Sunday, January 02, 2011

On Not Tearing Down MoMa: Or, What's Bernstein's Game, Anyway?

If you'd wandered into the garden lobby of the Museum of Modern Art early last February, you might have met the sight (and considerable sound) of Charles Bernstein declaiming from Marinetti's 1909 "Fururist Manifesto." It might have been a bit unnerving, since in addition to calling for new types of beauty the manifesto cries out for the glorification of war, and nationalism, the denigration of feminism and of women in general, and the destruction of libraries and museums. As this last call echoed forth, you'd have been forgiven for looking nervously around you to see if the black-clad New Yorkers were responsive to this line of rhetoric, ready to rise from their poses of studied torpor and tear MoMa, brick by brick, to the ground.

There was no need to worry, though. The crowd remained docile. Neither they nor Bernstein seemed to want to actually act on Marinetti's words (for which I'm grateful — I like museums, and women, and I'm not keen on war). In fact, Bernstein followed up by reading from a feminist manifesto by Mina Loy, presumably as a kind of penance for having belted out Marinetti's misogynist remarks. Bernstein then read a manifesto of his own, though one with a curious origin for the manifesto genre. It was commissioned by Poetry magazine, and composed by Bernstein alone, not on behalf of some rag-tag group of outsider malcontents sulking in a garret in some low-rent arrondissement. Even more curious than the origin of Bernstein's manifesto, given the properties of the genre, was the curious lack of agenda, the absence of emphasis on any kind of collective program (Bernstein's manifesto defined language poetry as "a loose affliation of unlike individuals"), and the lack of the genre's usual stress on some kind of aesthetic/political newness. The manifesto opens by drawing attention to this last lack: "I love originality so much," says Bernstein, "I keep copying it."  Later he adds "I’m the derivative product of an originality that spawns me as it spurns me. "

So what's Bernstein's game? Marinetti's Futurist manifesto was many things (including bellicose and misogynistic), but first and foremost it was an avant-garde statement, with everything that implies: it was for aesthetic newness, but also for smashing the institutions (like museums) that separated art from the rest of life.  "A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace," said Marinetti, and part of the meaning of his claim was that the truest beauty exists outside the halls dedicated to hallowing aesthetic appreciation and reverence for tradition.  And whatever else we may say about Bernstein's reading of the "Futurist Manifesto" at MoMa, it wasn't an avant-garde event.  The crowd didn't rise up to topple the sculpture behind Bernstein, nor was he disappointed that they didn't.  After all, he still had Loy to read from, and the piece he'd written at the behest of the Poetry Foundation.  And it's not just that Bernstein seemed comfortable in the kind of institution Marinetti loathed.  In reading Marinetti and Loy, Bernstein was doing something else Marinetti despised: honoring the literary past.  Not only did Bernstein do his level-best to read from Marinetti with the requisite passion: he later spoke in defense of the genre of the manifesto itself, praising its chief anthologist (Mary Ann Caws) and attacking those who think poetry can do without the genre (a set of straw men, I think, since they went unnamed and the arguments attributed to them seemed incredibly simple).

If the game wasn't avant-gardism, what was it?  I don't think there was anything so simple as a smug irony, though there was certainly opportunity enough to make one had that been Bernstein's intent.  After all, he was reading from a document calling for the destruction of museums in a museum.  It would have been easy to turn the reading into an event that said "ha ha, you lost, we museum-lovers are still here, and we can read your words without fear," like a bunch of GOP plutocrats chuckling over a copy of the Communist Manifesto that somehow turned up at the country club.  But the reading of Marinetti served as prelude to a defense of the idea of manifestos, so ironic smugness wasn't Bernstein's game, either.

The name of Bernsteins' game is, I think, arrière-gardisme.  The term arrière-garde has been used in a number of different senses, but the one that pertains here is the one articulated by William Marx and the contributors to the collection of essays he edited in 2004, Les arrière-garde au XXe siècle (the idea has also been used with reference to American writing in Marjorie Perloff's recent Unoriginal Genius).  Marx's idea is that much experimental writing from the middle of the twentieth century onward bears strong affinities to the historical avant-garde, but has an difference as well: unlike the original avant-gardearrière-gardistes  show a reverence for the history of avant-garde writings and actions, and wish to preserve or extend them.  While a poet like Marinetti dreamed of the destruction of traditions and museums, a poet like Charles Bernstein reveres the avant-garde past, seeking to revive the literary and cultural energies that were lost during the First World War. 

