Seth Abramson post a bunch of ideas over at his Suburban Ecstasy blog, in which he mentions me and Action Books so I thought I would respond to some of his claims. But ultimately I think I will respond mostly to his assumptions. I will also make a few statements about other commonly held assumptions.
1. One problem with the notion of a quietist/post-avant divide is that it is way too simple and binary. There are not two separate modes of writing, but many.
2. The biggest problem (among many) in discussing Quietism is that although Ron's terminology suggests it is a movement, it is not. Rather it is the dominant literary system in the US as it was organized with the creation of Creative Writing Programs in the 1960s and 1970s. This system allows for a certain level of stylistic variation (though really not much). But certain values have remained pretty constant. It is also not without internal conflict, which serves to hide its basic homogeneity.
3. There has been a lot of resistance to Ron Silliman's quietism-vs-post-avant breakdown, and I've taken issue with it as well. To a large extent the resistance comes from the fact that an important marker of Quietism is that it denies that it has a point of view, instead claiming to be neutral or "traditional". I would argue that the Quietist style is not in fact "traditional". Is it in the same lineage as Edgar Allen Poe? Whitman? Etc.
4. Of course the idea that Quietism is style-neutral and traditional is not true. It has a set of aesthetic and social values that largely comes out of a few mid-century sources: New Criticism's emphasis on the autonomy of the artwork and that this autonomy battles the chaos and general fallen-ness of the modern world and mass culture, an emphasis on authenticity that comes out of the New Critics' progenitors 1960s poetry (Donald Hall etc). This poetics of authenticity comes I think out of the institutionalization of this poetic stance - ie that Donald Hall crowd were the people who were hired into the new creative writing programs in the 1970s.
5. They then educated a whole heap of students with similar ideas (and this continues). The important thing to consider here is that this is not a "conspiracy." Not some people saying: Lets get these folks to write the same way. The institution of literature - most notably the hiring of professors who educate new professors, but also prizes and such - rewards complicity and discourages non-complicity. Ie if you don't write using the basic ideas of Quietism don't usually get jobs or win prizes etc.
6. Seth writes: "... a question of identifying and building up from first principles. Grammar. Diction. Considering the texture of words, images, sonics." The idea that poetry is based on a refined consideration of the "texture" is the formalist foundation to Quietist aesthetics: it is the autonomous text not its place in society for example that matters. Somehow being refined enough makes us more authentic than the hasty and distracted aesthetics of mass culture and avant-gardism.
7. One of the big lies of Quietism is that craft is a neutral, objectively apparent *skill*. This emphasis on craft and skill entails a certain idea of what makes certain textures good and bad, a definite aesthetic in other words. Further, it denies the fact that any poem exists in time and place - why is this not the 'basics' of poetry? In sum the craft-based aesthetic represents a hierarchical idea of culture: if you learn enough you will be more refined. And this idea provides for the retrograde philosophies of a lot of workshops: the teacher is more refined so he/she can tell you how to rein in your excesses and make a more refined poem.
8. An important factor: the wellwrought urn. There should be no noise in the poem. Every word should "matter". A reading of a poem entails basically a formal analysis of how refined a text is. This interacts not just with the notion of the autonomous artwork but also with the teachable poem. It is easy to spot how various poems are clumsy or awkward (that is they don't comply with the standard). It is much easier to teach by calling for students to cut those out than it is to try to understand the ideas of the students.
9. Workshop poetics is generally not interested in acknowledging that different poets have different ideas about the world and poetry etc. That's generally what people talk about when they argue about poetry. Removing that, most discussion becomes about whether an artwork has been constructing correctly. That's why workshops often fall back on everybody talking about the poems doing "too much" of this or that, or if it isn't "enough" of something else. That is, the discussion becomes entirely normalizing because workshops don't account for different ideas.
10. The fascinating result: Quietism is more about complying with a series of rules rather than coming up with something interesting. That is also why so much of this poetry is boring and why nobody wants to read it. Why read something only to admire it for not stepping awry.
11. Common illusion: That Quietism is "Traditional" while other poetry is non-traditional. The current Quietist style does not go back very far, possibly the 1970s. Meanwhile Kenny Goldsmith's found texts go way back. Swedish poet Ake Hodell for example was using instruction booklets for sewing machines as books of poetry back in the early 1960s, not to mention "readymades" and such, which of course go back to the 1910s. Goldsmith is such a traditionalist he has made many statements wishing American poetry would return to the 1960s.
