This paper was delivered on 29 November 2003 as the Keynote Address
at Negotiations: Writing, the Academy and Publishing, the Eighth
Annual conference of the Australian Association of Writing Programs ,
University of New South Wales, Sydney, 27-30 November 2003.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to 'The New and its Reproductive
Practices'. I begin this way because, coming to Australia for the first
time, I was struck by how this unfamiliar expression, spoken without irony
apparently, could be used to grab hold of some basic problems embedded
in the teaching of writing. Are we as teachers put willy-nilly in the
role of 'ladies and gentlemen' who are addressing students from an unavoidable
position of power, making them willy-nilly 'boys and girls'? There's the
obvious but unmentionable fact that 'ladies and gentlemen' reproduce,
with the eternally interesting corollary that they don't reproduce themselves,
but rather produce 'boys and girls'. The analogy is tricky, and woe to
the teacher and student who mistake the relation between them as parental.
But some sort of generational reproduction, production and mutation is
going on in teaching situations: teachers, students; writing, reading;
novelty, repetition. Old writing can be taught and learned; new writing
can be learned but not taught; old writing can teach new reading; good
teaching can teach bad reading. Bad teaching can produce good writers.
Plus the reverse of all these. In this talk the notion of the avant-garde
will continually obtrude in the midst of such swirls although it will
hardly be a fixed point of reference. Sometimes I'll describe it as an
evanescent delusion, sometimes as a centuries-old tradition established
with surprising firmness. Often I'll sidestep the fussy provenance of
the term, which some say should only apply to Dada and Surrealism in the
early 20th Century, and simply use the vaguest and slipperiest of all
adjectives, 'new'. My basic question will be: Is the new always what will
turn out to have the greatest value in writing? Such equations are inflammatory
- who says what's new, who says what's good? And even if we provisionally
assume that the new is the good or is the best index of the good, how
can it factor into the regimes of Creative Writing or of literary study?
Isn't teaching by definition one, two, or a hundred steps behind the new?
You may not agree with that. But the new does fit awkwardly into the actual,
bureaucratic-inertial, market-tormented pedagogic situations that we find
ourselves in, though it plays a larger role in the imagined pedagogic
situations we might like to create. I want to agitate these questions
productively, though I won't pretend to answer them. Along the way I will
discuss the following: the structures of Creative Writing and of literary
study and the possibility of building a bridge between them; the proper
punctuation of 'poet critic', the antithetical concepts orthodoxy and
orthopraxis, the possibility that Ern Malley is the ideal Creative Writing
student; a narrative of the trouble the new has in staying new; and, finally,
one of my poems.
To conclude my introductory remarks I'll cite another striking Australian
speech act, this one by Paul Dawson yesterday: 'We're all bored shitless
by the old question of whether or not writing can be taught.' It is
a boring question, but not, I think, because it has been answered long
before now. Paul, forgive me for elaborating like this on what was after
all a throwaway comment, but I suppose I find 'bored shitless' compelling
because it is a close cousin to the self-deconstructing feeling that comes
over me when my lives as a writer and a teacher of writing align awkwardly.
In those times, I'm not sure that writing as I experience it
can be taught, or at least that I can teach it. I'll read a bit from the
middle of my poem, 'A Body', which will clarify what I mean. I'll pick
it up at a moment which treats poetry, quite ironically, as a valuable
art-commodity such as an Impressionist painting. The next lines begin
in similarly ironic fashion, but suddenly turn things upside down into
a highly serious and slightly campy lyrical evocation of Shelleyan poetic
transcendence. The phrase 'intense inane' comes from Shelley's Prometheus
Unbound, which I was teaching at the time I wrote the poem. This
outburst of lyric theory ends with 'syntax exhibitionists' and 'weather
fetishists', which I then deflate by mentioning school. Again, this can
be heard as irony, but I think it is also quite honestly saying that I
learned to write, very indirectly to be sure, in school. Thus, to anticipate
a phrase you'll hear in the excerpt, all my poetic truths are second-generation
truths. No originariness. A few more comments: the first use of 'cruellest'
is misspelled with only one 'l'; and 'skyey' is another Shelleyism; the
penis quote is from Freud's paper on Fetishism; there are many other detourned
... A poem should offer steady
increases in meaning for the foreseeable
future; it could skyrocket like Impressionism
in the eighties. Poetry is a
pyramid scheme, an inverted one,
whose point flickers as I breathe,
and whose base is pinnacled, so
to speak, in the sky - technically
speaking, in the intense inane:
the concentrated vacuum of linguistic openness.