If Bernstein is seen as an avant-gardist, it’s hard to explain why he read from Marinetti’s manifesto in the Museum of Modern Art: from an avant-garde perspective, reading Marinetti in such a context seems at best like an irony, at worst like a betrayal.  But when we see Bernstein as a member of the arrière-garde, the picture changes.  An arrière-gardist, after all, has something an avant-gardist did not have: an avant-garde tradition behind him.  And a museum is a perfectly appropriate place to revere tradition.

[Update January 5, 2011: Joyelle McSweeney takes issue with this post in interesting ways]


  1. I think you're right. I also think arriere-gardism, which is fits closely Octavio Paz' definition of the difference between the avant-garde and avantgardism, goes a long way to explain the LangPoets' often absurd reverence for the manifesto as a literary form.

    Certainly poetry doesn't need either manifesti nor literary -isms, which seem to be the inevitable byproduct of writing a manifesto. I was talking with a young artist friend of mine recently about just this the other day: how he doesn't have any use for -isms in his art-making, in fact he finds they get in the way.

    It makes me think again of how Mannerist the contemporary arts and poetry scenes have become; Mannerist in the art-historical definition. (Ben Lewis wrote a seminal article about this for Prospect Magazine, which I have found to be a real touchstone for this topic.) That is: substituting endless variations of existing tropes for genuine originality; ironic and cynical self-recursion, even narcissism, i.e. looking inward only at other art rather than looking outward for artistic sources and liveliness; etc.

    i've viewed the LangPoets, including Bernstein, as Mannerist for some time now. Your commentary here puts another nail in that coffin for me. Thanks for the insights.

  2. Me, I think there are conditions that call for a manifesto, but I'm not sure we're in them. I scraped together my thoughts on this a while back:


  3. Bob,

    It’s good to see, finally, someone else offer reference to the rich symbolism of that MoMA event, which (forgive me the self-regard) I’ve commented on a number of times. Here’s one. The following’s a long quote [I’ve got to break it into two], but I think it close enough to the concerns of your post to justify sharing it here—from an interview with me, with Jeffrey Side, at the Argotist. I could comment more (and ironically) on the rejection of the quoted piece below by the now-kaput Digital Emunction as “old news,” but that would be, well, old news:

    JS: You’ve been critical of what you perceive as a tendency towards careerism in US avant-garde poetic circles, can you tell me more about this?

    KJ: I’ve spoken about this in other places, and my comments haven’t always been too popular, I suppose. Let me answer this one in a somewhat unusual way, maybe allegorically, if that’s the word, answering your question by quoting myself from a somewhat fanciful post I wrote for Digital Emunction blog—just yesterday, in fact. I’ve been writing at DE (the cabinet of curiosities of the lit blogs, I believe) the past few weeks, as you know. The post was rejected by the blog editor, Bobby Baird, who felt the points raised were “old news.” Maybe… Though “old news,” if so, of the kind that hasn’t been sufficiently discussed, I’d propose. But the reader can judge. I had titled the post “The Clinking Sound of the Avant-Garde: A Short Story”:

    In the 1980s, Language poetry was at its apogee. Its most prominent figure was Charles Bernstein. The most coherent and ambitious left-wing avant-garde formation in the history of American poetry was then under sustained attack from the literary establishment; the Language poets, with analyses of “Official Verse Culture” and its fraught complicities in the Ideological State Apparatuses of Literature and the Academy, countered the attacks with trenchant, withering critique.

