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From The Mind

The Retro Avant-Garde

by Alfred Corn

In contemporary poetry being “dated” is clearly a cardinal sin, but no one seems to have said why. Obviously, all works of art have a date of manufacture, and when that recedes into the past they can be seen to be “dated.” Fine. So how long is the “shelf life” of a poem? Ten years? Should there be a volunteer policing committee that gathers on December 31 of every year to assemble a list of poems about to pass the ten-year mark? And then, the next morning, word will go out that these poems may no longer be read by self-respecting, sophisticated readers.


Why is being “now” the most important quality a work of art can have? And who decides what “nowness” is? Is the criterion of up-to-dateness in the arts different from the policy of planned obsolescence in car manufacture or fashion in clothes? Obsolescence is one of capitalism’s most powerful resources in getting consumers to throw out perfectly usable goods and replace them with new ones, increasing profit as well as industry’s carbon footprint.


Back in the Sixties I remember apologists for the French nouveau roman criticizing other novelists who used standard narrative techniques because their novels “could have been written in the 19th century.” This, even though such novels included items like cars, phones, TV, Fascism, and nuclear weapons. Young people like to feel that they are innovators, so I swallowed that argument back then; but I have no current interest in the nouveau roman. Not because it’s now “dated,” but simply because there isn’t enough of interest in it to justify rereading.


In the late Seventies, I witnessed the rise of the LANGUAGE movement and of course the same argument was made. One could no longer use the traditional techniques of poetry because they belonged to the past. Narrative and personal experience were “dated,” and equally misguided was the notion that language could represent or signify anything at all except language itself. To cling to outmoded props such as meter and rhyme was to be absurdly out of fashion. Obsolescence as decreed by literary factions is a formidable enemy; you don’t want to be on the wrong side of it.


Thirty years later it’s fair to ask if LANGUAGE and Postmodernism in general are “dated,” at least if contemporaneity is the most important quality a work of art can have. Thirty years is a long tenure for an artistic movement. Properly viewed, the huge outpouring of “experimental” writing that began in the Seventies and that continues up to the present minute was “dated” even back then. If we must always dismiss current literary productions that resemble those in earlier periods, then Postmodernists should admit that theirs do also. Precedents for the methods of non-linear organization, pure verbality, and disjunctiveness are numerous, found in many earlier writers — everything from Pindar to Gòngora, from Mallarmé and Rimbaud to Spanish ultraísmo (ca. 1919), from Dada and Surrealism or Italian Futurism and Russian zaum, from Gertrude Stein to Vallejo’s Trilce, to Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962), everything from Concrete Poetry and Oulipo of the 60s to French poets like Denis Roche and Anne-Marie Albiach of the 1970s. Maybe the general arguments behind LANGUAGE and POMO are plausible, but the main justification cannot be that this is all new. If poetic methods used in earlier decades must be scrapped, so must LANGUAGE be scrapped. If not, not.


In 2008, Graywolf published New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer — English-language translations of 290 European poets writing in forty languages. Reading through it I noticed that not so many of the poems fiercely resist summary, paraphrase or decipherment. To judge by this anthology, Europe had begun to pull away from experimental extremes. Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that the April 2008 issue of Poetry was a translation issue, and that one of the new poets in it, Hakan Sandell, was presented as having founded a new movement that he calls Retrogardismen (Retrogardism). That movement’s purpose was to recapture some of the abandoned means of earlier poetry for new poems being written today — apparently because he felt that LANGUAGE was too “contemptuous” of its own medium to produce work that the public would follow. This stance resembles developments that have been described as “post-avant,” shorthand for “post-avant-garde” or perhaps “post-postmodern.”


Pillar to post: all such terms perpetuate a misleading temporal dimension for artistic production, a fiction based on beforeness and afterness. They suggest that experimental, difficult, non-linear, surrealistic, fragmented work (or whatever other terms apply) is somehow always ahead in time of other kinds of artistic production. Wrong: the moment has come to explode the fiction that the avant-garde can now be considered new, that it inhabits the future in ways that art more directly understood never can. The avant-garde truly was new in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Rimbaud first smashed the cut-glass epergne of Parnassianism. But the “avant-garde” is now moving toward its 200th birthday. The mere fact of the avant-garde’s advanced age doesn’t automatically disqualify it from receiving interest and appreciation, no more than familiar, speech-based modes are disqualified merely because they have centuries of successful use behind them. The same applies to poetry using meter and rhyme, which is regularly cited as poetry’s most “dated” approach of all. But it long ago stopped making sense to adopt the temporal metaphor as a way of locating or describing approaches to writing poetry. I’ll range into recent critical jargon and say we should prefer a “synchronic,” as opposed to a “diachronic,” approach to describing poetic composition.


What would work better is a spatial model. We should envision two parallel, forward-moving tracks running from earlier centuries up to the present and on from here into the future. One track (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 track, to the right hand or the east, embodies the familiar speech-based mode. Neither of the two tracks is going to be abandoned! We will continue to see valid work produced on both tracks. Individual artists will establish themselves between the two tracks at the point where they can produce their best work. They may locate themselves closer to one guideline 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 extreme; later Auden moved toward the eastward one. Early Adrienne Rich is situated close to the eastward track; later, she moved westward.) Artists who at one point became unfashionable may suddenly be “discovered” when the swing carries taste over to their side. Others will go out of fashion for the same reason. Though the avant-garde approach will continue to be used by some artists, it has no monopoly control of the future. Net-net: we should drop the temporal metaphor used ad nauseam to describe the scope of art. Otherwise, we’ll soon see articles published under the title “The Latest Thing: Post-Post-Post-Post-Modernism.” Nonsense! And not even a good joke.

Alfred Corn worked on this article at Starbucks, among other people writing avant-garde pieces. Deciding the article was better than that, he went home and finished it. If curious to know more, check his Wikipedia bio.

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