From that utopia, in ways invisible
to the present, the roofless malls
of a biomorphic future earth will
descend, offering test-sites for syntax exhibitionists
and narrative flashpoints for weather fetishists
- at least that's what I was
taught in school: April is the
cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of
the dead land, mixing memory and
desire. I remember sitting in front
of rectangular walls and pages, occasionally
identifying with the revealed meanings but
more often losing myself in the
distances. I learned that there are
two l's in cruellest, neither one
the same; two e's; an r,
a u, an s, a c;
and a t: some of the
more evocative letters in our arsenal
of weaned sound, endlessly murmuring their
2 generation truths. The same lives
and difference kills and names it,
that's how history continues pronouncing this.
The woman still has a penis,
but this penis is no longer
the same penis. Something else has,
so to speak, been appointed its
successor. The rise of the intellectual
fits in here, but nobody can
say exactly where without the exactitude
being guaranteed institutionally, which then generates
the problem of an institution to
report home to, be in bed
with, however chastely, and to rise
above in dreams. In the focused
but hypnotic specificity of the self
the setting might involve the dark
tents of innumerable students surrounding an
illuminated opera house, a nipple of
light commanded by the heights of
the dream vantage. Inside, the audience's
employment is sacrificed on performance night
for the salvation of the professionals.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
and what I assume you shall
assume: a world, whose collective eyes,
tuned to mutually provocative codes of
pleasure, drop tears as fast as
the Arabian trees their med'cinable petroleum.
Set you down this, and don't
forget to specify the funding lines
to guarantee both the kinks and
the articulation of the culture rubdowns
that will, as you say, somehow
or other generate those skyey malls
I'm sure we're all anxious to
check out just as soon as
they're up and running. But now,
when we squint upwards, bright bands
of UV fall from the air,
irradiating the spectrum and making national
colors glow fiercely. What rough beast,
its hour come round at last,
slouches toward Jerusalem to be born?
Poetry has been moved to aisle
12, between the get-well cards and
The Pedagogic Structures of Creative Writing and of Literary
Creative Writing has achieved the status of a professional discipline,
at least in the eyes of university administrators. Those eyes might not
light up with pleasure and respect at the thought of it, but funds are
authorized so that salaries can be paid, florescent lights, toner, and
chalk can be purchased. And once a critical mass of chalk, toner, florescent
lighting and paychecks has been reached, conferences like this occur.
It may or may not have a coherent intellectual structure, but Creative
Writing does by now have a history and an increasing presence in university
curricula. And there is strong student demand for it, something that always
makes administrative eyes light up.
In the USA it is the rare university where literary criticism is not at
odds with Creative Writing. The hundreds of university Creative Writing
programs there, are almost without exception places where hostility to
theory, to intellectual approaches to literature, and to innovative writing
are the rule. During my formative years in the Language Writing scene
in the 70s, it was a matter of course to attack the aura-driven, faux-charismatic,
unambitious poetry coming out of writing workshops. I've gotten the impression
that things are not quite the same here. Creative Writing programs seem
more open to theory and to innovative writing; though I also get the impression
that things are not totally different and that something of the same stand-off
between English Departments and Creative Writing programs occurs here
as well. In America, many professors feel that the Creative Writing teacher
has a great scam going. On Monday the English professor taught 'Lycidas'
and discussed pastoral elegy, Moschus, and why 'pastures new' enrolled
Milton in Virgil's trajectory of eclogue, georgic, and epic, the classic
career shape of the major poet. Wednesday the syllabus dictates the first
book of Paradise Lost; thus the English professor has to find
some time Tuesday night to review Empson's Milton's God and Stanley
Fish's Surprised by Sin. But the Creative Writing teacher's class
only meets on Fridays, and since there will in all probability only be
time to workshop three student poems before the break and two after it,
the teacher only has to read five student poems to prepare for class.
