Showing posts with label post-avant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label post-avant. Show all posts

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On numerous occasions, I’ve made the point that the recognition of community – starting implicitly with the Black Mountain poets & the New York School and continuing explicitly with Langpo – is exactly that which distinguishes the post-avant from its predecessor, the avant-gardist late modern. Having taken community as an antidote to individualism, it is disconcerting to see the category figured negatively either by one’s peers who are not reactionaries (Johanna Drucker is one of writing’s most positive forces, for example) & by those who come immediately thereafter (as were the “new coast” poets of the O●blēk Anthology). What third term might exist that would untie the knot created by conflict between the endless competition that is the hallmark of individualism & the social elitism of inside-vs.-outside of any community? If I have a frustration with the post-Langpo / pre-Conceptual poets of the past few decades, it is largely that no such third term has been forthcoming, merely a sense of alienation toward the two pre-existing alternatives.
Listening to the talks of Poetry Communities and Individual Talent, I’m struck not just by John Paetsch’s use of “ collectivity” or “collective” as a potential third term, but even more profoundly by just how much this conference is not about community so much as it is about credentialing and canonization: credentialing the speakers – all intelligent & well-intended in their work – and canonization of the figures of their work, most often by foregrounding a previously overlooked, misunderstood or controversial aspect of the writing itself. But the core fact of the conference was that of younger academics talking on panels moderated by their elders. Of 22 speakers who presented papers (the one on Prynne is mysteriously absent from the PennSound record), only a few – Damon, Dworkin, Karasick & Schultz – are known primarily as poets. Only a few – Paetsch, Jessyka Finley, Kaplan Harris – fully address the construction of community itself (or, in the case of Spicer, the refusal of same). None of the speakers, moderators included, is him- or herself free of an academic context.

Monday, May 09, 2011

After a long, intense day of events at the Text Festival in Bury – the morning spent at the museum where my neon excerpt from the still-in-progress Northern Soul has become the public face of the festival itself, the afternoon at a reading in Bury Parish Church – the building dates from the 19th century, the congregation from circa 900 – to an evening at the Met where mostly a sequence of sound and performance poets (but nary a sign o’ slam) tickled & occasionally ripped at our ear drums, I found myself the next morning reading Sarah Riggs’ 60 Textos, simple one-stanza lyrics (or perhaps anti-lyrics) feeling that there was more that was genuinely new in her tiny poems than I had seen the entire previous day, even as I’d been immersed work that everywhere proposed itself as new (my own included) but was in fact something different altogether.

The axes that converge in something like the Text Festival – poetry as visual art, as performance, as sound – have their roots in traditions that are at least 100 years old (in the case of the Russian Futurists or the Dadaism of Hugo Ball, twice that or more in the case of William Blake & illuminated manuscripts). It’s fascinating to watch Christian Bök build a career out of two or three very divergent types of work: obsessive, jaw-droppingly brilliant contained projects like Eunoia or the ongoing Xenotext; performance poetry that draws knowledgeably from the masters of Futurism, Dada & fluxus; sound work that extends the legacy of Steve McCaffery, bpNichol and the Four Horsemen in Canada. But it’s those obsessive projects of his that represent something transformational in poetry. Much of the rest of it is theater that enables him to go places, entertain & build a public presence. That’s more about marketing than innovation, tho Bök is as thorough a scholar of performance poetics as I’ve ever met. Nor is there anything new, as he himself acknowledged, about him writing a set of responses to the questions of my work, Sunset Debris. Alan Davies beat him to that over 30 years ago, and such responses are threatening to become a genre (or at least genre-twitch) of their own. What’s new in Bök’s approach is the use of a computer program and artificial intelligence to “write” the responses. Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear a machine forced to admit repeatedly “I don’t know.”

