The idea of an avant-garde in American poetry would presume a center of power, influence and capital that said avant-garde, being ahead of it, would push against from without. Yet there is no center of American poetry to push against, nor a manifest line of poets to advance ahead of. American poetry is not a universe with a certain set of cosmic laws but a still rather new multiverse within which inside and outside exist to be questioned and eventually undone. Under such circumstances, what is avant-garde?

 

In an American context, the word avant-garde is a distraction. It is often used when one simply means “influential without being mainstream.” But avant-garde is a French word––how French? It came from a 16th century chronicle of France: Pasquier’s Recherches de la France––with a specific European literary and social history that made its way to the United States via European refugees during the wars of the last century. It translates quite easily into other Romance languages but the word “vanguard” never quite found lasting favor in English; avant-garde, quite tellingly, resisted translation. “French and English constitute a single language,” Stevens claimed. But avant-garde, like faux pas and R.S.V.P., floats somewhere between metaphor and cliché, life and death, the non-translation that clarifies function and the non-translation that annihilates it. 

 

Nevertheless, the idea of an avant-garde in American poetry is vital, if not to current praxis then to current parlance in so much as, at its best, the idea tethers American poetry to a social history and aesthetic purpose well beyond the borders of its own time, geography and influence. 

 

And, considering the extent to which American poetry can fence itself off from incursions of the disenfranchised and the foreign it occurs to me to think of the avant-garde, in this particular context, as a vortex through which American poetry can observe its ability to cause change or––and perhaps this is its most meager yet its most practical aspiration––to identify the opportunities for change from which an avant-garde may resurface. 

 

This is of course both a cure for our myopia and myopia par excellence. But that, in turn, is a useful definition of poetry if not for avant-garde.

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