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Popular Criticism and the Paralysis of History


“Hegemony is like a pillow: it absorbs blows and so sooner or later the would-be assailant will find it comfortable to rest upon”

Robert Cox, Approaches to World Order

After I attended a recent lecture by Marjorie Perloff on Thursday, April 17, 2014 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a familiar argument was again presented and is (or was at the time of her presentation on conceptualist practices) a version of the aesthetic described below and written about in her works from the mid eighties to the present.  It was an honor to see a critic whose work has so widely influenced contemporary poetries.  After, I felt compelled to comment, less on her presentation, than upon a tendency I’ve seen occur in various conceptualizations or historiographies that attempt to account for "present day" poetries.  What follows is less a completed or finished statement than it is an unresolved investigation.  Forgive me for its brevity.

Popular Criticism and the Paralysis of History

Contemporary avant-garde literary critics vary in their definition of the “avant-garde” and, as consequence, which poetries may be included in their “avant-garde.”  What follows are brief descriptions of two strains of argumentation that compose certain popular notions of an "avant-garde."  At this point in poetic practice these arguments are fairly common knowledge; however, they must be stated to situate my own analysis later in this post.  Forgive the brevity in which I cover them, these accounts were much longer but seemed inappropriately lengthy for a blog.

Marjorie Perloff, throughout her writings, advocates that the defining features of poetries participating in her U.S. literary avant-garde are those of formal fragmentation and/or dislocated discourse and, in The Dance of the Intellect, those poetries that foreground their material construction (which, for Perloff, finds its embodiment in collage).  These practices are seen as interrogations of the Cartesian subject within the Romantic-influenced lyric and represent a kind of destabilized/destabilizing lyric "I."

As opposed to this conception of the contemporary U.S. avant-garde, David Lehman in The Last Avant Garde frames his consideration of what an “avant-garde” is with a general definition.  He states, “Avant-garde art is advanced art, breakthrough art, art that anticipates the future[ii].”  This is his general notion of an avant-garde, a collective at the forefront of a movement.  In his historical recreation of the avant-garde to the moment of the New York School, Lehman sticks strictly to the formal account: Ezra Pound up through second-wave literary modernists like Louis Zukofsky and the Objectivists, the influence of William Carlos Williams on the Beats and the Black Mountain School, through to the New York School and, in his epilogue, the Language Poets.  He restricts the avant-garde, like Marjorie Perloff, to a certain historical trajectory and formal stylization; for Lehman, the deployment of humor, joy, colloquialism, and the relationship of the New York School to the visual arts composes and defines his “Last Avant-Garde.”  What is absent in Lehman’s account, similar to Perloff, are people of color (namely Latino/as).

In whichever case, Perloff’s reliance of formal innovation or Lehman’s historical trajectory of the avant-garde stemming from an initial refusal of Eliot and the New Critics, these represent two popular schemas by which the contemporary avant-garde in poetry is accounted for.

More recently, Timothy Yu, in Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965, opened the term “avant-garde” beyond a definition embedded in particular histories or aesthetic forms or styles (like fragmentation or colloquialism).  Instead, he pursues what he names a “sociology of the avant-garde” in order to account for the multiple communities, white, minority, and otherwise, employing “techniques and rhetoric from earlier avant-gardes[v].”  In reviewing the notion of the avant-garde in works like Renato Poggioli’s The Theory of the Avant-Garde and Peter Burger’s similarly titled Theory of the Avant-Garde, Yu conceives of the avant-garde as a kind of social category whose analytic reveals the “inseparable” relationship between the aesthetic and social[vi].  This analytic, he writes:

presents itself as a critique of this eclectic and presumptively universal cultural by means of a ‘stylistic dissent’, insisting on and agitating for the particularity and distinctiveness of its own style in order to achieve ‘the radical negation of a general culture by a specific one’[vii]

The analytic of the avant-garde acts as a dissent against universalizing ideologies and demarcations (for Burger, this was the ideology of the Bourgeois) in order to expose the particularity of the dissenting avant community and its member’s experiences.  For Yu, what is vital about both Burger and Poggioli’s conceptions of the avant-garde is this act of social dissent and its “principles” that “are not only aesthetic but social psychological, and ideological[viii].”  The avant-garde is more than an aesthetic stylization of an art form, it in fact is “a social life grounded in art[ix].”  Furthermore, Yu, in addressing the stylistic differences in the aesthetic acts of the avant-garde, writes:

the label avant-garde initially describes a distinctive context of artistic production: a small group of like-minded artists devising their own channels for the creation and distribution of unconventional work, with an audience largely limited to other members of the group, sympathetic peers, and a few main-stream readers whose sensibilities the work is in part designed to shock[x].

