Jake’s Provoquestion, restated.

Hey all.

I’ve been Screaming it up most of the weekend. Last night I went to the Moustache Party (which sounds quite dirty, but isn’t) and won a prize for Best Beard, beating out two ringers from something called Beard Team Canada. It was the labret piercing that put me over the top, I’m told. I won a bottle of wine. I’m drinking it now. Next year I go pro.

I just came back from The Scream’s annual panel event, hosted again by Artistic Director Bill Kennedy and featuring Jenny Sampirisi, Jeff Derkson, and Kate Eichhorn talking about the “radical gesture” of avant-garde poetry. The event was just okay, I’m afraid there was a lot of State of The Avant Garde as Defined by What I, the Speaker, Have Been Personally up to These Last Few Months, but it was quite well-moderated and provocative enough to generate some neat take-away ideas.

I’m in something of a foul mood as I right this, though, as I asked what I thought was an earnest and inoffensive question and got something of a flippant response. Not daunted by this setback, I’d like to throw the question back out to the general public, buttressed by as much context as I can remember. Okay?

I was amused by Sampirisi’s image of the “Difficult Texts bin”, a place on the periphery of the mainstream bookstore (and, by extension, mainstream readership) where many avant garde books are relegated, thus presenting an obstacle to their readership. When Bill found my hand in the crowd, I asked Jenny about this bin, and offered the suggestion that while this label might be an obstacle to a wider readership for some texts, for others it might act as a crutch, and even something wilfully pursued by the texts’ authors. The rationale for this question came out of an earlier discussion about understanding and misunderstanding. I feel, as a reader and fan of a lot of avant garde work, that misunderstanding is often enlisted as a defence mechanism to deflect criticism of unliked books. Essentially, if I say that I didn’t understand a text, I’m volunteering the position of failed reader, and therefore negating any negative criticism attached to this perceived failure. Jenny Sampirisi answered (and here I’m paraphrasing, but not maliciously, and hopefully not inaccurately) that she sees this misunderstanding as, in her words, a very positive space, and that misunderstanding is as valid or successful a readerly reaction as anything else.

I think, in broad strokes, I agree with this. It’s the kind of answer that strikes me as correct, but that also fills me with a deep conviction that poetry will never again be read by an appreciable segment of the population, so long as us poets are entrusted with creating it. It inspired a follow-up question though, and this is one that I feel went unanswered. My question was something like this: If the avant garde wants to describe the complete failure of the communicative cycle of literature (writer to reader, and back again) as a “positive space”, as positive as that’s cycle’s successful iteration, then what’s left to constitute a “negative space”? Put another way, from where can the reader of the avant garde(s) generate a vocabulary to describe the not-workingness of a finished product presented in front of them? Have we made not liking something into a logical fallacy?

Sampirisi’s answer was something like (and again, paraphrasing, but not inaccurately, to my recollection) how I can always make a decision to refuse to interact with a work, if I so choose. It was an infuriating answer as all I want to do is interact with these works. I like these people, I like a lot of their work, but I have a series of what I feel are essential and inoffensive questions. One would be, how is a real interaction even possible, if the only reactions available to me are kinds of adoration, different qualitative veins of perceived exceptionality? This is my root suspicion of work that identifies itself as coming from an avant garde direction. It’s as if the entire academic branch of experimentalist poetry is employed in the derivation of a magical critical language, one that refuses to invent a word for “no”.

My concern with all this isn’t even that hucksterism won’t go acknowledged as hucksterism, it’s that greatness will suffer the same fate. I understand that hucksterism and greatness are matters of taste, but so is reading, for fuck’s sake. So is everything. I can live with unimaginative mediocrity being allowed a pedestal on the strength of some self-fulfilling critical prophecy written in the aforementioned Magical Language, what I’m not okay with is how the weight of all that jargon pulls legitimately revolutionary works into the same beige soup of theory and post-structuralist unexpression as their lesser cousins. And an avant garde author, if s/he thinks s/he ever stood a chance of producing great work on their own, should take offence to this limiting gesture, this gesture which is a lot of things (condescending, petty, quaint…), but is definitely anything but radical.

