinking back to teaching undergrads I remember how shockingly unhip they were...) But I don't put that much stock into what the kids think. And my point is simply that people should remember that the hipness of being experimental is just the flipside of being the august poet published by the New Yorker.
    No, really, my point is that people should think, not just belong.
    And I think I know what you find exciting from your lovely blog. But I must add that thanks to Poetry I found a non-left-margin-hugging poet I like very much -- Mary Kinzie. And the highly enjambed Marianne Boruch. Among others.
    And now, little mouths to feed....

  36. January 14, 2009

    1)This discussion is funded by 100 million dollars.
    2) I have been living without a car (in a pedestrian unfriendly city) for the last year and a half to fund a press.
    3) My mother, in her sixties, lost her job last week.
    4) How dare you make claims about the homogenous economic background of certain poets.

  37. January 14, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Hey Kenny, in your list of responses, you forgot to acknowledge me! I know I pointed out your embarrassing recourse to Brecht… But still, I do feel a bit left out, and that makes me sort of sad...
    I will quote myself again:
    "… The ever more desperate Outsider claim has become a poignant trope inside a pathetic denouement-- a claim made, consciously or not, in attempt to justify and blur the "post-avant's" now-obvious accommodation to literary power centers and venues, namely the Academy and its cultural surrounds. The avant-garde's recuperation is the old story, and the plot repeats itself here. The only difference is that it's never happened with such speed and open, eager collaboration.”
    In fact, the position you and Kasey assert (though Kasey is tongue in cheek with it) --i.e., that your kind of poetry is more authentically "avant-garde" than other kinds of innovative work (Conceptualism/Flarf vis a vis the abstract-pastoral of a Moxley or Gizzi, say)-- misses the bigger and conspicuous picture: that *all* avant tendencies, soft and hard alike, are now largely set within and driven by perfectly official norms of poetic property, professionalism, and position-taking. As in ideology, it’s all very “normal.”
    And so the natural and increasingly avowed political aim (Kenny’s position is identical to Bernstein and Silliman’s, whose poetic-politics are by now more or less reduced to this) is to get the “avant-garde” a heftier slice of the Official pie. Or put another way, the rich dramatic irony is that even as the brave poets of Language, Conceptualism and Flarf --the Real avant-garde!-- agitate against their purported exclusion, they are now more carefully staged and dressed inside the Academy’s diorama than the hunter-gatherers of any other poetic formation extant… Arguably *more* so, actually.
    Once the rules and stakes become mainly institutional, form and formal concept become the elite, self-referential game. Brecht, you know, wrote a bit about cultural mandirinism, and in ways suggestive of our state of affairs. You might want to read him some more, Kenny, before you reference him again.
    Though as I said, there’s nothing new about any of this. And all in all, the agonistic theater is mildly amusing.
    Onward into the Institution-Art,

  38. January 14, 2009
     Henry Gould

    & it seems to me that Franz Wright's poem {"Learning to Read") in current issue of New Yorker has something to say to this conversation.
    Curiously, it's a poem that addresses some very exalted poetry - Psalms, Du Fu, Whitman, Rilke - from OUTSIDE poetry. From the perspective of a child for whom "learning to read" is a dialectical process : what teaches him to understand these poets is the experiential suffering he experiences from the very "non-literary" brutality & force of mundane existence : which, indeed, is what the poets wrote about too, in order to understand it, exorcise it, heal its wounds.
    For me anyway, beside this kind of simplicity, all these debates about style seem very jejune & petty.
    Not that style is not of the first importance in art. But maybe a great style is produced by something non-literary...

  39. January 14, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    My students are all kinds of people, old, young, liberal, conservative, queer, funny, sour, short, tall, angry, open minded, short tempered, very pink in the middle, overdone, long in the stride, impatient, patient, hip, goofy, francophone, anglophone, painters, artists, retirees, and so on. They don't always appreciate what I appreciate, nor do I expect them to, which is the point and joy of poetry really. Furthermore I don't only teach what I like either. What I like is not the point. Poetry is much bigger than my personal preferences.
    And now I will refrain from the comment stream for a time and go back to poetry.
    Hope to see you at AWP.

  40. January 14, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    "Hope to see you at AWP"! Henceforth that sentence shall serve as my answer to the question "Is there an avant-garde?"

  41. January 14, 2009

    Re: Silliman, Bernstein, Goldsmith, Mohammad -- what slice of what Official Pie? The powerless vs. the powerless for a smidgen of "prestige" or "fame," as Goldsmith calls it. Until poets have some slice of the only Official Pie there is in this country -- the corporation known as the U.S. Govt. -- there is no pie to be had by anyone. Now, continue on with your petty, hip hairsplitting.

  42. January 15, 2009

    Someone always has to bring up the hundred million dollars. And someone else will point out that this figure is lots smaller than the endowments of most of the academic institutions that employ poets.

  43. January 15, 2009
     Ange Mlinko

    Henry: Yes, that is a heart-rending poem. Thanks for directing us to it.

  44. January 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Anonymous said:
    >Until poets have some slice of the only Official Pie there is in this country -- the corporation known as the U.S. Govt. -- there is no pie to be had by anyone.
    Anonymous, it could be interesting to pursue the question: In what ways might the so-called U.S. avant-garde be implicated, however innocently or inevitably, in the corporate State?
    Endowed Chairs; academic positions at institutions with ties to the State; MFA degrees from institutions with diverse ties to the State; grants, fellowships, publications in journals supported by government money and/or corporations enmeshed with State institutions; the origins of the post-avant's blissful internet habitus; Conceptual-poet stock portfolios saved by the Fed; one could go on...
    Of course, one answer to such is that it's just "petty, hip hairsplitting," as you put it. And yes, you would be right, on one level, for we're all implicated, obviously. We all have a piece of the pie. But that larger pie and our place in it doesn't seem to be of tremendous interest to our once-erstwhile, now-academic "avant-garde," does it? Our Experimental eyes are now mainly trained on the Museum. And Museums, too, have ties to the State.
    But it's an interesting period, and things will shake out in their own ways!