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Eliot Weinberger, who has himself attempted to persuade New Directions to publish William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All as a separate edition; wrote to Andrew Schelling after I ran Andrew’s meditation on the role of New Directions as a post-avant publisher (and Andrew’s assertion that one could, in fact, base a bookstore’s poetry collection on New Directions, at least a couple of decades ago). Eliot cc’d me and the two of them eventually gave me permission to run Eliot’s email here. All ellipses are Eliot’s, and I corrected just one date, that of Duncan’s death.
Hi Andrew —
I read your letter about New Directions on Silliman’s blog, which got me wondering whether there really is a 20-year "gap" in ND’s commitment to "EP/WCW/HD" tradition. So off the top of my head, I made a list...
Bearing in mind that they only publish about 40 books a year, mainly prose (they are not primarily a poetry press) and that they were publishing a lot of poetry in translation — the list seems pretty impressive.
One problem was that it was difficult to take on new people while still keeping up with new books by their old people. In the 60's they added quite a few people — probably too many (in terms of ND’s size, not the worthiness of the individual poets) and a bunch of them ended up going to Black Sparrow.
It’s safe to say they had no interest in the NY School and subsequent generations (Berrigan, Padgett, etc) — until Bernadette in the 90's. And they had no particular interest in Langpo — but let Messerli do that (pretty bad) anthology in the 80's.
But what I don’t see is your idea that they neglected an entire generation. Certainly there are individuals they missed over the decades. Sometimes because they simply didn’t have the opportunity; sometimes because of a mix-up (Bunting, notably); sometimes because of personal animosity toward Laughlin, or vice-versa (Zukofsky) It would be interesting to know who they actually rejected. (The only poetry book Laughlin told me he made a mistake in rejecting was Blackburn’s "Proensa."Around the office, they most regret the Niedecker and Rexroth collecteds.)
It’s true that the list loses steam in the 80's, in terms of new people. Perhaps this was because Rexroth was dead and Laughlin didn’t have anyone he really trusted to talk with about the new poetry. (Most of the new people in the 60's and 70's were Rexroth enthusiasms.) And of course he was getting old, and less receptive.
So here’s the list. I’ve kept it to "EP/WCW/HD trad"and New Americans, ignoring some one-shots, and some odd regulars like Edwin Brock in the 60's and 70's, and Allen Grossman and John Allman later on. And I’ve probably forgotten some....

Continuing: Pound (d. 1972), Williams (d. 1963), Rexroth, Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Merton (d. 1968).
New people: Oppen, Rakosi, Duncan, Everson, Reznikoff, Olson (d. 1970), Tarn, Snyder, Jonathan Williams, Corso, Bob Kaufman, Carruth.

Continuing: Rexroth (d. 1982), Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Everson, Oppen (d.1984), Snyder, Corso, Carruth.
New people: Creeley, Rothenberg, Antin, HD (d. 1961, pub by ND posthumously), McClure, Corman.
[Rakosi, Reznikoff, Everson, and Tarn go to Black Sparrow. Oppen & Laughlin decided "Primitive" was too small a book for ND — you can’t say he was "dropped" by ND, as they published everything else. Corman goes to many presses, comes back in 90's with one book.]

Continuing: Creeley, Rothenberg, Antin, Duncan (returns from silence; d. 1988), Levertov, Ferlinghetti, McClure.
New people: Sobin, Weinberger (since you mentioned me, though hardly a poet), R. Waldrop, David Hinton (as translator), Peter Dale Scott.
[Snyder goes with his friend Shoemaker to North Point. ]

Continuing: Creeley, Ferlinghetti, Rothenberg, Antin, Levertov, R. Waldrop, Weinberger, Sobin, Hinton, McClure, Peter Dale Scott. [Plus one book by Corman.]
New people: Palmer, S. Howe, Gander, Brathwaite, B. Mayer. [Plus one-shot Bronk and Tomlinson Selecteds.]
[Sobin is dropped after three books; d. 2005]

Continuing: Creeley (d. 2006), Ferlinghetti, Rothenberg, Palmer, S. Howe, Gander, Brathwaite, R. Waldrop, Mayer, Weinberger, Hinton.
New people: Mackey, Thalia Field.
Continuing posthumous publications: Pound, WCW, Rexroth, Oppen, Duncan, Levertov, HD, Merton. [Creeley, just before his death, bizarrely decided to go to Univ. of California Press.]
Adding the non-avants, and various strange one-shots, in any given decade they published about 15 living English-language poets, as well as unpublished/uncollected books by the dead, and many foreign poets. In the 60's there were maybe half a dozen more — but of course books were cheaper then. So it's hard to say that a "generation" is missing. Regardless of what one thinks of the individual choices, the living poets on the list right now are in their 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, and (Ferlinghetti) 80's. 
Well, that kept me up!  Hope you saw the anthology ("World Beat")  I just did of all the foreign and some of the Americans ND has been publishing in the last 15 years...
all best —

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

In the past week, I’ve read on various discussion lists that nobody reads blogs but other bloggers. I’ve also read that bloggers “control” poetry. I’ve seen an article that quotes incoming Guggenheim executive Edward Hirsch calling language poetry a “cult,” & read another listserv message suggesting that there were far too many avant-garde or experimental poets – an estimate of 10,000 was offered. There does seem to be a diversity of opinion.

