Friday, February 15, 2008

Negative Legislators: Ethics of the Post-Avant

Yes, Virginia, there is a definable post-avant, and its characteristic stylistic and ethical moves come, by and large, from particular generational experiences. At least that's the conclusion I'm prepared to draw from this week's web-browsing, magazine-reading, poem-downloading, blog-skimming, and lunching-with-poets. (Today's lunch was a particularly good curry at a new Irish pub — the kind of curry that can give a guy the courage to generalize and reify at will).

Exhibit A: Who You Callin' Post-Avant?

So. For exhibit A, I point you over to the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet" blog, where the ever-incisive Reginald Shepherd has a post up called "Who You Callin' 'Post-Avant'?". Here he offers as good a short definition of the poet-avant as I've seen:

"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically.... Though many of these poets have projects and even systems, there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation”), but not many manifestoes.

Post-avants, or elliptical poets (the term used by Steve Burt, among others), or poets of “lyrical investigations” (Shepherd's own term), tend, says Shepherd,

to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don't just discard the self as an ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative of any variety. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle. They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical impulse of Language poetry. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism, that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don't try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions (let alone grand narratives) of artistic "progress" or "advance" ...

This all seems about right to me: the eclecticism, the crossing of the lyrical with the non-lyrical (or of the expressivist with the constructivist, to dragoon Marjorie Perloff's terms into the mix), and the generally non-heroic sense of the poet's historical mission — I've seen these over and over in the works of the poets of my own generation (I was born in May of '68, which means I'm about to turn 40, buy a sports car or perhaps a sailboat, and go into full-on midlife male outfreakage. Watch this blog for signs of my impending disgrace).

That non-heroic, non-manifesto-writing ethos certainly applies to the post-avant sense of artistic progress. I mean, when you read the polemics of, say, the young Ezra Pound ("to break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), you get a sense that he really believes there's a kind of advancement taking place. It can seem a lot like one of those old-school charts of evolution, with the monkey-like Victorians at one end of things, and the proudly non-knuckle-dragging modernists at the other:

You get a similar sense from many critical accounts of what happened to poetry around the time of Robert Lowell's Life Studies: poets, it seemed, had suddenly broken through stuffy mid-century formalism and into a new, advanced form of freedom (in Modern Poetry After Modernism James Longenbach called this the "breakthrough narrative" version of American poetry). And although it's been satirized by some of the language poets themselves, there's often a heroic strain in langpo polemics, a sense of intrepidly bearing the art forward to some New Jerusalem while fighting back the undead armies of tradition. There's very little of that in the post-avant crowd. The post-avant seems to have very little interest in making grand claims of any kind: not only does it eschew a sense of heroic poetic progress, it eschews big political or spiritual claims. For better or for worse, you just don't find anyone acting the revolutionary or guru the way Allen Ginsberg did.

Exhibit B: The Negative Legislator

I suppose it is no accident, then, that George Oppen has had a kind of renaissance in our time. Consider what James Longenbach says about him in Exhibit B, a passage from his recent review of Oppen's selected prose in The Nation:

Neither before nor after his silence [a nearly three-decade hiatus from publishing poetry] was Oppen inclined toward didactic poetry; he considered the rhetorical excess of political poems--like the rhetorical excess of political meetings--to be "merely excruciating." In the early 1930s Oppen was associated with the Objectivist movement, a loose association of avant-garde poets that also included Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff and Lorine Niedecker. And while Discrete Series, his first book, is starkly elliptical, his later work combines Objectivist precision with a tender lyricism that his more staunchly experimental colleagues disdained:

Miracle of the children the brilliant
Children  the word
Liquid as woodlands  Children?

When she was a child I read Exodus
To my daughter  'The children of Israel...'

Pillar of fire
Pillar of cloud.

No other poet sounds like this. However adamant Oppen's convictions, his meticulously shaped lines embody a music of deference--a constitutional unwillingness to dominate the world by virtue of having understood it. True poetry, says Oppen in an essay collected in Selected Prose, is written in "a language that tests itself."

Here, Oppen comes across as a man with ethical qualms about making big claims. I get it: I mean, Oppen lived through that whole 1930s business of urgent-yet-mindnumbing political wranglings — the splitting of Trotskyist hairs while the world burned, starved, and suffered horribly, often under the banner of one or another totalizing ideology. Even after nearly eight years of pseudo-authoritarian rule here in the U.S., it's hard for us to imagine anything like the ideological pressure of a time when even so gentle and benevolent a soul as W.H. Auden found himself advocating political violence in the name of The Cause, as he did when he wrote of the need for "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder" in his great-but-troubling poem "Spain."

