Tuesday, May 03, 2005


A few more contributions over the past few days to the avant-grrr. Jasper Bernes agrees that we would have "a difficult time defining a-g writing as a function of the text itself." Josh posts an email exchange with Reginald Shepherd, who criticizes the avant-garde’s “reflexive dichotomizing,” which neglects “actual poems.” Chris Lott argues for beauty and clarity and declares “It’s OK to enjoy Ray *and* Rae.” Jordan says: “Climb down from art history before it gets dark.”

As I read Shepherd’s and Lott’s remarks (and glance into Ron Silliman’s comment boxes), I find that it never ceases to amaze me how angry Silliman can still make people. Why is that? What nerve is it that he’s touching? Is the playing field now so level for experimental writing that Silliman’s polemics aren’t needed? Will Silliman’s condemnation end Billy Collins’s career? Where do I go to leave comments on Billy Collins’s blog to tell him exactly what I think of him? Did I miss Ron Silliman’s election as Poet Laureate of the United States?

I’m particularly puzzled when Shepherd and Lott remark that all this discussion drives us away from “poetry itself” or “the text itself.” Anyone who reads Silliman’s blog knows that something like 80% of his posts are reviews and appreciations of various writers he finds important, accompanied by remarkably detailed close readings of individual poems—analyses of form, sound, and rhythm that would have to please even the most hardened formalist. In fact, today Silliman offers praise for the “austere approach” to art, in which the reader “has nothing to do but actually look, read, hear,” regardless of context. The difference is that for Silliman, this ultimately leads to work that is non-referential—“reference” itself being a kind of pointing away from the work.

I’ve also tried here to offer readings of a range of poets, from Nick Flynn to Lorine Niedecker to Lisa Jarnot. But those kinds of analyses don’t seem to draw the attention that’s paid to one unkind word about Billy Collins.

This is where Ange Mlinko is right: the binaries of text/context and form/content don’t line up cleanly either with each other or with the binary of avant-garde/mainstream. If part of the avant-garde critique is that most poetry is insufficiently aware of its context, the other part of it is that most poetry is insufficiently aware of its form—or, more precisely, of the contingency of its form, of the fact that no form is natural or set for all time. (Another binary that doesn’t line up is that of politics/poetry. Shepherd hauls out the old canard about the avant-garde trying to substitute poetry for actual politics; surely many poets are equally guilty of this, and if we follow Shepherd’s arguments there’s no reason to think that Marilyn Hacker’s poems will change the world anymore than Ron Silliman’s. And no one’s going to win if we play the game of who’s-more-politically-active-than-who.)

It’s “School of Quietude,” more than any of Silliman’s coinages, that gets folks the most riled up. I suspect one function of the label is to improve upon Charles Bernstein’s ‘80s designation of mainstream poetry as “official verse culture,” a formula that strikes some as too purely institutional. (After all, several Language writers hold Iowa MFAs, and several now occupy prominent academic positions.) Conversely, “School of Quietude” may strike some as a too purely aesthetic label (a “school,” a particular style, rather than an academy)—anything that looks or sounds a certain way. But I think the point of both terms, as I’ve tried to argue in my last few posts, is to pinpoint the ways institutions and styles are deeply linked to each other, rather than simply to say “Poet X is bad because he went to Iowa” or “Poet Y is bad because she writes first-person lyric.”

What’s perverse, to my mind, is that the avant-garde, which points out the divisions and exclusions within the poetic landscape, is now accused of creating those very divisions. It’s avant-gardists, Shepherd suggests, who “reflexively dichotomize” and retreat into cliques; Chris Lott posits “an either-or system of aesthetic exclusion” as a “defining characteristic” of the “post-avant crowd.”

What do Shepherd and Lott offer instead? “Beauty” and “clarity” (Lott) and the unfashionable ability to “enjoy” “actual poems” (Shepherd). Fair enough. But these aesthetic positions must recognize themselves as positions, not as the absence of any position or as some idea of pure critical neutrality that welcomes any “great” work, whatever its kind.

