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.