The students are supposed to have read each other's poems carefully and
to have prepared comments on them, but since any poem being workshopped
will be read aloud in class first, they know that they don't have to do
anything at all before showing up in class. The Creative Writing teacher
is aware of this strategy as well, and will take advantage of it if Thursday
night is not conducive to class preparation.
Thus, in terms of structure and content, the English professor has reason
to disdain Creative Writing. Aren't Aristotle's Poetics, Coleridge's
Biographia Literaria, Auerbach's Mimesis more intellectually
compelling than, say, Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get That
Red? Isn't 'Sailing to Byzantium' a more notable object to spend
a class period on than the first 15 lines of free verse that an 18-year-old
student has ever written? Nevertheless, no small part of the professor's
disdain toward Creative Writing can be ascribed to the narcissism of small
differences. Literary criticism has a richer history than Creative Writing;
but 'richer history' doesn't necessarily translate to 'more coherent structure'.
Viewed pessimistically - some would say realistically - the history of
literary criticism can be seen as no more than a succession of changing
fashions of scholia. At the beginning of Anatomy of Criticism
Frye observes that if literary criticism isn't producing something as
'coherent and progressive as the study of science' (10-11), then most
literary scholarship in the academy is 'merely an automatic method of
acquiring merit, like turning a prayer wheel' (11). (These days, as all
too many English professors know, the publication wheel is far from automatic
in its revolutions.) One of Frye's initial premises is that literature
cannot be taught: one doesn't '"learn literature"', he writes,
'what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly,
the difficulty often felt in "teaching literature" arises from
the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism of literature is all that
can be taught.' Anatomy of Criticism did attempt to produce a
coherent and progressive structure, but of course its attempt at structure
is no longer in fashion. Thus, can't it be said that the teaching of literary
criticism amounts to little more than an attempt to inculcate students
in its current fashions? Where the Chemistry professor in effect is saying,
Here is the periodic table, and here are the steps by which you will learn
its structure and ramifications, the English professor is saying, I read,
and in this class I will help you to read. And isn't that what also happens
in Creative Writing: I write, and in this class I will help you to write?
Crowning the bitterness of criticism's narcissism of small differences
is that Creative Writing is more popular with students. As a pedagogical
subject, literature has more prestige, but it is residual prestige - possibly
like the classics in Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th Centuries,
though that may be too pessimistic a comparison. Still, in the quasi-market
of the university, Creative Writing is the growth industry. In the United
States recently, the governor of Kentucky, lobbying to cut funds for higher
education, dismissed the activities of English professors with the observation
that all they do is 'write pointy-headed articles for itty-bitty journals.'
The governor was speaking from the long and glorious tradition of American
Know-Nothingism, which is all too alive and well in the States. I think
you have your own strain of it here. I may have the phrasing wrong, but
I believe it's something like the Tall Poppy Syndrome, an active vigilance
against anything out of the ordinary. While the complaints that students
don't read, that they come from homes without any books, that music and
images on screens are the only media they accept, are not unrealistic,
an even more potent enemy of all kinds of verbal pedagogy is such Tall
Poppy vigilance, the revulsive reflex that greets any new word or novel
combination of words. If it were simply a matter of deprivation, the teacher
of literature or of Creative Writing would be welcomed like a person arriving
in a subsistence outpost with a wagonload of goods. And it is one of the
most gratifying classroom scenarios to have the students happily receptive
to all the depth and variety of your knowledge and eager to learn more.
We all, I hope, have had the good fortune to encounter such students.
But they do not make up the whole of the classroom population, and it's
that armor that many students instantaneously deploy against all violations
of prescribed codes that makes teaching so frustrating and can turn the
classroom into a blurry, cynical version of the avant-garde rhetorical
situation: 'You don't like this? You don't get this? Well, here's something
weirder to hold an even sharper mirror up to your hideously placid narcissism.'
Perhaps the happy few among you have never experienced such moments.
