Are We Après The Avant?*

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately — like, a lot — like, an AWP-followed-by-Spring-Break a lot.  A lot of what I’ve been reading circles around one of my continual curiosities: the avant-garde, and what we consider to be the avant-garde.  This week, I delved into page after page of avant-garde poetry and prose.  It was very exciting.  And then it was, well, a little boring.

I was shocked at my own boredom, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help it.  I also couldn’t help realizing that I was reading, well, the same thing.  Over and over again.  The same kind of poem, prancing across and down the page in the same kind of way, breaking its lines at the same kinds of places.**  The same kind of realist-turned-surrealist story, with the same kind of title (“And A Gathering Of Words Which When Gathered Together Sound Ominous And/Or Biblical”).  The same kind of essay, twisting through hybridity, moving from lyric to narrative to back within the same kind of fragmentation.****  Yes, the turns each author made within the form were very often electrifyingly brilliant — but I couldn’t help but think that they were that, exactly, turns within a form rather than complete formal innovation and experiment.  And I couldn’t help but think that the fact that each piece inhabited a similar form meant, de facto, that they weren’t avant-garde.

Perhaps the issue is that, at the same time, I have been reading authors who are very definitely doing their own thing, making their own forms, creating their own shapes for their own thoughts and working them out on the page, sometimes over the course of multiple texts.  I’m thinking of Anne Carson, who has a mind unlike any other mind at work today, and who makes that mind work on the page through a dizzying, unclassifiable, inimitable collision of form and genre.  I’m thinking of the piece she read at AWP, a collaboration with a California artist, in which she explored the idea of sleep through a searingly brilliant academic critique of the character of Albertine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  This piece s both a brilliantly constructed essay and an immaculately built poem — a true innovation in form which might be unique to Carson’s work, starting with “The Glass Essay” ******in her 1992 Glass, Irony, and God, a text which is itself a mind-blending blur of genre and form and forms of thought.  Perhaps the most striking quality of the Albertine piece, to me at least, is that her reading revealed something truly shocking: it’s funny.  Like, actually, legitimately funny.  As in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud from time to time.  I now wonder if this — combining poetry, legitimate scholarship, literary analysis, and humor — is what puts the avant in the garde of Carson’s work.

Of course, we can’t all be Anne Carson — which is precisely the point.  A mind like Carson’s, with its ability to shatter form both in terms of structure and of content in order to do something that’s really, truly new, comes along only once in a little while.  Emily Dickinson’s mind was another such mind, which is another point.  Though even elementary school students know Dickinson now, she published fewer than a dozen poems in her own lifetime — which is, I think, yet another point.  Good doesn’t necessarily mean publishedBrilliant means published even less, and truly innovative and new?  Rarely does that mean published.

Perhaps, then, there’s a reason why the avant-garde feels less like individual formal innovation and more like a group form.  Perhaps what we term as “avant-garde” isn’t necessarily the work of individuals quietly bulldozing and disposing of the boundaries on their own, but of groups of people who run the bulldozers together, for support.  I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty this week.  Nelson herself, I think, is an interesting case — hers is a mind that blends and bends genre, but rarely inside the same text.  This is not to say that Nelson’s work isn’t absolutely brilliant, because it is — it’s just to say that her brilliance fits inside of forms that have become, well, forms.  I don’t mean this as a critique, in any way, because I think her work fits well there: her brilliant criticism is brilliant criticism, her brilliant lyric essays are brilliant lyric essays, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It does, however, seem symptomatic of what Nelson describes in The Art of Cruelty, in which she explores the work of various performance artists.  After a while, all of their pieces began to blend together for me; they started to feel the same, as though each performance artist worked off of the form and content of other performance artists.  Though each of the performances Nelson describes is unmistakably avant-garde, they are also avant-garde in the same way.  These artists use the same forms to express their ideas.  They push the same boundaries, test the same limits, and in the same way.  This doesn’t make their work any less important or useful, but it does, I think, make their work part of a movement.

I guess what I’m arguing here — if I’m arguing anything, if there’s anything to be argued — is that what we typically think of as avant-garde or experimental writing is writing that is part of a movement.  It’s the work of a group who are facing the same limits in the same ways.  That’s not to denigrate this kind of writing at all, but to say that perhaps we need different definitions — and different ways to talk about the work of writers who are really, truly doing their own thing.  This isn’t to say that the former is better than the latter, or vice versa, but to say that there’s a difference, and it’s one of which we should be cognizant when we talk about experimental writing.

After all, I think there’s value in pushing one’s self as an artist, in testing limits and boundaries, no matter how that’s done.  The truth is that Emily Dickinson did only publish a handful of poems during her lifetime, and we have her work now through what seems to be essentially a series of accidents.  The truth is that there might be hundreds of Emily Dickinsons out there, whose work didn’t reach us through the same sort of happy accidents.  The truth is also that if there is a group of people working together to test boundaries, their work will be more likely to reach readers, as they will be more likely to publish each other.  And they may be more likely to continue their work: as a group, human beings love groups.  More and more it seems to me that we’re pack animals.  We need company.  We need the support of people who think the way that we do.  Every human institution — from kindergarten classes to University departments to corporations — splits, eventually, into groups of like-minded people who like to do the same things.  The literary world is no different.  And the existence of a group means freer communication, which means the development of ideas, and it’s difficult to argue that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, I think of Anne Carson.  I think of Emily Dickinson.  I think of the writer and artist and thinker working, quietly, on their own, thinking and putting their thoughts on the page in ways which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.  I think of the artist who eschews the group and walks out, alone, into what might be a field of flowers, what might be a minefield, and keeps going.  I can’t help but think that there must be a way to support this kind of writer, or, at least, to talk about their work more clearly, without classifying it out of existence.

