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Contemporary American poetry and the pseudo avant-garde.

In the hospital photograph of my new baby girl, she is squeezing both hands into tiny fists. This "startle reflex" to a series of flashes is her Futurist salute to publicity. My infant, leader of the latest avant-garde. It is hard to take the idea of an avant-garde seriously these days. Who would have the nerve to represent an art as the future when there are evidently infinite futures, when the present itself is not identifiable? Few poets or novelists subscribe to the nineteenth century ideas of history and teleology out of which the idea of an avant-garde grew. Most poets tend even to be a little embarrassed by the word.

Nevertheless, a few relics of avant-garde behavior remain to clutter the contemporary poetry world. There is for some the desire to identify and distinguish from other poetry a specifically oppositional poetry. Often this means overstating the cohesiveness of poetic orthodoxies and their difference from dominant ideologies. Many of the "Language poets" claim to be oppositional but even as I write this I am aware of two books going to press on these poets, both written by academic literary critics and both to be published by university presses. It is acceptable still to equate experimental poetic modes with radical politics, especially now that American literary criticism is much more willing to discuss the theoretical and political implications of poems than the technique of poems. Here I want to discuss Ron Silliman, one of the more interesting poet-critics associated with an experimental and oppositional mode, beside a very different kind of poet, Jim Powell, who is not associated with any group and who so far as I know makes no claims about originality. Most of the discussions of "Language poetry" have been content to discuss the poetry in the terms presented by the poets themselves. I want to avoid that as much as possible here. Juxtaposing the work of Powell and Silliman will allow me to speak to formal issues of some concern to poets outside of any identifiable "camp."

That the rather diverse group of poets called the "Language poets" wear some of the trappings of an avant-garde movement is well known. Thus it should be no surprise that Ron Silliman's book of critical essays is called The New Sentence -- the idea of the "new" being central to avant-garde rhetoric if not always to its practice. Silliman is not unaware of -- he is sometimes even cynical about -- the importance of self-promotion and group promotion in today's crowded poetry world. Like Robert Pinsky, whose book The Situation of Poetry was responsible for boosting the reputations of Frank Bidart, James McMichael and others, Silliman believes in a group of poets, some of whom are his friends, whose work shares specific formal concerns. Unlike Pinsky, he aligns the work of these poets with a radical political critique, and it is this fact that seems to be making his work of particular interest to many academic literary critics. Silliman's critique is derived from Adorno, Benjamin, Bakhtin, and others now influential as well in academic literary criticism. Surveying the contemporary poetry scene, a world weakly ruled by a geriatric set, where tolerance, healthy or repressive, is the rule, one cannot help but think that we could use more critics like Silliman and Pinsky who are open and intelligent in their advocacy of poetic models and who don't think that contemporary poetry ends with Donald Allen's The New American Poetry.

Now that The New Sentence has gathered some hard to find essays, it is also possible to read Silliman's poetry beside the claims of his prose. I think it will be evident that some of Silliman's most basic criticisms of the bulk of mainstream contemporary poetry are legitimate, and in fact echoed by poets very different from Silliman. The target of Silliman's critique is what has come to be called the "workshop poem" -- in his words "the loosely written, speech-like free verse dramatic monologue concerning the small travails of daily existence ..." At one level, Silliman objects to this work for the way it sustains bourgeois myths of the autonomous individual free to pursue the expression of a unique "voice." At another level Silliman objects to the workshop poem for its formlessness. Leaving the first of these points behind for the moment, I want to measure Silliman's response to the mass of contemporary writing which coasts along on automatic pilot against his own accomplishment and the accomplishments of others. It is possible to evaluate contemporary poets without becoming totally engaged in polemics or political slurs.

In one of the essays in The New Sentence, Silliman argues that the only formal unit still widely recognized by poets is the line. Eighty years after the polemics about vers libre were meaningful, this makes for a lot of turgid prose chopped up into lines and called poetry. One of the characteristic gestures of the work he most admires is the complete rejection of the verse line. Much but not all of "Language poetry" moves poetic form and rhythm "into the interiors of prose," pursuing the slippery and mostly French tradition of the prose poem. The paragraph becomes the primary unit of the poem's organization, but this paragraph is not, as in most prose, a unit with a referential focus and logical unity. Instead, it has a "unity of quantity," a rhythmical unity, something like what we associate with the stanza or strophe. The movement between sentences within the paragraph is not syllogistic, nor does it follow a conventional narrative logic. Each sentence strives to maintain its autonomy and becomes part of the larger unit of the paragraph only by virtue of a rhythmical pattern, a consistency of tone, or in a few cases by a limited associational continuity.

