Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A note that appeared in my comments stream the other day gave me pause. Responding to my look at the work of Cole Swensen through the frame of conceptualism – and vice versa – Michael Theune wrote:

I'm a bit surprised this post hasn't gotten more attention than it has. It seems to me as though this post is monumental in terms of Ron's thought. For, if nothing else, it signals a willingness to critique the Quietist / Post-Avant binary. Now it's (at least) a ternary relationship: Quietist / Post-Avant / Conceptual. Such repositioning puts the Post-Avant in a new light, revealing it to be more traditional (Quietistic?) than it used to seem when it was the privileged term in the old binary.

An insightful, discriminating, and (potentially) radical post, Ron - thank you for it.

Michael’s interpretation is not quite accurate. I would characterize conceptual poetics as just one mode of post-avant, which I see as a much broader, more inclusive category. I would add – just for starters – flarf, slow poetics, language, vispo, the new narrative, the jazz poetics of Umbra, all the generations of the New York School, ditto the multiple versions of Beat poetics, the new minimalism (Joseph Massey, Graham Foust, etc.), the Canadian sound/performance poetics of the 1980s, Actualism, the women's writing movement that grew up around Judy Grahn & other separatists of the 1970s as well as the women's writing movement that grew up around the journal HOW(ever) plus any lingering manifestations of Black Mountain and New Western / Zen Cowboy poetics as other discernible types of post-avant poetics. Plus any poet who is working from any combination of these influences. It’s a broad swath and not all of these poetries sit comfortably side by side. Post-avant poetics involves literally thousands of American writers. It would be very easy for me to do nothing but focus on just this portion of English-language poetry in my blog, as tho nothing else existed. But that’s the fundamental move Quietism makes that I would challenge, so I don’t.

The avant became the post-avant the minute poets began to think of themselves as part of a broader avant-garde tradition, given that avant-gardism is a fundamentally synchronic move within the arts and tradition is fundamentally diachronic, rendering “avant-garde tradition” an oxymoron of practice. You can see it as early as the 1930s with the deep ambivalence that many of the Objectivists had to Zukofsky’s shoe-horning what might otherwise have been thought of as leftwing post-imagism into his frame. With the arrival of the New American poetries in the 1950s (and with it the common usage of the phrase “the Pound-Williams tradition”), the shift from avant to post-avant was complete. When the Allen anthology clusters together different poetics within the range of the New American poetries (never mind how fanciful some of those divisions may have been), the dynamics of the post-avant were already pretty much in place. (Think, for example, just how hostile some of the younger New York School and projectivist poets seemed in the 1960s toward one another. Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar was born of a desire to open up a space within that dynamics, where the work of post-avants outside of the New York school, but still in & around Manhattan – himself, Robert Kelly, David Antin, Diane Wakoski, Jerry Rothenberg – could flourish.)

The School of Quietude, as I’ve noted before, is simply a placeholder for that other poetry tradition which tries so very hard to be the unmarked case. I won’t call it Mainstream, because it is not. I don’t think it qualifies as Official Verse Culture either, although that often is how it seems to present itself. In the past couple of decades only the New Formalists have had the courage and wit to stand up for their work within that frame, but in fact I would argue at Quietism is no less rich with subcategories and differentiations (and contradictions) than post-avant poetics, but it remains foggy precisely because it refuses to name itself. That refusal is a power move – nothing more, nothing less. (You might say that my naming it is likewise, and you would be right.) From the perspective of its poetics, I think the denial of self-identification is a mistake. I think the School of Q would be infinitely richer, more robust & more rigorous if its different clusters would begin to discuss what they were doing and why. Why are the new formalists not like soft surrealism? And what is it about surrealism that permits softness to uproot it from its avant-garde heritage? Scoping out the territory of this fundamentally anti-modernist poetics that I call Quietude really represents a huge opportunity.

I’ve called the term Quietude a placeholder because I think that, as an outsider (mostly), I can’t really do that work, plus it’s ultimately not my responsibility. I’ve hoped that the term I’ve chosen would prove just irksome enough to goad a young Donald Hall or Louise Glück to take up the challenge and to begin to fill out the map and provide a better name.

Not only could such a poet-critic map this space, they could answer some important questions, such as why become the poetry without a name? Why is it so important not to acknowledge the existence of other kinds of poetry? Or why do so many Quietists trace their roots back to various avants of decades past (the appropriation of Whitman & Dickinson being the most obvious), rather than to “mainstream” poetics from those same periods? Why is Frost the first Quietist they tend to acknowledge? Why is there so little attention paid to their own heritage that relatively major Quietists (Roethke, Jarrell, Berryman, James Dickey) become footnotes at best the instant they die? Or explain the patent jingoism that permits only poets of color to deviate from normative quietist writing strategies?

There are enough critical challenges defining (let alone defending) the pathologies of Quietism for a dozen careers.

But Michael Theune is right: there are poetries that lie outside both of these frameworks. Slam poetics and the American haiku movement, to pick just two, tho there are some folks in both of these worlds who may have one foot likewise in post-avant poetics, a kind of hybridism that American Hybrid seems not to anticipate.

Hybrid poetics, or third-way poetics (a term Theune seems to prefer), or Ellipticism (Stephen Burt’s category, the earliest to identify the new hybrid tendency) represents an attempt to bring together aspects of the Quietist tradition with aspects of post-avant poetics. This is an impulse I would trace back at least to Marianne Moore. Hybrid poetics strikes me as interesting and hopeful, though flawed in its logic. It seeks to transcend this larger binary, which I think is impossible so long as at least one of the traditions pretends it doesn’t exist. Or, rather, pretends that it is everything and that all the other kinds of poetries, the hyphenated kind, are just weird little outcroppings.

Rather than being the best-of-all-worlds, hybrid poetics inevitably must become a thing in (and for) itself & one might read newer hybridists, such as Donna Stonecipher, as instances of this. Where it eventually will sit vis-à-vis the two older, broader traditions is, ultimately, up for grabs. But I tend to think of it in gravitational terms – I think it’s destined to fall into the orbit of one or the other pole.

Now is there a poetics in this country that exists entirely outside of this broader framework that I’m sketching here? I think the answer is yes, but it’s yes in the same sense that the singing of Susan Boyle, the recent Scottish contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, might be said to exist outside of any of the frames of professional music. Can Boyle make music? You bet. Even there, however, keep in mind that Boyle picked a tune from Les Miserables, attended the Edinburgh Acting School, performed in the Edinburgh Fringe &, in 1999, recorded a charity CD of Cry Me a River. She may herself not exist fully as part of the professional show tune framework, but she is not free of its orbit. In much that same way it is possible for writers who are inarticulate about their relationship to all that has been written could also be said to exist outside the framework of these traditions. But “writers who are inarticulate” is a category unto itself.