Academic journal article Chicago Review

Contemporary American Poetry and the Pseudo Avant-Garde

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Contemporary American Poetry and the Pseudo Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

In the hospital photograph of my new baby girl, she is squeezing both hands into tiny fists. This "startle reflex" to a series of flashes is her Futurist salute to publicity. My infant, leader of the latest avant-garde. It is hard to take the idea of an avant-garde seriously these days. Who would have the nerve to represent an art as the future when there are evidently infinite futures, when the present itself is not identifiable? Few poets or novelists subscribe to the nineteenth century ideas of history and teleology out of which the idea of an avant-garde grew. Most poets tend even to be a little embarrassed by the word.

Nevertheless, a few relics of avant-garde behavior remain to clutter the contemporary poetry world. There is for some the desire to identify and distinguish from other poetry a specifically oppositional poetry. Often this means overstating the cohesiveness of poetic orthodoxies and their difference from dominant ideologies. Many of the "Language poets" claim to be oppositional but even as I write this I am aware of two books going to press on these poets, both written by academic literary critics and both to be published by university presses. It is acceptable still to equate experimental poetic modes with radical politics, especially now that American literary criticism is much more willing to discuss the theoretical and political implications of poems than the technique of poems. Here I want to discuss Ron Silliman, one of the more interesting poet-critics associated with an experimental and oppositional mode, beside a very different kind of poet, Jim Powell, who is not associated with any group and who so far as I know makes no claims about originality. Most of the discussions of "Language poetry" have been content to discuss the poetry in the terms presented by the poets themselves. I want to avoid that as much as possible here. Juxtaposing the work of Powell and Silliman will allow me to speak to formal issues of some concern to poets outside of any identifiable "camp."

That the rather diverse group of poets called the "Language poets" wear some of the trappings of an avant-garde movement is well known. Thus it should be no surprise that Ron Silliman's book of critical essays is called The New Sentence -- the idea of the "new" being central to avant-garde rhetoric if not always to its practice. Silliman is not unaware of -- he is sometimes even cynical about -- the importance of self-promotion and group promotion in today's crowded poetry world. Like Robert Pinsky, whose book The Situation of Poetry was responsible for boosting the reputations of Frank Bidart, James McMichael and others, Silliman believes in a group of poets, some of whom are his friends, whose work shares specific formal concerns. Unlike Pinsky, he aligns the work of these poets with a radical political critique, and it is this fact that seems to be making his work of particular interest to many academic literary critics. Silliman's critique is derived from Adorno, Benjamin, Bakhtin, and others now influential as well in academic literary criticism. Surveying the contemporary poetry scene, a world weakly ruled by a geriatric set, where tolerance, healthy or repressive, is the rule, one cannot help but think that we could use more critics like Silliman and Pinsky who are open and intelligent in their advocacy of poetic models and who don't think that contemporary poetry ends with Donald Allen's The New American Poetry.

Now that The New Sentence has gathered some hard to find essays, it is also possible to read Silliman's poetry beside the claims of his prose. I think it will be evident that some of Silliman's most basic criticisms of the bulk of mainstream contemporary poetry are legitimate, and in fact echoed by poets very different from Silliman. The target of Silliman's critique is what has come to be called the "workshop poem" -- in his words "the loosely written, speech-like free verse dramatic monologue concerning the small travails of daily existence . …

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