I want to start in reiterative way, quoting a substantial extract from something that appeared almost exactly ten years back. I believe the passage frames some central facts of what was a transitional, revisionist time for U.S. postmodern poetics—one with which our current “avant-garde” predicament is deeply intertwined. Not long before that piece was published, leading Language poets, in talks and blog posts on the eve of the Iraq invasion, had taken to berating the Poets Against the War phenomenon, disdainful of the “righteous monologue” and “digestible messages” (as one of them had put it)1 that ostensibly vitiated the mass project as so much kitsch-like naiveté. Still, it wasn’t as if some bleak mood of aesthetic negativity encompassed the innovative poetic day. Far from it, in fact. At the time, the first and second-generation core of the “post-avant” was already—well in advance of the grand Obama illusion—stepping into something like its sudden “Yes, We Can” moment. Here is the excerpt:
An American poetic avant-garde? If, as Peter Bürger argues in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde, the concept should be understood as defining a collective, self-conscious, and insistent attack on the “institution of art and literature,” with the aim of reintegrating art “into the practice of life” (i.e., to revolutionize art’s very purpose and being), then it would be hard to find evidence of an “avant-garde” meriting the title today. In Bürger’s view, one with which it’s hard to argue, the historical avant-garde failed in rather evident ways, its artistic products reintegrated not into “the practice of life” but into the “practices” of the very cultural institutions it set out to assault. Although Bürger’s ideas are seldom cited by contemporary poets and critics, his study holds important lessons relevant to the current situation of American “innovative” poetry [….]
Of course, more than any other literary current of the past quarter century, Language poetry (or more broadly, now, as the inter-generational term goes, the “post-avant”) has been associated with the idea of the “avant-garde.” In its formative stages—an intense phase of iconoclastic critical/poetic activity (a phase peaking, perhaps, around the mid-80’s)—it had a credible claim to the term. But save for occasional nods to the original passions, the radical ideals have been largely shed, and it’s now clear, to increasing numbers of observers, that this current, in repetition of the process of earlier movements from which its praxis had importantly been drawn, is well on way to being absorbed into the larger, high-literary culture it once claimed to reject. Language poetry, along with its various second-generation satellite formations, now stands as an experimentalist, but respectful and loyal, opposition within the Parliament of Academic poetry. The “post-avant” is the mode that ambitious young MFA’ers study; it is the creative writing “style” scores of publishers are seeking; it is the aesthetic pedigree rising numbers of awards are prizing; it is the criticism and theory that prestigious university presses are publishing; it is the “subversive poetics” the neo-conservative President of the Modern Language Association has made her reputation promoting. [….]
Now, there is little question the conclusions innovative poets have drawn about the culture industry’s reach and power are well-grounded. And so it’s deeply ironic, to the nth degree, that one of the key postulates in current post-avant polemics urges the increased propagation of “avant-garde” works into the structural functions of that very same cultural apparatus. Thus, the exigency of the moment, as leading figures of the “new poetries” have lately made clear [Note: Charles Bernstein and others are cited to this effect elsewhere in my original comments], is not the development of radically sovereign zones of aesthetic and critical dissent; it is, rather, that the institutional venues of “Official Verse Culture” be prodded to make themselves more open and hospitable to experimental, “difficult” forms of writing, so that these last might be granted the broad divulgation and esteem they deserve [….]
Clearly, the process of normalization has now entered its later stages, marked by handsome “dissident” books of Ivy League provenance, Visiting ‘Opposition-Poet’ residencies at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and proclamations of poetic “difference” delivered with shiny name tags at the MLA and AWP per annum. It’s time to ask: What has gotten things from that rather high-hoped beginning to this rather ho-hum expiring? How and why has the American poetic “avant-garde” gone from a vital utopian radicalism to what is now, despite lingering self-proclamations of outsider status, an open, self-greased slide toward professionalization and institutional accommodation? [….]
