Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Follow-up on Halliday, "true avant-garde," teams etc

[Here are some ideas I've been mulling over while taking notes on Aase Berg's epic sci-fi nausea "Dark Matter" and reading about David Lynch.]

- My problem with "the true avant-garde" is that it forecloses discussion about the poetries. So as in a lot of Marjorie Perloff's work ("I am good at picking winners" as she said recently at a conference), it becomes an interest in literary history: Who's next? Just as "indeterminacy" has become another version of Empson's "ambiguity", so "who's next" has replaced the New Critics' game of "who's on top" (Lowell's obsession). It seems to me that Marjorie's play for "conceptual poetry" in many ways is an attempt (by an academic) to retain a sense of center, of literary history at a time when poetry is incredibly proliferate.

- One point that I am thinking about is Aase's "Dark Matter" which is highly visceral and highly visual, both qualities of art that over the past thirty years have become distrusted by a lot of the American "avant-garde" establishment. This would in some way render her un-avant-garde. Which puts us in a strange position: A woman who was for a long time part of a Surrealist group that engaged in militant politics (some of the group are still in jail based on their protests against the EU and globalism)and opposed to literature with capital L, instead engaging mostly in various forms of vandalism, intermedia performances, hallucinatory trances and exercises. By many "true avant-garde" standards, she's not avant-garde.

- Of note is also that this prevailing distrust of the visceral comes out of an American avant-garde that - in difference to Aase - is highly academic.

- I happen to think this distrust of the visceral is a big problem with contemporary "avant-gardism", one that aligns it with much academic poetics. It is deemed "excessive" by both teams in a reductive way. (See my Steven Shapiro notes from May when Josh Corey expressed anxiety about the lack of didacticism in "The Widow Party".)

- The avant-garde is a problematic concept in many ways - the militarism, the linear time model etc. However, there is still useful things about avant-gardism. For one thing, it seems to drive people like Reginald Shepherd into panic. In part I think the scary thing about the avant-garde is that it shows that there are indeed different "teams". Halliday claims he doesn't like teams, but the reason he doesn't like teams is that that means there isn't just one, true way. I think that's what freaks Reginald out as well (afterall he wishes poetry was like chess, with just a couple of master-poets).

- This returns to the problems of a "true avant-garde": it removes the teams by establishing the one-true-poetry, instead of discussing various formations (flarf, gurlesque etc). It may be said to include team-think, but instead of a proliferation it sees two teams (us and them).

- It may seem like I've totally changed my mind about "teams", but I don't think so. I've just changed my definition of teams...

- Clover's book was out at the library so that's why I haven't written a proper follow-up to Halliday's article yet. Clearly I agree with Halliday on some levels about Clover's work - I've said in the past that it always struck me as thoroughly in the tradition of american high modernism (Stevens, Eliot, Ashbery, Auden). But I don't agree with other aspects of the article. However, I feel I have to read the whole book before I make any grave pronouncements. And that may be a while.

- One more thing: there's a good book on Frank O'Hara and "coterie" that speaks insightfully to "teams."


Blogger Nada said...


12:39 PM  
Blogger François said...

Perhaps we should simply abandon the notion of avant-garde as contemporary (thus making the term "historical avant-garde" redundant). From what I've seen and what you've written here, the term itself has become too academicized, too charged and too reduced. Things are a lot more interesting when they don't have a name. Aase Berg not considered "avant-garde"? Good for her, she's a lot more subversive that way.

2:18 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Johannes, sometimes you and your frequent discussion of the concept of the avant garde reminds me a bit of the character Hazel Motes in Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, of whom O'Connor wrote, "For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to."

I say this entirely as positive when I note how much your integrity will not allow you to rid yourself of the concept of an avant garde, no matter how many times you have tried.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

OK, crew I promise that is it I am getting rid of it. Francois is right that the second you plug Aase into some kind of fusty old a-g tradition, it's well not a good fit.

However, it is still being used by many folks in the ways I outline.

But I'm taking Mark's criticism to heart and getting it out of my vocabulary.

Part of it may be that I spend so much of my time reading the works of historical avant-garde and various theories of a-g.

3:46 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Maybe I wasn’t being clear. I think you can’t rid yourself of the term avant garde, no matter how many times you try, because you can’t shake yourself of the feeling that the concept is valuable. However the term might reference writing of the present moment (a complicated issue to say the least, although I myself am sure Ariana Reines’ book is not an avant garde work, although that’s an issue for another time), the idea of art that pushes at and exceeds cultural and aesthetic limitations remains important, simply because those limitations continue to be real and stringent.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, isn't it the case that most arguments/discussions that make use of the term "avant garde" usually end up devolving into arguments/discussions about what the term means? This would indicate that the term is no longer useful (or at least no longer as useful as it may once have been).