Anyway, it was one of those public questions that you realize isn’t going to go over well halfway through asking it (a stiffened silence, some half-heard clucking in the background…) so I should have known what I was getting myself into. Even more evidence that I had stirred something of a hornet’s nest came just after my question, when I sent a text message to a pending dinner companion only to have an adorably concerned Natalie Zina Walschots (poet and Scream Executive member) poke me, stare at my phone, and ask “Hey, do you have a Twitter account? You’re not tweeting right now, are you??”

No, Natalie. I don’t tweet that much. I blog. So, to anyone who might be reading this (and, based on the response to my last post, people are reading this) I wonder if there are other answers to my question. Does anyone have an uplifting answer? An empowering answer? An answer that doesn’t assume tribal ignorance on the part of the asker, or that wishes to flip the power relationship between writer and reader fully in the favour of the former?

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63 Comments on “Jake’s Provoquestion, restated.”

  1. Natalie Zed Says:

    Heh. I didn’t realize that I came across as “adorably concerned.” :) It occurred to me, when you pulled out your phone mid-debate, that you might be have a twitter feed — and if you did that I wanted to subscribe to it. I was hoping that this particular conversation would carry out outside the parameters set out by the panel, and am pleased that it has — I was simply mistaken as to the format that it would take (tweet vs. blog).

    I think there’s a lot of merit in wanting to kick at this particular hornet’s nest — it’s one that needs a good stirring up. I think that texts can demand a lot from their readers, and that likewise readers can demand a great deal from the texts that they read. With difficult texts, there is definitely a great danger in that many can be dismissed because they require additional attention, time, and engagement; and that it is dismissive and dangerous to simply declare that a text is bad or ineffective because a reader is unwilling to commit the extra effort that is demanded, however. But this goes both ways — neither should a text be allowed to hide behind its difficult-ness, allowed to claim that a reader “just doesn’t get it” when the text itself has failed. Deep engagement, and constant hornet-nest-pokery are the only ways to keep this kind of cowardly shell-and-pea game from infiltrating difficult texts and difficult readers.

    I think that difficult texts, by nature, inhabit a space defined by failure. They’re a struggle; they can be ugly. I think the real challenge of difficult texts is to make that failure productive — rather than inhabiting a dismissive/destructive space, see moments when texts/readers fail to engage with each other as opportunities for further engagement and analysis. Failure can be intense fertile. It can push both producers and consumers of texts to work harder, get better, and ultimately become more connected. Alien, but not alienating. Strange, but not impossible.

    You really pointed to something important when you noted the power dynamic between readers and writers. I don’t believe any one position should be privileged over any other. That power shifts, ebbs and flows, but should always be in balance. In requiring a reader to commit the necessary time and investment into reading a difficult text, the reader is positioned as co-author. There is definitely power there, and it should be fostered, acknowledged. Constantly kept in balance. Poked.

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    What’s interesting, as we both said, is how at some point the word “difficult” came to stand in for the word “avant garde”. Lots of very un-difficult experimentalist work out there. And obviously lots of great, hard as hell, work from other discourses.

    Happy upcoming birthday, Natalie. In 22 minutes, to be precise.

  3. Seems to me this has much to do with the emphasis of “community” over individual as producer of art–and by inverse extension, of coterie over public as consumer of art.

  4. voxpopulism Says:

    Actually, one part of the conversation I was really into was the thing about “community” as a nebulous, and ultimately meaningless, designation. Kate Eichhorn was chiefly bringing it up. Bill also asked a good question, similar to mine really, about whether the consumers and producers of the avant garde are a community, or a confederacy.

    Using today as my sample size, all my money’s on the latter.

  5. Strikes me as an apt distinction; one isn’t typically a member of a community by choice, but rather by default. I’ve always found “community” worse than meaningless and more than a little precious. Any community comprised exclusively of artists ain’t one I’d care to inhabit.