  45. January 15, 2009

    Implicate, yes! In triplicate.

  46. January 15, 2009
     unreliable narrator

    What continually fascinates me about this whole train-wreck (as in, you don't want to look but can't tear your eyes away) of an agon is its underbelly, sometimes not-so-under, its aesthetic arguments concealing class accusation; e.g. the inevitable Hundred Million Dollars. As if being paid meant that one would somehow lose the ability to read?
    I keep thinking about Richard Wright's Black Boy. The chapter where he talks about how he learned to read–by encountering, of all writers, HL Mencken, who's just a gateway drug. Soon Wright is an official book-addled literature addict who works all day and stays up all night reading, bewildered and frightened and totally seduced. And then he makes a discovery–that if he eats hot food, he can read longer and with better concentration.
    So...let's get this straight.
    1) The a-g, assuming they/we exist, wants hot food.
    2) When anyone gets hot food, however, we're/they're immediately no longer a-g but now SoQ. [I can't believe I'm using these ridiculous acronyms.]
    3) Those who didn't get any hot food still get to be a-g.
    Da capo. Star-bellied sneeches anyone?
    I mean, sure, it sucks to get less pie, or cold pie, or no pie. I dig it. Yesterday I found out that a former student of mine recently won a Stegner, whereas I've been sending my annual donation check to Stanford since 1998 without result. But I should publicly call her a tool now? How offensively dumb would that be?
    This last year I had to take a loyalty oath to the constitution of the state of Arizona, so I could teach first-year comp/rhet to its young adults, in classrooms which each display 1) one American flag, 2) one laminated copy of the Constitution, and 3) one laminated Declaration of Independence (curiously, no Bill of Rights). The loyalty pledge in particular horrified me mightily. Okay, on one level it's like having a passport: It's cracky but there's not much point in getting exercised about it. On the other hand it's completely depressing: Not only do I emphatically disagree with what the State of Arizona puts IN their constitution (cough*breeders*cough), but now, employed by a government rather than myself, I'm officially working for The Man. Of course, by participating in the US economy I was of course already working for The Man; but this feels disconsolately different, and therefore presumably is. I'm an Employee of the State now.
    And, isn't it obvious that my change in income/employment status, and my having avowed some ridiculous unenforceable "loyalty," doesn't mean I'm suddenly going to start writing poems about snow-covered rural mailboxes and winter chickadees? In rhyming couplets? Though, if I could pull that off and it were interesting, hey, go me–
    The late WD Snodgrass wrote, in "Tact and the Poet's Force" (1958):

    Unfortunately for the writer...he [sic] can say nothing worth hearing, nothing worth stopping for, unless he says something new and different. He can only do that in three obvious ways:
    First, he might have a new idea.
    Second, he might have a new set of details and facts structured within old ideas.
    Third, he might have a new style; that is, he may have a way of talking which symbolizes a new and different person.
    If there are other ways to be interesting in a poem I have not seen them.

  47. January 15, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    Kenny, you do a great job of willfully missing the point.
    You say in your response to me: "If you're really interested in the need for intelligibility over innovation and / or exploration, there's a world that awaits you in law, politics or business."
    Of course, my original comment on your post was about the interests of the audience, not my interests. I wouldn't read your posts–or Silliman's, or K. S. Mohammad's–if I didn't find them interesting. This doesn't mean I have to agree with them.
    You also say, "And if audience share equals non-elitism, there's always the Super Bowl. Everyone can appreciate that."
    Are you some kind of contortionist? It's unclear if you mean that the Super Bowl is, in fact, elitist, or that a "non-elitist" audience must be interested only in super-hyped distractions, or that a poet who has a large audience is automatically trivial. If the last proposition is your point, you'll have to explain what Christian Bok's Eunoia is doing on the U.K. bestseller list.

  48. January 15, 2009

    Given that this debate about the a-g and its meaning, extinction, heroic perseverance, whatevs, seems to keep not going away, frequent but irregular, like a particularly insistent case of herpes, one wonders if Christian Bok or one of the avant-tech types (oh saboteurs of Issue 1, that means you!) could just come up with an algorithm that would reproduce all of the extant positions and their invariant variations. Certainly we've worked out that periodic table by now, eh? Then, we could just leave it running in the background, nattering away while we move on to to more satisfying pursuits. . .

  49. January 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    That's a good comment. But it's not a matter of anyone being "bad or good." The issue we're discussing is, broadly, a sociological one.
    What we have today with the "post-avant (sub-formations and individualities taken into account) is the most ubiquitous colonization of the Academy by any poetic tendency since the New Criticism.
    The point is, and I assume everyone would agree, that the habitus has its meanings and implications-- ones that have impact upon a spectrum of things, including poetics proper. And we certainly can't talk honestly about the current "avant-garde" in the U.S. without talking about its situatedness, which is an incredibly ugly word I think I once learned in grad school.
    And part of the point is that few seem to want to talk about this situatedness. Or perhaps because it's "natural," don't even give the subject a second thought.
    As Michael Robbins suggests in a comment above, for instance, the blithe post-avant exclamation du jour, "See you at the AWP!" is rich in its significations...
    That said, I'll see you at the AWP, too, because it turns out this year I'm reading there. You see what I mean?

