Tuesday, October 07, 2003

I received a huffy email this morning from Michael Neff of Web Del Sol, accusing a number of us, mostly bloggers, of all manner of things, including "lack of nerve, peer fear, bad advice, psychotic break, diabetes, blog mouth, whatever, who the hell knows."

Our apparent crime was sabotaging the "poetry debate" ("post-avant" vs. "mainstream") proposed by Kent Johnson over at lime tree a few weeks back. Kent emailed a bunch of us to ask if we were interested in participating. I'd responded with some trepidation but basically said sure, why not.

That was the last I'd heard of it until Neff's venom landed in my inbox. A follow-up email from Neff declared the whole affair "a supreme waste of time" and a product of "bloggish, borish sniping."

Well. I like to think that in my brief blogging career I haven't been much of a sniper, and I can't think of many bloggers on Neff's email list who are either. But I don't appreciate it when people I don't know and have never had any interaction with start sending me emails basically accusing me of cowardice for no apparent reason.

For the record, I missed the whole Houlihan affair in transit--it happened while I was driving out here from California--and so really don't know what all the bad blood is about. I eventually did take a quick glance at the offending essay and was a bit surprised that there'd be so much rallying against an attack on Fence, which has been the subject of much withering critique from some experimental corners as well. The broader point--about the emergence of an avant-garde "establishment"--isn't such a bad one. Fence's slickness does make me queasy at times, even as much as I like the work that appears there.

Even Houlihan's dismantling of poems didn't strike me as all that surprising; the central point, that the individual words in each poem just "didn't matter" and could be exchanged with any other, has been made just as forcefully about "mainstream" writing by people from Marjorie Perloff to Ron Silliman. What "matters" depends on what framework you're using. Houlihan's takes on individual lines--

The word “muzzles” is an odd, perhaps inventive choice that may hit us later as the perfect one. For now, however, there's the troubling “that.” What is the referent for “that” if not the “axiom's inversion” from the preceding line? But how does the inversion of an axiom “muzzle”? At least the word “muzzle” is enjoyable, connoting a forced silence, a softened violence. In fact, all of the words are somewhat enjoyable: axle, evacuation, inversion, muzzle.

--wouldn't necessarily be out of place in a piece of pro-avant-garde criticism. Houlihan simply believes that a good poem should be obligated to offer up answers to these questions more readily than I do; these questions, for her, are dead ends rather than beginnings.

What I imagine really got people angry was that sense of the old wars being fought again, e.g. in Houlihan's last paragraph, comparing avant-garde writing to "the early stages of dementia." Okay. But even Fredric Jameson labeled the sensibility of Bob Perelman's "China" "schizophrenic," not to mention Jakobson and aphasia.

No, what's distinctive about Houlihan's position is that it's one of resentment--Harold Bloom likes to talk about the "School of Resentment," but here the dynamic is precisely inverted: it's the avant-garde that seems to be in ascendance, forcing its willfull anti-pleasures on the rest of us. It's that which gives the essay its bitter tone, that keeps Houlihan from arranging her close readings into productive rather than desctructive constellations.

And I guess that must be what's behind Neff's attack as well. Note how bloggers are made a particular target, with Neff trumpeting the virtues of his own "bust-ass-everyday" Web venture.

I guess this is exactly what I was afraid of: that this "debate" idea would degenerate into name-calling, power play, resentment, giving those identified with the "mainstream" a smug satisfaction in having opened their big tent to the rabble, giving some avanters a different stage on which to promenade.

Part of me wants to say that the very binary of the debate--mainstream vs. avant-garde--is the problem, that it just doesn't correspond to what things look like these days. But not because of what you might think--that we're all just getting along now, that the mainstream has opened its big heart and the avant-garde has settled down. It's that--and this seems to be what Houlihan is so steamed about--the avant-garde wing of contemporary poetry has gotten so big and influential that it's spawned its own institutions, its own "mainstream," if you will, which has little or nothing to do with the old "official verse culture" of the bad old days--as if my dream were still to publish in the New Yorker or Poetry. There are now multiple centers of gravity. But that does not mean they don't still have relations of power and conflict with each other. It's more that in the debate of mainstream vs. avant-garde there's really no prize for anyone to win; after it's over we'll just go back to doing what we've been doing--for better or worse, in some relative degree of comfort.

But of course the avant- wouldn't be very avant- if it weren't still pissing some people off.

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