Honestly, I'm sick of camps and po(e)(li)tics altogether, which is why, when I do write anymore, I write on my own and keep it to myself. I think most poets are largely misunderstood and would do themselves a lot of good not to engage in academic discussions about the efficacy or value of a style or poetics (as if efficacy has anything to do with poetry in the first place).

Don't get me wrong. I like people who write poetry, but I'd almost always rather be talking about movies or music or somesuch. (1) Talking about poetry is a fucking bore. And (2) since when do poets actually ever incorporate such data into their work? When I was in workshops, it was sort of silently accepted that we were there to stir our brains around a little bit. I don't think anybody actually went back home that night and internalized the criticism/suggestions they had received in class. I know I never did, and I don't believe I've ever met a poet who did either.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark --

What are the "cultural and aesthetic limitations" you speak of? Not being eligible for poet laureate if you write language poetry?

Honestly, I think many of the "limitations" we imagine exist are illusory, part of a larger tendency some poets have of painting themselves as outsiders, boundary-breakers, etc. (and moreover, our tendency to paint poets we like as outsiders, boundary-breakers, overlooked geniuses whose work should be considered important by the culture at large, and so on) ...

So I guess my point is that "avant garde" is as much (probably moreso) a matter of identity as it is of style/aesthetics in relation to the style/aesthetics of the moment. I think a lot of people with broader (than Johannes's) understandings of the "avant garde" want to be avant garde. It's not merely what they do (if, in fact, they even do it at all), but what they aspire to be.

I'm not convinced that "avant garde" is a necessary framework because I'm not convinced that there actually are any significant aesthetic limitations at work in the writing community. Not with the proliferation of such a variegated field of journals and presses, not to mention the relative ease of self-publication. Perhaps the illusion is necessary inasmuch as it might give a poet that extra oomph of urgency to keep him/herself writing, but that's all it is, an illusion.

7:03 PM  
Blogger François said...

I'm not so much about getting rid of the term (perhaps my use of "abandon" was too strong), but simply ignore it when discussing contemporary issues. I mean, it is a term that is going to be difficult to avoid in historical terms, and even so, without caveats.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Who said I want to *be* avant-garde?

I actually agree more with Francois in this matter.

My main reason for speaking of it is that it is now being used as a conservative term, to restrict the proliferation of ideas - "the true avant-garde". That's what I'm opposed to.

And yet Mark is right - the concept has some use (and that's really what my post above is about).

My comment about Ariana on Lorraine's blog was not to assert that she was "a-g" but to show how amorphous that term is.

[Again, what I'm opposed to is this defining of the "a-g." Though of course this has always been the case (see Apollinaire's anti-dada tract "The New Spirit").]

But with the current academization of "a-g" I think it's ridiculos to call Ariana or Aase or flarf "avant-garde." What they are doing feel much more lively than that now-so-dusty, academized old term.

Not the Constructivist Moment but the Puritan Tradition.

You are somewhat correct to question "limitations" and "boudnaries" - but I'll write more about that later. Must go now.

Good points from all.


8:34 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

A lot to be said here, Johannes. But briefly, for now:

Your resistance to defining the term avant garde again indicates to me how powerful you feel the term is. If you cared less about it, you would probably care less about how it was defined. Of course, as you also point out, the term itself can no more avoid being defined (in different ways at different times, sure) than any other term. But that the concept resonates for you at that place where definition breaks down is telling relative to the power you invest in it. And again, I don't think you're wrong about that. I think you're genuinely wrestling.

Speaking for myself, I'm not yet sure I understand what you mean by the academicization of the avant garde. I would need to know a little bit more about the specifics that make you come to such a conclusion. I've written before on how the term "academic" too often operates as a vague stand-in for "everything that's wrong with writing" or "people who work for teaching institutions suck."

10:58 AM  
Blogger Max said...


I never said you were trying to be avant garde. I said that there are people with broader notions of what "avant garde" means who want to be "avant garde." In other words, it has very little bearing on what they do, but rather what they wish to be, making it an identity trait rather than a description of their creations.

Honestly, I think the term "avant garde" should just be replaced by "next level shit." As in, "this some next level shit, dawg."

11:20 AM  
Blogger François said...

As strange as it sounds, Max's proposition is very appealing.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, there's always a kernel of truth in Max's rants.


