Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Avant-Garde" (my post on Ron Silliman's blog)


I think you would do your argument a lot of good if you attempted to define what you mean by the phrase "avant-garde."

This is of course a term that has been much debated over the past couple of centuries.

In this post you suggest vaguely that it means writing in a "tradition" or being "influenced" by avant-gardist writing.

There are a lot of problems with these assertions. To begin with, as you hint, the idea of an "avant-garde tradition" is problematic, though not exactly for the reason you suggest. The main issue for me is that the word "tradition" makes it something stable, something to be studied. With that very word, you have made your own critical framwork a "compromise" or a "third way" so to speak.

Another problem: very many poets writing today were "influenced" by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery (who had already forged their own "hybrids" or "third ways" of Auden and Bishop and European avant-gardism). If this was the sole criteria for avant-gardism, then all the students at the U of Iowa Writers Workshop are post-avant.

Perhaps certain elements of "influence" are more important than others?

You claim Surrealism is particularly easy to "uproot" from its "avant-garde heritage." But if mere "influence" is what makes for an "avant-garde tradition," then any super-pliable mushy-fatso surrealist is still in that "tradition."

You claim Moore as the first "third way" poet. But good heavens Ronny, Pound? Eliot? They all took notions from various European avant-garde groups.

This is certainly true of yourself. Your ways of reading - emphasizing mastery with its "good ear" and its fear of foreigners mucking with your "American Tree" - are fundamentally opposed to a lot of writers of the historical avant-garde, and fundamentally in line with what I perceive to be the central guiding principles of "quietism" (I prefer to speak of it as an institutional dynamic than solely a style).But of course, there are exceptions here too.

I think you need to move beyond the binary that asserts a kind of "avant-garde" purity against a kind of "quietist" purity. Get more specific about various aesthetics and politics and social formations.

And perhaps we can begin to discuss the fantasy of "the avant-garde" and how it has affected American poetry since the 1960s.

As you know, I have often defended your identification of "quietism" - it is important to see that "that way of writing" is not inherently natural or - in fact - traditional. It's largely a result of workshop poetics and the 1970s.

However, by making these vast, trans-historical statements about "quietism" (it goes back to the 19th century etc) you give "it" too much credit. It's not the tradition, it's a recent phenomena that was proliferated through workshops. Poetic lineages are simply not as stable as you would have them be.


Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

"Ronny"-- wow, i had no idea you and Silliman were so close

10:02 AM  
Blogger Archambeau said...


8:43 PM  

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