The expression “historical avant-garde” is commonly applied to the isms profiled by El Lissitzky and Hans Arp in Die Kunstismen, and by Guillermo de Torre in Historia de las Literaturas de Vanguardia (both published in 1925). In Torre’s 1965 revision, fewer than forty of 900+ pages deal with Americans (all in the chapter on Imagism). In his and other chronicles, the most conspicuous site of vanguard activity on American soil remains New York Dada, in which only one of the three most prominent practitioners (Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia) was American. One could argue that Alfred Stieglitz’ leadership of the art photography movement and his curatorial work at 291 Gallery fits the profile of avant-garde advocacy—commensurate with that of Herwarth Walden with his Sturm gallery, magazine, and associated enterprises in Berlin during the same years. And it would be churlish to deny avant-garde status to figures like Cage, Pollock, Warhol and Smithson, given their impact. But resorting to individual names rather than collective movements indicates a problem when considering an American avant-garde.Would it make sense to disconnect “avant-garde” from movements and isms? It depends on what’s at stake in retaining this old term that was repudiated by Baudelaire almost as soon as it appeared. “Avant-garde,” like the cachet of “oppositionality” at a certain moment in postcolonial studies, has long since expended its historical potential. The syndrome was comprehensively (and masochistically) profiled by Paul Mann in The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde, in which he offers as model a revolving door. As soon as you exit the building—that is, declare your emancipation—you’re right back in the lobby. But the other meaning of lobby, as a verb that pertains to the representation of special interests, applies to the way vanguard movements promote aesthetic and cultural missions. 

Do vanguard movements have “interests” that can be parleyed into legislative consequence? For all the hyperbole of their manifestos, Italian Futurists were never serious about burning libraries and destroying museums. An avant-garde is hyperbolic by nature, magnifying its claims in order to reframe (in its own distorting mirror) the norms it opposes, and thereby render those norms grotesque. One historical precedent for the avant-garde is satire. And while satire ranges from the broad to the narrow, slapstick to Joycean irony, a satirist is an individual, while the avant-garde is collective. Hence the oddity of master satirist Wyndham Lewis, whose solo magazine bore the quintessentially vanguard title The Enemy

Mission-specificity is another consideration that pertains to the avant-garde, simply because historical precedence is so variable. The hierarchical demeanor of Italian Futurism and Surrealism make mission and militancy reciprocal. Members subordinate their practice to the larger cause. But other vanguards proceed from an anarchist orientation, like Dada (adapting differently to each locale and every challenge), or harbor a conceptual and stylistic experiment like Cubism (not properly an ism at all, its repercussions were all the more adaptable to social opportunities ranging from art exhibitions to fashion design). The variety of avant-gardes, then, provides historical models of agency that are so variable as to compromise the sort of efficacy we might imagine coming from anything designated as avant-garde. 

For an avant-garde to be consequential it has traditionally interceded in a homogeneous milieu. In Europe its pet target was the bourgeoisie, a term signifying far more uniformity than the bland American descriptor “middle class.” Social mobility in this country has rendered that class so capacious and internally diverse it’s hard to imagine a vanguard capable of mounting a cohesive assault upon it. (Are there any American Marxists now who aren’t upper middle class?) So that leaves, as potential targets of vanguard aggression, small enclaves of intransigence. But that gets us into the diminished scenario in which the hidebound habits of a particular creative writing program or a given art gallery might incite seditious intervention that would qualify as avant-garde. 

In the American vernacular, “avant-garde” and related terms like “surreal” are so casually applied that they lose all trace of their origins, becoming little more than synonyms for weird, unique, or simply notable. In that sense, the world is bursting at the seams with the avant-garde, but such usage flattens the sense to another vernacular expression, “it’s all good” (cf. Bob Dylan’s send-up in Together Through Life). The Eurocentric model of vanguard movements hasn’t taken root in the United States. But some have distinguished between movement and milieu, like Matthew Josephson, who spent years in Paris and Berlin in the inner circles of Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism. He thought the European vanguard couldn’t really match the originality of American popular culture. Edmund Wilson concurred, and noted the trend of American artists moving to Paris only to find their French equivalents idolizing American movies, jazz, and skyscrapers. If the commercial environment of the United States attracted advanced European artists, what chance was there for American artists? Were industrial designers Paul T. Frankl and Raymond Loewy the real face of an American vanguard?