    I’ve had experiences similar to yours, when I’ve gone to readings and made comments or asked questions and been made to feel quite unambiguously that my presence wasn’t really welcome. I find the rhetoric of inclusivity one often hears out of certain aesthetic quartiers rather hard to buy.

  6. Brian Palmu Says:

    Good post, Jake.

    And a splendid response from Natalie Z.

    Samparisi’s “misunderstanding as very positive space” (gawd, no wonder language is dead when the avantists murder meaning at the outset — space isn’t positive or negative) is nothing more than the self-preservation of the writer. Misunderstand? No big deal, it’s valid, and not my problem. Understand? Others understand in a different — even contradictory — way, and that’s cool, too. Language is relative, you take from the poem what you want from it.

    In that passionless atmosphere, there is no argument, no way to engage or understand, except in a solipsistic manner. So the terms of the debate preclude the fruitful exchange you want.

    I loved your response to the “Difficult Texts Bin”, though (is that as pompous as it sounds?), whose contributors “wilfully pursue” the perception. As Natalie suggests, all this is where worthy difficulty becomes opacity.

    A positive answer? To continue to respond — as you’re doing — emotionally and viscerally to language and justifications which seek(s) to silence serious thought by carapacial smugness. And to write and read poems for and to various audiences who’ll react unpredictably (unless there’s a power/structural imbalance already in place which guarantees applause).

  7. Stephen Rowe Says:

    The question you ask, Jake, is a good one. You can analyse a text by seeking ways it succeeds, but I think it also necessary to consider how it does not succeed, or in which way(s) it fails to achieve its goals. There are groups who support the avant garde, but if those people don’t also look inward to assess what is being produced critically in an honest way, then full development of the work will suffer. It’s almost like being self-aware, viewing realistically the strengths and weaknesses of a group’s own work. This is not to say that people outside the group can’t weigh in on either side of the argument as well, especially if the work was produced for people other than avantist to read.

    Natalie is quite right in discussing the role of writer and reader. Both play a part in the success of a text. If a text is difficult then I need to step up as a reader and pull my own weight. If not, then I’ve chosen not to participate. That said, just because a work is difficult doesn’t mean it’s worth reading, or that there is value in it. Again, these a judgements to be made by both the writer and reader.

    Any btw, you are bad at twitter. You need to update more! I’m also guilty of this. The most I do lately is link my blog posts to my twitter account so twitter relays the info.

  8. Jenny Says:

    My answer was glib. I regretted it immediately. The question of accessibility is one that asks for the person asked, to be on the defensive and I don’t regret not taking a defensive stance. It’s a strange position to so often be put in, where one is called on to apologize, explain or defend a whole body of work that, like anything of that scope, is impossible to do.

    Before my reiteration of Tostevin’s story on accessibility, I’d answered that positive or productive confusion was where I find my way into the text. That’s my answer. I’ve found what works for me and what, as Jeff said, excites me about these texts. It’s what I hope excites others and it’s where I teach from. Beyond that, there’s certainly an allowance of interest or disinterest in a text. You can be interested in a text or disinterested in it. My glib answer was in response to this more than anything. If you don’t like it, that’s a reasonable response. I see now that you’re saying you want a way in and can’t find it. I get that. And certainly there are avant garde texts that fail, just as there are hundreds of books of any genre that fail. I see now, out side of the panel that you were asking more about whether the classification of a text as difficult (I’m assuming on the behalf of the writer or press or whatever) could negate any discussion of whether or not it is a good or successful text. That’s apt.

    My confusion was more in that I was seeing the “difficult text bin” as the place books get thrown even before they’re read or engaged on any level. In the context of my paper, it was more in response to the way I see people approach BookThug books. There’s often a wall that goes up around the books that isn’t earned by a read through, but by some prejudice around the press or by the designation of avant garde which tends to, as I say in my talk, have a whole history of meanings associated with it that people react to.

    So on the one side, the texts that get labeled that way, are often ones I have great affection for, and I worry about their easy dismissal. On the other hand, yes, we shouldn’t refrain from considering whether a text is successful or not because it is also hard.