    This was during the reign of the Reagan Administration, which ended twenty years back. Soon after, the Berlin Wall collapsed and the First Iraq War began. Coincidentally (though perhaps not entirely), it was around this time that the first major studies of Language poetry began to appear in the most prestigious scholarly journals, and prominent figures associated with the group could be found interviewing for jobs at the MLA. [cont. next comment]

  4. When Bernstein was editing (with Bruce Andrews) The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and writing some of the brilliant, anti-Institutional essays later collected in Content’s Dream (1986), Donald T. Regan was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury and Chief of Staff, a central figure in the Administration’s murderous policies in Central America and the related sideshow scandal of the Iran-Contra affair. Bernstein would of course still vehemently repudiate those policies, but a little more than two decades thence, he is Donald T. Regan Professor of English at a major Ivy League School. His books are now published by Harvard, and his work is included in the Norton.

    Language poetry, in general, is well down the road as a welcomed and apparently pleased fellow traveler of the Canon. Like Bernstein, numerous of the original members now profess at elite universities, industriously partaking in (indeed, often openly arguing for) the fuller legitimation of their work. A growing tenure industry of secondary critics occupies itself around study of the group’s theory and writing. Versions of abstract or “hybrid” lyric, genetically descended from the textual experimentalism of Language poetry, rule the roost in MFA programs across the land. The AWP and the MLA are now homes to “radically formal” poetry, and the Young Turks who write it make annual pilgrimage to these institutions’ gatherings, to network, read, present, and interview for academic position. All the major journals are open to such work. Even Poetry and the New Yorker now feature it.

    All of this has happened very quickly, with a speed to awe the most visionary Futurist. Earlier this year, celebrating its 100th anniversary, Charles Bernstein declaimed Felippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, angrily hitting, as he did, a hammer against a metal lectern. This was at the MoMA. There among the Picassos and the Matisses, the implement made a repeating clinking sound. A kind of death knell for things, one might say, though the gathered crowd of poets that applauded and cheered did not quite seem to see it that way.

    It’s perhaps time, I’d propose, to think extra hard about the irony and velocity of this denouement, which is very much the “ontological” surround of the subculture we in the “post-avant” inhabit. Though as we do, we must grant that none of what’s transpired is a matter of ill-intent: In truth, the path that’s been taken is, and has always been, the “way” of the “avant-garde.” It’s nobody’s fault, and nobody, personally, need be blamed. And thank goodness, of course, for professors and scholars.

    But to ask, if awkwardly, as this short story ends: Is this it, this seemingly natural “Where We Now Are”? Is this where we’re more or less to remain? Or is there an elsewhere, as it were, and how would we begin to imagine it, if so?

  5. Thanks for posting all that, Kent -- good as always to see things from your point of view.

    For me, the notion of the arriere-garde actually offers a way past the apparent irony of an institutionalized avant-garde.

    Judging from some of the Facebook and email comments I've received, I think some people see the post as taking a shot at Bernstein. That's certainly not what I intended: I wanted to understand the dynamic at work, and the notion of arriere-garde seemed to fit, and to explain things. I don't mean it as a term of blame, though maybe we've reached a point where, in some quadrants of the little poetry world, the term "avant-garde" is synonymous with "good" or "worthwhile," and to be placed under another rubric (as I try to place Bernstein in this instance) is to be somehow dishonored. I don't think that's a particularly worthwhile way of viewing things (as, clearly, you don't either).

    All best,


  6. FYI, here's an exchange I had with Robert Zamsky on the post, over on Facebook. He's okay with it being posted here (I asked, since I think the exchange clarifies some things)

    Robert Zamsky
    But, CB has *never* sought to reject his predecessors; a huge part of his project has been to account for and contend with them (Pound) or promote them (Zukofsky). It also seems important to historicize the sense that avant--gardism is necessarily tied up with some desire to reject the past. This is undoubtedly true for *some* aspects of early 20th C a.g., but not even all of them. I just don't see Charles' (unironic) reading as unusual, and I also think his reading of Loy was a more earnest gesture than simply doing penance for the Marinetti.