There have been Bohemian enclaves in America. Greenwich Village, Provincetown, San Francisco (relocated, after the 1906 earthquake, to Carmel), Santa Fe; but does it make sense to characterize a social milieu as “avant-garde”? A distinction that comes to mind is between Bohemian tendencies and avant-garde movements. For evidence of a movement in the militant vanguard sense, the most notable seems to me to have been Bebop. Ralph Ellison, although no enthusiast of bop, made the link in his article on Minton’s Playhouse for Esquire, January 1959, observing that this legendary incubator made famous by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie “is to modern jazz what the Café Voltaire in Zurich is to the Dadaist phase of modern literature and painting.” (When reprinting the article in Shadow and Act, Ellison gave it the title “The Golden Age, Time Past,” reflecting his parenthetical remark that “with jazz we are yet not in the age of history, but linger in that of folklore”). Before it became the dominant idiom of black jazz in the Fifties—and long before it devolved into the default setting of jazz workshop instruction in universities—bop was iconoclastic, anti-commercial, paradigm-changing, and seditious: avant-garde.

Can we speak of an avant-garde in American poetry? Although I’ve been an outspoken advocate for tendencies that might seem to qualify as such, the question gives me pause. There’s no doubt that we have a conspicuous legacy in poetry that conforms with a familiar paradigm: Whitman vs. the Fireside Poets, Ginsberg vs. Lowell, and so on. The consistency of this bifocal apparition has made it too easy to pin the avant-garde label on the apparent candidates. The Beat “movement”—? No, it was a lifestyle manifestation, gussied up from the outside with commercial promotion. Was Howl any more avant-garde than Scott Fitzgerald’s nod to his generation’s flappers? Revolt is a generational norm in America, but a generation is not an avant-garde. 

There have been instances, rare enough, of actual movements like Imagism (and why not include its spoof rival, Spectra). Objectivism is a name that fits the formula, but An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology marks a trend, not a movement, as Zukofsky’s fastidious scare quotes suggest. The most plausible candidate for avant-garde status is “Language poetry” (calling it “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” after the journal misleadingly confines this bicoastal initiative to New York, and singles out a publication that printed no poetry). It was emphatically collective; it organized public events, ran presses and journals; and eventually penetrated the very institutions it opposed. Another qualification is its shelf life, limited as typical avant-garde movements have been to about a decade. 

The exponential growth of creative writing programs since the earliest stirrings of Language poetry (mid-to-late Seventies) needs to be factored in. The recognition of Language poetry by prominent scholars (Marjorie Perloff, Jerome McGann) in the Eighties, and the leadership and advocacy role played by Charles Bernstein as a chaired professor at SUNY Buffalo in the Nineties, meant that the values, perspectives, and examples of Language poetry had a significant presence during the expansion of creative writing as an academic force in American universities by the turn of the century. The frequent disavowals and irritated dismissals of Language poetry by poets of a very different orientation was one register of its ubiquity and its aesthetic unavoidability at that time. It became, in short, an avant-garde that succeeded, if success means acknowledgment, not necessarily acceptance. And acknowledgment is prelude to filtration of sensibility, which is distinct from infiltration of institutions—though to a lesser extent the latter was also true of Language poetry. 

If Language poetry is a plausible example of an American vanguard, what are the consequences? Foremost is a vastly enlarged tolerance for cognitive dissonance. Far more pervasive than the infusion of American poetry with Surrealism in the Sixties (through the advocacy of Robert Bly, and the influence of W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, James Tate), cognitive dissonance is now a workshop-crafted idiom so pervasive as to go largely unremarked (and its debt to Language poetry rapidly receding into the distant past). In cases where cognitive dissonance is meant as intellectual challenge rather than stylistic affect, the results can be notable. But it’s become so commonplace that it carries no more force than the irritant (resident mosquito) that makes it seem like something must be happening even if it’s not. Furthermore, even if Language poetry had not existed, the eminence of John Ashbery during the past forty years provided a nearly official license for cognitive dissonance as a recognizably “poetic” effect. 

