Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Watch Out, Man, Don't Trip Over That Post-Avant!

by Allen Taylor, WORLD CLASS POETRY BLOG, July 3, 2008

I’ve been amused over the months reading Ron Silliman’s ideas on post-avant poetry and what he calls the School of Quietude. I’ve been a bit confused mostly, wondering what he meant by them for I had never heard anyone else talk about them. But since I’ve been in and out of the poetry world for the last 10 years, it is possible that I could have missed something. I didn’t, thankfully.

Since I could never get a real read from Silliman on just what these terms meant, I am thankful that I finally found a resource that has shed some light on the subject. Reginald Shepherd wrote a blog post in February of this year titled “Defining ‘Post-Avant-Garde’ Poetry”.

Shepherd had originally published his piece on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, where he is a regular contributor. I’ve noted some of his insights regarding the definition and character of the Post-Avant “school” of poetics and would like to offer my own thoughts.
His first bit of meaty insight comes in this rather long sentence that at least makes an effort to define post-avant poetics in some sense (he gets better):
“Post-avant” (as in, “post-avant-garde”—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries, particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically.
The bold parts of this sentence are the essence of what he’s getting at (minus the parenthetical clauses). I see three things here to highlight and draw attention to:
  • They’ve imbibed the lessons of the Modernists and successors
  • In the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poetics
  • Without pledging allegiance to a particular group or mode of artistic expression (my term: aesthetic)
Without getting into too much detail about the Modernists (I think you all know how I feel), I’d like to just point you to a link that covers, in broad brush strokes, how they ruined American poetry. Keep in mind, however, that the Modernists did have much to teach us and it wasn’t all bad, but it certainly wasn’t all good either.

Regarding the stream of American poetics classified as avant-garde, it’s rather broad. I’ve said before that I don’t like the avant-garde poets, but that’s a rather broad generalization that isn’t quite true. I do like some of them. But I tend not to like the purists. Particularly, I am averse to Gertrude Stein and her disciples as well as the Imagists and others like them. But it’s hard not to feel the influence of the avant-garde poets in contemporary poetics. It’s everywhere. With the exception of a few traditionalists and New Formalists, they’ve really have some influence on us all.

That last bullet point is the essence, I think, of what is meant by the post-avant movement - at least, as Shepherd defines it. Post avant poets do not feel the need to become a part of a group or subscribe to a particular poetic philosophy. They are much more interested in simply writing poetry using poetic devices that work for what they are trying to do.

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