Self-deconstruction can be distorting, like when the protagonist of Confessions
of Zeno learns that there are 42 muscles involved in taking a step
and then limps through the last two-thirds of the book. There may be no
objectively rigorous subjects in either literature or in Creative Writing
classes whose structure can be abstracted from the contexts of teaching;
nevertheless, in both venues teaching and learning do occur, often very
successfully. Teaching in either discipline takes work, tact, willingness
to try many frames and approaches; it's a pragmatic enterprise. It is
shot through with complexes of ideas; but these ideas have little independent
existence: they need to be grasped and activated by the students, and
this activation modifies them. In the best-case scenarios, it's not that
teachers emerge from the class knowing less than they did at the beginning,
rather, that what they know is different than it was when the term began.
This remains a profoundly troubling reflection for many teachers since
it valorizes a weakly democratic regime where the teacher's knowledge
and expertise count for less than the students' initial states of preparation.
I began by setting the diligent English professor against the Creative
Writing teacher who was a total slacker. But we can tilt the playing field
in the other direction as well. 'Lycidas' and the history of pastoral
elegy will be accepted by the English major, but will be of little use
in reaching the general student. For these students, who after all are
the large majority, Creative Writing is a more directly effective approach.
If a student can be induced to write something new, then they
may later begin to get interested in reading something new. By validating
their own activation of writing, Creative Writing can get them to loosen
or shed their own armor.
Connecting English 88 to English 118
Next semester I will be teaching English 88, American Poetry from Whitman,
Dickinson, and Dunbar to the Present, and English 118, Advanced Poetry
Workshop. Logically, a student should take poetry survey before the workshop.
How can you write without a vocabulary of poetic gestures? Then again,
students who have written poetry are always better equipped to read unfamiliar
poetry than other students. So the workshop should be a prerequisite for
the poetry survey.
The literary field is inescapably jumbled up historically - William
Carlos Williams's Spring and All from 1923 is brand new for most
students semester after semester. But sequence is constitutive of pedagogy.
The thought of teaching a literature syllabus in chronological reverse
always intrigues me: to start with what is most known to the students,
the present, and build backwards toward the unfamiliar past. Isn't that
what Creative Writing does? It starts in the present, although the trajectory
is not toward the past; the goal is to build toward a future that doesn't
reproduce the present
Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis
But the familiar, unliterary present has powerful inertia. If we think
of writing as a commercial product, then it's a buyer's market, where
we often have to spend most of our time attracting the consumer. As a
reminder that things can be otherwise, here is an example of a seller's
market: the acolyte tries and tries to have the Zen master accept him,
waits outside the snowy mountain cave for days and days, but the master
consistently tells him to go away. There's more drama to the story, which
I don't remember. All that remains for me is the final detail, the act
by which the acolyte succeeds in being accepted: he cuts off his arm and
presents it to the master.
Talk about prerequisites! That acolyte's violence was an example of orthopraxis,
which is a term I take from Mary Carruthers's The Craft of Thought:
Orthopraxis is a category developed for the comparative study of religions,
specifically Christianity and Buddhism. Orthodox believers seek...to
reproduce the experience of learning from the teacher, whose teaching
lives on in authentic texts, verbal traditions or creeds. An orthopractic
adept, by contrast, seeks to achieve an immanent experience of the divine
equivalent to that of the founder, usually by following a devotional
practice presumed to be similar. Orthodoxy explicates canonical texts,
where orthopraxis emphasizes a set of experiences and techniques...
Because it seeks an experience, an orthopraxis can never be completely
articulate... Orthopraxis in a concept not unique to religion.
Isn't innovative poetry permanently orthopractic, challenging prior poetic
orthodoxies? Or has that orthopractic challenge become an orthodoxy?
Ern Malley the Ideal Creative Writing Student
Pop quiz: 'Ern Malley is the ideal CW student.' Discuss.
CULTURE AS EXHIBIT
Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds... Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
(There is a meaning for the circumspect)
Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles,
A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy
Over the sunken sodden breeding-grounds!
We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper
To clog the Town Council in their plans.
Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.