    Robert Archambeau
    I should point out that I didn't think of "arriere-garde" as an accusation, but as a description. William Marx and Perloff do a service, I think, in making the distinction between avant-garde (emphasis on newness and anti-institutionality) and arriere-garde (emphasis on continuation/expansion, less anti-institutional if those institutions help with their cause, etc.). As for the rejection of the past: well, in the historic avant-garde (say, up into the 1920s) I think this is a pretty central feature, though I hesitate to make universal claims. It is one point of difference between the modernism of Pound and Eliot, which was interested in a revival of aspects of the past, and the a-g of guys like Marinetti or Tzara or Khlebnikov. Anyway, I didn't mean to imply that CB was ever an avant-garde guy -- he's been called that, but I think only because we haven't had a very subtle terminology, and I think "arriere-garde" in the Marx/Perloff sense helps in this regard.

  7. Bob,

    Thanks for the reply. In regards to this notion of the historical avant-garde being defined by a wholesale "rejection of the past," I think that is too easy and overblown. An artist like Schwitters wanted people to see Rembrandt in his collages; Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov loved the classics; Breton sees the unconscious in ancient art; Pessoa adored Camoes; Pound the Vorticist was deep into the past. So to try to build the case for an arriere-garde as new beleaguered guardian of tradition, vis a vis a blindly nihilistic avant-garde, seems a bit strained to me.

    Regarding another point you make above, I'd say that the institutionalization we see of the "post-avant" (a term synonymous with your "arriere-garde," no?) is both ironic and *not* ironic.

    On the one hand, I'd see the irony in two things, mainly: 1) The incredible speed at which the Langpo/post-avant absorption has happened and 2) the virtual absence of acknowledgment and reflection upon the fact of it, as if the now-professionalized and proper climate of things were a natural, perfectly healthy state of affairs, with no real bearing on poetic politics, vision, and possibility.

    On the other hand, there is NO irony in the *process* of legitimation and institutional capture, which is an old story, of course. No one is ever going to change the elemental forces of that dynamic...

    But what is interesting right now (returning to the ironic vector of things above) is the utter paucity of any open, sustained questioning of, or challenge to, the general situation. It's all pretty much taken for granted: Younger poets, by and large, with their "innovative" portfolios at the AWP, have come to assume that such professional habitus is the way things will always be and should be. And why not? In American poetry we now have a situation of polite Official bipartisanship, a sort of Poetic Parliament, wherein rituals of decorous debate adorn basic agreement that the general relations of production and their institutions are to be upheld. See American Hybrid for poignantly frank acknowledgment of such attitude.

    To me, a different--simpler and more accurate--way to understand the "arriere-garde" would be this: not as a sub-cultural condition existing via some kind of provisional, tactical choice, some kind of Adornean holding action in defense of an "a-g tradition" (though Adorno provides a handy excuse!), but as a sociological denouement without true agency, a high-velocity domestication of things broadly analogous in effect to the fate of grunge, say. I realize the comparison may sound humorous, given features of scale. I'm completely serious.

    We now have our neo-New Criticism; we're now back to waiting for the next New American Poets. I doubt very much they'll come from the arriere-garde MFA programs...

  8. And speaking of arriere, avant, and youth, please forgive, but I can't help share this link from a new "video sharing website," about to be launched by some younger (and serious) culture jammers. They've just sent it to me, asking if it's OK to have their main page devoted to a torqued excerpt from the essay on traduction by Alexandra Papaditsas, my co-traducer of The Miseries of Poetry.

    I thought Alexandra had been completely forgotten!

    Long live youth.

  9. Hi Kent,

    I can respond to a couple of things before I catch the train:

    "Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov loved the classics; Breton sees the unconscious in ancient art; Pessoa adored Camoes; Pound the Vorticist was deep into the past."
    We may be splitting hairs, but I don't think of Pound as an avant-garde writer, really, nor Pessoa -- the term "avant-garde" to me is more specific than "experimental." I tend to go with the Peter Burger usage. As for Breton: the past he loved was various, but mostly a remote past where 'art' had not yet been separated out from other activities like ritual. And Russian Futurism? I see the "Victory Over the Sun" move, the idea (similar to Italian futurism) of freeing the self from the burden of the past, as if we lived in the first dawn, as central.

    "So to try to build the case for an arriere-garde as new beleaguered guardian of tradition, vis a vis a blindly nihilistic avant-garde, seems a bit strained to me."