Those remarks were part of my contribution to “Avant, Post-Avant, and Beyond,” an online forum hosted by Web del Sol magazine.2 It wasn’t very popular to say such things back then. After all, the existence of a vibrant anti-“Official Verse Culture” faction was taken for granted at the time, by most folks on the avant scene. So what if a flurry of triumphs had come its way? The novelty of such relative prominence and respectability for the Language (and post) formation, after embattled years on the margins, would understandably have been felt by many as a welcome breakthrough, of sorts.3 I recall getting a spate of emails that reproached me, in one way or another, for alarmist excess. But those old musings of mine will now seem, or should seem, pretty self-evident and quaintly dated by all the confirming water that’s gone under the non-syllogistic bridge. Certainly, the emergent denouement I wrote about a decade past is by now a kind of entrenched, complacent rapprochement. In the fruition of integrationist goals first candidly floated fifteen or so years ago, the institutional avant has come to be—across its late-LangPo, Hybrid, and ConPo spectrum—something akin to our Democratic Party of Poetry.4
To be sure, it’s not a matter of assigning any particular “blame.” The Culture Industry does what it does, high and low, openly or furtively and all the way down to its esoteric locales—with logics sometimes slow, sometimes swift: Up until U.S. radical poetry’s precipitous mutual embrace with the Academy,5 for instance, it used to take some reasonable quantity of time—through palpable, contradictory process—for innovative currents to get annexed and assigned their place of recuperation. Even up through the late 80s, much of post-war formal-vanguard activity (e.g. the NAP and early, “heroic” stage Langpo) remained relatively resistant to institutional assimilation, even as contemporaneous neo-a-g currents of the visual-art world (see Bürger) were by then well enmeshed with the Museum habitus. But the absorption of experimental poetries in the recent conjuncture has had little to do with relatively gradual inertias of canonical evolution; the process, rather, has been more like a runaway feedback loop, the formation’s purportedly oppositional energies now smoothly recouped by sanctioned circuits and protocoled channels into cordoned reserves of polite and ultimately compliant “dissent.”
Two correlative propositions: A) The axiom that radically modernist modes of formal and conceptual difficulty immanently enact, against degraded mass culture, measures of ethical function and value (i.e., that the pursuit of “non-assimilable” forms is a higher means for establishing viable zones of cultural resistance and autonomy) is a chimera we’ve mistaken too long for antithetical virtue. That warmed-over Adornean notion, though rarely articulated these days, is the still-pervasive mood of our post-avant field, and it’s in dire need of being stood on its anachronistic, passive head. B) “Avant-garde” activity, when exclusively, or even primarily, governed by precepts of formal novelty, is readily (will now rapidly be) domesticated and harmlessly disseminated as ethereal commodity by the dominant sphere; high-modernist “difficulty” has been, for a long time (since at least—it is a suggestive moment—the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom), in fluent accord with the High-Culture administrations of Capital. Thus, deeply networked into accelerating processes of institutional-ization, professionalization, and legitimation, a largely formalist and genteel post-avant finds itself, too, on authorized exhibit: the most academically dependent and fashionable poetic milieu since the apogee of the New Criticism—nothing less than the tail side of the Official Verse Culture coin…
A [see above, #4] is immediately evinced by the fact that formal strategies associated with a-g expression can be, at different historical conjunctures, and under differing ideological signs, adaptable to Left or Right political predilections. Witness Jacobin Russian Futurism and its communist LEF heir, on the one hand, and Fascist Italian Futurism and its phallocentric Vorticist offshoot, on the other. Or openly revolutionary, heroic Chilean CADA conceptualism of the 1980s, on the one side, and hyper-cynical, Museum-craving U.S. Conceptualism of our day, on the other.6 There is no politics inhering in poetic form proper, and no meaningful form of politics resides in any poetics that would assign privileged, teleological value to generic textual “advance.” Any new “avant-garde” poetics worth the historical resonance of the term will need something qualitatively more than aesthetics alone—something beyond mere prosody and theory. Something that would be, in principle, perfectly pragmatic, straightforward, and in the most venerable traditions of anti-capitalist commitment.7
