Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry

By Jed Rasula | Go to book overview

7
Every Day Another Vanguard

“Every day is avant-garde.” Adja Yunkers in Marek Bartelik, To Invent a Garden

How do we balance the exceptional, held up as a value, with the norm, especially when the normative seems compromised by statistical mediocrity? What is the relationship between individual volition and the collective when norms are byproducts of mass media? These two questions are facets of a single problem that periodically erupts in American culture—the mood swing that oscillates between high and low, intelligence and stupidity, exaggerated respect for the unique combined with routine embrace of the mundane.1 The coupling of such apparently opposing terms has been a feature of American art from Whitman to Warhol, with the balance tending against elitism and in favor of—what, exactly? Populism? Which one? Among many, there is the Depression-era populism of the left; a youth-oriented populism of Beat culture and sixties counterculture; and, most notably in the long-range perspective, the populism associated with ethnicity, a singular legacy of which is African American music. But even jazz had its avant-garde—first in the musical secession of bebop complexity, and later brandished in the titles of such

1. For a useful discussion of the precarious role of intellect in poetry, see Kevin McGuirk, “Poetry and ‘Stupidity’: Beats to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.”

-180-

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