    The idea (Marx's -- but I like it) is that the arriere-garde is interested in preserving the legacy of a very particular avant-garde past, not the past in general.

    As for a fuller explanation of the concept of arriere-garde in the sense I'm using it, I really do recommend poking around in the essays Marx collected.

    Gotta run.


  10. PS -- I in no way meant to call the old a-g nihilistic. I don't think Marinetti's manifesto is the manifesto of someone who believes in nothing. I mean, give it a listen!

  11. Bob,

    Iconoclastic a better word than nihilistic, I suppose.

    What you are saying is all very interesting to me, and I hope you took my response as reflecting that.

    On Pessoa, an argument there: I was just talking the other day with Joshua Kotin, a brilliant guy you also know, and he sent me this entire dissertation by someone on the Czech a-g, totally fascinating (most of them became functionaries in the Communist government). And we were discussing a bit how there are all these nations whose avant-garde formations are so little known, even though those were far from merely derivative of the better known cases. The Portuguese avant-garde is a case in point, and Pessoa was at the heart of it. They had their manifestoes and major scandals, too--the main journal was called Orpheu. But as you say, splitting hairs a bit, on that. Have a good train trip!

  12. Thanks for the link to your previous thoughts on manifestos. I find myself agreeing with most of your analysis there. It's the condition of pluralism itself that denatures the strength of a manifesto, as it quickly becomes just one more clamoring voice in the choir. How can one be sincere when all around can only be ironic?

    I admit I've been guilty of a pseudo-manifesto or two. I've found myself writing in rebellion against the apparent dominance (in criticism and in discussion of poetry) of both LangPo and neoformalism, which I frankly view as two sides of the same coin, in that they are dominated by ideologies of form over content. I've written about trying to find a third stream (harking back to Bly's essay "Leaping Poetry" and some critical studies of Lorca and Whitman) of a kind of poetry apparently lost amidst the postmodern clamor, a poetry which seems to embarass lots of folks nowadays; that is, something sincerely shamanic, vatic, earthbound, or as Gary Snyder describes it, holding ancient Paleolithic values. (Clayton Eshleman's "Juniper Fuse" might be one example among others.) Ron Silliman himself went out of his way to comment on my blog in refutation; he folded my attempt to define a third stream back into his School of Quietude moniker, thereby easily dismissing it. It always seems to be Us vs. Them with these folks.

    So I don't know if writing manifestos does any good. As you say, the times are not fertile ground for the practice. I avoid writing manifestos by writing opinionated essays, which I suppose is just a dodge: when you're trying to write something passionate about something you care deeply about, it can fall on deaf ears if the form itself (manifesto vs. critical essay) is taken for granted and dismissed. That so many poets seem unable to be unironic about manifestos themselves is a sign of the times, and the cynicism behind that is art-historically Mannerist also.

  13. Oh, I'm sure you're right about the predominance of form, in one way or another. And I'm pretty sure this is the product of a long-evolving set of conditions that encourage specialization in all things (I mean, in the Middle Ages art and religion and politics and popular entertainment were often fused in a single institution -- we're different). I think it's also a product/cause of the relative marginalization of poetry since its very-brief moment (in the Victorian period) as a prominent art. I'm not nostalgic for that moment, since it tended to turn poetry into a vehicle for middle class ideology (think of Tennyson's newspaper verse, of Kipling's). The poet was a kind of public intellectual then, sure, but remember: public intellectuals don't tell audiences what the intellectual thinks -- they tell the public what that public already thinks. There's no freedom in that, unless you happen to have the same opinions as the public you speak to. But I digress, and anyway that's all part of the big-ass book I've been working on, which is years away from being ready.


  14. >I think it's also a product/cause of the relative marginalization of poetry since its very-brief moment (in the Victorian period) as a prominent art.

    A question, Bob:

    Was innovative American poetry as culturally marginal during the sixties as it currently is, its production now solidly housed inside the Academy?

    To be sure, such institutional location is not the only reason for poetry's "relative marginalization," but it certainly seems to have some relation. It's by no way a given that poetry, even the more formally challenging kind, is destined by "Post-Victorian" historical forces, or whatever, to occupy such minor, inbred position: The proof is that there are plenty of other national cultures where poetry still enjoys a prominent, venerated social place. Interestingly, in none of those cultures has poetry yet been thoroughly professionalized into tenure-track pursuits.