Which is to say (and with as little theoretical abstraction, here, as I can say it): If there is to be a genuinely radical political-poetic praxis, one that efficaciously sustains a fervent challenge to the official centers of cultural and political authority, the initial, provisional task of avant poets will be—must be—to establish an independent, militant Left poetic front: a unified, insurgent agit-bloc—one functioning as a democratic confederation of autonomous local councils, but moving in coordinated action and resistance when required, in tactical alliance with other forces of progressive resolve. Poets in other nations have often risked their very lives in similar effort and wager, and sometimes paid for it; why can’t Left American poets, relatively secure as we are, carry out an analogous move to see what it might engender? History shows, in many instances, that poets achieve, when reaching beyond their narrow literary purview and in collective fashion, a significant voice and role in periods of nascent rebellion, when bold, iconoclastic intervention is demanded. But only in instances of purposely collective action has this happened. And only so long as historical vanguards have maintained this principle of programmatic, collective resistance have they remained sovereign from the High-Culture Industry’s entrapments and supervisions.
In the main, opening steps for getting things underway, as per above, needn’t be, in fact, too logistically onerous at all. For hypothetical example: Left poets, starting with those, let’s say, in whatever sympathetic orbit of this journal, could take a year to discuss, debate, and plan, via an open listserv, an all-welcome founding conference. As an informal, provisional steering committee, their goal would be to draft a general manifesto of guiding principles to present at a first gathering. That draft document would be put up for a vote to the assembly, and if approved, an elected, short-term coordinating committee would incorporate additional suggestions and amendments. Editors of the front’s periodical, press, and website would be chosen by the assembly, with terms of office given. A call would go out for the establishment of local chapters, councils, or cells organized along the internal democratic principles established in the national charter, and with the mission to undertake freely chosen and wide-ranging actions—not least, acts of bold, non-violent civil disobedience. The long-term goal (the poetic focus and composition of the front, again, only a provisional step) would be nothing less than the building of a national Left Front of the Arts, encompassing cultural activists across genre disciplines, political traditions, and aesthetic dispositions.
Crucially, a nationally chartered formation, along some semblance of the above, would in no way supersede already-existing poetic-political formations. It would be critical that these continue to exist, both independently and as tendencies or factions within any broader coalition. The creation of a greater, democratically organized poetic front would simply and materially constitute a step up, a dialectical elaboration that earlier formations would have, in their efforts and vision, helped prepare—these groups now taking a leadership role to give national reach and program to a wider cultural resistance.8 And such reach and program will, in fact, only be accomplished through pluralistic difference, comradely dialogue, and (when required) hard polemical debate between multiple tendencies.
The main challenge Left U.S. poets face today is not so much how they may write effectively political texts; the challenge, rather, is how Left poets may create an extra-textual context for the collective development of unsuspected modes of revolutionary poetics writ large—and which will likely have, in the bigger vista, only partly to do with standard codes of authorial production and property. There should be no more wringing of hands on the correct relation between poetry and politics, because that is, ultimately, a false problem, grounded in modal, disciplinary reduction. The establishment of a large-scale, organized agit-bloc will solve such overripe dilemma in one fell swoop: the search (with all assumptions bracketed) for effective paths of political writing inside collective thought and action will be, by the very case of its ideational location and dialectical unfolding, radically political. Ipso facto. Political poetry must become much more multifarious than words on a page. Let’s not think that we can, where we are, yet imagine how…
Revolutionary forms and modes wait to be conceptualized. But these new ways of poetics, if they are to be enacted and to matter, will not emerge from safe, quasi-mandarin Academic locations (when, after all, has a truly insurrectionary art ever come from such sites?); they will emerge from sovereign zones of political-cultural organization and struggle, as has always been the case. As in (variously and always incompletely) Berlin Dada, the early Soviet LEF, international Surrealism, the Nicaraguan Ventana Front, the Black Arts Movement, late-Soviet era Conceptualism, the Situationist International, and the Chilean CADA. Left U.S. poets should, without delay, seek to build our expanded version of movements like these—a multi-cultural, cross-disciplinary, federated structure the likes of which there’s never been in the American arts. The global crisis is without parallel; the vision should be that audacious.