By academization I mean things like "the poetics of indeterminacy" or the cfp I posted the other day about "the true avant-garde." Or the way many interesting/kooky avant-gardist practices get swallowed up by the oft-repeated kliche "materiality of the signifier."

I guess you're right in that I want the a-g, just not named. I want the spirit of "next level shit" without the centralizing force that the phrase has become in academia. That's why I keep squirming like an eel.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Nada said...

I just want cool clothes.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

Then all you gotta do is be on some next level shit, son.

No need to "want" it. Just go ahead and make it happen.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I want cool clothes too. However, I don't like "lettrist jackets" and also I live in Indiana.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Nada said...

Isn't everyone avant-garde now? Listening to a woman on a streetcorner the other day, talking on her cell phone: "I text him, and then he texts me..."

7:11 AM  
Blogger Nada said...

Oh and the book on coterie is by Lytle Shaw.

7:53 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

If you're taking your cues about what constitutes avant garde, alternative, or innovative (whatever term you prefer) poetry from Marjorie Perloff, Johannes, then it's no wonder that you think of such work as too academic. Perloff's books introduced academics--and on a very basic level--to what was going on in contemporary American poetry, and I can't think of a single poet who works in avant garde poetry (again, discard the name if you feel like) who considers her work that revelatory for what, say, language poetry or related poetries really were. Her work is not much more than a nice, but limited, textbook introduction.

I would probably advise you to worry less about fuzzy concepts like "indeterminacy" and go to the poems themselves. P. Inman is still a good place to start, if obviously not the only place. And I'm glad to have mentioned Tina Darragh too, who at the Page Mothers conference a few years ago really made a case for how out of touch Perloff was.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm not opposed to all poetry that may be considered avant-garde, I'm opposed to the conservative/retarding discourses surround a-g - and there I don't think it's possible to discard Perloff.

What has received more Internet attention recently than her "conceptual" event in the desert?

Most books on contemporary poetry are churned out with the same tools. Even a renowned scholar like Jerome McGann seems to follow her lead. Not to mention countless PhDs coming out of your alma mater (and elsewhere), churning out book that almost inevitably has the same cast of characters/tropes.

Clearly Perloff is not the only critic I've read (in fact I haven't read much by her in years), but she is still the most influential critic in US Poetry. [And some of it is deserved - she seems to pretty tirelessly read and investigate various strands of poetry.]

Concepts like indeterminacy, the materiality of the signifier etc - not matter how you or I might dislike them - still have a lot of currency in the way people think about poetry and avant-gardism. That's why I think it's important to critique them. These concepts have been and remain hugely influential and retarding.

More recently I can mention Charles Bernstein (someone whose work helped me quite a bit back when) who came to Notre Dame and gave a talk on "the difficult poem" - telling faculty how to lead the students "into" the poem, to help them get the correct reading of these "difficult poems". When Joyelle asked what this "inside" of the poem was because she didn't believe there was such a thing, he couldn't really answer and replied that it was a "provisional model." This is how people get an idea that avant-gardism is a kind of new critical, high culture enterprise.

I would also like to note the interesting contrast between Nada who thinks every person in the public sphere is avant-garde and your own somewhat patronizing suggestion of how I might begin to enter into avant-garde writing (echoing Charles's argument with its inside and outside).

Speaking as an immigrant, I can't tell you how suspicious I am of inside/outsides.

10:16 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Well, I'm sorry if I sounded patronizing. I really don't know what poets you've read or haven't. But if you're wary of insides/outsides, I'm wary of people quoting Marjorie Perloff as an example of what's old-fashioned about a number of American poets whose work I like a lot. Quite seriously, I really don't know that many poets who take her to be the lead on anything of significance to them. And I do mean anything. I think you can't just dismiss that fact as "insider" behavior.

Of course, I'm in agreement with you that academic discourse about avant garde work can be conservative, although I don't think it's automatically that way just because someone writes an academic book, and of course you don't either, I'm sure.

And while I know you're suspicious, and sometimes rightfully so, of insides/outsides, I think we all need to be wary of how we're still caught up in them. It seems like you came at American avant garde work (or whatever want to it) through criticism, and that's fine, but I'm worried about the colonizing aspect of your suggestion that poets need to care about what Perloff is saying, or should have to think that she's at any kind of center than anyone should necessarily pay attention to. That's not necessarily openness; it also could be an assumption that what the critic says is more important than what poets might say, and I've never trusted that.

I wasn't at the Bernstein event you mention, obviously, but I don't have an experience of him as requiring single authoritative readings of poems, and nothing in his written work suggests that he believes such a thing. Maybe he was saying "this is the sole right way to read it," but when he says "it's a provisional way," isn't that like saying "there's more than one way"? So the account your giving here doesn't sound like the writer in question. But again, I wasn't there, and who knows, maybe he was off his game.

