Thursday, January 25, 2007

My Response to Matt H.


You say that Tzara wrote in a particular time and place - but then so have all writers!

Including writers who may be considered "tradition." And yet many people like to pretend like Keats is transcendent etc. (Seen in his own context, Keats becomes much more radical figure with his class-background and his clumpsy poesy.)

I see this rhetoric a lot: everything experimental is just rehashing Dada. All kinds of people writing like Stevens - and yet I never hear, "they're just rehashing Stevens."

That is one difference between what might be loosely called "experimentalism" and what might loosely be called "traditionalism". Experimentalism acknowledges belonging in time (and engages with it), while traditionalism tries to create an illusory idea of transcendence (the "ah" that comes at the end of the pious poem at a poetry reading). As Rimbaud said, you've got to be absolutely modern.

So in some sense it's a bit more than a toolkit. Different poetries do have different goals. A lot of the avant-garde has to do with dissatiscation with the role of art in a bourgeois society, a lot of it is about creating discomfort or revulsion rather than false reconciliation between reader and the world.

This is why Revell dislikes "the excesses of Dada" - it is art that refuses to sublimate conflict. (And yet there are folks who think that Revell is somehow not a conservative poet.)

In some sense, I think Dada still scares the Wrights and Revells of the world because it didn't want to be just another toolkit that could be recuperated for the literary establishment (which can easily change it style-kits but not its ends, its role in society).

In some sense, I do think Tzara forces us to throw out the sonnet, or at least remake it (like Berrigan). And yet American Poetry is full of people who like the pretend they can still write sonnets in a kind of pseudo-Elizabethan style. That may give them a job but it renders their work absolutely irrelevant.

So it's a big paradox. Dada insists on being more than just stylistic innovation and yet it's the one movement (Dada is really an umbrella term) that gets consistently used as an example of an archaic style.



Blogger Johannes said...


Somebody who'd been reading this blog or Matt Hart's blog suggested to me that I am "fighting" Matt. We're just having a discussion. I appreciate anybody who wants to think for themselves.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

PPS -- If I might PPS someone else's post -- I would like to second the notion that Johannes and I are having a discussion NOT a fight of any kind. In fact, we've had some pretty good exchanges, I think. I'm thrilled. By the by, Johannes, I just saw your response to my comment today, and I have some thoughts, but give me a few days to sort them out; we're in the middle of some stuff here that's (for the moment) forcing a good deal of what I care about onto the back burner. All best, Matt

12:32 PM  
Blogger Fran├žois Luong said...

Your comment about "experimentalism" vs. "traditionalism" actually made me think about my questions about "community," in that there is a better, more defined sense of continuity in the former than in the latter. I'm thinking mostly about how disjointed the poets who attended the University of Houston are, yet similar in their approach (going back to your idea of "transcendence," basically) while, for example, you can see the connections between Bay Area poets, yet each of them are doing something quite different. But yeah, I'm going to take more time to think about this.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Matt said...


Your response in this post to my comment from a few posts back is indeed thought-provoking. And as always I appreciate the dialogue. Our exchange is really going a long way toward helping me to clarify my thinking about some issues, which have been at the forefront of my mind for a while.

With that in mind, one thing I want to clarify is that I never intended to make the claim that "all writing is written at a particular time in a particular place" which is true and obvious. I think I actually said something in my comment along the lines that Tzara's work was written "against the backdrop of a particular art/historical moment." What's key for me here is the word "against". Tzara's work, like all truly avant-garde work, is an extreme reaction against the status quo. And often this reaction is not only artistic, but also political, social, etc. Certainly Dada disgust for WWI and the pious nationalisms that made it go has been well-documented by Tzara, Huelsenbeck, and others -- and it's clear in their work.

Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, was no avant-gardist. Certainly his work was innovative and important (though I find much of it rather irritatingly, pointlessly philosophical and coded myself). His innovations within the "tradition" are not as disruptive, concussive, or reactionary as those of the avant-garde, because they remain primarily "within". The avant-garde always goes beyond. In other words, I'm saying your point about Keats and the transcendent "ah," as well as the stuff about Stevens in your post, is well-made and well-noted. And if I might add, perhaps the non-avant-garde innovations of, let's say again for example, Wallace Stevens are ones which are tied particularly to HIS individual voice and style and interests as a poet. The avant-garde's aims it seems to me have been historically much more disruptive, because their scope has been so much larger. For instance, it's no accident that in Tzara's piece (since that's what we've been talking about) he instructs us to cut up a NEWSpaper -- rather than say a copy of Goethe or Shakespeare. His attack/innovativeness is not exclusivley one on or about poetry (or just art for that matter). Rather, it's a forceful re-orientation toward culture in general. Again, the aims go beyond the poem and poetry.

((As a side note, I think it's interesting, too, your observation that someone can imitate Stevens and be accepted as relevant, but not Tzara. I think this has largely to do with the fact that Stevens' contribution's aren't extreme -- one reads Stevens and is perhaps amazed, but he doesn't often (or ever maybe) offer up a set of formal parameters that I want to re-contextualize and use for my own purposes (the way I do with Tzara or Berrigan or even Kenneth Goldsmith -- which by the way if you haven't seen the latter's blog this week on the Poetry Foundation website, you should check it out... it's uh..."

His poems ALWAYS look and read like poems. They undermine what one knows as poetry (if they undermine at all) in very subtle non-disruptive ways. For me, Tzara's work presents new possibilities and concerns both within and beyond Poetry -- that is, his concerns are not only poetic but political, human, etc. Stevens presents all sorts of possibilities within the realm of Stevens and the tradition wherein he's writing (and no, I'm not altogether sure what I mean by this last sentence). Anyway...))

Sticking with the toolkit metaphor (which I stole from Ron Padgett)that I used in my last comment, Stevens as a part of poetry-proper (or the tradition or however we want to render it for the purposes of our discussion) and with largely personal/poetic aims (and which there's nothing wrong with) provides us with a new and improved way to make a claw hammer. Tzara --Dada, Futurism, Language, the avant-garde in general -- builds tools we've never seen before to do jobs we didn't know we needed to do. What's makes the avant-garde so important and so necessary is its insightfulness imagination and recognition -- its apprehension -- long before Poetry, art, culture, etc. of the fact that something momentous needs happening.

That said, once this is complete and the job is finished, the tools remain, and we are in a position to say "what else can we do with these tools?" And that "what else" often eventually includes building "tools we've never seen before to do jobs we didn't know we needed to do."

Tzara doesn't throw out the Sonnet (though I agree that he does throw out a certain version of it as relevant); if he did, then Ted Berrigan certainly would have called his sonnets something else. If the form has been truly exhausted, then move on, right? However, that's what's so great -- a form is never exhausted -- the sonnet in our time (as a result of people like Tzara and Berrigan) is a set of endlessly emendable parameters. And we musn't forget: Avant-garde means are always FORMAL -- new parameters in the face of (and in conjunction with) the old. This is exactly what Apollinaire meant with his exhortation toward both "encyclopedic liberty" and "infinite combinations of all that is not new under the sun" -- as our primary means of making it new. As Mary Shelley said, "Nobody creates out of a void the materials have first to be afforded." And this is true for the avant-garde as well as the tradition its reacting against. What's different is that avant-garde injects new materials and/or new ways of dealing with the old ones.

Perhaps -- and this is a big perhaps -- the difference between the "tradition" and "the experimental tradition" is that the former deals primarily with content and tried and true formal means. Whereas the latter deals with new formal means (or recombinations of old ones) AND content that goes beyond the poem -- political, social, etc.

Of course, this whole conversation's a little ridiculous because an avant-garde needs resistance to exist -- and what resistance is there in postmodernism? One can do anything and call it a poem -- who will object? -- at least in the intense way that people objected to Dada or Surrealism or Beat...?

I'm tired.

Johannes, reading back through this, it seems kind of a mess now. But hopefully you'll get that I AGREE WHOLEHEARTEDLY with much of your last response. Thanks again for the correspondence.



9:03 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I'll write a primary post.

9:48 AM  

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