The fear of an Other is an interesting, if sometimes dangerous, phenomenon. Denial of its existence and/or importance is really only the flip side of the paranoid nightmare that It, whatever It may be, has overrun & secretly governs the world. Need I suggest that the truth is probably somewhere in between?

One of the values of blogging for poets is that it can deepen the degree of critical thinking poets themselves do, more so I suspect than the scatter of listserv discussions. If there is a bias hidden in the blogging form, it’s toward poets who think critically, but that by no means ensures that said poets will be post-avant, let alone any particular flavor thereof. It also suggests that there is a role for critical thinking & writing outside of the received forms of the academy – & I am convinced that this is all to the better as well.

If there is a potential for post-avant poetry in raising the bar of critical thinking, it might be to help address the question that is rather unspoken in that wildly overdone estimate of 10,000 experimentalists: how, as the post-avant heritage expands to yet another generation, are those poets going to create the necessary sense of shape to differentiate between all these young, interesting poets? If the New Americans broke uneasily (& somewhat too artificially) into their various clusters of NY School, Projectivism, Beat & SF renaissance – the latter is almost entirely a fiction – when there were only a hundred or so poets practicing in the Pound/Williams tradition in the 1950s, how many such tendencies are really just waiting to (a) get their act together and/or (b) be recognized as such? That problem of “shape” or differentiation is I think – I know I’ve said this before, I know I’ll say it again – the primary critical issue facing younger poets in 2003. The squabble among Canadian poets between those interested in the use of forms & those more interested in, say, a politicized version of the NY school is at the least a sign of life. I’m in favor of both sides of that debate. As I am heartened every time chris cheek complains that some version of post-avant history is too book & page oriented, even though I’m certain I must be part of that problem.

Another value I’d hadn’t anticipated from blogging is the simple verification effect of being able to register how many readers come to one’s site. Ten thousand visitors to this blog in just four months should answer any fear I might have that Ed Hirsch is correct in his assessment of my work, or even the idea that it’s simply an elite practice, too arcane for many.* Currently, this blog averages slightly over 130 readers per day. Yesterday saw 198 visitors to this blog, the most ever – that the average number of readers can continue to expand in the face of the explosion of poetry blogs makes me realize just how much we need to rethink the idea of the post-avant audience. It’s larger than we imagine.

But of greatest value to me are all the other blogs that are now focusing on poetry, poetics & closely related literary concerns. Not only are the numbers increasing, so is the diversity – aesthetically & otherwise. Below is the list of the literary blogs that I currently check at least once or twice per week. One thing I’ve definitely noted among these blogs is the presence of several people who might be characterized as either New York School, gen XXXVII or as post-NY School (there being different ways of looking at this), a tendency previously imagined by some folks as allergic to critical thinking. Guess again. This may be the most significant theoretical development that has come out of blogging to date & it will be interesting to see how it evolves.

The list below consists of 37 bloggers, maybe 28 of which are less than six months old. “The creation of new forms as additions to nature,” as William Carlos Williams wrote. There is a group blog, an audioblog & even a blog that denies its own blogitude.

Since “abortive” blogs are also a part of the phenomenon, I’ve only included sites that have updated since the beginning of this year with the notable exception of Camille Roy’s site, Ich Bin Ein Iraqi, which uses the blog form for a piece on the subject of her Iraqi childhood. It may be the first instance of serious blog literature – as distinct from literature merely published in a blog – & absolutely needs to be read.

