This is a considerably revised and expanded version of a piece that I originally posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, where it incited a quite extensive and vociferous response. I hope that the discussion here, should there be any, will be more calm and reasonable.
I appreciate the attention (including reasoned and productive disagreement) the original piece received from Robert Archambeau, Christian Bök, Joshua Corey, John Gallaher, and Paul Hoover, not to mention the two citations on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site. This revision has benefited from their thoughtful discussions.
The phrase "post-avant poetry," which was either coined seriously by Ron Silliman or parodically by Joan Houlihan, is bandied about quite a bit in the online poetry world. (I’ve never seen the phrase in print, an indication of how separate the two realms often are, though many people participate in both.) It’s used with the assumption that "we all know what that is," but the term is rarely defined. Here follows my attempt to pin down a term much-mentioned but seldom specified, with the caveat that Stephen Burt makes in a postscript to his essay on what he calls “The Elliptical Poets”: “People who follow the arts like to talk about schools; often they prefer talking about schools and trends to talking about individual poets and their poems” (48). I hope that this too-broad discussion is not taken as a substitute for discussing actual poets and actual poems.
"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries, particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically. As poet Elizabeth Willis writes in her artist’s statement in my anthology Lyric Postmodernisms, “part of what’s so interesting about the current moment is its refusal of an overtly oedipal relation to literary traditions on either the right or the left, and a willingness to construct and invent not only new kinds of poetry but new ways of reading.”
These poets don’t form a movement, let alone a school, but something more like a set of tendencies. As Stephen Burt writes, “Whether a school exists, or where its boundaries lie, seem…questions both less profound, and less durable, than the questions we ask about each poet and about individual poems. At the same time individual poems may respond to their historical moment and invoke their stylistic [formal, and thematic] affinities with other poems” (50).
Poet and editor Rebecca Wolff writes of the work in her journal Fence, a home of the post-avant (along with such journals as Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Verse, and Volt, and such publishers as Ahsahta Press, the University of California Press, the late lamented University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series, and Wesleyan University Press), such writing “intentionally blurs the distinction between 'difficulty' and 'accessibility,' preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.” Though many of these poets have projects and even systems (the book, as distinct from or even opposed to the individual poem, is important in much of their work), there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and there are many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation,” and much sense of post-avant poetic community is produced online), but not many manifestoes. (Flarf, which poet Kasey Mohammad has defined as “intentionally bad poetry that involves Google search text results,” a deliberate anti-poetry based on what Dan Hoy has called “poetics of awfulness as a style,” is probably not “post-avant,” but I don’t understand it well enough to discuss it.) And no doubt I’ve missed a lot—there’s a lot to miss.
In his 1997 article “The New Modernism” (reprinted in his essay collection Fables of Representation), poet and editor Paul Hoover writes that “Compositional complexity and a renewed emphasis on abstraction are the cornerstones of the new modernism. It has some of the difficulty of modernism but little of its commitment to history and myth. [RS: I would disagree with this. I would say that it has a different relationship to history and myth, not relying upon them as sources of authority but as fields of what Foucault called the archaeology of knowledge.] In its love of the fragment, mosaic organization, broken sequences, and appropriation, the new modernism also resembles the old. What differs is the gender and ethnicity of the poets involved” (138). That is to say, the new modernism is much more diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity (though not necessarily of class) than the old modernism ever was or wanted to be. Hoover’s category of “the new modernism” is much more broad than my notion of the “post-avant-garde,” as he traces out two branches. The first branch includes “poets like Ann Lauterbach, Marjorie Welish, Michael Palmer, Jorie Graham, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nathaniel Mackey, Donald Revell, and Bob Perelman [RS: this seems an odd assemblage to me, at least in terms of professed and apparent poetic lineages] whose work contains figured abstraction and, at times, sustained lyrical argument and are influenced by the romantic lineage of postmodernism including Ashbery and Duncan.” The second branch includes “poets like Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, and Charles Bernstein whose origins are in Gertrude Stein, objectivism, and Charles Olson and employ a more discontinuous compositional program” (139). I would call this a distinction between romantic and anti-romantic Modernist lineages, between a lyric postmodernist mode and an anti-lyrical postmodernist mode. I would place most of the poets I consider as “post-avant garde” within the former lineage and mode, however much they query and sometimes explode (from the inside) romanticism and lyricism.