In his evolving sociology of the avant-garde, Yu pin-points how the avant-garde designates not only a particular community but also the context out of which that community produces.  Yu, in constructing his conception of the avant-garde, not as any particular community or as any particular formal stylization of an aesthetic, but rather as a schematic for communities of dissent, allows for plural avant-gardes to be operating at any given historical time period. This blog post aligns itself with Yu’s sociological analysis and critique.

Obviously, Timothy Yu’s “avant-garde” contrasts with the aforementioned restricted constructions.  He acknowledges the multiple communities, minority and otherwise, historically activating the aesthetic as a means of dissent.  As such, Yu aligns himself with those literary modernist and avant-garde criticisms whose goals are the recovery of texts that history has misaligned or forgotten.  Restricted theories of the avant-garde that refer only to limited historical lines of influence, or stylistic or formal aesthetic maneuvers “disappear” other communities that may not be recognized as employing such devices or participating in those histories. Those communities excluded or made historically illegible have, in the past fifty-sixty years, made important critical interventions to bring these historically excluded works to light[xi].

However, despite the recent critical advances like Timothy Yu’s work, the problem in contemporary, popular avant-garde criticism and poetics is still the paralyzing or the stultifying of an “open” and “unfinished” historical conceptualization.  The continuation of an outmoded criticality and historicism illustrates the difficulty particular critics and artists have in expanding their historical imaginations to include “outsider” or minority artists and writers—it would require them to reevaluate the notion of (avant-gardist) “value”; this reevaluation would, as consequence, radically reframe how contemporary poetics are historically conceived.

Why some contemporary avant-garde critics express difficulty in expanding their historical imaginations may be explained in Charles Altieri’s essay “Avant-Garde or Arriere-Garde in Recent American Poetry.”  He writes, “where there is an avant-garde, there must be an arrière-garde. And where there are such binaries, there will be ego formations that have a great deal at stake in maintaining the relevant distinctions[xii].”  In other words, literary critics and artists represent their ideas as to make them appear impartial and determined; however, historical processes exceed the vanities of any singular narrative. Thus, the critic and artist, in illustrating how certain work deconstructs binaries, stakes her or his very identity within one, and in dictating the terms of newness, exercises a power that excludes a whole host of aesthetics and communities that foster them.  In his analysis of such arbitration in modernism, Raymond William states, “‘Modernism’ is confined to this highly selective field and denied to everything else in an act of pure ideology, whose first, unconscious irony is that, absurdly, it stops history[xiii].” This critique of “modernism” may be equally applied to the restricted forms of the literary “avant-garde.”  These restricted notions of the avant-garde, if articulated with such selective discrimination, are illegitimate distortions of the historical record and, moreover, paralyze history.

It is such distortion and its consequent complications that have provoked many scholars and critics, like Timothy Yu, to analyze the material economies that aid in the constitution of various historical avant-gardes as an academic discourse and field of symbolic reward and distinction[xiv].

The fundamental issue with the invisibility of the Chicano/a or U.S. Latino/a  and other minorities in popular conceptions of the historical avant-garde has less to do with poets than to do with the critics who (don’t) read them and, consequently, monopolize the framing of aesthetic and historical trajectories.

It is that very monopolization of the aesthetic by particular critics that denies inclusion of minority poetries within certain historical accounts of U.S. contemporary avant-garde poetries.  As Marjorie Perloff once stated,

. . . the eighties witnessed the coming of the minority communities: first women and African-Americans, then Chicano and Asian-American and Native American poets, gay and lesbian poets, and so on. In their inception, many of these poetries were, ironically, quite conservative so far as form, rhetoric, and the ontology of the poem were concerned. But counterculture poets and critics couldn’t—and still can’t—say this out loud because they would have immediately been labeled racist or sexist[xv].

Whether or not counterculture poets or critics could be labeled racist or sexist is a deeply sensitive question; to recognize those aspects would mean a reevaluation of not only those critic’s construction of the historical but also those criticisms which preceded them because it would reveal how certain narratives of history are ideologically based.