  50. January 15, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    I'm not going to AWP. Does that mean I get extra credit for something or other?

  51. January 15, 2009
     Linh Dinh

    What's WAP? Am I the only one here who don't know what it stands for? White American Pie?
    We Ain't Pacified? When Angry, Pout?

  52. January 15, 2009
     Linh Dinh

    Oh crap, it's AWP, not WAP, so maybe it's American White Pie? Ain't We Pacified? Or Angry When Pouting?

  53. January 15, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    @ Mark: Innovation in poetry doesn't imply "merely shrugging off the economic, social, and racial underpinning." Nor should it imply that writing needs to stoop for comprehension at all costs, which is my argument in the post expressing my fears of the effects that a WPA model aesthetic agenda might have upon more adventurous works. I think it helps to look at Brecht here to see how he effectively bridged the social and the formal to create works of staggering social power, while rewriting aesthetic rules.
    @ Bobby: No of course poetry never gets richer as the country gets richer, which is exactly my point. The valuelessness of this endeavor is exactly its power. Regardless of the economic climate, poetry continues. As I said in my post, the boom was of no good to poetry, and the bust promises to be no worse. Poetry is one thing, critical reception is another. One thing that boom times does is to give more air time; when the economy is flush, there are more pages to fill, more opportunities to have one's work written about. When things contract, as we're seeing now, it's hard to divorce any story -- particularly regarding the arts -- from its relationship to economics, effectively pushing poetry off the page. My fear, I guess, as expressed in my post is the repeat of the exile of more challenging forms as a populist agenda takes over, an agenda, by the way, I'm sure many will cheer. It just scares me.
    @ Kent: We could go around the avant-garde merry-go-round forever and I agree with you that the avant's slice of the pie is larger than it was. But it's still small and it's still outside. There's always room for improvement, I think. I remember being asked a few years ago by a European interviewer on this very topic:
    The programme of Language writing seems quite congenial to what you do. They as well felt the need to react against poetry as it was/is taught at universities. Many language writers, however, are currently working at a university (and so are you). Isn't there a contradiction in this?

    It's a fact that in the United States, the primary reception of innovative literature happens in the university; there really is very little readership outside the academy. This is a condition that preceded my arrival onto the writing scene, fostered by numerous cultural conditions in the States, as well as the warm reception of Language Poetry by the academy. As such, I simply take it as a given that this is where the readership and study of my work occurs.

    But it's not all bad news. At the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach, we are given free reign to teach in unconventional ways. For example, I teach classes in Uncreative Writing where we encourage the students to plagiarize, appropriate, plunder and sample. They are demerited when they show signs of originality or of conventional thinking. The university supports this agenda, so you see that perhaps the academy is not what it used to be!

    I see this as positive, Kent. No?
    @ Joseph: I apologize for my snarkiness and my rudeness. It was a knee-jerk response to what I was sensing as an attack, as an either/or proposition. Either I works of art appeals to everyone or they're so difficult that they appeal to no one, which seems to reductive to me. I often call my work a-g, but in fact my works can be understood by everyone. Who can't understand a record, in plain English, of what a person spoke for a week? Or a transcription of weather reports for a year, traffic reports for a day, or a long baseball game? All my works are written with traditional syntax, full sentences and so forth. I guess the question -- the avant rub -- would be why? Sorry again for the short fuse.

  54. January 15, 2009

    Kenny--why is the avant rub not "why not"?

  55. January 15, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Thank you for mentioning me.
    Look, some of my best friends are Professors. I have nothing against people being Professors.
    I'm talking about a phenomenon, a historical turn, so to speak, in our nation's innovative poetics. I had offered the trope of a diorama, and I am pleased with myself.
    The historical avant-garde was not forged in the Academy. The Academy was its enemy. That the so-called "avant-garde" in our poetry is now comfortably located in the Academy is importantly why the products now coming from it are fundamentally rehearsed formal riffs off old radical gestures-- gestures now canonized and accepted as legitimate Art Works (sorry, I have gotten into the habit of poaching phrases from Burger on this matter).
    It is a formalism contentedly caught up in the Institution Art (there I go again). Formalism that has no object but to challenge for position inside the Institution Art is safe and conservative. It is vacated of a substantive politics. This is what has happened to Language poetry. In fact, the Language poets now admit it. They used to be utopian when they were young, but now they are all grown up and have tenure and Endowed Chairs. They have many followers who now rehearse *them.* They're all dying to get into The New Yorker.
    Look, some of my best friends are Language poets (no, just kidding). But I have nothing against individual Language poets.
    When one is situated for a long time inside an Academic institution, one tends to become safe and conservative in the areas of one's creative endeavors. One can be "avant-garde," but usually only a certain kind of "avant-garde." One can make safe and polite kinds of experimental art. One can make Uncreative Writing, for example, which is profoundly safe and conservative. A formal/conceptual gesture that more or less rehearses concepts from Duchamp and Warhol, who are warhorses now in the Museum. Bully for them and for also for you, but it is all old hat by now, and the audience at Mother Courage, I hate to break the news, couldn't care less. But if your academic readers, as you say, dig it, especially grad students who long to be academics just like you, then of course you are going to uncreatively write it. And then you will write some more and more or less repeat yourself. Like the Language poets who've been more or less repeating themselves for years. In part because they can't get out of the Author brace. Which is perfectly understandable, since safe and approved kinds of formal experimentalism spurt from the little valves protruding from the part that holds the cranium in place.
    Now, I don't mean this is just a problem of Professors and Students. It is a broader problem of reading formations and cultural ideology, and this goes all the way down and out. I don't pretend to fully understand it. And I'm not saying, either, that there aren't interesting and impressive conservative things coming out of the Academy. Some of them are best-sellers in England. But that is neither here nor there. Spicer, for example, was less conservative. Do you think Spicer would have written his poems in the Academy? Do you think he would say, Well, that's where most of my readers are (especially now that I'm dead and they've put my corpse in the Museum), so now I am going to go there?
    Maybe he would, I don't know. But I can tell to you, now, these quasi-New Sentences: If you go to the poor neighborhoods of El Alto, above La Paz, you will find truly avant-garde and radical young poets. Lots of them have heteronyms and they hate the bourgeoisie. They have groups and mimeo mags and manifestoes and they fight with each other, it's very serious. They slip their poems under hovel doors and they have lots and lots of readers. None of them has time to copy out traffic reports. And their libraries REALLY DO extend for miles underground.