This is what Silliman was getting at, I think, when he charged Billy Collins with “intellectual dishonesty.” Collins presented his selection of “accessible” over “inaccessible” work for 180 More as merely pragmatic, appropriate for an “introductory” anthology—a choice that transcended aesthetics or politics. But it was of course an aesthetic choice, one that served to exclude a vast range of writers. Collins had the right, of course, to choose whatever writers he saw fit for whatever reasons he cared to give. He could simply have said that Rae Armantrout was a bad writer, or ignored her completely. But to present this choice as a non-choice—to insist that a whole spectrum of writers simply naturally had to be excluded from the anthology—that is, indeed, a kind of dishonesty, one made worse by the fact that Collins was obviously fully aware of the kinds of writers who would be excluded by his choices.

I’m not saying that Shepherd’s and Lott’s positions are anything like as bad the way I’m characterizing Collins. But I do think Collins shows an extreme version of what happens when you claim to transcend aesthetic divisions and dichotomies: you can end up obscuring your own aesthetic, even to yourself.

And just as importantly, you can obscure your own relationship to the structures of power that continue to influence the way we read, write, and publish poetry. While Collins, Shepherd, and Lott either reject avant-garde groupings or seek to transcend them, what’s interesting to me is the way they make their claims in a world indelibly marked by the avant-garde critique. Shepherd describes himself as being “published by a ‘mainstream’ press”; Lott places himself among those who “appreciate work that is ‘conventional’” and who “ride the fence.” The scare quotes are there, but aren’t these terms being used precisely the way they might be used by Silliman or any of his avant-colleagues? Does Shepherd’s ironic characterization of himself as “mainstream” keep him from repeating the same arguments that “mainstream” has used over the past three decades to dismiss avant-garde writing? It’s taken the avant-garde to make the “mainstream” visible to itself; talk of transcendence sounds to me a lot like that mainstream trying to forget, to incorporate a few pleasant flourishes from the avant-garde and then to get past the whole business. Too late: it’s obvious we’re all post-avant.


Laura Carter said...

Good point: "obscuring your own aesthetic, even to yourself." That's a tough one.

Henry Gould said...

I think the position of Lott & Sherherd is not one which denies its own "positionality", nor does it pretend that "post-avant" poetries & poetics do not exist, or are not important.

Their argument (as I understand it) is : the post-avant community explains & justifies itself with a discourse so steeped in ideology & politics - "context", if you will - that it loses sight of aesthetic qualities and distinctions.

One can find scores of examples which either support or deny this assertion. The field is too large for easy generalizations. But it does seem to me that a binary/conflictual/dialectic interpretation of literature - precisely because it sees itself as "embattled" - will tend to surround itself with a wall of self-justifications. The text can always be justified by the context, and vice versa; the poem can be received politically, as primarily a political construct. (Josh Corey, for one, makes no bones about this - he approaches texts as examples of social phenomena interpreted within a larger social theory. This is fine - if you accept the theory.)

I agree with Shepherd : the honest way of criticism is to approach the work on its own terms, as a work of art. Our socio-political-philosophical interpretations are a second, distinct step, and should be acknowledged as our own - not as phenomena emanating in some mysterious communal way from the poet, the poem or the milieu.

A.R.B. said...


Entertaining debate, no doubt, Tim.

However, I’d like to note—and I think I may have mentioned it to Josh Corey—that part of the disappointment with Silliman’s position is its demonstration that once in “power” all “movements” act exactly alike. This may be quite educational actually. That is, the serpent of poetics apparently bites its own tail once it has grown enough to close the circle. While it might have once been argued—erroneously I think—that the avant-garde sought alternative modes of expression, what it has in fact shown as a “movement” (and aren’t labeling generalizations abhorrent) is the same inflexibility as any other movement. It has, in fact, not sought alternatives, but presented the same binary approach to poetics as any other school.

I use “power” in this context to describe weight of opinion and herding capacity. Ron, for instance, has both. Few people write today as freshly and as intelligently as he does. His discourse is good and many listen to it, as they should. And therein lies my disappointment. Despite such freshness and intelligence he now engages in the same, old mine is bigger than yours argument. His dismissal of entire groups of poets—his arrangements into little brackets and slots—is the same as Collins’s unfair anthological categorizations. That maybe fair enough as a reaction, but realistically it is beginning to offer little as an alternative way of thinking about poetry. I’m not qualified to reach conclusions here but beyond my disappointment the debate has at least forced a speaking of the minds that is quite educating, at least as far as political science is concerned.