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Cahiers de Cory (Josh Corey)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Chaxblog (Charles Alexander – the background color really does change as you read)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Eeksy Peeksy (Malcolm Davidson)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Elsewhere (Gary Sullivan)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Equanimity (Jordan Davis)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>for the Health of it (Tom Bell)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Free Space Comix (Brian Kim Stefans, one of the first bloggers)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>HG Poetics (Henry Gould)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Hypertext Kitchen (Blog of Eastgate, the hypertext software folks)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ich Bin Ein Iraqi (Camille Roy)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ineluctable Maps (Anastios ??)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>jill/txt (Jill Walker)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Jonathan Mayhew’s Blog (His list of the best sax players includes neither Steve Lacy nor Anthony Braxton?!)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Josh Blog (Josh Kortbein)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Laurable.Com (One of the first poetry blogs & one of the best – with a focus on recordings of readings)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Lester’s Flogspot (Patrick Herron’s sock puppet has an attitude)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>lime tree (K. Silem Mohammad)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Mike Snider’s Formal Blog (the only new formalist blog I’ve found)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Million Poems (Jordan Davis’ blog for his poetry)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Nether (Angela Rawlings)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Overlap (Drew Gardner)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pantaloons (Jack Kimball, currently trying to forget everything Joe Brainard ever remembered)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Pepy’s Diary (The Ur-blogger has risen from the grave – welcome to 1659/60)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Possum Pouch (Dale Smith, though he denies it’s a blog, has converted his web newsletter to…a blog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>process documents (Ryan Fitzpatrick’s long poem in progress)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ptarmigan (Alan de Niro)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>reading & writing (Joseph Duemer)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>rrrart (Judy MacDonald, a fiction writer)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>San Diego Poetry Guild (a group blog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>SpokenWORD (Komninos Zervos’ Australian audioblog)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Squish (Katherine Parrish)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>texturl (Brandon Barr)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Tijuana Bible of Poetics (Heriberto Yepez, who also has a poetry blog in Spanish)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Year of Living Musically (Joseph Zitt, poet, musician & webmaster of the long-running John Cage listserv, Silence)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Ululations (Nada Gordon)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Virgin Pepper (Jim Behrle – is there a sock puppet here?)
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Wine Poetics (Eileen Tabios)

My own blog would make 38 & I’m sure that I’m missing some. I’m finding that the ones I learn the most from are not necessarily those that may appear closest to my own aesthetics – in addition to Camille Roy, Jonathan Mayhew, Heriberto Yepez & Nada Gordon have all kept me awake at night, rethinking my assumptions about the world.

That’s the point, isn’t it?

* I’m a subscriber to the theory that the only people who find langpo “difficult” or “obscure” are a small set of people who have become developmentally challenged through graduate school.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen René Ricard read live. Although we’re the same age & have both been around the post-avant scene for three dozen years, we’ve mostly lived on opposite coasts. There was a time when I did see several of the Andy Warhol films with which Ricard was involved, but the only poet I can recall from them is an image of John Giorno sound asleep.

In addition to the geographic gap between us, we also have obviously had very different approaches to the scene. Where I’ve focused on the two or three things I do moderately well, Ricard has been something of a renaissance all to himself. In addition to his poetry and his work in film, he’s a painter, art critic and bon vivant of legendary stature. Michael Wincott, who played Ricard in the Julian Schnabel film Basquiat, refers on his website to Ricard as a “flamboyant art critic.” Ricard’s own website adds the occupation “historian” to that list.

One side effect of these varied activities is that Ricard actually hasn’t nearly as much as one might expect of a poet born in 1946. I believe I owned Ricard’s Dia Foundation book at one time, René Ricard 1979-1980, but couldn’t find it when I looked for it this morning. So when I saw his name attached to three poems at the end of Angel Hair 3 (in The Angel Hair Anthology), what I brought to them by way of background were some disparate facts –the Warhol filmography, that he was born Albert Napoleon Ricard, a middle name worth remembering – an impression of him as someone who shows up a lot in lists that have, say, Anne Waldman in them somewhere, and Wincott’s portrayal from Basquiat. Six factoids in search of an author.

Angel Hair 3 came out originally in 1967, when Ricard was just 21. He had already been around the scene at The Factory for a couple of years and been a part of the scene in Boston before that. The first of his poems is simply entitled “Oh”:

Oh yes the page is blank
At first; And now to confuse
The issue;
I take a long chic drag from my Gauloise
I’ve done it before. This could be a great poem
If I didn’t rather jerk off instead
Already I’ve begun three consecutive lines with
I; Something is meant by this
Perhaps I’ll jerk off eventually
What could be more essential
(Notice a lack of continuity)
Recurrent theme
Several stanzas and a modicum of internal rhyme
Measure Measure Measure My dear
Is not poetry without tit
les vox
Da Do you know how much poetry
How much good poetry was written in
Say the 50’s?
Lots I’ll bet
Down through the ages
We each pick our favorites