  56. January 15, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Kenny, I admire yr work, but yr evident anger at being "excluded" baffles me. A transcript of weather reports is simply not going to achieve the level of popularity of a Billy Collins book. And The New Yorker's not ever going to publish such a thing: why in hell would you want them to? Part of being avant-garde, definitionally, is standing outside the mainstream in opposition to it. The later Salons des Refusés artists were proud that their work could never be displayed in the Salon. The audience for experimental work will be smaller than that for work that adheres more closely to conventional ideas of art, regardless of the limitations of those ideas & notwithstanding that yesterday's a-g practices often become assimilated into such ideas. This is elementary.

  57. January 15, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Totes sign on to yr comment, Kent, if I do say so myself. No one's yet been able to convince me Bürger's wrong.

  58. January 15, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Kent sed: "If you go to the poor neighborhoods of El Alto, above La Paz, you will find truly avant-garde and radical young poets."
    Wow. That sounds amazing. Can you please give us more information about these poets? What are some of the better-known poets' names? And I'd love you to post a poem or two of theirs and links. Thanks!

  59. January 16, 2009
     Dale Smith

    Kenneth, I doubt there are "links" to the La Paz poets Kent mentioned, though I'm sure he'll provide you with some great information about them. Instead of these links, though, I'm sure that those Sud Americans would be happy to piss all over the waste that is produced now in the name of an avant-garde in North America. Maybe it's just my projection-thing, but it's so NOT happening now, in the Homeland, in terms of genuine social realization, progression, etc. The point Kent was generously pointing out to you is that the conversation is so Not happening here.
    On a related note, you can go to effing press for a new essay by Amiri Baraka on race and the avant-garde. He provides a useful history to the present culture of, uh, smoke up one's ass....

  60. January 16, 2009
     John Bloomberg-Risman

    On the other hand, the 30s was the decade of the spread of surrealism around the world, the linkage of surrealism and political revolution, an important time for the Mexican muralists, the rise of swing in jazz which was a great transformation (Coleman Hawkins, "Body & Soul", not to mention the fact that Mintons opened in 38, the beginning of the disapora of Jewish intellectuals to North America, which certainly facilitated the education of what became North American avant-gardes, etc etc. Tho, yeah, all times are "Brechtian" for poetry, a lot of great shit happened during the 30s. What about film?

  61. January 16, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    I raised what I think are some relevant points in my somewhat quirky comment there. I'd love to have you respond.
    Anyway, sorry, I don't have internet links to the poets of El Alto. Not everything is on the internet. But you'd be surprised, in general, I think, about things happening in Bolivian culture. I know you and your stockbroker might find it hard to believe, but poor people there are pretty active and organized outside the centers of High Culture! I mean, there are worker and farmers, indigenous people mostly, who seriously write poetry, and a good number of them like to push the envelope! They have workshops and stuff, and cultural centers, and things like that, and they organize it all themselves! Interestingly, one of the big heroes of the poets of El Alto is the great poet and novelist Jaime Saenz, who was a member of the Bolivian Nazi party in his youth, wrote one of the first openly gay novels of Latin America (he is a great novelist and will be "discovered" in English, eventually, like Bolano), and became a devoted champion of the Aymara indians, even fighting with them in the first Bolivian revolution, alongside his good friend Juan Lechin, the great Trotskyist and mine-worker leader (not that Saenz's politics weren't complicated and contradictory to the end).
    But these seemingly odd things are hardly relegated to Bolivia. It's maybe even better in Peru. Residents spread 100-meter banners of poems by the communist-martyr-experimental-poet Carlos Oquendo de Amat across the shanty hills of Lima, on his birthday. Of this, actually, you can find photos on the web. I write about de Amat in an essay coming out in next issue of Fulcrum. I also talk a lot in that essay about Raul Zurita and the Chilean poetic avant-garde during the resistance to Pinochet. They would mutilate themselves and draw their poems on the street in blood, and stuff like that, defecate in the National Art Museum, and speed away in cars, the cops in pursuit. Sonnets to Fascism, they would call it. If you can break away from copying the New York Times, you might want to read it.
    Nicaragua is great, too! Working class people (authentic ones, really, with calloused hands!) organized dozens of Talleres de Poesia during the Sandinista Revolution. They would read lots of American poets, and translations of all kinds of them came out in Poesia Libre, their scruffy looking national magazine, which had a run of about twenty, before the Contra war killed it all. Would you believe that the pedagogy in the talleres was modeled on Pound's ABC's of Reading and A Few Don'ts? Doesn't that sound like I made it up? Well, you can read the book about it all that I translated, A Nation of Poets. I attended two workshops in 1983, during my second stint of teaching basic literacy there; one was led by a soldier back from the front, and another was led by farm worker. "What do you think Emily Dickinson is saying here, companeros?" I do recall the latter asking...
    Yes, Kenny, there really are (incredible as it may seem to you) interesting, non-Mainstream things happening beyond the MLA avant-garde...
    Awaiting your answer.

