Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I'm getting ready for the semester and finishing up our action-packed upcoming issue of Action, Yes (including but not limited to essays by Aaron Kunin on the Gurlesque and Cathy Wagner, James Pate on Clayton Eshsleman and the grotesque, and Lara Glenum on Aase Berg and cute avant-gardism), but I would like to say a few brief things.

[Before I start, can I also apologize to all the people who have written me emails that I have not replied to yet. Also, the best way to reach me is not the Action, Yes email but my g-mail account.]

In a lot of the discussion about "post-avant" etc I see the rehashing of Marjorie Perloff's old argument in favor of "poetics of indeterminacy". According to this paradigm (which goes back to before Marjorie, but I think her work has popularized it in the poetry world), "post-avant" writing is more democratic because it is indeterminate and therefore leaves it up to the reader to find the "meaning" of the text.

As I've written on this blog before, I'm totally opposed to this idea of meaning/democracy and to a lot of the writing it has engendered.

I'm in favor of a masochistic paradigm for art. I like to go to the movies, to sit in the movie theater (unfortunately I can't much anymore due to my demonic child). I want to go see the Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In" which is showing this Friday in the Regis Philbin Theater in Notre Dame.

I am in favor of corruption, especially of myself. That's why I'm in favor of translation too. Also of myself.

Indeterminacy has come to mean something like "negative capability," or "ambiguity", in which the reader can languish in a "contemplative space."

Further more, it's an illusory democracy, since the author is still asking you to do something - find your own, non-symbolic meaning, turn the pages.

Art is about manipulation.

Of interest is that through the paradigm of indeterminacy, language poetry entered the academy.

An interesting article that touches on this is Marjorie Perloff's review of Ron Silliman's "Under Albany" where she has to dismiss Leslie Scalapino as "hysterical" in her use of the "I". Ron is seen as a "realist" basically because of his democratic use of montage and non-I.

Which leads me to another cliche of "post-avantism": that somehow by not using the word "I" we offer a critique of subjectivity. I've read so many poems by people (both from Iowa and Buffalo) who do not use the word "I" but basically offer a high old poetry, just simply not with the word "I".

[A more important argument with Ron might be why he likes to see himself as "realism."]

The I is a charged word. Incredibly interesting and complex. Excluding it reminds me of a kind of puritanism that has always had a home in contemporary American Poetry: the cliche Quietist Lyric and the "post-avant" lyric seem equally obsessed with restraining "excess" and "self-indulgence".

Which is why neither view seems capable of dealing with Sylvia Plath's radical legacy of Surrealist montage, gothic "I" and gothic body, and perhaps most of all, her lowbrow hold on people (ie "popularity").

And excluding the I also seems to me to return to the same illusory democracy paradigm. Jed Rasula has written articles about Ron Silliman arguing that the reading experience is more democratic, not authoritarian.

I am not interested in a "democratic" reading situation.

One last thing: If you want to talk about "avant"-anything, shouldn't the discussion have some historical element? Ie shouldn't we talk about the history of avant-garde writing? Of the changing notion of "avnat-garde"?

In one recent post Mark said Ariana Reines was not "avant-garde"- as if that term was self-evident, but I brought that term up in a previous discussion about Ariana precisely because her work calls into question the concept of "avant-garde" and its relationship to a "historical avant-garde."

This is also why I brought up Aase Berg's serious avant-garde cred awhile back. She actually was part of an avant-garde group - The Stockholm Surrealist Group - that worked outside of the academy, that did not publish "Literature", that opposed the gov't, engaged in various acts of creative vandalism and detournment etc etc. According to Mark, she may not qualify as "avant-garde." But her background is far more in touch with the ideas and practice of Surrealism and other historical avant-garde movements than for example the professor who wrote a CFP (I posted it a few months ago) calling Language Poetry the "true avant-garde" (some kind of historical progress reaching its summit in that exceptionalist country, USA).

No, one last thing: Most of all what I'm opposed to is the constant desire to cover up difference, to say we're all the same after all. There are very real differences out there. That's good.


Blogger BLAKE BUTLER said...

'I am not interested in a "democratic" reading situation.'
god, yes, exactly.

'let the right one in' is really excellent. one of the best movies i've paid to see lately. usually going to a theater ends in shit lap. but that one is a good one.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Joseph Hutchison said...

Excellent post, Johannes. "Most of all what I'm opposed to is the constant desire to cover up difference." Yes! But it's good to deal with differences honestly, without the polemical twisting of words like "avant-garde" and "democracy" that do, in fact, have real meanings...

9:53 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Johannes, I hope you won't take this personally, but you sometimes have a rather bad habit of misunderstanding and reducing what other people say in a way that benefits the arguments you're trying to make. There's nothing particularly new or innovative about that.

Never at any time have I seriously said that "the masses corrupt art"--the comment was a joke in a satirical exchange about the idea of poetic reputation. I don't know where you got this idea that so many contemporary poets (American poets?) see some old-fashioned opposition between high and low art. I can't think of a single poet I know who would insist on such an absolute distinction. I think it was Leslie Fiedler, in an essay published around 1960, that in a literary critical context first highlighted the interrelationship between high and low art that marked much of the most contemporary literature of his time. That's 50 years ago. I myself have written repeatedly about the investment in pop art that is crucial to writers of my generation. I'm a rock and roll fan, for chrissake, and The Clash and The Minutemen influenced my writing far more than Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf.