    I mean, there ARE historical forces! But we poets also seem to like them and to enjoy helping along with the processes of (Gramsci!) hegemony.

  15. >Was innovative American poetry as culturally marginal during the sixties as it currently is

    I meant fifties and sixties...

    As in when anti-Academic poets were getting big spreads in Life and Time, reading on the Tonight Show, debating William Buckley, getting argued over in the Partisan Review, and so forth.

    Times have changed, but we have tenure...

  16. Was innovative American poetry as culturally marginalized in the 50s and 60s as it is now? Wow. That' a big question. I could shoot my mouth off with what I think is the case, but really, I haven't made it to that point in my research yet, so I'd just be talking a load of shit like the next guy.

    I will say that I'm deeply suspicious of any purported golden-age of massive interest in poetry, and that I do have some actually-researched stuff that references the 50s coming out in Mary Biddinger's book "The Monkey and the Wrench," which should be available this month on Amazon. But it's pretty limited.

    To really answer your question, we'd have to look at sales figures and readerships then and now, media coverage (quantity, but also what is really being covered -- was Time-Life beatnik coverage really about lit? I don't know -- and the different shape of the media landscape, which makes comparisons difficult), and a whole lot of other factors. It's intriguing, and I want to get there, but for the next year I'll mostly be doing work on the fin de siecle. And I think I should note that it's important to try to approach the question as if one didn't have a dog in the fight: too often, people who glamorize the past do so with an agenda about the present that they allow to warp their representation of how things were. One can't ever get to true disinterest, but there are degrees by which one can approach it.

    As for other places where poetry matters -- well, I always send people who ask about that to Declan Kiberd. I quote what I think of as a really wonderful passage here:

    Anyway. I don't take it as a given that poetry should be more important than it is. I mean, maybe it should. But do we really know this? Or are we just wishing the world cared about what we care for? There's probably an answer that gets beyond the bleat of people who want more prestige and influence, but I don't think we have such an answer.


  17. I'd also add that the phantom that haunts us -- the idea of a time when a poet could write something and expect it to be well-received and have influence, while still expressing the poet's particular world-view rather than speaking the values of the audience -- is probably just that. The courtier poets wrote for a tiny elite, and were not generally critical of it from some idiosyncratic position. Milton? Well, he wrote his great work after he had been rendered politically impotent, and did so for "fit audience though few." The Romantics generally were fugitive figures with little influence (Byron's an exception -- he embodied, and wrote out of, a sense of angry isolation that happened to resonate with swathes of the population). Tennyson was a big deal, but he felt he was writing things he didn't really believe. Then cheap paper and popular semi-literacy changed the economics of publishing, and the social sciences matured to the point where people weren't turning to men of letters for social information, and the brief (fraught, compromised) interlude of poetic popularity came to an end. Enter Mallarme. Modernism was a minority concern for sure -- though for a while some of it became popular as a marker that one was opposed to pop culture and mass society. I suppose the Beats were a scruffy later version of this. This is all more or less in accord with Declan Kiberd's thesis that poetry becomes popular when the populace doesn't feel its concerns are getting expressed elsewhere (think of Yetushenko in Russia). But now, every malcontent can find expression and connect to his fellow-feelers online. Which is probably a good thing. Unless what you want is to A. write poetry and B. make the world do as you say via your poetry and C. be celebrated, as a poet. Of those three things, I only really care about A, myself, though what I really care about lately is writing criticism.

    Hmmm. Too much coffee, obviously. But that's as close as an answer to your question as I can give.

  18. Bob,

    I appreciate the historical illustrations there, and that erudition (which you almost always manage with casual flair) is one of the reasons I'm a regular reader of Samizdat. But I don't see how you could have read my comment as suggesting the fifties and sixties were some "golden age of massive interest for poetry." Or that I was "glamorizing" it, as if farmers were reciting Ginsberg and O'Hara, like they used to recite Longfellow or Bryant. With my question, I was, as you were, framing things in relative terms.