Though, of course, that might be just the point: if we do classify it, if we do have names for it, then it no longer exists in the same mind-scorchingly brilliant way.

In that case, let the Carsons be Carsons.  We can, with them and through them, rejoice in their ability to let the unnameable go without name.


*That’s right, people.  I did that IN FRENCH.  Somewhere, Madame Lee is suddenly forgiving me for pronouncing English words in a French accent for years.
** I feel it’s only right for me to go ahead and say that I in no way excuse myself from this, as I’m as much a part of the sameness as anyone — I swoon over a couplet, I love a single-line stanza, I die for a transformational line break.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.***
*** That was Latin, which is also another language.  THIS ENTRY IS HELLA DEEP, Y’ALL.
**** Here, too, I admit that I am complicit.  I hesitate to say guilty, because I don’t think that “guilt” is an applicable term.  “Prey to the zeitgeist,*****” maybe.  But then again, is “prey” the right term?  Or is this just the form thought is taking on the page, in the age of electronic information and publishing?
******There’s a link right there to the poem, posted on The Poetry Foundation’s website, because if you haven’t read it, you need to.  Believe me.  Just fasten your seat-belt and get ready.


5 responses to “Are We Après The Avant?*”

  1. Interesting post with lots to think about. I am more focused on fiction than on any other genre, but in fiction the terms experimental and avant gard have slowly been transitioned out in favor of terms like postmodern and innovative. Neither seems to really speak to what is happening, but neither does experimental or avant gard. We get into trouble when we try to assess our work in terms of groupings, but also you’re right that these forms don’t exist in a vacuum nor are they rare sprinklings of innovation. The problem with studying writing as writers is that we produce writing that is “influenced” often too much by what has come before. If we were to be honest, what’s avant gard is the text message, the twitter, the blog post, the unselfconscious writing that is borne without pollution out of the mass cult of social interaction. Everything else is just technique.

  2. Such a great post on this. I talk a lot in composition classes about joining the conversation, and I think you articulate this well. There are these writers who have this need to do a certain thing, challenge a certain thing, even if the rest of us can’t quite put our finger on it, and they find each other and respond to each other. It is fascinating to watch the ways in which that happens. I remember asking a professor once about Harrynette Mullen because her work has so many allusions in it. Can we, the lay reader, really “get” what HM is doing unless we “get” all the allusions? I think it is an interesting debate to continue. Thanks for getting my mind going this morning! Wait – it is afternoon now.

  3. Laura, some really great thoughts. I should’ve stated that there are a lot of terms that I think are basically interchangeable, with small gradations of meaning on “experimental” — slipstream, New Wave Fabulist, so forth. And I think it is a strange paradox that it’s dangerous to evaluate work in terms of a group, but work exists in terms of a group. I feel that you’re very right about new technologies bringing about new truly experimental forms, but I’m also intrigued by the way these forms crop up in literary works, and how they essentially become part of traditional narratives. It’s also interesting to me that some of the most ancient forms of writing — the Japanese zuihitsu, for instance — often resemble a blog and contain the kinds of clipped communications one finds in Tweets or texts messages, and they often read as more contemporary than works including these forms today. I’m thinking of the brilliant section in Yoshida Kaneyoshi’s “Essays on Idleness,” which consists only of “Foxes bite people” — a line that has the deceptive simplicity of a Tweet but, when considered in cultural context, contains multitudes!

  4. Hey Jessie! Ah, the conversation conversation — one of the best ones to have! I think it’s interesting that we use that theory in comp classes but we don’t always use it in creative writing classes (I’m trying to think of the name of the theorist who wrote that crickets essay, and it’s escaping me). I think it’s vitally important, especially in poetry, that we study what’s been done before and what’s happening now. I always draw this picture for my students of a tiny boat on a giant ocean, and talk about how the giant ocean is everything that’s happened in poetry, and they need to know at least something about it in order to navigate their boat. I’m totally going to re-read Mullen right now. That reminds me of a discussion I had about the placement of the footnotes in The Wasteland. By placing them at the end, it seems like Eliot directs us to read the piece as a piece in and of itself first, then to look at its allusions. I feel like the implication there is that you won’t necessarily get a better understanding, just a different one. I know that reading the Upanishads totally changed the way that I read the poem, but I’m not sure if my current reading is necessarily better than the original reading …

  5. I adore that analogy you use! I had a final project my senior year of undergrad (I needed one extra credit to graduate and a kind teacher let me do an independent study) where I made a hypertext version of “The Wasteland.” It was a great project, but footnotes are such an interesting concern. I just finished Jay-Z’s “Decoded” recently, and I found the number of footnotes a bit distracting. I kept virtually turning and then going back. Hmmm..You have me thinking again as well 🙂

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