In the poetry context, of course, this is nothing new. Where the debate seems deficient is in its failure to acknowledge individual differences within movements—its mixtures and cross-currents—and the choiceless aspect of the creative condition. The debate may best be headed in that direction; what choices, technical ones, can the artist make vis-à-vis inspiration. Does the artist create the movement or does time and historical consequence define it? Only few, obviously, are born sufficiently out of tune to make the necessary noise.


Tim said...

Henry and Alberto:

I could easily agree with much of what you're both saying, if I agreed that the purpose or function of the current debate (or, for that matter, of discussion of the avant-garde in general) was to suppress difference, dull our appreciation for individual poets and poems, and replace aesthetics with politics. I don't think--I hope I'm not--doing any of those things in advancing my arguments.

The idea of approaching an individual poem purely "on its own terms" can be a useful fiction, but I simply don't think it is possible for each poem to demand an entirely new set of rules for itself; indeed, these would not really be rules at all, and we wouldn't have any way of comparing one poem to another, or even of saying what a poem is.

Henry, you're right: socio-political interpretations should not be presented as "emanating" in some "mysterious way" from the poem itself or its context. But aesthetic intepretations don't emanate that way either. We do rely on certain generalizations in determining whether something is a poem or not (meter and rhyme, lineation, a certain intensity of language, etc.), and we rely on somewhat more nebulous generalizations (often in part shaped by what we've read before) in judging whether we think a work is good or not. Taste--as both Jonathan and Kasey have usefully noted--can't be seen purely as an individual phenomenon; which is not to say that it is purely a social one either. But it is conditioned in certain ways.

Alberto, I simply can't agree that Collins's and Silliman's power is "just the same," any more than my blog is the equivalent of the New York Times Book Review. Yes, the grouping of poets in which Silliman participates has achieved a great deal more power than it had thirty-some years ago (when it had none), but even a glance at the little poetry discourse that goes on in major journals and publications shows that poets who have even more power continue to feel they need to fight a rear-guard action against Silliman and his ilk. I don't engage in this debate just because I find it entertaining (it's usually not), but because I find it necessary in arguing for the value of the work I care about.

As to "inspiration," the "choiceless" aspect of creativity, the natural-born artist: as a poet and critic I'm suspicious of the explanatory power of such ideas, in part because I don't find they've done me much good in understanding what I do when I write, or in understanding what is going on in the writing of others. As a reader, I find such categories place me in a passive position, able only to appreciate a work's genius, without being able to say anything critical or to understand how a work is made.

Tim said...

Actually, what Laura pointed out in my post may be the most important thing: these discussions are a way of clarifying my own aesthetic, to myself as well as to others.

Henry Gould said...

These are some good points, Tim. But they lead me to ask : what, then, exactly, IS taste? If it's not subject to choice, then it's not subject to rational or ideological commitments. It's something wilder, something sui generis : something like art, that is. Which is why criticism finds that it has a proper & distinct turf of inquiry, legitimately distinct from other forms of inquiry (though subject to logic, just like the rest).

A.R.B. said...

I must respectfully disagree with you, Tim. Please don’t dismiss me so gracefully. Silliman’s power and Collins’s “power” is exactly the same. You make the assumption of perceiving “power” as a numbers game, either economic or statistic. Otherwise I cannot understand you. In poetry—in poetics today—it is not so. I would venture to say that Ron is, in fact, more powerful than Collins. Think of the absurdity. The power that matters is like that. Don’t think in numbers or notoriety. I’m a Spaniard and consider what I think of Ron. How many people here do you think know who Collins is?—poetically—not politically.

