Is the time of any idea of an avant garde over with? Do we need more insistence on the value of aesthetic extremes? Is it important to remind people that it’s not really possible to reject the avant garde before you understand what it was in the first place? Can avant garde possibilities be found in a Stan Apps-style defining of avant garde practices, or in an impulse to unsettle accepted pieties in numerous contexts that’s both broader but perhaps dangerously general? Both? Is the idea of an avant garde old news, or one that we’ve already gone too far in forgetting? How would we know, right now, avant garde work if we saw it?and i'll only be able to address myself to those directions where a line of inquiry is clearly fleshed out, beginning with what i commented then:
i'll hopefully respond more directly to what you and others have said, mark, in a subsequent post. but for now my initial impulse is to insist that the spirit of the avant-garde is still quite vital but that it might be more useful to think less in linear/temporal orientations (after, ahead, progress) than in spatial ones (centers and peripheries).that is, there are always central locations (literally or figuratively) of cultural production, and usually those centers exercise a certain amount of control or authority over that production -- defining not only its terms but just as if not more importantly its values. and then there are peripheries of cultural production that operate to some extent without abiding by those central or dominant terms and values.
and i think this is the significant development of the past few years in contemporary poetry, namely the proliferation of peripheries relative to the centers of poetic production in this country -- and peripheries with less explicit or definable affinities for the historical avant garde.
if by avant garde we mean such peripheries, then by no means has the time place or work of the avant garde come to pass: for as long as there are those dominant centers of cultural production that would presume to dictate terms and values for other modes or production -- or worse yet, operate as if their terms and values are the only ones in existence -- then it will be incumbant upon avant garde peripheries to challenge those terms and values by boldy asserting their own.
it is only in this sense that the "historical avant garde" is not a contradiction in terms that needs to be finessed or nuanced away through the use of a term like "post avant." if anything, "post avant" means to acknowledge and attend to this apparent contradiction.
the problem with the historical avant garde, its obvious militarism aside, is the very notion of progress definitional to it. art, science, knowledge -- these do not move in a linear forward trajectory; innovations, paradigm shifts (kuhn), epistemic breaks (foucault) are registered and then consolidated, refined, even codified (so much so even to achieve power displacements in/of/at previous productive centers). extremity, transgression, innovation cannot be maintained perpetually, nor are these the sole values to which peripheries must always adhere.
take the case of gertrude stein. her primary innovative stylistic achievements are by now at least 60 years old. those innovations have been revisited & refined by poets and writers probably every decade since then. her peers in the visual arts (like picasso) have been long canonized and commercialized. (i had a print of his don quixote on my freshman dorm room door.) and yet still it is quite common today, as i pointed out in a post to the buffalo poetics list, to run across such journalistic drivel as this by one philip hensher of the daily telegraph:
"I happily admit I haven't read The Making of Americans (1934) and have no intention of doing so, since it's half am illion words long, and almost all of those sound like this: I mean, I mean and that is not what I mean. I mean that not any one is saying what they are meaning. I mean that I am feeling something, I mean that I mean something and I mean that not any one is thinking, is feeling, is saying, is certain of that thing, I mean that not any one can be. And so on and so forth. [...]it's not just that there is a set of values being articulated here -- that writers should always accommodate the demands of all possible readers, that writers should never challenge the expectations or abilities of readers, that a writer's entire corpus must be read(able) in order to be valuable, and so on and so on -- but that these values are an unchallenged and unchallengeable, uncontested and uncontestable given. there is no space wherein any deviation or dissent from these values might inhabit. to the periphery with you!, sneers these values; little wonder is it then that the periphery dweller does so gladly and proudly. (not to mention the fact that mr hensher's attempt at a stein parody is quite possibly the worst and lamest attempt at such ever.
Her charm emerges periodically in her books. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (1933) is a perfect, lucid delight; Tender Buttons (1914) sounds, not unattractively, like the work of Edith Sitwell after a pint or two of vodka; and Wars I Have Seen (1944) is disconcertingly indistinguishable in style and in every respect from the Anita Loos novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925).[...]
But was Stein really all that interested in anything? You would be hard-put to extract any cogent statement on any subject from almost any of her books."
another case in point: there's an early (1973?) article (contact me if interested to read in full) by one marjorie g. perloff that explains in great detail and with full supporting evidence how charles olson's 1950 manifesto "projective verse" derives nearly all its crucial argumentative claims and moves from the imagist and vorticist doctrines expounded by pound and williams some 30-35 years previous. olson is by this account retrograde, rear guard; and yet such an account fails to recognize that in those intervening years the force of those pound-williams injunctions had almost completely dissipated and that certain poets in 1950 needed those dictates to be reiterated afresh and anew.
personally i think this is a period in post avant writing that is most distinguished by consolidation, assessment and refinement rather than breakthroughs, transgressions and innovations. there is no perpetual innovation: at some point one must stop, look around and do some stock-taking, see what the trailblazers have done, what they have left behind, what work can be put to rest and what work still needs to be pursued.
as i write this i must also acknowledge a dimension in which there are "advances" being made, and this involves what might be called the growing post avant diaspora. that is what i referred to in my comments to mark, namely the increasing numbers of poets coming out of mainstream poetic institutions who are dissatisfied with the available mechanisms of poetic production and distribution and are turning towards those modes formerly adopted (largely but hardly exclusively) by the historical avant garde -- but without any deep or lasting affinities with the historical avant garde's varied aesthetics or politics. less vulgar minds would have once described this as a compromising or sullying of the purity of the avant garde. by contrast i see this as a quite healthy development. it also makes our work harder as there are now more books and magazines and poets then ever. welcome, fellow travellers!