Graywolf has just now published New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer—English-language translations of 290 European poets writing in forty languages. Most of the translators are reckonable or noted or famous poets. Only a few of the poets being translated are well known, so the book has opened new ground for me.
One thing I notice is that not so many of the poems fiercely resist summary, paraphrase or decipherment. To judge by this anthology, Europe has begun to pull away from experimental extremes. Meanwhile, the April issue of Poetry is a translation issue, and one of the new poets in it, Hakan Sandell, is presented as having founded a new movement called Retrogardismen (Retrogardism), whose purpose is to recapture some of the abandoned means of earlier poetry for new poems being written today—apparently because he felt that Language movement was too “contemptuous” of its own medium to produce work that the public would follow. I suppose we could connect his stance with developments in the U.S. currently being described as “post-avant,” shorthand for “post-avant-garde” or perhaps “post-postmodern.”
That’s all fine, but these jargonistic terms are really awful. They fracture the ear, certainly, and they also keep perpetuating a misleading temporal metaphor for artistic production, a fiction based on beforeness and afterness. That is, they suggest that experimental work, opaque, difficult, disjunctive work, non-linear, surrealistic, fragmented work, dissonant, high-low, raw, radical work, and whatever other terms apply, is somehow always ahead in time of other kinds of artistic production. One of the earlier blogs here (February 29) exploded the fiction that the avant garde can now be considered new, that it inhabits the future in ways that art more readily understood can never be. And perhaps it truly was new in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Rimbaud first kicked over the glittering epergne of Parnassianism. By now, however, the “avant garde” is moving toward its 200th birthday. That doesn’t disqualify it where enlightened interest and appreciation are concerned, no more than regular, speech-based modes for conveying content in poetry are disqualified merely because they have centuries of successful use behind them. That goes for poetry using meter and rhyme as well. QED: It long ago stopped making sense to adopt the temporal metaphor as a way of locating or describing approaches to writing poetry.
What would work better is a spatial model. We should envision two parallel, forward-moving boundaries running from earlier centuries up to the present and on from here into the future. One boundary (let’s say, leftward, or westward on the compass) exhibits the aesthetic of what used to be called the avant garde, in all its disparate variety. The other boundary, to the right hand or the east, embodies the sequential, speech-based mode. Neither liminal vector is going to be abandoned. We will continue to see work produced close to either extreme, I mean, as long as art continues to be made. Individual artists will establish themselves between the two boundaries at the point where they believe they produce their best work. They may locate themselves closer to one guard-rail during one period of their active life as artists, and closer to the other at a later period. (For example, early Auden was close to the westward boundary; later Auden moved toward the eastward boundary. Early Adrienne Rich is situated close to the eastward boundary; later on, she moved westward.) Meanwhile national fashion will sometimes swing westward toward the harder stuff, and sometimes eastward toward the more familiar style. These swings are dictated by many forces, including the psychological numbness that always sets in when everybody does the same thing over and over, decade after decade. We seem now to be moving eastward after about two decades in the west. Artists who were at one date unfashionable may suddenly be “discovered” when the swing carries taste over to their side. Others will go out of fashion for the same reason. Once these spatial coordinates are in place, it’s stimulating to begin placing artists somewhere along the continuum: Khlebnikov is far west, Mandelshtam much less so, Akhmatova closer to the eastern boundary. Early Lowell is west, Life Studies Lowell is east, the Lowell of History back west again.
Anyway, my main assertion is this: we should drop the temporal metaphor used ad nauseam to describe where art is going. Otherwise we’ll soon see blogs posted under the title “The Latest Thing: Post-Post-Post-Post-Modernism.” Nonsense! And not even a good joke.