Poet and critic Stephen Burt’s invention of a school of so-called Elliptical poetry, including such diverse poets as Lucie Brock-Broido, Forrest Gander, August Kleinzahler, Thylias Moss, Karen Volkman, and C.D. Wright, has been much talked-about, including in a symposium in the journal American Letters and Commentary. Burt writes in his 1999 essay “The Elliptical Poets” that “Elliptical Poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities (in one or more “I” per poem), but they suspect the I’s they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how [a] little can go a long way. Elliptics seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don't believe in, or seek, a judicious tone” (41). Burt goes on to write that “All [Elliptical poets] want to convey both metaphysical challenge and recognizable, seen or tasted, detail. Ellipticism rejects: poems written in order to demonstrate theories; prettiness as its own end; slogans; mysticism; straight-up narrative; and extended abstraction. [RS: Contrarily, I would say that one distinguishing feature of post-avant-garde poetry is its interest and even its investment in exploring abstraction as a mode and a theme, something that Paul Hoover touches on in the passage quoted above.] Ellipticals are uneasy about (less often, hostile to) inherited elites and privileges, but they are not populists, and won't write down to, or connect the dots for, their readers; their difficulty conveys respect.” (This last assertion is echoed and complicated by Rebecca Wolff’s comment noted above.)
Burt’s Ellipticist poets seem to have in common only a set of surface effects: they all write flashy poems. Indeed, many of them have queried if not rejected their assigned membership in this school. Cole Swensen, for example, asserts in “Elliptical Poetry: A Response,” that Burt “is listing traits that have been present in various innovative writing communities for decades and attributing them to a very narrow, and relatively both conservative and recent, group of writers” (American Letters and Commentary 11, 1999, 66).
And I am not sure what makes these specifically “elliptical.” My Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “elliptical” as “a : of, relating to, or marked by ellipsis or an ellipsis [in turn defined as ‘a: the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete, or b: a sudden leap from one topic to another’]; b (1): of, relating to, or marked by extreme economy of speech or writing (2): of or relating to deliberate obscurity (as of literary or conversational style)” As Burt describes his “Ellipticist” poets, none of these definitions seems particularly to apply, at least no more than they would to any number of poets from John Donne to Emily Dickinson to John Berryman to Ann Lauterbach (whom he does not mention).
In “Shearing Away,” an earlier version of his essay that appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of the British journal Poetry Review, Burt admits to having made up this soi-disant “school.” Later, in clarifying what he means by “school,” he writes that “Ellipticism counts as a school of a movement in the way that ‘metaphysical poetry’ or ‘confessional poetry’ count as movements, not in the way that ‘language writing’ or the Black Arts Movement or New Formalism (each of which had manifestos) count as movements; the so-called [by Burt himself] Ellipticals (like the so-called metaphysicals) need not have signed a manifesto, or appeared in one place at one time, in order to share the aesthetic goals I have described” (49). I would say that they share at most aesthetic tendencies and styles, rather than goals, which are always difficult to decipher in any case.
As Cole Swensen points out, “Historically, a school is based is based on more than observable surface similarities….Sometimes, in fact, the members of a given group have differed widely in their works’ appearances, approaches, and other immediate aspects, and have based their affinity instead on much broader aesthetic issues, as well as, at times, shared social and political convictions and some degree of shared experience. As the term has been used throughout the century, a school is a spontaneous and accidental situation that laces people together as it laces art into individual lives….using the term at this point in history does imply those extra-textual affinities, which I’m not sure are appropriate here” (op. cit. 65). Swensen also points out the ways in which Burt’s map seems “if not to construct, then at least to arrange [the] territory before it sets out to guide us through it” (ibid.): it draws factional lines in advance through a future that hasn’t yet arrived.