  62. January 16, 2009

    If academic art is, in your terms -- and I'm not disagreeing -- typically "conservative," "safe," and "polite," I understand how art can be, to use the antonyms, "rude" and "radical," but I'm not sure how it can be "risky" unless you offend murderous religious fanatics. Or, I suppose, the rudeness can be socially risky. But surely Mr. G. would qualify in that sense as much as most people. Hell, it's easy to piss people off in poetry land.
    By the way, in the U.S., I'm taking "radical" in a strictly aesthetic sense. The art experience in itself is not only politically neutral, it has a great power to politically neutralize radical content, unless the experience takes place in a context that's already politcally radical, due to circumstances probably not caused by the art, such as for example in the suburb of La Paz that you mentioned.
    All very interesting!

  63. January 16, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    I don't get Kenny's riposte to Kent: is he suggesting Kent is making up these La Paz poets?? Or what? Kent makes up stuff, but he's completely serious about what's going on in South American poetry. He's seen it up close; it seems fairly odd, to say the least, for a self-appointed representative of the US avant-garde dismiss real, ground-level experimental work being done by some of the poorest poets in the hemisphere. Sony Playstation, Sega Genesis ...

  64. January 16, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    Thank you, Kent, for the info. I'll check it out.

  65. January 16, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Michael wrote:
    >Kent makes up stuff, but he's completely serious about what's going on in South American poetry.
    Michael, if I may, you know I admire your mind. To the extent that I "make up stuff," alone or in consort, I am *completely serious* there, too.
    One of the problems with our "avant-garde" poetry, imho, is that it hasn't really begun to investigate the deep space of the possible within poetic fiction.
    Kenny, as you look into some of those things I mentioned, also check out the travelogue at Jacket on Chile that Forrest and I wrote. There's a section on Zurita there, along with a photo of his giant conceptual poem-earthwork, Ni pena ni miedo. Like the Nazca plain drawings, it can only be seen from a great height.

  66. January 16, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Apologies for over-posting, but since interest was expressed, and for convenience, here are links to the poetry-travel reports on Bolivia and Chile (each has lots of pictures, the ones on Saenz priceless). The Bolivia travelogue also has some great stuff on the bizarre avant kreis around Saenz, the Krupp Workshop. I've pasted below a passage from the piece that mentions the poets of El Alto.
    I lean over and ask a fairly inebriated Humberto Quino, one of Bolivia’s big-name poets, what he thinks about Saenz’s early Nazi sympathies. “Oh, no, no, it’s no big thing, you know, and nothing very surprising,” he says. “Saenz was a great poet in the tradition of San Juan and Sor Juana de la Cruz, fascinated by death and the occult, and in his youth he was very seduced by mystical fascist ideology, you see. In politics, he is a bit like Pound, Celine, Heidegger, Mishima, even Pessoa and Borges, eh...You know Borges spoke fawningly of the dictator Videla, and praised his 'iron hand’ during the “Dirty War,” no? Well, except these guys professed their fascism when they were all grown up! [1] Saenz was a kid strutting around Wiesbaden in high boots. But who gives a damn? Long live Poetry!” I mention to him that political allegiance is not considered irrelevant in the U.S. “Yes, yes, sure,” he says, “but isn’t it fantastic that the little fascist came to be such a big and freaky poet? Look, there’s a big movement of young, working class poets and artists in Bolivia right now. They live up there on the hills of El Alto in concrete-block houses with no plumbing. Almost all of them are of the hard left. They want to burn down Kentucky Fried Chicken and send the bourgeoisie to the salt flats of Uyuni to be eaten by flamingoes. Who is their number one poetic hero? Saenz! Isn’t that beautiful? Long live poetry!”

  67. January 16, 2009
     Steve Tills

    My gut reaction:
    (1)C.B.'s poem doesn't resonate with me, my experience of the world, or my experience of the world of poetry, frankly. It seems like just the same old trope -- avant-garde VERSUS the world.
    (2)Ditto what I take to be Kenny's and Kasey's gists and thrusts, most especially the whole profoundly cliche relish for elevating to martyr and saint status all and sundry who dare to continue carrying the almighty, blankety-blank torch of "innovation" and denunciation of all else that can be appropriated to oppose that sacred innovation.
    (3)Wanna a real revolution? Start a company outside of the Academy, the Intelligensia, and our heads that employs people making stuff others can eat and use to feed their kids and that leaves them enough leisure time to pursue "the Great Arts" along with all of us enormously fortunate co-inhabitants of this 2009 planet. Or something to that effect. Surely there exist infinite, and infinitely more revolutionary, investments of time in actually producing a beautiful world (rather than endlessly pretending that old frames about how shitty the present one(s) is/are in order to, I dunno, keep idealizing a term like "avant-garde")?
    Okay, that's my gut reaction. You can punch me in the gut, if you like, and, Yes, I may feel a lot better if I throw up or if I get a stomach ache, so forgive me if I'm way too raw and oversimplifying... I know that I'm a blowhard sometimes, but I've spent the last 9 years in a factory, essentially, so I don't get out much and I've even gotten to the point where I feel okay about things (ummm, other than Bush and Cheney and all that real CRAP, of course)...

  68. January 16, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Has it occurred to anyone here that a-g, Language, Flarf and contemporary conceptual poetry is unpopular for the same reason that poi and rhubarb are unpopular, i.e., they taste like shit?
    Have any of you ever actually tried to write, like...poetry?
    (Score one for the SoQ!)