It would be easy enough to argue that this is a pretty slight poem, but it would be hard to argue the point any better than the poem does itself. In fact, reading it some 35 years after its initial publication, what struck me was how admirable “Oh” is as an act of writing. It’s very nearly a perfect example of how the “I do this/I do that” aspect of New York School writing is itself very much a process of thinking – the very point on which NYS and langpo come together as literary tendencies. &, not coincidentally – Ricard was originally associated as a poet with John Wieners – the point at which langpo & Projectivism come together as well. “Oh” is virtually all about manifesting this process & the competition between the poem & all other plausible endeavors, right up to the point when the text acknowledges the presence of “you.” At that moment, Ricard’s focus shifts to invoke a broader sense of history. All of which he accomplishes with absolutely the least amount of pretension imaginable: poetry is placed into a spectrum alongside taking a “chic drag” on a French cigarette & jerking off. Neither of which, it’s worth noting, are figured here pejoratively.

My favorite moment in the poem – actually, I have several – my first favorite moment is the acknowledgement that the instant pen is put to paper (or pixels to screen) the “unconfused” state of the poem-as-possibility is lost forever. The unwritten poem has a lot in common with virginity – things get messy in a hurry. Ricard’s sense of humor as he proceeds is exceptionally nuanced – we get the cigarette before the sex, for example. Another wonderful moment here is in the way Ricard distances himself from meaning – “Something is meant by this.” An entire critique of meaning is figured in that statement.

The poem’s first major shift occurs with “What could be more essential,” a rhetorical question that is then framed parenthetically as a flaw in the writing. From this point forward, the poem will stick to poetry as its focus, even through the second shift which occurs (no coincidence here) with the second question. The poem’s approach to its theoretical problem is so light-hearted & generous that it’s possible not to take the question of what happens to good poetry seriously, even though it’s a perfectly serious question.

You can see Ricard here as interested in the idea of artless art – a concept very close not only to the whole Warhol scene but also to conceptualism as well, which was just starting to enter the arts scene en masse.* The desire for an artless art is also quite evident in his other poems in the same issue. In this sense, Ricard is closer to the work, say, of Vito Acconci – who immediately precedes Ricard in Angel Hair – than, say, to Ron Padgett or Bill Berkson, even as the “I do this/I do that” aspect of the work makes Ricard a natural for a little magazine edited under the spell of Ted Berrigan.

Reading a journal such as Angel Hair 35 years after the fact in some ways is more meaningful than it ever could have been at the time it was originally published – we know now how all of these artists “will turn out,” who will be brilliant & who tragic. Ricard is someone who clearly chose to have an extremely diverse career, which like anything else has its advantages & drawbacks both. A poem such as “Oh” stands as a reminder that a “pretty slight poem,” written well, can still fully illuminate the whole world of poetry decades later.

* Indeed, conceptualism offers a logic through which Warhol’s cinema can be viewed as “attacking” the pop art of Warhol’s paintings.

Monday, December 09, 2002

The title piece of Jennifer Moxley’s extraordinary The Sense Record is an astonishing poem – astonishing because it dares to go where virtually no post-avant writing has gone in a generation. This is the first stanza:

Under the threat of another light downpour
Eros, soaked by the rain-water,
spoke to the sentient flowers.
Sadness, no longer extraneous,
began the derangement of nerve,
bypassed the bleeding heart
to pierce the blood-brain barrier.
This all en route to the two-car garage.
I was worn with the labor that augurs despair,
life in the futile percentile, when past
my squeamish eyelash, buffeted by scallops
of small will, the slightest fairy brushed.
My rubber soles conformed to the stones
as I followed and spied the backyard starlet
allongée on an orange blossom, delicate
beside the drinking bees, blithe amidst
sharp blades of grass, a rain-drop seductress
entertaining ants on the folding lip
of a pinkster leaf.

Sadness, despair, futile, squeamish, derangement, “the bleeding heart.” Yet Eros communing with the “sentient flowers,” it becomes apparent by the end of the next stanza, was the cheery part:

                                                From aloft
the insect mezzanine these patterns
portend the rot of hours, as one paperstrip
wilts atop the next. Little deaths
sufficient to wake the council of
discarded causes. Under the concrete cracks
the tenacious weed-roots rattle,
reassigned from lawn destruction
to ankle espionage, and in the grass
the poet whispers:

            “death death death death death

            between two hopes
in brittle mid-years, all is vanity”

Or later, from the second of the poem’s six sections:

I feel sick to think that she, that we
had, and have, but one pursuit
and one pursuit alone.

