Monday, April 25, 2005


Josh Corey and Ange Mlinko debate whether folks like Anne Winters and Jorie Graham are avant-garde or not. If the discussion ulitimately feels unsatisfying, it's not because both don't make reasonable points, but because the question of who is or is not avant-garde can't be determined on merely formal grounds, i.e. just by reading a text and classifying it one way or the other. Avant-garde is not just a style; it is always also a statement about a work's context of production: the manner in which it appears and circulates, the place it takes within the institutions of art, the extent to which it displays (and demands) a critical awareness of all these things.

That shouldn't be reduced to a crude statement like "Winters and Graham cannot be avant-garde because they are published by Chicago or teach at Harvard." But even if they're not determining, such institutional questions are relevant.

More importantly, the question of avant-garde can't be settled by looking at an individual writer in isolation; fundamental to the idea of avant-garde is, ultimately, the idea of group or movement, one that's hard to reconcile with (and is, perhaps, actively opposed to) the image of a canon in which Poet A jockeys against Poet B for membership in a lineage of heroic greats. Shedding such group allegiances remains one of the prerequistes for being taken seriously as a Great Poet by mainstream critics; but membership in such a community is what allows the avant-garde writer to generate an aesthetic that might differ from the dominant.

I think this is why Jorie Graham has become such a troubling case for those who ally themselves with avant-garde writing. By any measure, Graham is one of the most prominent and successful of American poets. But her style, her surface, is just unconventional enough that it is regarded as "experimental" or even "avant-garde" by many of her mainstream readers--so much so that Graham has occasionally become a punching bag for conservative writers who loathe Language writing and its ilk. The irony is that, while Graham is often praised by critics for her openness to a range of styles, she's never allied herself with any group of experimental writers, and certainly not with Language poets. I imagine that Graham often enrages avant-garde writers because she's often used as a token of stylistic eclecticism ("Oh, yes, we have 'experimental' poets; we have Jorie Graham") in a way that allows for the exclusion of anyone who's doing anything more radical.

That latter strategy is central to Gregory Orr's NYTBR review. But the odd thing is that the more one is an avowed fan of Graham, the more her formal traits seem beside the point: cf. Cal Bedient's Boston Review piece, which reads Graham more as philosopher than poet ("she is more than ever obsessed with the x everyone and everything fundamentally is (or fails to be)").

I perodically come back and try to read Graham, but she just does nothing for me. Orr says she's "ostentatiously thinky," which is nasty on a number of levels (prejudices against smart women and arch academics among them) but probably fundamentally right. Discursivity per se, which Josh is not a big fan of, isn't exactly the problem; it's more like an overdramatized self-consciousness, a sense of a poet trying to "look in" on the process of thought and then constantly reminding you that she's doing it: a trait I see in a funny cross-section of poets ranging from Frank Bidart to Leslie Scalapino. I'd distinguish that from a linguistic self-consciousness because the former is ultimately all about the ego turning in upon itself, while the latter hopefully works toward some awareness of the objective materials that make the ego what it is.


pam said...

Very interesting post. Your last comments about the distinction between the two approaches to the ego bring to my mind a few scattered thoughts...

The "ego turning in on itself"-- this jibes with my own sense of Graham's later work, a sense of collapse, of an analytic ego trying to call attention to its self-consciousness, yet not being quite aware that this very act of calling attention to itself often comes off (to this reader at least) as a clumsy mask, a contrived persona.

Scalapino's work I don't immediately identify as being concerned with the ego... it seems more concerned with how the event (and the experience of the event) turns in on itself. There's an element of collapse here that could be structurally analogous to Graham's ego-collapse (which actually amounts to a persona-inflation), but the reason I can read Scalapino's work but not Graham's is because Scalapino seems to operate from a stripped-down ego position within the event... practically a non-ego position.

With respect to your definition of the a-g as a contextualized group, which I agree with, I feel that the "ego" issue has a special valence. That some a-gers deconstruct and reconstruct linguistic forms to get deeper inside how the ego is built in the first place does ring true to me as a mission statement of an a-g group concerned with formal innovation. So there's an implied nobility in the ego-questioning aspects of the aesthetic project itself, as well as the counter-ego aspects of the collective group as a communal organizing principle. (Counter-ego, as in opposition to the capitalist egocentrism of a divide-and-conquer mentality, a compete-to-be-a-winner mentality.)

What I wonder about, in the a-g group context, is how much the individual ego gets replaced by the collective group ego, and how the influence of this collective group ego ripples back and forth between the collective entity and the individuals, and how this rippling back and forth might in some cases replicate (on the collective scale) the ego-collapsing-in-on-itself phenomenon that can be seen in some mainstream, non-group-affiliated writers.

Naturally, no movement is a utopia, and this is probably just a natural byproduct of any group dynamic. I just find it interesting to conceptualize these things in terms of the ego, and this topic reminds me of Silliman's periodic provocations of "brand identity," which I know annoys many people but which I do think accurately characterizes some aspects of our current a-g situation.

Anyway, thanks for the post, and thanks for letting me blather on like this in this space.

Tim said...

Well put, Pam. The idea of the individual ego being replaced by the group ego in an avant-garde movement--that's a provocative point, but perhaps an apt one. I imagine what it's often what Ron Silliman's detractors think he's doing: substituting some sort of groupthink for individual choice.

I think this group ego is a risk of turning to a purely social conception of the avant-garde: the group then gets defined in terms of insiders and outsiders, social connections, who knows whom, etc., and comes to seem terribly arbitrary. (It's what, I suppose, some people find uncomfortable about some New York School writers.)

Re Scalapino: I understand the distinction you're making, and I'll confess I have a much harder time articulating my discomfort with her work. It's true that Scalapino's writing doesn't prominently feature an "ego position," if we understand that as a first-person character within the text. But I do thinnk the gesture of framing thought--and the extreme dramatizing of that gesture--happens with such frequency and knowingness in her work that it does come to seem, to me at least, like a kind of ego interference. It often seems to be work that is constantly telling you what it's doing as it's doing it, but without the tension or irony that might make that interesting, as opposed to circular.