So Oppen's not going to present himself as a prophetic figure, or a vatic poet with special insight. He's not going go all André Breton and write manifestos on how aesthetic liberation and political liberation are one and the same. And one of the ways he's going to express his qualms is at the level of form: his lyricism itself will often be checked by various elisions and distancing strategies. This isn't the poet as Shelley's "unacknowledged legislator" creating the laws of the future. This is the poet who's absorbed the same lessons as had the Adorno of Negative Dialectics: to walk in fear of totalization, especially of easy totalization. In fact, the Oppen Longenbach presents reminds me a just a little of that other saint in the post-avant poet's canon of forefathers, John Ashbery — especially the John Ashbery descibed by Stephen Stepanchev in his book Modern American Poetry Since 1945 as a poet who "seems to fear too much coherence as being a form of dishonesty or falseness" because "an orderly syntax sometimes forces the poet to lie, to say easy things that he had not intended."

In fact, this kind of reticence (often expressed at the level of form) regarding statement, didacticism, prescription, visionary experience, etc. is itself a kind of ethical imperative one infers from the post-avants and their precursors. I mean, there's an ethic to the whole "unwillingness to dominate the world" through didactic statement, and in the sense that "too much coherence [is] being a form of dishonesty or falseness." The imperative here is negative, though: make no laws, tout no truth-claims, avow no total understanding, nor anything close to it. It's a kind of Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

Exhibit C: Some Negative Legislation

As an actual example of an actual post-avant poem actually embodying this ethic of negative legislation, let me point to what I think is a very sharp poem, hot off the pdf file I downloaded (gratis!) from Eric Elshtain's Beard of Bees Press website. It's the opening poem from Gregory Fraser's chapbook A Different Bother:


I piped the dizzy for who knows how, argued,
Without catacombs there can stand no town,
and one night slid my head through the crown
at church, then followed a river glued

to its ember. Who couldn’t predict my brass
would one day burst? That I, end-time, would stew
in a velvet folly? A bashful kid, I consented to
spoil the mildew’s nap, decapitate the grass,

haul trash to the curb in bags that were, after
transport, trash themselves. Never once did I aid
the roaches treated like thugs in black suede.
By travel, I hoped to find not heaven, but a rafter

where mind and body hang, negating one another.
No such. Wind combed back the cattails, I
turned in a circle that wouldn’t point. Why decry
the addict, who only seeks a different bother?

Someplace florid, a prince paints a topical picture.
Imagine—art about actual happenings! Of course,
of course, of course, of course,
the unathletic started in: Old world with your

lovely clarities, etc. Then I thought of the stars—
what trumpeted commotions fill their repertoires.

Did you notice the ABBA-CDDC etc. rhyme scheme in the quatrians, culminating in the rhyming couplet at the end? It's a kind of extended-play Shakespearian sonnet, which itself shows something of the historical openness of the post-avant. A hard-core avant-gardist of the early 20th century would sooner have been caught dining with a petit-bourgeois policeman than have written such a thing, but now we're more laid back about all that.

More importantly, though, the poem really shows a lot of the qualities Reginald Shepherd saw as typically post-avant. Does the poem "problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience" without "discard[ing] the self as an ideological illusion," as Shephard suggest the post-avant poem does? Sure! I mean, "I piped the dizzy for who knows how" comes straight out of the John Berryman playbook, offering an odd bit of diction and syntax that nevertheless obliquely suggest an inner, emotional experience. And through the first few stanzas there's a strong suggestion of autobiography, albeit with a great deal of static on the channel. The post-avant poet, as Shepherd says, "incorporate[s] fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle" — surely that's what we have here: we see a developing self, and get a sense of its quotidian moments (taking out the trash), and its social context (a troubled figure surrounded by those who can see its impending breakdown but don't do much to stop it ("who couldn't predict my brass / would one day burst"). But there's a delicate balancing act going on between lyrical, confessional revelation on the one side and disjunction and fracture on the other.

More importantly still, the poem follows the project of the post-avant negative legislator: it refuses to judge, prescribe, or assume a position of moral authority (except, of course, inasmuch as such refusals are a kind of moral position). We get this most clearly toward the end, in lines like these:

Wind combed back the cattails, I
turned in a circle that wouldn’t point. Why decry
the addict, who only seeks a different bother?