Or the opening of the final section:

Eros tell me why, without love,
without hate, listening
to the softly falling rain
upon the rooftops of the city,
my heart has so much pain.
What I write in truth today
tomorrow will be in error.
Yet the words keep coming,
mundane and repetitive
With no job “to be done”
nor doctrine to stand for.

Oh postmodern irony, where is thy wink? It’s not to be found anywhere in this poem’s eleven pages. Largely bracketed between two quotations from Verlaine, “The Sense Record” presents the grimmest view of contemporary alternatives we have had since perhaps William Bronk. I don’t normally think of Moxley in that context – she is so much more the stylist that one can slide easily into the elegance of her forms & almost luxuriate at that level alone.

That, I think, is why “death” is repeated five times in the most utterly artless moment in the entire book. Moxley doesn’t want to let us off the hook – one can almost imagine how another poet such as Ashbery would deflect the absolute directness of this address, bringing in everything from elderly aunts to whatever he’s rescued from the Disney back lot. For anyone with such access to style, the argument that the pleasure of the journey is life’s point might well be enough. For Moxley, clearly it’s not.

This is where the question of fashion gets interesting. In pure terms of traditional stylistics, Moxley is an absolute master – much more adept than, say, Geoffrey Hill’s hurdy-gurdy efforts. To make matters even more complicated, Moxley associates with – and publishes in the journals of – the newer generation of post-avant writing, which allegedly eschews direct address & seems to treat the absence of irony as one of the great sins of the poets of quietude.* Some of the other poets published by Rod Smith’s Edge Books include Anselm Berrigan, Kevin Davies, Tom Raworth, Aldon Nielson, Mark Wallace, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joan Retallack and Chris Stroffolino. So how is it that Moxley fits in here? Why isn’t she hailed as the salvation of traditional values in literature? And why is she accorded such great respect from poets who refuse to write an elegy without slipping in at least a triple-entendre somewhere?

I know a few folks who would argue that Moxley might be yet another item in a list of evidence suggesting that it’s not what you know in poetry that determines where a writer plays so much as who you know. But I don’t think that’s it at all. Rather, I think that the reason one doesn’t find her line up alongside the “anti-anti-coherency” contingent is that her work déjà toujours presumes the context of post-avant writing. That little barb out of Pound’s Cantos at the end of the poem’s first section is a tell-tale clue. The directness of her address & that loving attention to the nuances of syntax is a combination that makes its greatest sense situated midway between, say, Anselm Berrigan & Tom Raworth.

Just as John Berryman’s Dream Songs would make for dreadful language poetry, but whose excellence shines through when set against the backdrop of the Boston Brahmin variant of the school of quietude, Moxley’s poetry takes its razor’s edge from its social context. In one way, she is as out of place in her time & her crowd as Jack Spicer once was amidst the speech-based (& often enough linguistics-ignorant) poetics of the New American Poetry. It’s as if she has decided to be the bad conscience of post-avant writing, the one who reminds everybody else that “this is serious – you are doomed.”

Poets who take this kind of stance are often in for a certain amount of tsuris. Barrett Watten has had to contend with readers who, struck dumb it would seem by his demand for a serious reading, can’t begin to see where the marvelous sharp wit in his poetry lies. I know major post-avant writers who say point-blank that Spicer is somebody they just don’t get. And I know others who would argue that this is why William Bronk falls outside almost every major post-avant anthology, as though he were everybody’s designated blind spot (as he seems to be mine).

So Moxley has chosen not to take the easy road, but rather the most difficult one of all. And she does it with such great skill in places that it makes you want to cheer – until you remember that she means it. You are doomed.

* Thus when Jonathan Mayhew complains of my blog’s ”earnestness,” he’s absolutely serious & not at all out of step with a lot of contemporary post-avant writing. I plead guilty even as I note the difference between my critical writing & my poetry.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Daisy Fried writes to challenge my use of the term conservative to characterize members of the broad literary heritage that I’ve generally been calling the “school of quietude” here on the blog:


It's VERY nice of you to mention me on your BLOG as a person you like to read--you're somebody whose good opinion means a lot. And you're one of a number anti-coherent poets I read with pleasure. [Just trying out "anti-coherent" as a general semi-neologism for language poetry, Ashbery poetry and various offspring. Hmmm....]