Quixotic, many will say. Very well, then, the attempt would be quixotic. That’s precisely why it should be ventured. One thing we do know, beyond doubt: Our currently atomized, ad hoc condition of “opposition” isn’t giving Left poetics a tremendous amount of civic bump, in any noticeable sense. What would be the arguments, at this overly late, urgent date, for not taking the stab at a qualitatively higher level of program, organization, and action beyond mere coterie? What failure, really, could there be? Do we regret the quixotic interventions of the Situationist International, for instance? Or the quixotic, death-defying lessons of the CADA? It’s time to try. Defeat, too, can provide inspiring example.
Regarding the inverted commas that keep appearing around the term that is the occasion of this forum: Any emergent agit-bloc core seeking to build a broad cultural insurgency should want to reject the term “avant-garde.” It will not declare any vanguard place or function; it will earn some-such reputation, if ever it should, through a militant creative persistence, uncompromising democratic process, and active, principled outreach to (as should be suggested by remarks above) poetic/cultural camps beyond the “experimental,” recognizing that prosodic, aesthetical experiment is, precisely, a contingent category of praxis, one that may eventually be trumped, at particular junctures, by alternatives of language and risk not foreseen—not excluding ones partaking of the kinds of purportedly “righteous monologue” certain poets of the institutional avant have derided in the recent past.
And none of which means, for sure, that the recondite and careerist post-avant of our moment is going anywhere else anytime soon. It is, if anything, likely to keep growing. Indeed, we might hope that it does, for the time being, in its institutionalized, Corporate/State-subsidized form, for much of its conservationist activity, however self-servingly configured, is certainly of use-value, and in potentially rich ways. No one’s scoffing at the impressive archival earnestness of PENNSound, for example, and anyone who would be badly misses the point. To the institutional avant’s careful exclusivities, an agit-bloc front would offer comradely inclusivity—including to them. No self-criticisms demanded of anyone.
One more suggestion, in regards the above: If there is to be a qualitative break into something more, an agit-bloc poetic wing will have as component of its mission the deployment of unsparing satire and polemic against the comforts, hierarchies, and hypocrisies of the literary field proper. Not so long ago they called this Institutional Critique, a concept that seems to have gone off radar in these cautious, professionalized times. Critique must not just be turned “outward” toward the greater political arena; it must simultaneously, organically, be turned toward the ideologies and behaviors of the poetic sphere itself, and, not least, upon the privileges and blithe accommodations of our Academic-avant set, which will mean, no doubt (for many of us will still be connected to it, in manifold, paradoxical ways), that a new agit-bloc will be engaging in plenty of self-satire, too. How could it not? After all, what right would a breakaway, insurgent-Left poetics have to any global social critique if it couldn’t attend to the actually existing power structures of its own general economy? What credibility and authority would it have, if it didn’t recognize its own poignant limitations and incompleteness? Who would believe it? Humor and satire, in all directions . . .
The next ten years, if we get them, could be unusually interesting ones, poetically speaking. Or they could be more of the predictable, recent same. In that latter case, and as the saying more or less goes: From the comfortable institutionalization we more deeply desired, we will have gotten the High-Culture scraps we deserved. A Left poetics will either find a way of taking its fate under radical measure, or it will stay conveniently mediated and coddled, letting other forces decide what horizons poetry may have.