To raise the specter of Ashbery, though, is to be reminded of a notable shift in sensibility, since he like Frank O’Hara made his living in the art world, as did David Antin, whose avant-garde credentials are unimpeachable (one of the collections of his talk poems is titled What It Means to be Avant-Garde). Antin’s early procedural work in Definitions (1967), Code of Flag Behavior (1968), and Meditations (1971) outlined significant limits of poetry. It’s revealing that when Antin stopped writing poems altogether and began composing his “talk poems” before a live audience, his profile was consolidated in art venues. He was hardly a lone wolf. The lower east side scene in New York from which he emerged was a patchwork of different arts, ranging from Fluxus and the happenings of Allan Kaprow to the collaborative work of Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, Warhol’s Factory, and the New American-inspired poetics of Paul Blackburn, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner, Robert Kelly and others, to say nothing of the activist counterculture scene at Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye bookstore.

In fact, when poetry has been functionally avant-garde, it’s been part of a multi-media endeavor. Think of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov and you immediately think of Goncharova and Burliuk; and what would the poetry of Breton and Éluard amount to without Ernst, Miró, Dalí? Black Mountain poetry got a little reflected glory from the dancers, composers and artists associated with the school, and even the Beats soaked up a bit of that bebop dissidence. The New York school was caught up in the art world. But such inter-arts alliances have receded over time, a condition I attribute to the specialist enclaves in the university administration of the arts. Regardless of how eclectic the poetics of students in a workshop, it still boils down to poetry, or fiction, or at some venturesome limit, the “creative” essay. The historically natural alliance between artists in different media has been dissolved, it seems. 

So what are we left with? Flarf is identified on Wikipedia as “an avant-garde poetry movement of the early 21st century,” but it remains more of an internet blip than anything else; and the Gurlesque initiative launched by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg adds 

another notch on a dwindling tally. In the past decade numerous claims for vanguard status have been most notably made in compendia of poetics. Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s (2002), edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks, is one of the rare ventures to include the term avant-garde in its title. From the same year came another that evoked 

Language poetry in its subtitle: American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Rankine’s follow-up volumes co-edited with Lisa Sewell continue in this vein: American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (2007) and Eleven More American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics Across North America (2012), vivid proof that innovative writing was becoming the nearly exclusive prerogative of women—a claim I made in the opening chapter of Syncopations in 2004. I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (2012) edited by Caroline Bergvall and others extends the domain, along with the more inclusive and historically oriented Against Expression (2011) assembled by Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin. Even the mainstream got into the act, with Norton’s publication of American Hybrid edited by David St. John and Cole Swensen (2009) and two editions of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (1994, 2013). All this suggests that while the public has trended to the right, politically, poetry has leaned left. But does this have anything to do with avant-garde? 

My answer falls back on a consideration I’ve borne in mind for some time, having to do with demographics. (For an extended look, see my conversation with Mike Chasar published in Boston Review’s online site in 2012, “Glut Reactions: The Demographics of American Poetry.”) When we consider the historic avant-garde in the traditional milieu of European capitals, we’re dealing with a rather small number of people self-selected from a cultural elite. Reading Michel Sanouillet’s history of Dada in Paris, one marvels at how frequently the participants rubbed shoulders with rivals and enemies at every turn, in performances and cafés and just strolling down the boulevard. Yes, Paris was a metropolis, but its cultural venues were as franchised as fast food outlets in America. Consider by contrast the notion of “American” applied to poetry. There is no gallery system of the sort that gives New York eminence in the arts. There’s no longer even a pedagogic center like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, now that the competition has multiplied by about four-hundred percent since the end of the Vietnam War. Inasmuch as the term avant-garde originally specified the advance party of an army, we’re now better positioned to acknowledge the army, an entire force numbering in the tens of thousands—all poets. No doubt the phantom of an avant-garde will flicker around the edge of the mass; but historically speaking there’s never been such a mass to reckon with, an unpremeditated bio-cultural precipitate, with which no prior avant-garde has had to reckon. Can the familiar old vocabulary persist in the face of this unprecedented new factor? 

 

 

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