  69. January 16, 2009
     Andy Gricevich

    Hey, Kent--
    You didn't include the links! I wanna read the stuff...
    all the best,

  70. January 16, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Wright vs. Robbins
    Dear Mr. Robbins:
    I just printed out and read, back to back, your poem and Mr. Wright’s, both featured currently in the New Yorker. His was quite clear; yours, not so much. I actually enjoyed your poem much more, though. The first stanza I got. Beautiful! The last three lines of stanza two are brilliant. After that, I got a little lost. Perhaps it’s only because I don’t get the references. What is a “space tree”? Why is that elk a dick? What is a “foam chiropractor”? It gets even more confusing from there.
    It might be helpful to the current discussion if you could tell us if your poem qualifies as 'avant-garde’ (as now defined). Was it supposed to be unclear? Are there really rickshaws in Scranton?
    I know that my posts tend to be somewhat facetious and even sarcastic, but this is an honest query. Please forgive an old Taoist Nature poet his ignorance, but what exactly is your poem attempting to say?

  71. January 16, 2009

    I wanna get back to the notion of museums that Kent brought up up-thread.
    It makes sense that the museum has recuperated the anti-museum gestures and works of Duchamp, Marinetti, and the rest, because the avant-garde has -- I shouldn't say "always," but I really really want to -- usually staged its works in the theater of art history (to borrow a trope from David Antin); hence, art history -- a/k/a "the museum" -- has had no trouble in bringing the dissidents in.
    I love museums; was delighted to see all those Duchamps during a high school trip to Philadelphia.
    Some artists have ignored art history and its theater -- graffiti artists come to mind; velvet painters less so but still probably; and fewer poets.
    I bring this up because I want to say that one of the most enterprising, indefatigable, and valuable museum curators and keepers that poetry (and esoteric music) has is Kenny G.
    So, Mr. G -- Thank You.

  72. January 17, 2009
     David Krump

    I'm still confused.
    At what point did the a-garde suddenly require representation in mainstream magazines?
    Isn't inclusion in such publications an absolute and obvious destruction of all that might be (and has been for more years than I've been alive) the a-garde?
    I'm trying to understand this. So, you don't want an audience, yet you demand one?
    You are cutting edge, yet you are dull at the point of incision and communication?
    Like each angle, you are either obtuse or acute.
    All observation at this point clears you completely of the acute. You behave like a blunt instrument, banging your dull blade loudly above the friendly conversations that could be taking place.
    Look, I received the Lilly Fellowship in 2006, and four times since then the editors have rejected my work. Good. I am willing to acknowledge that the poems I sent them might have sucked. Can you do the same without submitting work? Can you acknowledge that your argument of exclusiveness holds no water if but a drought you base your labor on? Can the a-g still be a-g when it holds academic posts and whines about lack of inclusion in Poetry and The New Yorker, I wonder.
    When obtuseness becomes an art which demands not only a status of "general" but of renowned trencher" it should be clear to all why it is easy to understand the dismay of folks attempting to understand poetry as the recycling of Gooooooogle searches, which are no more fresh than the nasal revisitation of expired milk.
    Please, BE THE FORWARD GUARD and stop arguing for its institutional relevance.
    Let our grandchildren squabble over the value of our work, lest we be caught one hundred years in the past, signing documents no longer blank of signatures.
    "We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours."
    The wonderful woman who cuts my hair three times each year is named Kitty. How shocked I was to hear the snip of scissors as she recited her favorite stanza from the last issue of Poetry. I did not know she subscribed, but she later told me she did so because I recommended it. That was three years ago, before I won the fellowship, and she still subscribes and is more than willing to discuss the poems found in each issue.

  73. January 17, 2009
     Bill Knott

    Kenneth G. confessed here not long ago his ideal readers
    would be machines, AIs, robots . . .
    robots . . . and then consider how indistinguishable the
    works of these A-Gs are, how their "poems" all look
    and read the same, how hard it is to tell them apart,
    how the individual Avanti Aunties all blur together
    behind their groupthink Theoryprose, an impenetrable wall of
    defensive attitudes and poses–
    how massed, how amorphous–
    as if, as if they were clones–
    robots, clones . . . : how clear it then becomes when you
    realize that in actual fact they are
    langpos flarfs post-avants no-tells:
    they're all frakkin' skinjobs.
    And they have a Plan–
    to annihilate humanity, starting of course with human
    It's no wonder these toasters own the internet, they ARE
    the internet, wired in sync
    to control total websitical forces . . . Their victory is inevitable!
    We few remaining human poets cower terrified in our wastebaskets
    muttering the old gospel: traveling through the dark I found a deer dead on the edge of Wilson canyon road . . . or is it Wilson River Road? . . . Wilson . . . river . . . dark . . . dark . . .
    –but it's no use: we're doomed. One by one we fall
    (this site should have a little tab window down in the corner
    to show the numbers of our demise, clicking the countdown
    as we decrease–)
    overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their might their ubiquitude
    (My name is Sillimandias, King of blogs: look at my stats, ye SOQlings, and despair!)–
    . . .

  74. January 17, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    John makes an important point that shouldn't get lost in the disputes here, (which are now spread over three different posts):
    Goldsmith has done the international poetry community a tremendous service through his curatorship of UbuWeb, and deserves much credit for it. It is, yes, both a great work of scholarship *and* a kind of installation-in-process.
    And hey, Andy, those links are now there.