In a recent review of Matthea Harvey’s new book Modern Life, critic David Orr concurs with Burt’s description, but he frames it in pejorative terms. Orr writes that Harvey works in “a variation on the trendiest contemporary style, which relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles (‘The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four’), quirky diction (‘orangery,’ ‘aigrettes’), flickering italics, oddball openings (‘The scent of pig is faint tonight’) and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent—basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode.” While this description is true of many writers (any mode has its better and its worse practitioners, and mediocrity is the norm in any field of endeavor), I don’t find it fair as an overall evaluation. In fact, Orr’s review of Harvey’s work is quite positive. As he points out, “if it’s relatively easy to write passable poetry in the style du jour, it’s never easy to write good poetry in any style,” which seems to me much more to the point.
Some of these writers have been called “third way” writers by Ron Silliman, who has written that “Younger poets today I think have more of an opportunity of learning from all worlds without having to sign up & pick sides. And that in turn will itself impact how writing gets done, going forward.” However, Silliman distinguishes what he calls “third way” writing (among whose practitioners he numbers Forrest Gander, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass [RS: I can't see Hass's avant-garde inclinations], and Ann Lauterbach, as well as the much younger Graham Foust), which exemplifies “a post-militant American poetics,” from “post-avant” writing, saying that “third way” poetry is dependent on the dichotomy between what he calls post-avant poetry and what he pejoratively calls “School of Quietude” poetry: “the Third Way has always struck me as predicated upon the existence of the other two.” This indicates that he still maintains a distinction between vanguardist and rear-guardist contemporary American poetry, one that I believe no longer applies.
Critic and poet Calvin Bedient, whom Joshua Corey has called “one of the most passionate advocates of a return to lyric modernism in contemporary poetry,” has briefly referred to this kind of poetry as “soft” avant-garde, as distinct from the hard (and didactic) kind still associated with (what remains of) Language writing. I have called some of their work, after Wittgenstein, “lyrical investigations” in the introduction to my new anthology Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, to which I will devote a later post. (You didn’t think I’d let an opportunity for self-promotion slip by, did you?)
Post-avant writers tend to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don’t just discard the self as some kind of ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative, often breaking story down into its component parts. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle (poet Cynthia Cruz calls much of this work “the broken lyric”). They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical project of Language poetry, engaging the dialectic of what critic Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity and what, earlier, W.H. Auden called enchantment and disenchantment without settling on one side or the other.
In Stephen Burt's words, they are “trying to figure out how to incorporate both lyric and non- (if not anti-) lyric impulses, and trying…to put modernist fragmentation together with Romantic expectations about voice and form,” and without any preconceptions about what forms such a potential synthesis might take. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism, that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don't try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions of artistic "progress" or "advance," though they are fascinated with the processes of poetic construction. As poet Robert Archambeau has recently written, “The post-avant seems to have very little interest in making grand claims of any kind: not only does it eschew a sense of heroic poetic progress, but it eschews big political or spiritual claims.” Perhaps this is a reflection of the postmodern rejection or at least suspicion of grand narratives and transcendental signifiers.
This cross-fertilization has been happening in American poetry for a long time, but there are many people on various “sides” who either don’t see it or vehemently oppose it, perhaps because it undermines their own carefully constructed identity formations (which many of them conceive of as having been forged under fire). Hardcore avant-gardistes, as well as hardcore defenders of a narrow and reified “tradition,” are at this point both ideologically and aesthetically backward: they’re still fighting the poetry cold wars. But as editor Christopher Beach writes in the introduction to Artifice and Indeterminacy, his “anthology of new poetics,” “any such unqualified agenda of poetic and institutional identification [as Donald M. Allen proclaimed when he pronounced that all the poets included in The New American Poetry shared ‘a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse’] would seem inappropriate and somewhat naïve; we have seen the blurring of such clear distinctions as those between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ schools of poetry, between institutional structures and avant-garde communities, between insiders and outsiders” (vii).