As to the broader idea that many language poets insist on such a distinction, that's off-base too. Charles Bernstein, for instance (and he and his family are suffering terribly at this time, I know, and it's a truly awful situation) has written repeatedly about how much he prefers many contemporary cartoons to much contemporary high lyric narrative verse.

So, please stop misunderstanding me (whether on purpose or accidentally, I can't tell), and please stop using straw man versions of arguments others have made to support positions that are common currency in contemporary literature discourse while you often act like no one has ever heard them before. You're a very smart guy, but creating a supposed "other side" by reducing the complexity of its thinking is a tired critical tactic, that is, a cliche.

All best to you in all your important endeavors. I like a lot of what you say sometimes, but at other times it seems like you really don't know what kinds of things are being talked about and written about by others.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Sorry to misrepresent you Mark. It was in the heat of the moment. I'll take that away.

I also want to say that I don't want to come off as being anti-lang-po. I'll write more about that later but for now, I'll say that what I question is how it enters academia. that is why I for example found it very interesting that Perloff refers to Leslie Scalapino as "hysterical" (i got that from tina darragh's piece that we've got in AY), Scalapino holding a very interesting role as someone who doesn't fit in at all with the cliche notion of language poetry (which I perhaps perpetuates here).

Certainly what you say about Bernstein is true.


10:18 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, I am not really talking about Language Poetry here. Isn't "post-avant" also "post-language poetry"? I read back over my entry and I see no reference to Bernstein.


10:37 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Actually, I don't have a strong take on the issue of whether to consider Aase Berg part of an avant garde legacy, except that obviously Surrealism is very much part of the history of the avant garde, and if she's influenced by that history, which she is, then denying that her work is avant garde (or at least has a strong relationship to what used to be called avant garde) does seem highly questionable. But she's also part of a cultural debate in contexts that I'm very distant from, though interested in.

With Reines, I'm sure you'll remember that I'm also a fan of her work. But it's true that I think your use of her work to question what is meant by the idea of the avant garde hasn't so far convinced me. I do think the way she mixes confessional poetry with the San Francisco New Narrative approach is intriguing, but despite moments of calling self-conscious attention to the fact of writing, her work strikes me mainly as a fascinating contemporary updating of the confessional tradition.

To my mind, the term "post-avant" is very vague, questionable, and shadowy. I pretty much hate it, honestly. Postlanguage was a term that I used to refer to a generation of writers who had read language poetry closely and were going with it/departing from it in new ways. It certainly wasn't meant to include poets for whom language poetry is mainly a rumor and something they were told in school to avoid--by which I don't mean you, but many of the vaguely "post-avant" (if we have to use that term) and blob-like writers that litter the landscape in this "slightly imagey" (as you said) age.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

It seems to me that Ron has thought a great deal less about "post-avant" than he has about quietism.

More than any particular school or movement, it seems post-avant designates a shift in the mode of production and dissemination, a move away from the hierarchy of prizes and book publications. And in this way it may be said to be post-language or post-mimeograph or the Age of Digital Reproduction.

But it doesn't seem to identify a coherent aesthetic. And it does seem dismissive. These post-avant kids today.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Providence said...


Like Mark, I think you speed through the "cliches" and your sources to the detriment of a clear understanding and respectful critique of any given position. I understand that kind of speed can be a virtue of blogging, but...

As I draw nearer to completing my book on "indeterminacy" and other contingency tropes in literary criticism, theory, and mod/contemporary American poetics, I am heartened that someone still cares about these categories (Juliana Spahr and others in the Bay Area recently had a whole conference surrounding supposed conflicts between indeterminist and identitarian poetics). But the observation that the terminology is loose because it was/gets divorced from historicizing efforts is rather myopic. Perloff's book, which you mention, is a literary-historical argument. As is Jennifer Ashton's recent, book-length riposte, _From Modernism to Postmodernism_. We need contingency tropes to discuss how meaning works in poems, and not just those identified with avant-gardes. And we need to be able to tell them apart, those we already have. Yes, "indeterminacy" can be used synonymously with "ambiguity," but they were theorized more or less separately and by most accounts can be very legibly differentiated. The notion (in part Perloff's) that New Critical "ambiguity" is less democratic when meaning is proffered can be undermined in any number of ways. Your way seems to be to declare it invalid because to you it is uninteresting. At which point, I lose track of what is really at stake for you (or me) in your discussion.

I guess I was just disappointed that you didn't do more with this connection you wish to draw--or I think you wish to draw it--between representing "difference" (the subject/object of reading) and democratic values (as massively shredded as they are in our time/place). With the kind of circuits we've inherited and built, I'd agree that we have to continue working on this.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

Yeah. Dead-on about indeterminacy and negative capability.

As for talking about the history of the avant-garde: I've been trying.

4:12 PM  

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