  75. January 17, 2009
     michael robbins

    I appreciate yr interest in my poem. (Since this does seem to be a space for self-advertisements, perhaps I might mention that the Village Voice will publish an interview with me next week that addresses some of yr questions.) One thing I've learned from having a poem in The New Yorker is how little a poem belongs to its author. Since I am in graduate school, this should not have come as a revelation, but believing something theoretically is different from knowing it experientially. (I don't intend by this to endorse anti-intentionalism.) So many people have discussed the poem on blogs & whatnot (usually reprinting it in the process -- does no one respect copyright anymore! I'm kidding), & it's been humbling & exciting to read so many takes on my poem (my favorite posits the speaker is "an idiopathic super angel" -- I'm not sure what that is, but how cool).
    More than one person has called it "avant-garde," although someone called it "avantish," which I prefer. I reserve the category of avant-garde for the historical avant-garde, & view much of this thread as question-begging. (I do think it can be useful to speak of "experimental" poetry, but that begs its own set of questions.) Regardless, a poem printed in The New Yorker is definitionally excluded from the avant-garde, no?
    As for "That elk is such a dick. He's a space tree / making a ski and a little foam chiropractor" -- I suppose I mean by those lines more or less what Tomaz Salamun means when he says "He who brews brandy / pants on screes, incantation. / Boils he who carries the mountain / and this one who unsaddles, supports yuppies."
    I liked FW's poem (unusual for me), particularly the bitter allusion to his father's "A Blessing."

  76. January 17, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I'd like to apologize for my rude comment up-thread. I may have been slightly less than sober at the time, but
    rhubarb isn't really all THAT bad.

  77. January 17, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Thank you, Mr. Robbins. I will re-read your poem more closely.
    The only thing I can think of that looks like a "space tree" is the International Space Station.
    Was "lick the moon" a reference to Auden?
    Just kidding. :-)

  78. January 17, 2009

    The thread so far has brought some questions to my mind:
    To what extent does the "avant-garde" want to remain the avant-garde? To what extent does it want to replace, or displace, what it considers as the "mainstream"? To what extent does the "mainstream" control the discourse of whether the "avant-garde" remains the avant-garde through its recognition of, or refusal to recognize, the "avant-garde"? If the "avant-garde" wants to become the new "mainstream" by taking over the means of production and distribution of the old "mainstream," is it happy or defensive when a newer "avant-garde" critiques it with the same kinds of questions it used against the previous "mainstream"?
    Is it better to be "avant-garde" or "mainstream"? Is it more moral to be "avant-garde" or "mainstream"? Is it more efficacious to be "avant-garde" or "mainstream"?
    To what extent can the "avant-garde" or the "mainstream" think collectively, and to what extent are their motions and directions the democratic conglomeration of many individuals, whose association with "avant-garde" or "mainstream" may be fraught or tense or comfortable?
    To what extent is the outsider in American poetry today defined by the person of the translator, who is often an academic and by definition a gatekeeper?

  79. January 19, 2009
     Quincy R. Lehr

    Having returned to the U.S. a few months ago after an extended absence, the question of what it means to be "avant-garde" in the United States is an increasingly baffling one to me, at least, seeming often to have more to do with product/professional positioning in an overly factionalized American poetry scene. The fact is, any "movement" that those of us who haven't been initiated into the Inner Mysteries will have heard of is at least thirty years old--which, of course, goes for the "New" Formalism as well. ("Flarf" and "New Sentence" frankly don't count as movements.) There are clear lines of ancestry, stated and unstated orthodoxies (which of course doesn't make something NOT avant-garde--see the Surrealists), and, indeed, institutional cubby holes.
    Where I get confused isn't there, though. Rather, it has to do with the "garde," as it were. If one looks at a regional newspaper from the 1920s, onew will find a great deal of generally metrical, somewhat didactic, easily parsed verse, often produced by writers who had weekly offerings nationally syndicated. At this point, with a few exceptions, newspapers don't really DO poetry. Nor do most major publishers, or at least not very much of it. Blah blah blah; you all know the drill. But it's unclear that there's enough of a stream for there to be a "mainstream" in the way there was in the early twentieth century. Poetry has lost its equivalent of a Celine Dion, Britney Spears, or whoever the flavor of the month might be. And that goes for EVERYBODY, and is not particularly worth lamenting. But American poetic schools sure do seem to enjoy labeling one another as the entrenched enemy. The langpo crowd can (or at least could) point to Dana Gioia at the head of the NEA; the New Formalists can gripe about langpo's entrenchment in the academy. Whuppedy-do.
    And at the risk of sounding a bit naive, it's hurting American poetry. Each faction (going by what I've seen from an admittedly limited perspective) promotes its own makeweights too damn much. There are so many flippant avant-gardists of roughly my age reading around New York City, very cleverly coming up with new ways to say relatively little. There are too many formalists writing lifeless canon retread or steering straight to where archaeology might reveal the middle of the road once lay.
    And these weaknesses get exacerbated by the frequent unwillingness to seriously consider the possibility that the other tribes may contain within them individuals who aren't careerist a$$holes out to grab relatively piddly amounts of grant money by the standards of Western government from the more deserving.
    A final note--I might take something calling itself the "Hate Socialist Collective" a bit more seriously if I had any inkling that any of its members had actually ever done a 5 AM leaflet distribution in cold weather to industrial workers, many of whom would strongly disagree with much of what they had to say. I do not get that impression... but one's supposed to be a political radical, and manifestos are rather the done thing, aren't they?

  80. January 19, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Well said, Mr. Lehr! And welcome to the fight.
    It's good to hear your voice again. However, I can't believe that anyone would actually voluntarily leave our most beautiful Ireland. :-)
    Welcome home, Quincy.