I have been noted in the reading-rooms
As a borer of calf-bound volumes
Full of scandals at the Court. (Milord
Had his hand upon that snowy globe
Milady Lucy's sinister breast...) Attendants
Have peered me over while I chewed
Back-numbers of Florentine gazettes
(Knowst not, my Lucia, that he
Who has caparisoned a nun dies
With his twankydillo at the ready?...)
But in all of this I got no culture till
I read a little pamphlet on my thighs
Entitled: Friction as a Social Process.
What? Look, my Anopheles,
See how the floor of Heav'n
Inlaid with patines of etcetera...
Sting them, sting them, my Anopheles.
Here, McAuley and Stewart exhibited quite a high level of familiarity
with the latest literary developments. They identified actively (if only
for 8 hours) with the position of avant-garde provocateur. They broke
out of the mold of jejune self-centeredness by collaborating. Despite
the fact that their attitude seems to have been scorn of the new and thus
common sense might say that they were acting on behalf of literary orthodoxy,
wasn't the activity of Malley orthopractic, nevertheless? 'Pound, Eliot
and Breton seem to throw together all sorts of crap without serious thought,'
said Ern, 'I too will throw together all sorts of crap without serious
The Proper Punctuation of 'Poet Critic'
Slashes vs. Hyphens. At times I identify myself as a poet/critic, at other
times a poet-critic. A hyphen suggests an amalgamation of the two disciplines;
a slash keeps them separate, poetry staying on its side of the fence and
criticism on its side. The poet/critic wears two hats (or has two heads);
the poet-critic wears a single hat, but is it advanced or just a hybrid
grotesquerie like the construction that Flaubert places on top of Charles
Bovary's head at the start of the novel. In the hyphen moments, when I
want to join the two, I think that criticism should work like poetry in
its unfixed, exacting, historically nuanced use of word, sound and sentence,
in its emotional sophistication and resistance to institutional routines
and gravity; and then that poetry should work like criticism in its awareness
of others, its sensitivity to the mixed conditions of many other minds
in the present, minds that don't necessarily find the verbal universe
to be a reassuring playground.
But I have to admit to many periods of unease about the unifying hyphen,
which can suggest a lonely triumphalism, i.e. narcissism. I can feel,
and feel quite strongly, that poetry is scattered throughout all cultural
signifying practices. This is an old and frequently made observation.
Shelley makes it in his Defence of Poetry; Roman Jacobson's essay
analyzing the poetics of the slogan 'I Like Ike' provides a cogent logical
demonstration. Charles Bernstein writes, in 'What's Art Got To Do With
It' (in the same book that contains the essay 'The Revenge of the Poet-Critic'
with a hyphen ),
'The poetic is not confined to poetry but rather is embedded in all our
activities as critics, teachers, researchers, and writers, not to mention
citizens. When we use figurative language, which is just about whenever
we use language at all, we are entangled in the poetic realm' (43).
But then again, students aren't automatically aware of this. Shelley's
'Defence' confuses many; or, more simply, they just don't buy it. 'Architecture
is poetry, law is poetry, textile manufacture is poetry - fine. But that
doesn't make me like poetry any better.' Many students would be happier
if poetry was poetry, and criticism was criticism. The case is no easier
when it comes to prose. The joke is 300 years old. In The Bourgeois
Gentleman M. Jourdain wants the pedantic Philosophy Master to write
a letter for him. Does he want it in verse or prose? What's 'prose'? Whatever
isn't verse. The punch line - that the bourgeois M. Jourdain, aspiring
to the status of gentleman without the requisite social capital, has unwittingly
been speaking prose all his life - still circulates. 'Moliere's bourgeois
gentleman discovered he'd been "speaking prose" for forty years,
without knowing it; has clinical social work theory been cutting edge
without knowing it?' Nor is the Philosophy Master's distinction completely outmoded:
as a last-ditch definition prose and poetry are whatever the other isn't.
Moliere's deft humor remains apropos: while the pedant is simply foolish,
M. Jourdain's confusion pinpoints a crucial question. He takes pride in
his sudden intimacy with prose, but he's not sure whether it's a universal
ability or whether he's special.