Furthermore, minority communities existed as bodies and cultures with literatures prior to the 1980s (obviously): Elisabeth Frost in The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, have critically examined the works of Gertrude Stein, Mary Butts, and others as manifestations of a “lesbian” poetic in modernist literature; critics like Søren Hattesen Balle see the New York School poetics “as a queer poet’s response to a dominant cultural climate in the ‘50s when the homosexual theme was deemed beyond normal hetero-normative classifications of gender identity”; furthermore, in the past decade, the Puerto Rican heritage of William Carlos Williams has been excavated by critics like Julio Marzan in his The Spanish American Roots of WILIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, positing the advent of the variable foot (later appropriated and white-washed by Olson) as the emergence of a unique Latino/a poetic; Timothy Yu in Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 examines Asian American poetry, well, since 1965.  It is without question that minority communities were very present prior to the 1980s.  What is important to note here is when history begins for minorities for particular critical historiographies.  Prior to the 1980’s, minorities and queer poetics were invisible to those institutional forces legitimizing the postmodern poetic as a viable form of literary criticism.  In other words, minority poets and their works were not yet bodies and literatures with legible personhoods to be cast off and made illegible.  It is for this reason the avant poetics of the DADA influenced ASCO (early 1970’s) and the formally fragmented, disjunctive poetries in early books by figures like Chicano/a poets Alurista and Juan Felipe Herrera are not canonized as aspects of the historical avant-garde: their cultural absence/invisibility/illegibility makes it impossible for them to participate in theoretical absence/invisibility/illegibility.  Moreover, when speaking of the various minority and queer literatures, it is important to recognize the radical diversities of fractured subjectivities within those groupings: after all, my poetry may be sold as “Latin@” literature, but it is vastly different in poetics, epistemologies, histories, accounts of subject formations than, say, a Latin@ poet from Puerto Rico, El Salvador, or Chicago.  It is important to refrain from essentializing a people’s literature or identities, especially when the very aesthetic one advocates for purports to deconstruct essentialisms.

Again, the problem here is with the popularization of certain critical constructions of the historical avant-garde and the subsequent conclusions drawn to address present day poetics.  This is to say the visibility of certain “controversial” aesthetics is less a reflection of what is the latest and most important critical poetic practice, than a reflection of how critics may paralyze the expansion of the discourse’s historical record.  The popularization of certain critical historical accounts demands "history" end (or regurgitate itself) before it is/was revised and expanded upon so many decades ago with the “coming of” minority communities.  Certain contemporary criticisms may be thirty years behind where poetry actually is.  This may explain why the exhausted question of "voice," "originality," "sincerity" are kept in circulation in rather reductive forms: these “questions” are those that legitimize particular critic's historical accounts of the contemporary actual contemporary poetic practices have already interrogated, complicated, and moved beyond.

Jacques Ranciere writes in The Politics of Aesthetics, “The notion of the avant-garde defines the type of subject suitable to the modernist vision and appropriate, according to this vision, for connecting the aesthetic to the political[1].”  This is to say, the conception of the avant-garde negotiates who and what is appropriate to that vision of the avant-garde.  The critic/scholar/artist, in arbitrating that conception, demarcates the aesthetic limits of the historical avant-gardist’s (imaginary) community: they decide who is and who isn’t “avant garde.”  These cultural arbiters decide who is legible, included, and representative of their particular ideological agenda.

The brilliance of the actual poetic practices occurring NOW is the vastness of its many horizons and criticalities (transnationally, historically, in gender and sexualities, etc.).  No one critic can account for the scope of this “vision,” as Ranciere puts it; this is this vision’s strength: it refuses homogeneity.

An outstanding example of the complexity of recent poetic practices is Ronaldo Wilson’s video/poem/performance employing numerous aesthetic discourses; one may look at the Black Took Collective, look at Craig Santo Perez's poetics, at Barbara Jane Reyes, at....well...too many wonderous islands of radical complexities.  On this same blog, Joyelle McSweeney performed a fantastic analysis of Wilson’s work, critically situating it within particular parameters of influence and interpretation.  Moreover, this month saw erudite contributions to poetics by George Quasha (I’m purring with pleasure at the complexity of many of this month’s Harriet’s contributions).  THIS is where contemporary poetry and criticism is taking place.  It looks beyond and/or complicates exhausted claims or arguments made and explored twenty years ago; it investigates and elaborates upon the complications of the rhizomatic islands within the multiverse of poetics and criticisms we name the contemporary moment.



[1] Ranciere, Jacques.  The Politics of Aesthetics.  Continuum, London: 2004, pp. 29.


[i] Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Pp. 180-181.

