History, the Aughts, and the Avant-Garde Pt. 1

What amounts to a twenty-first century version of avant-gardism in English-language poetry emerged in the first decade of the twenty-first century (the Aughts) and has now established itself in the Teens as its own gestalt form. The version of avant-gardism which flourished in vehicles like The Argotist Online, Great Works, Jacket Magazine, PFS Post, Seven Corners, and moria poetry was involved, as healthy avant-gardism always is, in exploring the complications of attempted formal-thematic innovation within the confines of a profound engagement with the history of the discipline in question. What particularly distinguished Aught avant-gardism, in the creative and critical writing of myself, Steve Halle, Jeffrey Side, and others, was a sense of the imperative to reinstate, against the henchmen-like severity of the American Language and New York School poets, the fundamental and ineluctable importance of narrative, and strong narrative voices, as a backbone of poetic discipline and practice. We in the avant-garde in the Aughts were united by a collective sense (which birthed a kind of creative compact in us) that our immediate avant-garde predecessors had delivered us, via their experiments and the methodologies which informed them, into a kind of trough or ditch which, as an expanse of creative space, confined forward progress to narrow, and intermittently inane and incomprehensible, grooves, all represented to have achieved an elite status by sanctimonious self-privileging.

As an Aught avant-grade median space, Ron Silliman’s blog, by offering posts displaying a strong and quite phallocentric narrative voice which yet espoused texts whose plummets into utter anti-narrativity were appalling and appallingly mechanized and inhumane to us, gave us a useful (if often combative) antithesis, and a direct link into the mainstream of our avant-garde predecessors; yet it is our body of completed creative and critical work (and I mean to include visual artists like Abby Heller-Burnham in this) which demonstrates the fruits of an implicit compact which dared to create roots more profoundly dug into a longer history than Ron Silliman or his compadres ever dared to be. What was ostensibly off-limits to Silliman seemed absurd to us— the major Romantics (Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth) with Milton and Shakespeare looming over them; the French Symbolists and later Victorians; and even, for the most part, Yeats and Eliot. Silliman’s historical sense was that of an aesthetic child, a historical innocent; even as his rhetorical adroitness made for compelling reading, and a sense of avant-garde centrality which was difficult, in the Aughts, to ignore. Yet, we all found ways of ignoring Silliman, the hulking man-child— and our own gardens were tended with an eye towards the very historical targets he insisted on ignoring. Jeffrey Side’s Aughts criticism, in particular (now featured in his Argotist E-Book Collected), was very germane to those with historical awareness as applied to avant-garde poetry; his own self-created critical compact was strenuous in several directions simultaneously. To be worthy of Side’s critical attention, a text would need to offer some sort of innovative edge, formally or thematically; yet Side prized texts which were able to accomplish this without losing the ambience of poetic history’s omnipresence, over and beyond any attempt at innovation; all in defense of a closely watched and guarded, self-consciously English, intellectual scrupulosity on his part.


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