Monday, April 7, 2008

Post to Pillar

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.


Sara said...

It might be worth mentioning that pharmaceuticals, improperly prescribed or monitored, can contribute to suicidal ideation.

Also, just to refine your post, I assume you don't mean to suggest that Sarah Hannah found suiciding glamorous just because she thought about it, wrote about it, and did it. That is not the case.

Susan said...

Good to see you in the blogosphere, Alfred. I take the point about temporal models, but spatial boundaries of course have their limits (sic), too! (I speak to you from an island in the Pacific, after all! From this angle, any form of development (temporal, suburban, imperial) seems troublesome.

aloha, Susan

Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi Alfred,

Thanks for another stimulating and thought-provoking post. I agree with you that we need to recognize that the temporal model, with its teleological overtones (what is the goal of art?), has outlasted its usefulness, even if one could say that there ever was such a thing as progress in art, about which I'm dubious.

I touched on this (though I probably could have developed it in greater detail) in my piece "Defining 'Post-Avant-Garde' Poetry" on my web log, to be found at In that post I cite a wonderful 1992 quote from composer John Cage, whose avant-garde credentials are impeccable: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies” (quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise, 341). This image of a spatial expanse rather than a road leading to a definite future destination, even if one not known in advance, echoes philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto’s geographical metaphor in his book The State of the Art: "there are to be no next things. The time for next things is past. [RS: nice paradox.] It [is] like coming to the end of the world with no more continents to discover. One must now begin to make habitable the only continents that there are” (217).

Take good care, and thanks again for this eloquent post.

peace and poetry,


Alfred Corn said...

Thank you for that post, Sara. I wasn't acquainted with Ms. Hannah and therefore don't assume that she had a special for regard for writers who end their own lives. My comments had to do with people in the =audience= who appear to have a special reverence for the suicide. And of course you're absolutely right: with some pharmaceuticals, the statistical risk increases. We all need to be more aware of the issues, for ourselves, and for those close to us.

Thanks, Reginald, for directing me to other sources amplifying this topic. If you, knowing as much as you do about it, estimate that the April 7 blog's description of our poetic situation now (and how it might continue in the future) is plausible, hip-hooray!
I'm one of those who prefer reading poetry to labeling it, and for whatever weird personal disposition am able to enjoy bell-clear poems as well as those that require a more speculative response. And that latitude allows me more pleasure than I'd have if I could only like work written within fiercely guarded perimeters. Poems are lenses. If you only have one kind of lens, you can see only one kind of truth.

And, Susan, it's always a pleasure to hear the sound of your voiceprint, distinctive as it is. See you in Hawaii soon, I hope.

david lumsden said...

Glad to have wandered to your blog ... this is a very interesting post which touches upon various reflections I've been having as I find myself drawn to a variety of distinctly non-avant-garde work. I have posted some minor speculations of my own here.

Reginald Shepherd said...

I came across this quote from music critic Kyle Gann and thought it appropriate to this post. It seems that musicians (at least, many musicians) have worked through these issues much more thoroughly than writers have.

peace and poetry,


“What hasn’t been recognized about the avant-garde is that it isn’t cumulative; its inventors heard through to its furthest potential almost immediately, just as modernism’s most bizarre possibilities are already encapsulated in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Ives’s chamber music. The perception that we’re at a historical dead end results from an illusion that music has been moving linearly all along; in reality, it takes hundreds of musicians decades to explore the interior of musical continents whose boundaries were already known to the first discoverers. By not recognizing that once a space is mapped out we have to learn to live in it, we’ve trapped ourselves in the paradox of ‘exploring’ the same territory over and over.”

Kyle Gann, “A Bad Connection,” The Village Voice (May 16, 1989)

Joseph Duemer said...

Alfred & Reginald: The continent metaphor is deeply clarifying. I'd suggest that we might make a chart -- for what that would be worth! -- that would include north & south as well as east & west. Say the east/west axis is as Alfred suggests here & the north/south something like: traditional forms are north & open forms are south. That would put Hart Crane in Seattle & William Carlos Williams in Miami, to pull a couple of examples from the air.

I'm sure we could toy with our compass rose to make this more than a merely academic exercise.

david lumsden said...

There's something pleasing about the whimsical relocations that this process would produce ... I like the idea of Hart Crane in Seattle and WCW in Miami. What sort of poetry would they have produced? Such a map of relocations seems somehow appropriate in this time when people move from city to city chasing work.