    It's obvious that the social space of "experimental" poetry (i.e. non-academic poetry--which is how the battle lines used to be drawn) was very different then. And that difference would also seem to have had some relation to the public curiosity and controversy (some of it quite prominent, as I mentioned) the NAP poets engendered. Not much doing by way of that today, unless one counts Rae Armantrout getting interviewed on the Newshour for the Pulitzer.

    With the marked exception of the Beats, I doubt sales figures for the period would show poetry had a larger public market than now (publishing was a completely other thing then, anyway). But it does seem the sociological case that (again, relatively speaking) the post-war bohemian, "anti-institutional" stage of innovative poetry succeeded in generating at least a more *diverse* audience than academic arriere-garde poetry does today. A lot of the anecdotal evidence for that seems sort of quaint to us now, I realize: painters and poets gossiping together nightly in bars; jam-packed jazz-readings at coffeehouses; Ginsberg and Kerouac in the press and with hordes of groupies; poets consorting with folk singers and the latter trying to be poets, too; fishermen and the City Council hotly debating Olson's letter-poems in the Gloucester Times; Levertov read by great numbers on the war... But, do you see what I mean? The habitus was broader, the audience arguably less targeted and specialized, at least incipiently so. My point in the previous comment, then, wasn't that it was a golden age, but that it was a less institutionally closed period for poetry than the one we have today. And because poetry is in no way separate from its social context and is made from it, the difference (what it is, and how it might be reconfigured) seems worth considering.

    Now, having said that, it's also true that the New Critics enjoyed a definite public prominence and influence, a much greater one than academic critics and poets do currently. So there are other factors in play regarding all this. And what I'm saying is in no way meant to imply poets shouldn't have an academic role, that the academy is a terrible thing, or whatever. That's not what I'm saying at all. It's just that what was once a vibrant, productive cultural tension seems to have pretty much disappeared, and I think we might benefit from questioning a bit more the larger impacts of our new "post-avant" professional surround.

  19. I've been doing a lot of reading on the 50s and 60s, not only the Beat biographies and critical works but also books such as John Suiter's excellent "Poets on the Peaks," which is about the summers in the 50s that Snyder, Kerouac, etc., spent doing firewatch in the Cascades, and the impact that had on their work and lives. I can't speak authoritatively, but I've been getting the sense more and more from my reading that the 50s and 60s did not marginalize poetry quite the same way it's done today. Or rather, thanks to the revivals going on at the time, largely generated by the San Francisco Renaissance and its accompanying post-War fertilizations, that poetry was less ignored than it is now.

    The New Critics had the academy, and the whole split between the Old and New was being acted out in public. That any poets WERE featured in Time/Life remains remarkable, that they were featured at all means they were visible in the public zeitgeist, not below the radar; that hadn't really happened in Time Magazine at least since Robinson Jeffers was on the cover in the 30s. One gets the sense from the histories that, because of the San Francisco Renaissance and the revival of public poetry readings that was part of that, that poetry was much more in the public eye, much less ignored. Poetry was part of the happenings, the be-ins, even the musical avant-garde events organized by the likes of Cage and Tudor and the ONCE Group in Ann Arbor. This was tied in with the jazz scene, too; all those albums and performances with poets accompanied by jazz groups; Kerouac's album with Steve Allen; but also some of the things Brubeck and others were doing, that were trying to include poetry performance as part of musical performance. This was also happening in electronic tape music, with work by Pierre Henry among others. I can think of several other examples, but i admit it's entirely possible that they stand out in higher relief in retrospect, more obvious to us now than they were at the time. THe histories I've been reading seem to indicate a public consciousness of all this fervor, though: the public WAS noticing the avant-garde in the 50s and 60s, and poetry was part of that.

    So it may have been a brief peak in public interest in poetry, that subsided again later. Like a spike of signal emerging for awhile out of the generally noise background radiation. Can't say for sure. But I do get that impression.

    (I must also disclose that my knowledge of and interest in the period may be atypical, as I am the direct descendant as a composition student and poet of some of those folks prominent in the 50s and 60s avant-gardes, having studied directly with members of the ONCE Group, among others. So maybe my impressions are heightened beyond the norm.)