The avant-garde isn’t the advance guard anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. The armies have been disbanded, though many of the officers have yet to inform themselves of the fact. There are, of course, many people who haven’t yet passed through the avant-garde and never will. (It would be nice if some of those people would at least read Eliot. But then, it would be nice if some of those people would read Keats.) But once you have passed through that avant-garde door, there is no forward march, no destination or telos, just an open field. In the somewhat exaggerated words of philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, “there are to be no next things. The time for next things is past. [RS: nice paradox.] It [is] like coming to the end of the world with no more continents to discover. One must now begin to make habitable the only continents that there are” (The State of the Art 217). Visual artist turned poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who might or might not accept a characterization as a “post-avant” poet, writes in his post "The End of History" on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog that “Language Poetry put the period on the end of the modernist sentence. If you're playing an innovative game, after Language Poetry, there’s no more deconstructive work to do. That project has finished. The next step then becomes a reconstructive project that sees language as a whole again--moving information--but, like certain strains of postmodernism, acknowledges the cracks in the newly reformed linguistic vessel.”
Only because of the backwardness of literature in comparison to music and visual art can self-appointed avant-gardistes still feel themselves in the forefront of artistic morality. In other areas of artistic endeavor, the idea of vanguard art, art in step with the progress of history, and the conviction that some artistic practices are more correct, even more virtuous, has been rather thoroughly abandoned. Goldsmith wryly notes that “I often use [William S. Burroughs collaborator] Brion Gysin’s quote from 1959 that poetry is 50 years behind painting.” As philosopher and literary theorist Daniel Barbiero writes of “the willingness of contemporary poets to use a spectrum of devices without undue prejudice” (87) in Telling It Slant, an anthology of “avant-garde poetics of the 1990s”: “To anyone who has followed the visual arts during the past two decades or so, or academic music in the decade prior to that, the notion of an avant-garde [RS: however or even whether one would define such a thing at this historical juncture] without agonism will not seem very strange” (ibid.). Arthur C. Danto (as I have indicated above), in such books as After the End of Art, Beyond the Brillo Box, and The State of the Art, and music critic Alex Ross, in his brilliant book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, both make this point about, respectively, visual art and music. Ross’s book includes a wonderful 1992 quote from composer John Cage, whose avant-garde credentials are impeccable: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies” (341). This image of a spatial expanse rather than a road leading to a definite future destination, even if one not known in advance, echoes Danto’s geographical metaphor in my preceding paragraph.
Obviously, experimentation and innovation will and should continue, in the sense of trying something out to see what happens, of engaging in poetic endeavors without knowing or attempting to predetermine the outcome. Poetry is always at least in part a foray into the unknown, a project of finding out what happens in the process of participating in its happening. But the sense of a forward march, of a correct path to the future and a virtuous method by which to reach to that future, is gone, or at least no longer valid. To what destination are the arts, is poetry, marching at this very late date?
My partner Robert Philen, a cultural anthropologist who maintains a brilliant and wide-ranging blog, tells me that the same phenomenon is occurring in the social sciences where, for example, the dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative research are breaking down.
As Joshua Clover writes in “Poem, “We lie down in categories/And wake up in concepts” (The Totality for Kids 6) So it’s important to remember that the poets I have described are very diverse and individually distinctive. That’s what makes their work interesting and worth discussing. But their work broadly and variously shares common characteristics that make it a significant area of contemporary poetic activity. There are doubtless many “post-avant” poets who would not recognize themselves in this description. Some would even vehemently reject my description (practitioners of flarf might do so), and some wouldn’t consider themselves “post-avant” at all. Paul Hoover points out that slam, spoken word, and performance poetry constitutes an almost entirely separate world from that of print poetry, aesthetically, conceptually, and materially, with its own networks and institutions. Given that particularity, I don’t attempt to discuss it here.
Some established poets whose work maps out or creates this third space are Michael Anania, Paul Auster (though I don’t know if he still writes poetry), Bruce Beasley, Martine Bellen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Killarney Clary, Gillian Conoley, Carolyn Forché, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, C.S. Giscombe, Peter Gizzi, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Ann Lauterbach, Timothy Liu, Jane Miller, Michael Palmer, Suzanne Paola, John Peck, Dennis Phillips, Bin Ramke, Stephen Ratcliffe, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Peter Sacks, Aaron Shurin, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swensen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright. Many of these writers are included in Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries, edited by moi and just out from Counterpath Press, with generous blurbs from Charles Altieri and Marjorie Perloff.