Finding that's one's subject has universal application is refreshing,
as when Frank O'Hara uses popular culture as his criterion of judgment,
writing in 'Personism' that in American poetry only Whitman, Crane and
Williams are better than the movies; but then again it's refreshing to
give up trying to force universality down everyone's throats: as O'Hara
writes in the same piece: 'If people don't need poetry, bully for them'
The Trouble with Innovation
A fable: When it comes to innovative writing, the present, the cumbersome
obvious present, plays the most uncanny trick on the new:
While that is something of a true story it is also a deadpan schematization
that exaggerates the inefficacy of the new by isolating the temporal dimension
of writing. New writing always becomes old writing, the shock of avant-garde
Dada in WWI Zurich leaves behind a few posters and collages which fetch
high prices in auction houses seven decades later; and what looked like
the mentally deranged typography of ZANG TUUM TUUM is reproduced with exacting
solicitude in an anthology of innovative writing. Paul Mann, in The
Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde
traces such cycles from cataclysmic rupture to routinized critical practice
with grim determination which takes away all hope of the avant-garde ever
staying ahead of anything. As I will say in thumbnail form a little later
in this talk, If the new reproduces it's not new.
After a period of coalescence, the new emerges into the present. There
must have been some fortunate hours or it wouldn't have emerged at all.
But the hours were fortunate and the new does emerge, energetically.
Having done so, it fortifies its identity by focusing its aim, which
is to progress directly and unambiguously toward the future. It streamlines
its modes to get there more quickly and to separate itself from its
compromised, conservative, mildewed rivals. After intense stretches
of invention, self-presentation, polemic, self-correction, gathering
articulation and further invention all happening more or less simultaneously,
a time comes to take stock of how far it has progressed.
Now the present is no nimble magician; there is no sudden revelation
from behind a flashing cape. But it happens every time: the new has
not reached the future: for all its ferocious velocity it finds itself
stuck fast in the past. Nostalgia becomes an occupational hazard at
But the paradoxes involved in the notion of an avant-garde tradition
are foundational to any attempt to teach experimental writing. Despite
the strictures of theorists like Mann and Peter Bürger,
it is quite possible
to discern something very like an avant-garde tradition stretching back
for at least a century. Counter-institutions are now in place, allowing
the avant-garde work to circulate far beyond any original groups or coteries:
criticism on Gertrude Stein is easy to find; Charles Olson's 'Projective
Verse' appears on many a syllabus; the influence of Susan Howe and Leslie
Scalapino is pervasive in some new poetry magazines.
For Creative Writing and for literary study, the present facts of contemporary
writing, outside the classroom, have the function of a necessary avant-garde
or whatever you want to call it, towards which pedagogy should strive.
The New and its Reproductive Practices
If time is a one-way, irreversible continuum the past will always resolve
into a receding vista of periodizing terms: Post-Language, Language Writing,
New American Poetry, Objectivism, High Modernism, Romanticism. For some,
the Avant-Garde is visible right behind High Modernism; others, though,
place it in front; others see it everywhere; still others don't see it
at all. Many reproductions of the vista are sold each year; most omit
the Avant-Garde. All versions of the view ironize vanguard aspirations;
iconoclasm always becomes 'The New is Dead, Long Live the New!' a salute
to the unchanging reign of Continuity.
The partisans' place in the synchronous literary field is embattled;
but our temporal claims are secure. Breathing space in the present may
be circumscribed, but the present opens securely onto the future; and
the past is under control as well. It can be destroyed as with the Futurists,
or shaped by definition and identification. A list of some representative
stances: Stendhal enlists past writers into his partisan fight for an
emergent Romanticism: 'Moliére was romantic in 1670, because the
court was full of Orontes and the châteaux in the provinces were
full of very discontented Alcestes. Actually, ALL GREAT WRITERS WERE THE
ROMANTICS OF THEIR DAY' (145).
Baudelaire sets up a two-state solution, granting autonomy to both the
present and eternity: 'By "modernity" I mean the ephemeral,
the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the
eternal and the immutable' (497).