As to Nada's comment, which I found very funny, to say that "everybody is something" is to say that the something has become meaningless. That's a possibility here, that the term doesn't matter anymore. But so far it's one you haven't seriously pursued and don't seem to want to pursue.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Nada said...

McGann is a more interesting critic, to my mind, than Perloff*, maybe because he looks further into the past – the Romantics – instead of just extending the clichés of high modernism. I loved Poetics of Sensibility.

I'd be curious to see a transcript of Charles' talk. I can't quite believe he would discard surface so easily; he strikes me as quite the master of surface, most notably so in his early work.

Could be, Johannes, that I'm just a tad too inclusive. I also have this stupid idea that everything is material for poetry. Blllaaaap!

*Listening to her contribution as "mediator" on the conceptual poetry panel, it occurred to me that she might just be out of her mind, and not in a particularly interesting way.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I was very surprised too! But here I think it came from Charles speaking to an academic audience and trying to figure out a pedagogical stance. I kept the notes from the talk and the handouts. I'll see if I can find it.

No, Mark, I didn't ever only read criticism.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

On the other hand I have to give a lot of props to Marjorie. She's been interested in foreign poetry in a way I haven't really seen from many other critics (or poets!) in this country.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well if we're talking about how to teach "difficult" poetry (which is "difficult" largely because it's unfamiliar), that is a different topic entirely than what constitutes avant garde writing or how to write in an avant garde way or how to write in general.

Obviously, lit. professors should be interested in teaching avant garde/modern/whateverthefuck poetry. But I think, often, they aren't very good at formulating ways to approach it with students. There must be something utilitarian about the practice of familiarizing students with difficult/unfamiliar material. As such, one might rightly develop provisional frameworks for doing so. So I don't understand why Bernstein would be so off-base in attempting to do so. Find a way to understand something doesn't imply that that is the only way, or the superior way, or that you're finding "the truth" in it.

One thing I don't understand is why some people are so immediately hostile to such pedagogical efforts.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well, I think it's big diservice to claim that poetry has an inside and to say that it's difficult, but you're basically saying what I believe Bernstein would say, and it does make sense on some levels.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I mean, I guess it depends on who you're talking to. I think that some poetry is more difficult than other poetry. But no poetry is naturally more difficult than any other poetry. It's merely a matter of familiarity.

That an academic tends to want to crack things open in order to "understand" them doesn't ever surprise me. That is what they do. I don't think there's an academic framework that can exist (and have any official credibility) that does otherwise. Which probably means that pedagogy itself is a necessarily illusory framework. My response? Get the fuck out of academia. It's a sham. Its practitioners are hucksters.

On the other hand, I think a learned a lot during my time in academia.

What does this tell us? (1) There are many different types of knowlege; (2) There are many different ways of gaining knowledge; (3) There are many different purposes for knowledge.

The only way you can be "wrong" about anything is if you contend that your "type," your "way," or your "purpose" is the only type/way/purpose, or that it is superior, of higher value, whatever.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Actually, I think I mischaracterized the Bernstein stance a bit, I think I mixed up a few different sources. "The Difficult Poem" is afterall a parody in "Girly Man."

I feel doubly bad about mischaracterizing Bernstein's words because he's generally somewhat demonized. (For example, when I was in Iowa for a reading, a grad student said the faculty wouldn't let her teach Bernstein to her undergrads!)

I guess I was just on a negative streak yesterday.

8:17 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I'd be interested to hear more about this demonization some time, Johannes. I'd also like to know more about how Bernstein and other poets of various fringes, aesthetic or cultural/political etc, were taught (or not, as the case may be) at Iowa. I think one of the confusions I have in reading your posts and some of the comments is that I don't know what kinds of information or misinformation students at Iowa were and are given regarding these kinds of poetry. This context confusion means that I don't always know when I'm commenting whether I'm saying something that will seem obvious or obscure.

10:07 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Oh, and I also sent a note in response to your e-mail, which I received this morning, but I've just figured out that my e-mail isn't functioning properly, so I don't know when my message is going to show up to you. If you don't get it in a day or two, please let me know.

10:12 AM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...

I've always thought that Marjorie Perloff's gift of picking winners had a lot to do with how vigorous she's been in publicizing her picks. That's not to say I disagree with her picks.

Also, many of the poets I've met seem to have much less of a teams philosophy or a chess philosophy than a Highlander philosophy. That's not to say I think that's good or bad.

6:07 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home