Artists, Tim, are natural born. People think that artists can be created, raised in farms or schools. Not so. Imitations of artists may be so, but not artists. Your desire to enable yourself to take apart a work, to analyze it or strip it down to essentials, doesn’t foreclose its mystic, unexplainable value. That is duende. You can’t teach it and you can’t learn it. That’s what makes a Whitman a Whitman, an O’Hara an O’Hara. The ability to dissect art does not make it greater or better. One genuine feeling elicited from a poem is worth a thousand dissertations. But, of course, one thing does not cancel the other: No mutual exclusivity here. And I repeat, loudly, Lorca would not tell you about it. He would make you feel it. That’s poetry. Analyses on that dead heart best be left for the morgue.


Tim said...

Alberto: It's interesting to know that there may be spheres (including some international ones, apparently) in which Silliman is tremendously influential and someone like Collins is unknown. I've noted before that this is true for a lot of younger poets I know--poets who have little interest in or use for established literary organs and for whom something like Silliman's blog is their only major encounter with criticism.

I suppose it's simply hard for me to live in such a world. Perhaps that's because I first encountered work like Silliman's in a somewhat fugitive manner--as something clearly not accepted in the discourses that surrounded me--and although that's certainly changed, I don't know that such change has been complete. But that's simply my read of the poetry scene, at least in the U.S.; obviously others see things differently.

If we leave what you call the question of "numbers" aside, then I suppose the real argument you're making is that Silliman and Collins wield their power in precisely the same way: by making arbitrary divisions among poets, including some and dismissing others in rigid fashion. That they are simply mirror images of each other.

I don't feel that's the case; but again, that could simply be because I feel Silliman is right far more often than Collins is. What I do admire about the way Silliman goes about things--and this has been said both by those who agree with him and those who loathe his positions--is that he has no fear of laying his own aesthetic, his own ideological framework, his own prejudices out on the table, and showing us how they shape his reading. I'd argue that this is a much more honest and productive way of conducting criticism than simply cataloging one's likes and dislikes, or asserting that some works are just self-evidently great and that others are lacking.

Is the alternative to the natural-born artist the farm-raised specimen? I don't feel it's that stark.

And obviously, I feel that reading poetry, and thinking about it, and talking about it, and indeed analyzing it and trying to figure out how it works deepens rather than cheapens our response to it. I don't see why poetry and poetics have to be mutually exclusive. Criticism, as Henry says, is an art too. Otherwise there would be little point to this blog, or to my getting up in front of a room full of students and trying to show them what is compelling in a work by Whitman or O'Hara.

john said...


If you want an account of how poems can be seen as self-constituting, how they can demand rules for reading themselves, take a look at Stanley Cavell's "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy," in Must We Mean What We Say. The essay's also a useful corrective to conventionalistic readings of Wittgenstein (I'll leave finger-pointing as an exercise to the reader, and shut up now.)

All best,

ideaist.wordpress.com said...

Pathological--the need to feel you are at war with something--hence the windmills and the assertion of proprietary claims on particular writing styles and manoeuvres in frivolous cosmetic squabbles-- exhibitions of intellectual gymnastics. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, human rights? More pressing issues for poets to sound, surely; or maybe not.

Chris L said...

Tim-- you could call me "Chris." Calling me "Lott" really weirds me out-- I think my old gym teacher has come to life and is yelling at me across an echoing gym.

I haven't read much of Silliman in the last few months... I typically read his comment boxes and avoid his posts. Thus I'm not completely sure why I'm being put in juxtaposition with him instead of those whose readings I have not been able to understand (or, more rarely, disagreed with), such as Josh Corey.

At any rate, my argument is far, far simpler than you seem to think. And it doesn't mean much of what you think either (though I appreciate that you invested so much time making my scratches seem much grander than they are). I don't deny "groupings" and "schools" and what-have-you exist on all sides. Myself included.

But I do deny/disown a few things.

First, I would rather work on my own kind of productive poetics of reading and discussing what moves me rather than take the Silliman approach of trying to create a revisionist history that coincidentally excludes everything he personally doesn't like.

I also recognize that, as much as we might invest in it (ourselves and our groups), this is ultimately about a personal exercise... I deny an objective, universal import to our taste. That doesn't make it any less IMPORTANT.