Now, I assume by conservative you don't mean politically conservative--though I also realize you perhaps you don't separate politics and poetics much, but still--Dugan (my hero!) is a clearly a red, and Hass is or at least used to be left-liberal, as is Annie F., and Muldoon seems to be pretty left...etc...

So do you think it's automatically conservative to value closure, to be generally accessible in traditional (which is different from conservative) ways, or to not be particularly interested in the opaque signifier? Is it automatically liberal on the other hand, to do the kinds of processes/ practices/writings that are lately called experimental? From other remarks you made on the BLOG I think you would say no, so I'm just curious about your use of the word 'conservative'.

Lucien Freud and Alice Neel were painting bodies all during period when abstract expressionism was the last big innovation, and painting even the slightest bit representationally was a big no-no. But now the general consensus is that they were pretty damn good and innovative. And I don't think it's possible to call them conservative...[well, I don't know anything about Freud's politics; Neel was a member of the Communist part--but I mean their aesthetic is no longer thought to be conservative either, right?] Is there an analogy here?

Also, all this experimental poetry, or lang-po/post-lang-po (and you'll forgive me for throwing around terms in this inexact way) seems deeply academic to me. Which is no indication of its quality one way or the other, but most of the so-called experimentalists are middle-class kids who go to grad school and are taught by people of your generation, if not by you, how to be avant whatever, no? Just like the other middle-class kids who go to the other schools where other kinds of poetry are taught by various generations. Nothing against middle class kids who go to grad school (if I'd gone, and I almost did once, that would have described me too) but it sort of seems against the whole idea of being experimental or radical or anti-mainstream in ones work, to learn how to be those things from a university teacher, doesn't it?

All best,
your fan,

I want to respond to two points. One is my use of the term conservative, the other is the concept of anti-coherency, which Daisy concedes is a neologism she’s just trying on, but which is also an idea that I’ve heard enough times before to understand is a conception that might exist in the world.

I wouldn’t characterize what I call the post-avant traditions, even in their most extreme forms such as vizpo & sound poetry, as anti-coherency. If anything, I think that the very opposite is true, that they form a poetics of a greater coherency, precisely because it must be a coherency earned by & within the writing, not something easily assumed. Too often, bad writing within the school of quietude presumes that simply by positing a narrating persona, coherency will follow. That is precisely the same kind of presumption that lies behind the use of family or workplace as the contextual site for almost all television sitcoms, and to parallel result. If anything, poets of the easy coherency tendencies have it harder, because the idea that the work of the poem has already been done for them is so terribly seductive. Those who can write past this do indeed achieve something worth note. But my experience of most poetry of the easy coherency variety is very much like my experience of most television sitcoms – they’re unwatchable. I’d rather have a root canal than read 30 lines by 98 percent of the poets who simply think they’re coherent when they really aren’t. For me as a reader, the far greater problem is how to find that mysterious two percent who consistently do reward my effort.

It is not that bad poetry cannot be written in the post-avant mode – sign on to the Poetics List for awhile – but that almost all practitioners of post-avant writing have had to confront such questions of form, content, coherency, implication, context, responsibility and any other number of qualities of the poem from scratch. On average, they have had to work much harder and far more thoughtfully than their counterparts on the far side of the genre in almost anything they have written. & when they don’t do their homework, it shows immediately. There may be self-delusion, but there is no hiding allowed for post-avant poets.

I would cite the example of my own poetry as a demonstration of this – I was able to publish in such magazines as Poetry, Tri-Quarterly, Southern Review & Poetry Northwest within three years of starting to write poetry seriously. It was not because I was good, but because it was easy. It was much more difficult to appear in publications of the post-avant tendencies of that time, because such writing demanded so much more of me as a poet.

If I were to define poetry, it is that art of language that demands the most of me, both as a reader and as a writer.

And that seems the appropriate segue to Daisy’s core question:

So do you think it's automatically conservative to value closure, to be generally accessible in traditional (which is different from conservative) ways, or to not be particularly interested in the opaque signifier?