  81. January 19, 2009
     Arthur Durkee

    "Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism... I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call 'disjunctivitis.' The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment 'mainstream,' to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against 'late-capitalist' discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?"
    –Octavio Paz

  82. January 20, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    NPR just announced that Aaron Copland is Obama's favorite composer and that he commissioned John Williams to compose a piece for the inauguration. Oh my...

  83. January 20, 2009

    Quincy, you'd be wrong. Though most of my own organizing has been at Hotel and Restaurant Workers Local 2850, Oakland.
    Organizing, as I'm sure you know, starts with setting up the chairs, not with leafleting. The time of day changes.

  84. January 20, 2009
     Quincy R. Lehr

    Well, I'm glad to hear that there is some actual activism in the mix. And as for organizing, I always found knowing where the nearest toilet was quite important.

  85. January 21, 2009

    Quincy, that is very much so about toilets.
    Speaking only for myself, I think there are various kinds of activisms. I agree that having been involved in the relatively familiar kinds of organizing is both a good thing and gives one's thoughts on the subject an added dimension. But I would wish to avoid a situation where only those who demonstrate some correct level of commitment or even penitence and self-subtraction get to count as activists or radicals – that serves as a kind of scam which always ends with some post-liberal declaiming that such a life is a kind of utopian miserablism detached from pragmatic possibility. In that strategy of the dominant, either you're complicit or you're unrealistic; this is the binary whereby the center excludes the margins.
    Showing up at 5 am has its real virtues, but it's okay to hate the state and hate capital and drink the wine. Wine is delicious.

  86. January 21, 2009
     Tom Harr

    Hm, but it is okay to hate the state and hate capital and teach at a state university? In other words: whose wine are you drinking?

  87. January 21, 2009

    Yep, Tom, that's the strategy. Go for it!

  88. January 21, 2009
     Tom Harr

    Gotcha. Well, in that case... Cheers!!

  89. January 22, 2009

    Hate is an emotion. Not a strategy.
    But, whatever makes you happy!

  90. January 26, 2009
     Boyd Nielson

    I am joining this discussion really late, having been sidetracked in travels. But I can’t help but note that this comment by Kenneth Goldsmith is not only awesome but also awesomely jaw-dropping:
    >Kent sed: "If you go to the poor neighborhoods of El Alto, above La Paz, you will find truly avant-garde and radical young poets."
    >Wow. That sounds amazing. Can you please give us more information about these poets? What are some of the better-known poets' names? And I'd love you to post a poem or two of theirs and links. Thanks!
    Just wow and amazing backatcha. What some poets (especially in the United States) seem to love about lines like “It’s always a bad time for poetry” is not just that the line is true (it is true, but trivially so). What they love about lines like that is also that they provide poets a feeling of simultaneous solidarity and liberation, solidarity in suffering (after all, poets will never make it either) and liberation from market realities (after all, poets can be a source of subversion and resistance because they will never make it): Exculpation and opposition, in one easy pill.
    Or maybe I’m totally wrong here–and unfair to boot. Maybe Kenny just wanted to know the links so that he could invite the poets of La Paz to the next Conceptual Poetics conference. Some crappy times, no one needs to be reminded, are crappier than others.

  91. January 29, 2009

    You can all talk until you turn blue--you are just avoiding the aloneness in which real poetry is created, and in which is discovered again and again the fact that poetry is the opposite of literature and all your theories--Jesus, why don't you just set your mind on English Dept, tenure, At least you would get paid for this horseshit. FW

  92. January 29, 2009

    Poetry is not literature. When will you all learn how simple it is to distinguish between real poetry--the voice of the person within you who is more intelligent, powerful and happier than any real person--and "liturature" and all your sad little discussions about it. FPW

  93. January 30, 2009
     michael robbins

    In case anyone wasn't sure, that nutty interlude was brought to you by Franz Wright, who's known to be a bit testy (see his recent, um, interventions at Digital Emunction). And now back to Harriet's regularly scheduled backbiting ...

  94. January 30, 2009

    Solitary, to paraphrase Judd Nelson, but social.

  95. January 30, 2009
     Bill Knott

    When poets start to break under the torrent of hatred society pours upon them; when they begin to internalize that hatred and to self-generate it in the neurotic hope of propitiating its cruelties, when they snatch the whip from Master and lash themselves;
    when they understand how loathed and despised poetry is by all the powers of this world; when they realize how loathed and despised they are by all the authorities of this world; and when, under the endless onslaught of contempt and scorn and persecution which they as poets are condemned to suffer, at last they too loathe and despise themselves,
    that is the point they turn internecene.
    All societies exist for one purpose: to murder poets.
    Everything in the world exists in order to end up on the point of a knife entering the poet's throat.

  96. January 30, 2009

    All poets exist for one purpose: to persuade other poets to give up.

  97. January 30, 2009
     Boyd Nielson

    Bill, you and I don’t exactly agree, but what I really like about your comment is that it pushes Kenny’s point above to its logical conclusion (which is no easy task). Maybe Kenny should amend the title to read something like this:
    “It's Always a Bad Time For Poetry, or All Societies Exist To Murder Poets.”

  98. January 30, 2009

    Echoes of Rexroth!
    “You killed him! You killed him.
    In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
    You son of a bitch.”
    Imagine those words bellowed by someone with a voice like W. C. Fields except really pissed off. Someone had left behind an LP of Rexroth reading that poem accompanied by dissonant improvised jazz (with Ferlinghetti reading on the other side) in a house I once lived in. The closing of the poem is one of the great moments in the history of recording.