I draw attention more often to this kind of poetics of divisiveness more often than the same kind of exclusion that goes on with the OVC/Quietude crowd for two reasons: first, the exclusion from the SOQ side is endemic and generalized, with fewer features to point to in a simple way. More importantly, poetry blogland is far and away a land of people who consider themselves to be not just post-avant and progressive, but who continually draw attention to their exclusionary tendencies. It is the tenor of this medium and poetry, something I've wondered about on my blog before.

I suspect that you've only read my last few posts, else my position would be much clearer (one can hope-- but I don't blame you, I can barely bring myself to read my own writing)-- I do indeed use terms that arise out of the conflict between schools! I also recognize, in many places, how valuable this kind of conflict has actually been to me as a reader. I have learned more in 18 months from the generosity of people like Joshua Corey, Jonathan Mayhew, and Kasey Mohammed (to name just a very few) than I could have learned in years on my own... and learned what I would never have learned from my traditionalist friends and compatriots in real life.

In the end, though, I end up feeling the same (and this question was prompted by Joshua, not Ron Silliman): why *can't* I like Ray and Rae? Why is it that doing so is inevitably seen as a lack of rigor on my part (or a lack of authenticity) rather than just an attention to the poetry itself and the way those particular writers, in their own way, interact and inhabit the very complex and unpredictable bundle of associations and emotions that make me up as an individual? Isn't that enough? It seems preposterous, when you think about it, that as readers we agree even as often as we do!

Tim said...


I'm completely sympathetic to the last name thing. You can imagine how having "Hey, Yu!" shouted at you across a playing field could do that.

You're right, of course: there's no reason you can't like Ray and Rae, and there's no reason to apologize for doing so. What worries me, sometimes, is the conclusions that some draw from that simple fact.

I guess I sometimes have trouble understanding the idea of "fence-sitting" in this debate. (Perhaps it's just that Fence has given this position such concrete expression that I even think about it.) The fence-sitter, it seems, is someone who actually accepts the division of contemporary poetry into "mainstream" and "avant-garde" camps (else the metaphor of the fence would have little meaning), which means that at least in part accepting the avant-garde position that there even is a "mainstream," with its control over the major institutions of poetry, in the first place. Sitting on the fence (I presume) would mean taking a position of neutrality in this divided landscape; or perhaps more accurately taking "the best of both worlds"--identifying those poets in each realm who are worth reading.

But such a fence-sitting position also presumes that both sides are equal--that each is merely a collection of styles from which one can choose at will. The point of the avant-garde critique, though, is that the playing field is not level: the mainstream, with its monopoly over universalizing aesthetic categories (the beautiful, the moving, the clear), doesn't recognize itself as a "school" with a particular aesthetic, while the avant-garde acknowledges its own particularity. A true fence-sitter, in order to sit on the boundary between mainstream and avant-garde, would have to acknowledge this disparity and always contextualize his or her reading of any work.

That true fence-sitting position, to my mind, is an extremely tricky balancing act, and I wonder if it would even be worth doing. It would frankly make more sense to me to reject the whole discussion and articulate a different aesthetic position in which Ray and Rae made sense next to each other. Because if I just say I like Ray and Rae because they are both good, despite coming from opposing "schools," then I'm really not acknowledging the avant-garde position; I'm absorbing Rae into a slightly widened version of "mainstream," universalizing discourse.

Chris, I think I'm echoing some of what you said in your comment: you are seeking a productive, positive aesthetics, and you do often use the mainstream/avant-garde conflict as a source of your terms of critique. But I guess what I meant when I somewhat flippantly said "we are all post-avant" was to say that if we accept the terminology of the avant-garde critique, we can't then just go back to a model in which individual poets exist in a vacuum. Yes, we do ultimately have to grapple with each poet's particular style; but that can't be a way of not also grappling with the place that poet occupies in the mainstream/avant-garde landscape.

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Meg said...

I think it is interesting that the conflagration has turned into the war.

The actual battle it seems was more about the naughty comments rather than the actual SoQ/LANGUAGE rhetorical conundrum/dichotomy.

Isn't that interesting~

and hence, yes, obscured to 'themselves' whoever themselves might be on either side of the more than one gunman theory.