[ii] Lehman, David. The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Anchor Books, New York, 1998, Pp. 283.

[iii] Ibid, Pp. 284

[iv] Ibid, Pp. 286

[v] Yu, Timothy. Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian Poetry since 1965. Stanford University Press, California, 2009, Pp. 3.

[vi] Ibid, Pp. 2

[vii] Ibid, Pp. 5

[viii] Ibid, Pp. 4

[ix] Ibid, Pp. 6

[x] Ibid, Pp. 100

[xi] Feminist and Queer critics like Julie Briggs, Irene Gammel and Mellissa Boyle have recovered the works of Hope Mirrlees, Mina Loy, Mary Butts, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and other modernist women neglected by, as they cite it, a patriarchal literary criticism.  I need not mention the vast importance of Gertrude Stein to feminist, queer, and, veritably, all modernist scholars.  Studies of the Harlem Renaissance and black modernism, like Nathan Huggins’s The Harlem Renaissance  or David Levering Lewis’ s When Harlem Was In Vogue , modify and interrogate the general schema of “white” modernism or, as Maria Balshaw writes, concerning the critical history of the era, “…it is perhaps more useful to see the variety and richness of cultural production during the Harlem Renaissance as questioning conventional definitions of modernism and African American Literature .”  More recently, Queer African American modernist studies, like Daphne A. Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910  or Tavia Nyongo’s The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruse of Memory , complicate even further these “conventional definitions of modernism” by recovering texts like the 1883 antislavery journal Emancipator and the Journal of Public Morals, or reading spirit-rapping and minstrelsy as “epistemological interventions” in subject formations.  The expansion of literary modernist scholarship to include texts so outside the common conception of “literature” speaks to Raymond Williams injunction in his essay “When Was Modernism,” to “search out and counterpoise an alternative tradition taken from the neglected works left in the wide margin of the century .” While Williams may be speaking of modernism, this idea can be seen as being picked up and activated by critics like Timothy Yu and directed toward the restricted theories of the contemporary literary avant-garde like those of Marjorie Perloff and David Lehman.  Yu’s “sociology of the avant-garde” expands the field of contemporary U.S. avant-garde poetries and the possibilities for text that may be read as an “avant-garde.” Huggins, Nathan. The Harlem Renaissance. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was In Vogue. Penguin Books, NY, 1997. Balshaw, Maria. “The Harlem Renaissance,” Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism, ED Paul Poplawski, Greenwood Publishing, pp. 167. Brooks, Daphne A.. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910.  Duke University Press, Durham. Nyongo, Tavia. The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruse of Memory. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009. Williams, Raymond.  The Raymond Williams Reader, Ed. J. Higgins, Oxford, Blackwell, 2001.

[xii] Charles Altieri, “Avant-Garde or Arriere-Garde in Recent American Poetry,” Poetics Today 20.4 (1999), Pp. 633.

[xiii] Williams, Raymond. The Raymond Williams Reader, Ed. J. Higgins, Oxford, Blackwell, 2001.

[xiv] Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art performs an exhaustive analysis of the material archive and the social economies behind the conception of aesthetic autonomy in the second half of the nineteenth century, demonstrating the relationship between art and the social relations producing and receiving it .  It is, as consequence, a critique of the “art for art’s sake” movement, the movement’s heirs who claim an apolitical stance for their art objects, and of the misappropriation of the Kantian conception of aesthetic “disinterest.”  Andreas Huyssun, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, critiques the representation of women as mass culture in various early 20th century avant-gardes, pinpointing how this aided, in historical and critical accounts of those movements, in the disappearance of particular women like Dadaist Hannah Hoch .  Lawrence Rainey, in Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture, looks at the archive of letters and documents to demonstrate the material production of “modernist poetry;” of note is Rainey’s excavation of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound’s manipulative practices to ensure the canonization of The Wasteland .  What Rainy exposes is how advertising and ego deified one historical account of literary modernism. Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art. Standford University Press, 1996.  Huyssun, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism.  Indiana University Press, 1987. Rainey, Lawrence. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. Yale University Press, 1999.

[xv] Marjorie Perloff, “Whose New American Poetry? Anthologizing in the Nineties,” Diacritics 26.3/4 (1996), p. 118.

Originally Published: May 2nd, 2014

J. Michael Martinez was born in Greeley, Colorado. He earned his BA from the University of Northern Colorado and his MFA from George Mason University. His first collection of poetry, Heredities (2010), received a Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Judge Juan Felipe Herrera chose the book...