  20. Oh. Hey. I didn't mean -you- were glamorizing that era. I was thinking about a whole other crowd -- mostly Gioia and Johh Barr (they're in that essay of mine coming out in "The Monkey and the Wrench"). But I can see from the way I wrote that it was ambiguous.

    I hear you about anecdotal evidence. But I'm hoping, eventually, to get beyond or behind that (I'm not there yet!).



  21. The Time/Life prominence of the Beats is an interesting moment you both mention, Art & Kent, and I think it merits taking a long look at. I mean, what was really being hyped? It could be poetry. It could be something extrinsic or semi-extrinsic to that (sex, rebellion, novelty). My working hypothesis, which I really haven't tested yet, is that in midcentury America the growth of mass culture created a backlash in certain segments of the population, who wanted to express discontent. Poetry happened to stand outside mass culture -- so the one big crowd Eliot got at the baseball park in Minnesota was a rallying point for this. And so was the whole Beat phenomena. But perhaps (and I mean perhaps) the Time/Life treatment of the Beats was less an affirmation of them, and of poetry, than it was the beginning of the "commodification of dissent" that Thomas Frank writes about in "The Conquest of Cool."

    I'm sort of chomping at the bit to get a chance to really test that idea out.

    And there are corollaries: the Beats catching on to the commodification of their dissent, and ironizing/profiting/kitsch-ifying it in the "Rent a Beatnik" phenomenon, where they'd get paid to go to stylish parties as token radicals.

    Anyway -- I don't really have much of a foundation for this hypothesis. Just spitballing.


  22. Commodification of dissent, perhaps. Or perhaps co-optation. Some more cynical part of me has always wondered if it didn't contain an element of freak-show bread-and-circuses: you know, look at those weird free-love anarchistic bastards? That kind of thing.

    Reading some of those Time/Life articles, though, it's not clear to me that it was any of the above. It would be interesting perhaps to find out what some of the commentary magazines of that era, such as The Nation, thought about all this. Those secondary sources might support or deny the hypotheses on the table.

    From the histories and biographies I've read, though, I do get the sense that it was a real attempt to find out what the buzz was all about. At least maybe for the reporters, if not the publishers.

    I'll be curious to read what the fruits of your eventual research are on all this.

    As an afterthought, it occurs to me to propose that Ginsberg and Kerouac were so popular—aside from all the other contexts talked about so far, such as the more open climate for readings, etc.—because each wrote a seminal work that even their detractors read and had to deal with, whether they wanted to or not. Both "Howl" and "On the Road" hit a cultural nerve, away and beyond anything else any of the Beats ever did. The phenomenon may be that it was two zeitgeist-crystallizing works that caused all the buzz; perhaps there is a relevant comparison to what Dickens achieved a century earlier, with his novels of social criticism. Just riffing on this at the moment.

  23. Paul Mann's book "The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde" (1991) covers this territory pretty exhaustively, but it strikes me that the assumption that all avant-gardes want to lay waste to tradition isn't necessarily true. What about Vorticism, for example? Was it arriere-garde, too, or, even more strangely, arriere-garde ahead of its time?

  24. Hi Emmet,

    I suppose it all depends on how you define avant-garde. I tend to stick semi-closely to Peter Burger's notion, which has at its base the idea that avant-gardes take issue quite specifically with the institutions of art. Would Vorticism fit? Its always seemed more concerned with form than institution to me, which would indicate that it is more modernist than avant-garde, (again, using Burger's terms -- by, say, Renato Poggioli's terms, Vorticism would probably be a-g).

    Arriere-gardism (in Marx's sense, and Perloff's) isn't just about revering tradition -- it's about revering avant-garde tradition. Which can take one to some interesting places, with contradictions and ironies -- which is what I was trying, in my bumbling way, to explore.

    I remember the Mann book -- I should give it another look. It's been a decade since I read it, and its all a bit hazy in the memory.



  25. poets should invade occupy MOMA and start burning canvases until the curators agree to sell half their collection and give the money to poetry cadres . . . poets rise up and attack the cultural institutions that oppress you!