Turning in a circle that won't point: now there's the negative legislator in his natural habitat, a kind of neo-negative-capabilty, in which all contradictory positions and directions are explored, and none taken. That question about the addict is good post-avant stuff, too: it implies a possible moral equivalence between the speaker and the junkie, each of whom is hooked into his own trip. On the one hand, the question seems to imply a kind of "who's to judge?" position. On the other hand, it is a question, not a statement such as "Don't decry the addict...", so it remains ambiguous whether we're even meant to assume the relativism of "who's to judge?" — we can turn around the circle all day, and it just won't point in a particular direction. This is the antithesis of didacticism or poetic legislation (except, again, for the possibility that a rigorous refusal to point in any particular direction is itself an ethical position, a kind of disinterestedness or even unworldliness).

And then there's the ending, where we're offered a glimpse of a different kind of art, one that does take up social positions and get all litterature engagée on us:

Someplace florid, a prince paints a topical picture.
Imagine—art about actual happenings! Of course,
of course, of course, of course,
the unathletic started in: Old world with your

lovely clarities, etc. Then I thought of the stars—
what trumpeted commotions fill their repertoires.

There you go: art about actual happenings. But how does the poem coach us to feel about it? Well, like a good post-avant poem, it doesn't coach any one position. The fact that the topical picture is painted by a prince suggests a number of possibilities, most of them negative: that such art is antiquaited; or despite any possible leftish sentiment, that it's ultimately the product of privilige; or that it's all a bit egomanaical and self-important. Then again, there's the breathless "art about actual happenings!" which can read like a statement of envy at the prince's audacity, or as the opposite of that (in which case the breathlessness makes the line read as arch, as a faux-naif faux-excitement about a social project seen as banal). Then there's the wonderful "of course, / of course, of course, of course" — which signifies what? An admission that social engagement is needed, or important, or a necessary alternative to the kind of poem we're reading? Or perhaps it suggests a kind of impatient or world-weary dismissal of socially didactic art (can't you just see the phrases accompanied with a sigh and a dismissive wave of the hand?). You get the idea: we're turning in a circle that won't let us point in any particular direction. Which is kind of the point, I suppose: to establish the poet not as a legislator, but as a negative legislator, whose one firm law is to make no other laws.

Exhibit D: Aeroflot Blue

And here's where I turn to my generational explanation of the post-avant embrace of what I'm calling negative legislation. I came to it from a recent blog entry by Ray Bianchi, in which he maintains that our generation (in this case defined as poets born between 1965 and 1975) tends to have a "sense of the world as a drawer of broken things." Bianchi goes on to say:

The one thing that defines Generation X it is that the world is a drawer of broken things. We are a generation that bridges and our poets do the same. We are trying to put back together a world and to understand what has been lost and adopting what has been found.

When I asked him to elaborate on this at lunch today, he talked about lack of any faith in big, coherent beliefs among our generation of poets. When we came of age in the 80s, we were presented with a big, smiling picture of Reagan's America, full of flags, battleships, the unqualified joy of the free market, etc. etc., but the world around us didn't look like that picture at all. There was no reason to have faith in the big narrative we were offered by Reagan's image factory. At the same time, we'd seen enough hypocrisy and enough backwash-and-burnout from the 60s that we didn't have much faith in its heroic narrative either. That wasn't all, either, Ray opined as the waitress carted our plates away and brought us coffee. All kinds of big narratives were taking a beating. Did you believe Catholicism was a force for good? Well, you got smacked upside the head with all sorts of scandals involving the clergy, creating serious cognitive dissonance. Were you a believer in Israel as a necessary haven for the victims of atrocity? Too many images of the treatment of the Palestinians were coming to light for that narrative to remain spotless. Was family the great saving force in a dark world? The boom in divorce put that belief through an enormous metaphysical Cusinart. One could of course have gone on, but the check came and we had to leave, though not before we remembered Douglas Coupland's not-so-hot-but-generation-defining novel Generation X, and how it opened with the image of a girl at a party wearing a dress in a color that could only be described as "Aeroflot blue," and how it captured the mood of the generation perfectly, with its washed-out reminder of a dead Grand Revolutionary Narrative.

Aeroflot blue, redolent of failed utopias. Where to go after that, except around in circles, refusing to point in any particular direction?

I don't think this applies to all poets of my generation. In fact, I don't think it applies to my own poetry, or at least not much of it (I'm no objective judge here, but I don't think I've ever been much for disjunction). Then again, as I look back on this blog entry and think about proofreading it (you'll have noticed that I haven't), I see in my own disclaimers, choice of tone, and in my ironizing of my own generalizations that I'm just as hesitant about big claims as the next soon-to-be-40 poet in America. For better or for worse.

In Other News

Over at Johannes Göransson's retro-revolutionary-looking Action Yes! web site, you'll find a bunch of freshly-published stuff, including some translations of the Belgian Surrealists Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray I cooked up with Jean-Luc Garneau. Check it out!

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