Zukofsky's capsule poetics in 'A'-6 unites the past; an observed,
multiform present; and the future as he asks for writing that is 'objectively
perfect / Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars'
The salient aspect of this formula is the assertion of control: the art
work is objectively perfect and coincides exactly with the direction of
history. In this, Zukofsky is quite like Eliot: 'The existing monuments
form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction
of the new (the really new) work of art among them.' In asserting his
power to enter and to change the past ideal order, Eliot idealizes his
own power under the name of the new; Zukofsky's claim of perfection does
the same, although the power is put in history's name.
It's awkward to yoke Eliot with Zukofsky or with any partisans of innovation.
The strain is evident in the single word 'monuments' Eliot uses to designate
literary works. This gesture of proto-institutionalization anticipates
his full conversion to exaggerated respectability and assiduous genuflection
to the triumphant theologic literariness he invented. He never acknowledged
the invention nor the triumph, instead acting out a pious self-extinction
in the service of tradition: 'We shall often find that not only the best,
but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead
poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I
do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of
full maturity' (5, 4).
To reach full maturity is also to enlist in the ranks of the dead. As
for mere living, that's for 'impressionable adolescence.'
If Eliot's dead ventriloquizing poets are subtracted, the 1988 quasi-manifesto
by six Language Writers makes a claim on tradition that is structurally
similar to Eliot's in one way. For us the avant-garde tradition was as
crucial and established a fact as Eliot's tradition. Language Writing's
emergence was not 'an unusual narrative. Developments of such collective
activity have characterized the history of the avant-garde' such as 'the
Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, and New York schools of poetry.'
In a move that, again, has surprising similarities to Eliot, we assumed
a position of normative maturity as we called those who repressed or were
ignorant of our tradition parochial: 'On analogy with the visual arts,
where the "avant-garde" is felt to be a virtual commonplace,
the situation of poetry is as if the entire history of radical modernism...had
been replaced by a league of suburban landscape painters' (261, 2). Unlike
Eliot, we emphasized community: our basic principle was 'not the "self-sufficiency
of language" or the "materiality of the sign" but the
reciprocity of practice implied by a community of writers who read each
other's work' (271).
But it was our community, defined solely by the activity of reading and
writing, temporarily free from larger social striations and antagonisms.
The general pattern, where power over history is wielded to solidify an
embattled position in the present literary field, is maintained in Steve
Evans's recent online castigation of the journal Fence.
(15) The ferocity of the charge of apostasy against
the avant-garde is clear from the title, 'The Resistible Rise of Fence
Enterprises': change 'Fence Enterprises' to 'Arturo Ui' and you have Brecht's
allegory of Hitler's rise. Evans draws a fiery line between the avant-garde
and writing that is merely 'linguistically innovative,' or 'experimental'.
The avant-garde is distinguished less by any formal distinctions than
by its sociality; it is 'collective and contentious'; its core values
are 'solidarity, integrity and generosity'. But without the 'imaginative
work of connecting [its] expressions back to the social forces, contradictions,
and struggles that animate contemporary life', the avant-garde falls into
'formalism'. This is the fate of Fence, which supports, for Evans,
merely a 'facile pluralism,' selectively appropriating 'radical poetic
techniques, shorn of their contexts and motivating commitments'. Borrowing
Adorno's description of compromised atonal composers, Evans predicts that
such a 'despicable artistic credo' will only produce 'a respectably routined
neo-academicism'; 'self-flattery' that mistakes 'linguistic for social
structures', it has no future and is merely a 'spent poetics...the radical
imagination has already left...behind'. Because it is not avant-garde,
Fence is expelled from history.
My section heading promised an account of reproductive practices, but
there's been precious little in evidence. If it occurs at all, reproduction
occurs, not in the secure realm of history, but in the embattled social
spaces of the present, with the inevitable danger of becoming reproducible,
routine doxa, some 'respectably routined neo-academicism'. If the new
reproduces it's not new. Existence itself, if continued, problematic:
how can extending across the temporal boundary of the present moment be
distinguished from extending across spatial, institutional boundaries
that separate a Fence magazine from the genuine avant-garde?
If the continuous and the contiguous aren't destroyed, fenced off, ignored,
they will dissolve the avant-garde community. Controlling extension is
fundamental to avant-garde self-fashioning.
