Cathy Park Hong: “Fuck the avant-garde.” But does she really mean it?
For its whole existence, Scarriet has hammered away at Modernism—and its Avant-garde identity—as nothing but a meaningless, one-dimensional joke (the found poem, basically) tossed at the public by reactionary, rich, white guys in order to make it ‘cool’ to stifle truly creative efforts accessible to the public at large.
The controversy surrounding Scarriet’s claim lies in this one simple fact: the Avant-garde (Ron Silliman, et al) identifies itself as politically Left.
In Leftist circles of the Avant-garde, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are championed for their poetry, not their politics.
We might call this Pound/Eliot phenomenon the Art-Split: Bad Poet/Good Poetry.
By accepting this “Split,” the reactionary, white, male, Avant-garde is given license to dress in Left-wing clothing.
You have to believe, of course, that Pound’s poetry is important and good, and that Hugh ” The Pound Era” Kenner’s trashing of Edna Millay, for instance, was a good and noble effort to debunk old-fashioned “quietist” poetry, and not chauvinist, jealous bullying.
Leftist Ron Silliman has no taste for Edna Millay, and the “Split” allows this to appear perfectly normal.
The embarrassing and obvious truth: 1. accessibility to the public at large is democratic, 2. befuddling the masses is reactionary, gets a yawn, too—because of the “Split.”
The reason the “Split” works as an excuse is that it appeals to both Left and Right intellectuals: the greatest ‘am I an intellectual?’ test is if one is able to grasp (and embrace) the idea that a person can be bad but still write good poetry.
We do not believe this is true; we believe the opposite: one cannot be a bad person and write good poetry. If the poet is a truly bad person, the “good” poetry was most likely stolen, or written before the soul of the poet became rotten.
And this is why Modernists hate the Romantics—because the Romantics were poetic individuals, while the Modernists (because of skyscrapers and aeroplanes and women getting the vote and other lame excuses) were not.
The “Split,” the source of so much modernist mischief, is a red herring. The almighty “Split” even makes one think Ezra Pound must be a good poet: one must believe this is so to have intellectual, avant-garde creds—simply for the reason that for so long now, the “Split” has ruled over Letters. The wretched, sophistical, school-boy “And then went down to the ship,/ Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/ we set up mast and sail on that swart ship/” is somehow good because Pound is bad. And because it is wretched, it is avant-garde, and because it is avant-garde, it is wretched, and therefore better than, “What lips my lips have kissed and where and why.” This is how those who think themselves very good judges of poetry convince themselves that Ezra Pound is a great poet. Yes, it is truly frightening.
Despite the “Split,” rumblings about the reactionary nature of the Avant-garde were bound to start, as Scarriet does influence the culture it observes.
Witness the explosion of Left indignation in the latest Lana Turner Journal as the “Split”-fooled Left vaguely catches on.
We have Kent Johnson, an imaginative and brilliant man, in “No Avant-Garde: Notes Toward A Left Front of the Arts,” reduced to the most pitiful, quixotic Old Leftism it is possible to imagine. In his essay, he imagines splendidly well, and he knows a great deal, but he’s very bitter, obviously, as the ugly truth—the Avant-garde is, and has always been, reactionary—sinks in.
We have Joshua Clover, in “The Genealogical Avant-Garde,” complaining in the same vein.
The current avant-gardes in contemporary Anglophone poetry make their claims largely by reference to previous avant-gardes.
The genealogical avant-garde is defined by a single contradiction. It has no choice but to affirm the very cultural continuity which it must also claim to oppose.
The “Split” is always rationalized.
The “Split” in this case, however, is not Bad Poet/Good Poetry, and in some ways it is far less problematic.
The “Split” now imploding due to common sense is: Bad Mainstream/Good Avant-garde.
The Avant-garde, as the intellectuals finally understand it, is the Mainstream—and thus, bad. Had they been able to see, 100 years ago, the nature of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. O. Matthiessen, and their New Critic allies, they would not have taken so long to understand the clever reactionary agenda.
But now they are finally getting it.
Cathy Park Hong (writing in Lana Turner no. 7) definitely wants a new boyfriend. And it ‘aint Ron Silliman.
To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.
Poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.
Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document. Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form!
The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.
Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.”
From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters.
Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions.
The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.
Yes, “fuck the avant-garde.” But we might just add that it is the avant-garde that has always been the problem; in this case, the tail wags the dog.
The New Critics (ex-I’ll Take My Stand Old South reactionary agrarianists) got an “in” when they launched their textbook, Understanding Poetry in the late 30s—it praised Pound and attacked Poe.
Popular poets like Edgar Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay were the Mainstream “good” ambushed by the clique of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics.
How blithely and unthinkingly Cathy Park Hong takes up the “quietist” definition of the avant-garde (and ostentatiously Left) Silliman.
Unfortunately, they will get fooled again.