The question of accessibility is a potential problem here. What makes poetry of the schools of quietude “accessible” is only that they have been institutionally ingrained for a century (or, in some ways, far longer), mostly in high school & undergraduate curricula. Having given readings in such venues as streetcorners or the Maximum Security Library at Folsom State Prison, I don’t think there’s anything “inaccessible” about my poetry, even when the audience has had little in the way of formal education or the context of a rich literary heritage. If anything, it is educational malpractice that may make post-avant poetics sometimes seem difficult, not the poetry itself. There is a qualitative difference between asking the reader to use all of their senses to read and being deliberately obscure.

As to the question of tradition, my one response would be whose tradition? It is post-avant writing, I would argue, that more accurately represents the tradition not just of Pound & Williams, Stein & Zukofsky, Stevens & Crane, but also Whitman & Dickinson, Blake, Wordsworth & Coleridge. The schools of quietude represent exactly those counter tendencies within Anglo heritage with whom those poets invariably had to contend. And while there are some important writers who arose out of that other poetics, such as my distant in-law, Mr. Tennyson, I would happily put up my tradition against any other over time.

Ultimately, I use the term conservative as a literal description – not, for example, the way I would describe George W., who would have to move well to the left to become a conservative. I always pick Wendell Berry as my demonstration for what I mean, because in his work conservative & conservation are wedded seamlessly as values – and it is in this sense that he strikes me as a very great poet. Berry is quite conscious – and unapologetic – about his premodernist position and its anti-modern implications. What separates him from approximately 99 percent of his peers along the side of quietude is not only his talent, but also his self-understanding.

Different genres of art respond to changes in time & history in different ways. When Pound, Joyce & Stein were first demonstrating how a poetics might respond to the modern world prior to World War I, Bing Crosby had yet to discover the ways in which the microphone could be used to transform the public art of song. Poetry since that time has changed less than has popular music, in part because the latter, not unlike painting, is artificially accelerated through the influx of capital and the need to continually generate new markets. Lisa Jarnot, Jena Osman & Christian Bök are closer to Pound & Stein, for example, than Marshall Mathers is to Bing Crosby. But the idea of a poetry that characterizes as traditional the idea of writing as if Pound, Stein et al were still 100 years yet into the future cries out for examination. Such a poetics is understandable as a political position – the way Berry treats it – but not really on any other terms. If I try to analyze why poets would thus want to write conservatively, terms like denial and avoidance immediately come to mind.

If I continue my comparison with popular music a little further, I can of course find people who still sing, & even compose, opera. Michael Feinstein & Harry Connick, Jr. continue to perform as though Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis, Jr. will be sitting at the front table. Every major mode of rock that has come into existence still has some manifestation in the current culture. So forms continue, but as they do their meaning alters profoundly. One could argue, for example, that Eminem is a natural descendent of 1950’s doo-wop culture, given a heavy political twist. But a completely traditional doo-wop group would have a hard time getting a record deal from a major label. Doo-wop, it is worth noting, is historically parallel with Allen Ginsberg & Frank O’Hara – it comes after Robert Lowell.

If there is a counter argument to be made along the lines of my music analogy, it would be constructed around that tradition that used to be called folk music but that now more often goes under the heading of the “singer-songwriter” tradition, a creation not so much of Appalachia as of the Popular Front of the 1930s. Here also, as with Wendell Berry, the music is constructed around a complex of political ideas that are not accidental. I happen to like a number of these ideas*, frankly, which may explain why I do listen to folk music, along with avant-garde jazz, rock, world music & even occasionally opera. But I would note that the folk tradition has changed considerably over the decades and that the Kingston Trio-Limelighter 1950s is a far cry from the O Brother Wherefore Art Thou 2000s. Anybody who proposes to play acoustic Delta blues today is understood exactly as an historic re-enactor of a tradition, not an actual participant. That is exactly the position into which most “traditional” poetry falls, with the notable exception that blues literally began after World War I with the work of people like Charlie Patton. What we are really talking about in the case of poetry is more like Stephen Foster imitations presented as images of contemporary life. Just the sort of thing that Jeff Koons loves to make fun of.

So yes, I would call what you term “traditional” poetry conservative – that’s the positive term, when such poetry & its practitioners understand what they’re about. More of it I fear is simply pathological, which I find the much more disturbing aspect of the troubled school of quietude.

* The commitment to community & human scale in particular. Interestingly, I find these same values in contemporary post-avant jazz, such as in the Rova Saxophone Quartet or the work of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton et al, but not in commercialized smooth jazz.