But extending the circulation of new writing is fundamental to teaching.
So here my attempts to zigzag back and forth between avant-garde and new
meet heavy weather.
The drive for innovation, coupled with the claim that it is by definition
politically efficacious, continues the momentum of a basic modernist legacy
which innovative poets and critics have been living and writing under
for close to a century. Under the dispensation of this legacy the news
and the new have been synonymous, both nouns standing for the central
value organizing all battles for poetic position. 'Make It New' describes
the impulse governing significant writing. How to determine what is significant?
'Literature is news that STAYS news.' In other words, the new is news
that stays news. Inside this circle the problem of poetry's social authority
is solved: poetic knowledge ceases to be merely specialized; heterodox
poetry is united with universal history. But this only works for the partisans
of the new; it makes little sense in the classroom.
Aliens have inhabited my aesthetics for
decades. Really since the early 70s.
Before that I pretty much wrote
as myself, though young. But something
has happened to my memory, my
judgment: apparently, my will has been
affected. That old stuff, the fork
in the head, first home run,
Dad falling out of the car
- I remember the words, but I
can't get back there anymore. I
think they must be screening my
sensations. I'm sure my categories have
been messed with. I look at
the poetry anthologies in the big
chains and campus bookstores, even the
books in the small press opium
dens, all those stanzas against that
white space - the poems just look
like the models in the catalogs.
The models have arms and legs
and a head, the poems mostly
don't, but other than that it's
hard - for me anyway - to tell
them apart. There's the sexy underwear
poem, the sturdy workboot poem you
could wear to a party in
a pinch, the little blaspheming dress
poem. There's variety, you say: the
button-down oxford with offrhymed cuffs. The
epic toga, showing some ancient ankle,
the behold! the world is changed
and finally I'm normal flowing robe
and shorts, the full nude, the
scatter - Yes, I suppose there's variety,
but the looks, those come on
and read me for the inner
you I've locked onto with my
cultural capital sensing device looks! No
thanks, Jay Peterman! No thanks, 'Ordinary
Evening in New Haven'! I'm just
waiting for my return ticket to
have any meaning, for those saucer-shaped
clouds to lower! The authorities deny
any visitations - no surprise.
myself deny them - think about it.
What could motivate a group of
egg-headed, tentacled, slimier-than-thou aestheticians with techniques
far beyond ours to visit earth,
abduct naive poets, and inculcate them
with otherworldly forms that are also,
if you believe the tabloids, salacious?
And these abductions always seem to
take place in some provincial setting:
isn't that more than slightly suspicious?
Why don't they ever reveal themselves
hovering over some mainstream publishing venue?
It would be nice to get
some answers here - we might learn
something, about poetry if nothing else,
but I'm not much help, since
I'm an abductee, at least in
theory, though, like I say, I
don't remember much. And this writing
seems pretty ordinary: complete sentences; semicolons;
yada yada. I seem to have
lost my avant-garde card in the
laundry. Maybe the aliens took it;
they say that's typical. Maybe I
never had it. Well, you'll just
have to use your judgment, earthlings!
Judgment, that's your job! Awake or
asleep! 24/7! Back to work now!
As if you could quit! And
you thought gravity was a problem!
Now, I'm biased of course, but while I find this poem to have more secure
knowledge about pedagogy and the avant-garde than I do, I'm not sure exactly
what that knowledge is. It seems a rather anti-pedagogical poem. How is
the earthling, that is, the addressee, that is, the student, to learn
judgment? The alien voice of the poem simply says that it is inescapable.
But does that mean that judgment can't be taught? Isn't judgment the most
important thing to teach, whether in Creative Writing contexts, or in
literature classes? Isn't judgment the most essential element of a vital
literature, one that is both civically active and artistically ambitious?
I hear these questions calling out for an answer beyond my own opinions:
in other words, I will stop here, and solicit your comments. My last point
is this: that the avant-garde in its beginnings was aimed against conventional
social judgment; whereas now, writing of any kind, if it aspires to be
new, must activate the social processes of judgment as widely and vividly
as possible. I'm using judgment here as an open-ended process, without
an already-known ethical answer.