Monday, October 24, 2005

Some more on SOQ and Post Avant

The post below by Marcus (postpran) on 10/21 about The "School of Quietude" and the "Post Avant" sent me thinking. This is partly a comment on Marcus's highly interesting post, partly some random notions that may be related.

Three poets who were writing in English around the same time as Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, etc., and who are not usually grouped with the Romantics (by people who concern themselves with such groupings) are Walter Scott, Walter Savage Landor, and George Crabbe. Thomas Hood is another. (This is in response to a specific question Marcus posed.)

The Romantics (Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, etc.) were not necessarily the first in the history of innovative poetics. Certainly not the first in the world (consider, for instance, the Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty, or the first Japanese tanka poets. The poetries of India, Persia, the Arabic world, have seen wave after wave of experiment and innovation for centuries, to name a few.

In English, an early innovator was Chaucer. He wrote, in English, at a time when the aristocracy of England spoke French. To write in one's own language, the language of everyday life (rather than the language of the aristocracy) -- this perhaps has relevance to the passionate work of some of the poets of today whose work might be described as avant-garde or post-avant?

Another innovator in English, later than Chaucer, earlier than the Romantics, was Shakespeare. Chaucer and Shakespeare, obviously, lived and worked among the many other poets and writers of their times, and in the world at large. They did not live or work in isolation; they were not the only ones.

The avant garde does not always "narrow the distance between life and art." Some poets usually described as avant-garde (at least during their time) created work that, in its effects, resulted in creating greater distance between art and life. Ezra P0und, for example. Even Pound's best work (and I admit here I'm not much of a fan of his poetry or other writing) -- the "translations" in Cathay, for instance -- seems to me to have a nostalgic stand-offish quality, as though one were looking at a highly mannered drama frozen in time in a painting on a wall at the far end of a large room.

I don't really agree that there is such a thing as the School of Quietude, or that there is such a thing as the Post Avant. Labels can be useful at times; it's nice to know whether a can contains peaches or green beans. I don't object to all labels as such. I disagree with the particular labels School of Quietude and Post Avant. I don't think that these labels describe things that actually exist.

The way I've seen "School of Quietude" used, I gather that it usually refers to poets who write in (mostly) standard grammatical sentences, using more or less standard syntax, usage, punctuation, and so on. I gather that some writers and critics feel that these practices tend to result in writing that evokes a mood or sensation or perception of quiet, a calm or meditative mood or state of mind. Something like that.

The way I've seen "Post Avant" used, it seems usually to refer to poets who attempt to disrupt standard grammatical sentence structure and syntax, using words without regard for (or in deliberate or ironic defiance of) standard usage or standard spectrums of usage. Poetry in which the communicational function of language breaks down, frequently to the point where the poem no longer appears to be written in a currently existing language. (I think of Marx's phrase "the anarchy of capitalist production.")

Each of the above describes a very narrow aesthetic range. I have questions about how much use either of the terms is, as any kind of category or description of actually existing poetry in the world. I agree with Marcus in his skepticism about this.

I was fascinated with Marcus's comparison with Republicans and Democrats. I'm not sure if I agree about which is which.

If we say, for the sake of discussion, that the above categories do exist, then to my thinking the majority of the poetry of the "post avant" definitely reminds me of Republicans. I'm not sure who the "school of quietude" reminds me of -- maybe John Kerry. I work in the billing department of a large corporation. A typical poem by a "language" poet (possibly one of the branches of the post avant tree) resembles, to me, the pages full of fractured disjointed data I look at on the computer screen all day long. Or, maybe, a speech by Bush.

A typical MFA program poem (maybe a branch of the school of quietude) reminds me of an office memo. Or, maybe, one of those corporate "mission statements" one finds at the front of an employee handbook.

There are many poets whose work has been important and useful to me for a long time, which speaks to me about the world I live in, and leads me to ways to speak about the world and myself in my own poems. Ultimately, the best way I know of to say what I think about poetry, about writing poetry, is to name some of the poets whose poems have reached me the most deeply and passionately.

Some of them are:

Thomas McGrath, Sharon Doubiago, Federico Garcia Lorca, Tomas Transtromer, Kenneth Rexroth, Etheridge Knight, Joy Harjo, Yosano Akiko, Tu Fu (or Du Fu), Sappho, Paul Eluard, Nancy Morejon, Dafydd ap Gwylym, Rene Depestre, Audre Lorde, Robert Bly, Anuradha Mahapatra, Ruben Medina, Anya Achtenberg, Zoe Anglesey, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Miroslav Holub, Anna Swir, Sesshu Foster, Janice Mirikitani, Adrienne Rich, Agostinho Neto, Margaret Atwood, Nazim Hikmet, Ibn Hazm, Pat Lowther, Adrian Mitchell, Andrew Salkey...