Here is a passage from Silliman's Paradise, a book-length prose poem and part of his ongoing work The Alphabet:

When that April with his sure as soot the draft of March has pierced it to the root and bothered every vein in swish liqueur of which virtue engendered is the floor. Damp earth dusts the leaves of a new transplanted violet. Thousands in Denver flee big acid cloud. The bath mat, a deep red, needs shaking. The dresser lacks handles. Big sun wobbles up through branches of the plum tree. Objects repeated take on value. The ostrich is a pretty bird (false). A ceramic jar full of brown sugar. Old bristle brush kept beneath sink. I remove the article. The way an old sponge goes sour. In the valley cars move slowly, crowding into the city. In the papers orchestrated lies compete for space. In the prepositional the temporality of syntax mimes space. Rhyme violates reason: thus I remember.

Paradise is sometimes a critique of Reagan's America, sometimes a self-referential description of the process of composition, and sometimes an ironic disruption or distortion of famous lines of canonical poetry, and of the cliches of journalism and television. The title itself is punned upon later in the text, with "Paris dice" (an homage to French models) and "pair of dice." One might be tempted to call the poem a kind of "collective text" for the way it assembles and refuses to order hierarchically a wide range of cultural discourses, resisting meaning as it might be constituted by an individual. But Silliman himself is the master of this ceremonial mimicry of all seriousness, and he returns again and again to certain subjects -- his friends, life in the Bay Area, sex, his body, the evils of capitalism, poetry. More importantly, the work coheres around a consistently ironic tone; Paradise ends with "Let's be careful out there," which does not mean what it means in "Hill Street Blues."

Those critics who see political significance in Silliman's experiments appeal to his work's rejection of the traditional strategies of narrative and lyric poetry, arguing that the disruption of these and other linguistic conventions is a political act. But, as Silliman knows, the work is political only if it is taken as such by his audience, as opposition does not end on the page or at the reading but in one's daily behavior. That audience is an especially elite one, it seems to me, one familiar with modern poetry and fashionable literary theory. This audience would know, for instance, that Silliman's work does not abandon narrative altogether, for narrative is not "story" but the order of the language. And it would also know that Silliman means to debunk conventional strategies of "referentiality" and the idea of poetry as the expression of an autonomous self, in order to remind us of the materiality of language and of the ways in which the vast confusing welter of discourse is already there before us and somehow beyond even our most careful manipulation of it. One can say, though, that unlike the historical avant-garde, which tried to undermine politically-based distinctions between popular and elite culture, Silliman is resigned to a fragmentation of culture and as pessimistic as Adorno about the possibilities of poetry in contemporary society.

What of the rhythms of "the new sentence"? At its best, Silliman's work falls into a rhythmical pattern something like a chant, though chanting is usually associated with the sort of spiritual transcendence this poetry of fragments and surfaces wants determinedly to avoid. Like most chants, Silliman's does not allow for much variety and nuance in rhythm; at some length, the work can be pretty boring. When, as in his most recent book What, Silliman breaks up his paragraphs into lines of vers libre, little of the usual effects are lost, which makes me question the effectiveness of employing paragraphs as a means of ordering "new sentences" into a rhythmical pattern.

I do think Silliman's work is funny; I'd rather read him poking fun at Pound and Eliot than the sensitive, expressive, autobiographical poets who think that Pound's introduction of the stychic verse line is the last word in poetry. Nevertheless, one must consider some other alternatives to "the new sentence," alternatives that don't merely return us to mindless, formless free verse. One is the "New Formalism" as described and skeptically reviewed by the poet Alan Shapiro in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry. This phenomenon amounts to a rebirth of interest in so-called traditional forms and is itself a reaction, albeit a very different one, to one of the problems Silliman describes, the sloppy prose tossed around line breaks. I find some of this work interesting, the work of Shapiro in Happy Hour not least, but a good deal of what passes for "New Formalism" is only a return to the ornate and trivial poetry of the early fifties. Brad Leithauser, who has won awards for his imitations of Richard Wilbur, has yet to sense the limits of polish and wit. We just don't need more descriptions of sea-horses. Shapiro has emerged as one of the best of these poets in part because he has a powerful subject matter -- domestic relations. The attempts at extending the line in the narrative poems of C. K. Williams, Anne Winters, and James McMichael and the lyrics of Robert Pinsky's History of My Heart and Jorie Graham's The End of Beauty comprise another important alternative to mainstream free verse.