12. All statements such as "Best New Poets" etc as well as statements such as "most innovative new poets" cover up the fact that there are many different ideas about poetry, it forecloses a very necessary and interesting debate.
13. Seth writes: "The poets in that anthology are aware of, and likely feel a similar warmth toward, the aesthetic traditions Johannes and his Action Books hold dear." Then why is their poetry so different? When I read the anthology of the "New Best Poets" I was rather struck by how totally opposite their very concept of poetry is from mine. My guess is that they do not at all share the same sources as Joyelle or I do. Who are these?
14. In addition: Part of the way Quietism is to acknowledge the mad genius but then don't let that writing guide their own writing or teaching of students. For example, strawman A might say, that Alice Notley is a genius! She needs a little editing and she's totally off her rockers, but she's a wonderful and very strange poet! But if any student started writing poems channeling Eluard or Mitch-Ham, they would say, this poem is too hasty, you need to put more pressure on the words. Or perhaps more effectively: praise the student as well, but not give them good fellowships, not pick such poets as winners in contests etc.
15.Seth's conclusion: "At base, we're all in this together." This piece of rhetoric flames up all the time in poetry discussions: the desire to make it all the same. Or the need to argue "This is not new". I tend to think there are many different opinions out there and many of them are very different. Arguing that we don't hold different opinions is the same rhetoric as "Best of" etc: another way of not actually acknowledging that there is an institutional aesthetic that is simply not traditional or neutral.
16. Seth argues that the reason that "avant-garde" writing doesn't ever get prices because there is so much more Quietist writing. Not true. Prizes and money and professorhips are the main way Quietism retains its importance. There are not more Quietists than non-Quietists. There is no fact to back this up. But part of getting an MFA - becoming a legitimate poet - and getting one's work published has come to mean writing in a sanctioned way. Thus in order to be a poet one must to some degree learn to comply with Quietism or not count as a poet.
17. There is a common assumption that Quietist poetry is more populist. Totally untrue: it's highly elitist and also boring. Written largely by white folks who went to fine schools. And the proof is in the pudding: After all the money and all the educational centrality of quietism, poetry is totally unpopular. I think "elitist" Flarfist books on the whole sell many more copies than your average Quietist book for example.
18. Seth: "How urgent is it that a writer in the first two years of a sixty year long writing career jump straight into the aesthetic cloister of fifty-something post-avants? Isn't it reasonable--in fact, helpful--to ramp up to that first? It's become trite to say one can't subvert the tradition until one understands it, but surely there's some truth to that; I'm not at all certain reading Lorine Niedecker without reading (to pick a random "foundational" poet) Walt Whitman is fair to Niedecker, let alone to the young reader of Niedecker. I tend to think most deceased postmoderns would themselves say, "Look, take two years--a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things--to read up on Whitman, Dickinson, Crane, Stevens, Eliot, whoever, and then come to me.""
Problems with this very common argument: the quietist style is not traditional; it frequently has very little to do with Whitman; and absolutely most importantly: people don't all start out with a Quietist taste and then move on the avant-gardist-influenced work. This is one of the foundational lies of Quietism. People have very different points of entry. I imagine for example that it is *way* more common that people come to poetry through Allen Ginsberg than through Donald Hall and all the rest of that crew combined. I came to poetry through Ginsberg among others and I have consistently felt that my schooling has been focused on delegitimizing many of those original sources of inspiration and of getting me to stop writing poetry. I have largely felt Quietism to be a way to discourage me from writing, to get me to abandon my interests in poetry.
Moreover this argument recapitulates the whole 'tradititional' quagmire associated with Quietism. It's just not the case that quietism was the tradition and that recently 'post-' anything messed with it. Instead, we can find the lineages of what we now consider 'avant-garde' writing right there at the beginning of writing itself, as Rothenberg etc has shown, with runes, hexes, spells, numerical writing, curses, prayers, etc.
19. Important: I think it's important to move away from Quietists vs Post-Avants. It's rather that we all interact with the Quietist System in different ways.
20. I'm actually quite optimistic about the future of poetry. But more about that later.
21. I appreciate both Ron's and Seth's grappling with these issues.