Some “emerging” or less-established poets who work in this space are Christopher Arigo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jasper Bernes, Laynie Browne, Brigitte Byrd, Julie Carr, Jeff Clark, Joshua Clover, Joshua Corey, Cynthia Cruz, Jocelyn Emerson, Amy England, Lisa Fishman, Graham Foust, John Gallaher, Michele Glazer, Noah Eli Gordon, Matthea Harvey, Brian Henry, Joan Houlihan, Christine Hume, Catherine Imbriglio, Julie Kalendek, Joanna Klink, Joshua Kryah, Joseph Lease, Malinda Markham, Mark McMorris, Rusty Morrison, Jenny Mueller, Laura Mullen, Amy Newman, Geoffrey Nutter, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Tracy Philpot, D.A. Powell, Heather Ramsdell, Rebecca Reynolds, Brenda Shaughnessy, ‘Annah Sobelman, Brian Teare, Karen Volkman, G.C. Waldrep, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Tyrone Williams, Sam Witt, Andrew Zawacki, and Rachel Zucker. Many of these writers are included in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2004.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, or even a list of all the poets whose work I enjoy who write “that kind of poetry” (as Joan Houlihan writes that editors refer to it), but just the starting point for a discussion of a phenomenon much mentioned but rarely defined or described, one that Joshua Corey proposes as “the new American mainstream, retaining whatever oppositional force it still possesses only through institutional memory—though it still stands strongly enough as a bulwark against the laziness and anti-intellectualism of the genuine mainstream of American cultural life.”
The stormy reception the original version of this piece received at the Poetry Foundation web site indicates that there are many people who believe (or act as if they believe) that we still live in the stultified and stultifying poetic culture of the Nineteen Fifties (in which there was still more going on than people choose to remember or credit), and cultivate a sense of themselves as rebels against a monolithic literary orthodoxy that no longer exists, if it ever really did. As intellectual historian Peter Gay points out in his book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, if the bourgeois audience had really been as monolithically or rigidly philistine as they were and have since been portrayed as being, then modernism would never have become successful, let alone institutionalized.
Many maintain this sense of themselves as marginalized outsiders, if not downright victims, no matter how comfortably ensconced they are within what Louis Althusser (a highly problematic thinker who nonetheless produced some useful ideas) called the ideological state apparatus of higher education, or just within the literary world in general. (It also needs reminding that, closely entwined as they are in the current American situation, academia and the literary world are not identical.) As the wonderful poet Michael Anania once said to me, if you continue to cultivate a sense of grievance and victimization once you become successful (or if you were never an outsider to begin with, as is the case with many people who identify themselves as transgressors and subversives), then you just become a jerk. (He used a stronger word, but I’m trying to be polite.)
I close with a quote from poet Brenda Hillman’s essay “On Song, Lyric, and Strings,” about the nature, place, and role of the lyric in today’s “post”-everything world, from which I also quote in my introduction to Lyric Postmodernisms):
“Current aesthetic quarrels and conversations between poets are real enough, and the aesthetically abstract or non-referential lyric poetry may have a different readership from poetry that announces its purposes in more narrative styles, but these issues should concern poets far less than keeping poetry alive in a culture of appalling greed, a culture that doesn't read much of anything, a culture that does business as usual in a time of Enron and retributionist wars.”
Would that more people could keep these wise words in mind.
Beach, Christopher, ed. Artifice and Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Burt, Stephen. “The Elliptical Poets.” Reprinted in Jerry Harp and Jan Weismiller, eds., A Poetry Criticism Reader. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.
Danto, Arthur C. The State of the Art. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987.
Hoover, Paul. Fables of Representation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Ross, Alex. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.
Wallace, Mark, and Steven Marks, eds. Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.