The one alternative I want to discuss here is the work of a young poet, Jim Powell, just now publishing his first book, It Was Fever That Made The World. Powell's book consists of three three- or four-page blank verse epistles for which the obvious model is Horace, an elegy in eight sections, each of which is configured in a different form, translations of Sappho, Horace, Propertius, and Baudelaire, and twenty or so lyrics in a wide array of strophic forms. The longer poems I can't discuss here, but they include the political poem "Heights," a meditation on the legacy of violence in the American psyche, institutions, and landscape -- at one point the waters of the San Francisco Bay are imagined as an old wound, the lights that demarcate its outline on land a scar. One cannot read Powell's book without admiring the range of forms and modes, and feeling the presence of the traditions of Greek, Roman, French, and English poetry. Basil Bunting, one of the book's more contemporary influences, said once that one has to admire the poet who is ambitious enough to take his chances against the best. It is another thing altogether to try to forge "a new sentence," as if somehow we could so easily disengage ourselves from thirty centuries of verse.

One of the most important of Powell's formal experiments, evident in different ways in each of the lyrics of this book, is his use of the strophe as the primary formal unit of the poem. Each of the lines within the strophe follows its own stress pattern (we might speak of a model in Greek and Latin verse), echoed in the corresponding lines of each of the poem's strophes, with some room for minimal variations where the poem's syntactical rhythms seem to demand them. This scheme suggests that Powell is doing exactly what Silliman implies isn't being done -- re-imagining the function of the line within the larger structures of the poem. Here is one of Powell's shorter lyrics, Napoleon Reviendra:

Napoleon Reviendra

some ironist has scrawled across a metro wall in cherry lipstick -- one more savior set to rise again

returning north from exile like the sun toward spring -- and on the train from Fountainebleu to Paris, in the sallow

January rainlight the hedges veering off through stubble fields, their leafless brambles drained to a shade of cinders,

looked spent past any chance of rising to another year's exactions: exhausted at the prospect of insurgent season

beyond season always ending here -- cowering insensate, cold in the falling light, bogged down in the mud and snow on the road back

from Moscow. But nature's sex wars spare them foresight: overcome by the simple compulsion of the sun

they bud again and flower, sap-swollen tendrils leafing to embrace the same infatuate exuberance

this year as last -- incapable of sickening at the spectacle of their own repeated wilful yielding to blind need.

I should add that the other formal technique that gives this verse such power is the tension established between an effusive, cumulative, even excessive syntax and the rigorously structured lines and strophes. The term in music would be "counterpoint." This tension between the sentence and the strophe mirrors the poem's subject matter -- the struggle of the human intelligence against excess and passion, the desire to read the abundant but impenetrable signs of nature. The ironist with the cherry lipstick is Powell himself, reminding us that these struggles to attain meaning leave us forever prone to the dangerous desire for order and certainty that Napoleon represents. Napoleon represents lust, really, a recurrent subject in the lyrics of Powell's book.

It must be obvious by now that I think it is impossible to find the best contemporary American poets in any single "camp," submitting to some program. That is why I get so angry at statements like the following, from the influential academic critic Jerome McGann:

In postmodern work we become aware of the many crises of stability and centeredness which an imperial culture like our own -- attempting to hold control over so many, and so widely dispersed, human materials -- inevitably has to deal with. The response to such a situation may be either a contestatory or an accommodational one -- it may move to oppose and change such circumstances, or it may take them as given and reflect (reflect upon) their operations....

One cannot write about these matters neutrally. Neutrality here will in fact be a choice of the position of accommodation.

McGann allows his simplistic either/or political categories to determine his evaluation of contemporary poetry. In his essay, we hear much about "antinarrative" and "nonnarrative" and the theory of "Language writing" as it relates to political discourse, but to represent what is taken to be the other camp we have only one of John Hollander's books, which happens to employ a more conventional narrative strategy. We learn that "Language poetry" is in a tradition of radical poetry that includes Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which no doubt makes Silliman and others early candidates for some future canon. What we don't learn, and what I've been trying to explore here, is whether or not the formal experiments of "Language poetry" constitute a powerful alternative to mainstream poetry. Are the rhythms of this work memorable, or is the work as disposable as those several discourses the work criticizes?

This is not an insignificant question. It seems to me far more important to identify the best poets than the most radical poets. For, to the extent that an avant-garde now exists, it exists comfortably within cultural institutions and far from any direct political impact. I am not convinced either that "Language poetry" can be thought of as some kind of coherent whole or that it represents the most interesting writing now present on the American poetry scene. But we can argue that. Or we can reenact the sixties as farce and continue to pretend that it is terribly urgent that we identify political camps in the American poetry world.

Works cited:

Ron Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1987)

Ron Silliman, Paradise (Providence: Burning Deck, 1985)

Jim Powell, It Was Fever That Made The World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989)

Jerome McGann, "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes," Critical Inquiry 13:3 (Spring 1987)
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Author:Tuma, Keith
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1988
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