I love avant-garde writing, though not indiscriminately, of course. My fondness is first for the joyful, startling prose of Marinetti, Pound, Breton, Olson, and Charles Bernstein. Their confidence in an opportunity to begin over, right now, whenever the moment—that is winning. They imagine that one decides what and how to write, and that a short essay can be a potent force. Rhetoric and typography aside, they bring to their readers a spirited rationality. Make up your mind, they say, this way or that, and then proceed. Glorious optimism and some plausibility too. No wonder that they have done so well in U.S. letters, from Whitman’s 1855 preface until now. The odd thing is that they particularly fit in the zone of letters overseen by academic critics like myself.  

The academy serves avant-gardes generously. Recently the University of California Press handsomely published Robert Duncan’s Collected Writings, three volumes at a total of 2,369 pages. Stanford University Press had already published the Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (2004), another 857 pages. California also published Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan in 2012. The same press that recently stopped publishing new collections of poetry, and some years back gave up on academic literary interpretation and criticism (once one of its great strengths) has maintained a costly commitment to such writers as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Louis Zukofsky. University presses have some immunity to market forces, but it is astonishing how receptive academic institutions are to avant-garde writers. Who knew that salaried custodians of literary history would so welcome radical innovations?

Some did. Language writers in the 1970s cited the texts favored in academic literary theory, as if that discourse could nurture an ample literary culture. A few Language writers entered Ph.D. programs and then participated vigorously in academic conferences. This was the first English-speaking avant garde directly oriented on the academy. Peter Bürger wrote of the co-foptation of avant-garde opposition by art dealers and museum curators, but he did not foresee a literary avant garde aimed at academic validation. Universities are organized in accord with disciplines, not free play. Graduate students of literature are instructed to imitate models of interpretation; they readily infer the implicit protocols of disciplinary discourse. Write like a professional! That writing is obligated to present historical evidence to support general claims in a tone of apparent neutrality. And academics settle into fields and sub-fields, as into chairs. Recent U.S. poetry is a sub-field of American literature, and within that sub-field scholar-critics arrange themselves in camps. Each camp is too little stirred by self-skepticism, or by a sense of a larger field: Merrill and Palmer, Bishop and Duncan, say.  This is an old, intransigent issue. Marjorie Perloff’s “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” analyzes the intellectual profile of the two camps established in relation to the generation born in the 1880s. Surprise and joy—the features of avant-garde prose—do not follow from conformity.    

The academic absorption of any art is regrettable, but I don’t want to be thought dismissive of recent avant-garde writing. I mean to say that the most obvious avant-garde successes are in criticism.  Again, the recent case: Charles Bernstein has been more successful as a literary critic than any other writer of his generation, in or out of the academy. He and others have raised the profile of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and Laura (Riding) Jackson—not a modest achievement. Hugh Kenner expressed frustration over his own attempt to promote Zukofsky. To revive anyone, even poets, is difficult. Why, given the pleasures of avant-garde prose, am I sharply selective concerning avant-garde poetry? I have learned to listen for the music of poetry, and this bears hard on the academic orientation of the avant-garde. Idea-driven art—just what academic interpretation favors—is often shallow. Concepts alone don’t do it. One often finds in avant-garde poetry stunning combinations and they derive from clashes of concepts. Fenollosa on the Chinese ideogram speaks still to poetry’s great conceptual gaps. Musicality is more rare, not only among avant-gardists, though it is the most traditional element of poetry. Ancient poetry preserved information, honor, feelings in measured words. It was an art of memory obviously suited to oral cultures. In my avant gardists—Pound, Bunting, Duncan, Susan Howe—I hear the sonority of other poems, and feel the weights of words and phrases. These poets have resisted the commitment of literate and digital culture to external records. They are wondrous combiners of words, and they write memorably. Bunting is explicit about writing for the stone-cutters. But the polemics of avant-garde prose always promote not memory but contemporaneity, an art attuned to some stipulated sense of the present. In that way, it is liberatory. One may admire how an avant-garde poet puts together a text, a whole book, even when its closest contours, of word and line, are not the point. Fenollosa says nothing of the power of music to hold words in memory. For him, poetry combines words for a mind freed from the body. Avant-garde intellectuality effectively supplants the traditional expectation that poets write memorably in close quarters. And that is a fatal error.    

Whether avant-gardists are published by academic or trade presses should not be of great concern, but it seems to me revealing. Avant-garde writing is aggressive about generalization. I mean not the comprehensive phrases of Samuel Johnson’s poems, but the effort to affiliate a text with some collectivity or other. Marinetti’s first manifesto was his alone. He summoned a group by pretending to speak for one. This procedure is implicit in the concept of an avant-garde: where we lead, they will follow. The Futurists soon thereafter diligently asserted their guidance even in the applied arts: architecture, advertising, radio broadcasting, furniture and crockery design. They sought an apparatus for affecting the lives of all Italians. Their success was less than they had hoped, because Mussolini’s regime was not committed to their exclusionary aesthetic; other styles too got state support. It is instructive, though, that this first avant-garde tried to occupy the cultural center of Italy from 1909 to 1944. In the mid-1930s Pound too spoke of the attractions of “totalitarian” art. One may attribute this generalizing drive to the political ideology behind these writers, but the same pattern prevailed in the Soviet Union. In a democratic capitalist context the avant-garde drive toward generalization has focused not on state preference but instead on the prestige of the relatively homogeneous academic sector. Peripherality is neither a defining nor an enduring feature of avant-gardes.  

What variety of literary ambition suits this moment? The alternative to the avant-garde response: to write memorable poems one by one and leave for the next life the makers of world-views. The poets whose work has been supported by trade presses—including Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, C. K. Williams, Louise Glück, Frank Bidart—have expressed no will to reconstitute society, even though in poems they have sharply criticized the economic expansionism of the financial sector and the use of torture by the executive branch. They presume the distinctness of a literary culture. From that remove they dissociate themselves from state activity and advocate no national arts policy. The avant-gardes of a century ago sought to undo the distinctness of literary culture; this is why some critics admire them. The oppositional stance of those avant-gardes looks different now from an academic literary culture in which anti-capitalism is conventional. Avant-gardes express a drive toward an institutional center. Art inevitably seeks a general audience, but not all artists seek hegemony over established sectors of their societies. Some find honor in staying with poems alone; one may wish that Eliot had done that. It is inconceivable that Pound could have done differently. His is the one great model of an avant-garde career. The Cantos: evidence at once of the promise and the cost of that variety of success.

 
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