Not many of them are in either the Rothenberg or Norton anthologies.


Rae Pater said...

I was wondering what 'post avant' was and how it was possible to be post avant since the terms seem mutually exclusive.
I also thought that there were many other innovators before the romantic poets, Shakespeare and Chaucer being notable examples.

Eliot said 'what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.' Everything that is written changes the way we read everything that was written before. Hugh Kenner, in his book The Pound Era says that movements in art and literature arise when there is a significant change in civilization, society, and societal attitudes, caused by developments in science technology etc. Since we live in an era when there is constant rapid change in many areas art and literature has almost reached a state of fluidity where it is constantly morphing.
I think it will be very interesting to see how this time period looks in fifty years or so when we are looking back at it.

Thanks for posting this Lyle. It was very interesting.


postpran said...


You make some excellent points here. Especially about Chaucer and Shakespeare as innovators.

I suppose what I sort-of meant in terms of the Romantics was a connection between art and radical politics. So art and life is perhaps better described as art and politics. Certainly the Romantics and the various Modernist movements have a radical politics (for good or ill).

So perhaps innovation is about the art form and avant is about the art as a social practice?

I do like the idea of naming poets who move you rather than sticking to labels. Your list is certainly very interesting.

However, I do think the MFA world narrows down possibilities (in most cases) and pretends to be open to all poetries.

So, post-avant (coming after the historical avant garde) may limit or shut out potential readers because of prior assumptions and ditto SOQ. But the limiting seems more on the end of the mainstream and college publishing houses as well as the teaching of poetry. The poetry in a textbook of contemporary poetry (take your choice) proclaims a kind of inclusivity (usually via some attempt of multiculturalism etc.) but the range is very narrow and is not labeled. An attempt at universal human values? Difference on a surface level?

My favourite Rothenberg anthology is Technicians of the Sacred (which contains poetry not available anywhere else).

Anyway, thanks for the response Lyle. Got me thinking (still thinking!)

postpran said...

I think a concrete example might help. In terms of range and possibilities check out:

This literary journal is my idea of innovative poetics. Beyond easy labels, but certainly not "mainstream" in any sense. Not a mix of everything, but carefully contextualized (much like Jacket magazine).

Rae Pater said...


what is the historical avant garde you mention?
Surely avant garde refers to those who write in a style which is ahead of their time, whenever their time is?
I've never heard of its being assigned to any one historical period, but rather, to all historical periods.

Sheila Murphy said...

For further awareness of post-avant, check the following:

there are multiple sources, but it's important to know that post-avant really encompasses visual poetry and textual work and a broad range of multimedia works

Sheila Murphy said...

For further awareness of post-avant, check the following:

there are multiple sources, but it's important to know that post-avant really encompasses visual poetry and textual work and a broad range of multimedia works

Sheila Murphy said...

One other comment. I, too, value your absorption in and commitment to honoring individual poets who make a difference in your view. The over-indulgence in movement-speak amounts to a kind of shorthand dismissal of what people are seeking to do.

Some people who are associated with post avant ideas, in addition to some writers spoken of as "School of Quietude" have huge contributions they are making. To try to walk the minefield of write-offs seems to me to discourage one of the most vital parts of art: creating a stultifying atmosphere that keeps many people from uttering a peep!

Lyle Daggett said...

Thanks all for your comments.

AnnMarie Eldon said...

Lyle, I can't find where you put your comment on the Chaucerian poems on my blog... I was raised on Chaucer at about age 12ish. For those fortunate enough to have had that they too will know about the structure within Chaucer. Others may at minimum know how he took the basic blood and guts of life and made poetry which today sounds so modern.
With my pieces I went in reverse-ish. Realising that there was perhaps only one way to 'grab' the roohaha around the Bush administration - I took the actual transcripts from the ballot box trials AND the transcripts of the televised pre-election debates as my raw material and then painstakingly edited them down down down and then put them through a text generator to ensure NO internal structure that could be readily analysed.
The result I hope was something modern ending up sounding something Middle English but with enough identifiable 'tags' to establish them as pieces about war/Vietnam/troops/budgets bla bla bla.
This media stuff is after all More Tales We Tell Ourselves.
Will duplicate these comments up above on my post and then try and find your comments again.

jenni said...

There are only two kinds of poems for me--poems I like and poems I dislike. And those categories are very unstable. Poems I like can eventually fall into poems i don't like. Poems i don't like, i may like after 50 reads or a few years.

Anyways, you make very good points. I always enjoy reading your poetics.