    There are a lot of books that I’ve worked hard at that I feel have failed. But my interest is always if they’ve failed or succeeded on their own terms, not just mine. So if the book has put forth a set of rules to follow, and it backs away from them, or if I’m left with a sense of something missing or an aspect that could have pushed harder into constraint or backed off or, well, any of the criteria one brings into the reading of the book, then sure it fails.

    What I guess my reaction comes from, is again that position of avant garde texts as needing to account for themselves at all times. I get off on competent writing that handles uncertainty well. That works for me. I’m not looking for the same things you are in the text maybe, and that’s great. It would be a dull place if we all wanted the same thing out of a book. The accessibility discussion is a slippery slope though. All poems are deferring meaning in some way. I could write a poem or a blog post or an essay. They might all struggle with meaning, but the poem does so self-consciously.

  9. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Jenny.

    Thanks for the longer answer.

    This is the part that still troubles me, as a reader:

    “But my interest is always if they’ve failed or succeeded on their own terms, not just mine. So if the book has put forth a set of rules to follow, and it backs away from them, or if I’m left with a sense of something missing or an aspect that could have pushed harder into constraint or backed off or, well, any of the criteria one brings into the reading of the book, then sure it fails.”

    If we take the avant garde as primarily a process (calling it a “radical gesture” is to speak to the first step in a process, isn’t it?) rather than a family of finished products, then process is destined to become our means of understanding and appreciating a text. Asking only that they “fail or succeed on their own terms” sounds fair and everything, but if our concern is process, and not product, then I’m worried we see everything that successfully self-directs, that follows itself, as an inherent success.

    Surely a dull procedure that creates a dull book is not a successfuly project on the strength of it being successfully dull, is it? I feel like when a scientist blows up their lab mid-experiment (or, more aptly, their experiment renders zero results), s/he is willing to admit their failure. S/he doesn’t publish their findings or expect the attention of the scientific readership. This is the difference between an experimental scientist and an experimental poet; the latter still publishes their findings, and ships their products into the world with only a “Handle With Care” sticker (or “Difficult Text” Sticker) to limit and protect potential readers.

    If that’s a simplifying analogy (all science to art ones are…) I’m sorry. But I think it gets at my frustration. What I want, as a reader of avant garde work, is a “vocabulary of disliking” that isn’t spotted with a battery of linguistic trip-wires to be used in my dismissal as a worthy or engaged reader. I would like new words, cleaner ones.

    Thanks again, Jenny, for stepping in. I understand today is a busy busy day, and do not necessarily expect a quick response.

  10. Margaret Christakos Says:

    Good criticism of any primary text involves sustained investigation willing to sunder its own formal assumptions.

    (Or does it? What the fuck: Authority and the sentence. We all know about this, no?)

    Second guessing is a kind of hearing of the past as we tumble forward into the present we are engaged in making…

    The panel discussion is a form that generally leads to silencing and frustration. Revile the standard panel form. There should always be revisitations in events, you need a break where people can have their dyadic private explosions/airings, and a return to group/solo voice and a break to touch and a return to presentation/response. Transitions and continuities,taking for granted all is infuriating.

    For now the really interesting foment happens in this virtual room instead of in the room with the bodies and voices…for it’s safer–and polyvocality can be enacted…

    We always have a problem with polyvocality…

    The darkened room with questioning voices from the back row unheard by most pitted against voices at microphones in a spotlight…

    I wouldn’t characterize the responses you got as infuriating for example. But I was also infuriated, most of us in the room likely were, that’s the state of being stimulated but not drawn in/out/into relevance.

    We each need to repeat, hyperbolize, rise and soften, hone and own, etc. all language events poised at the brim of private silence/thought and communal thinking/building.

    Avant garde and the academy are two ridiculous terms but it would/should likely take hours to say why.

    Sure FREE school but does that mean any of the instructors get paid??? How could we not be clear about this??

    It should take hours to say why. Those hours would be filled then with interactive conversation, mobile voicings and mutual interruptions, murmurings, movements toward and away from each other, flares of love and hate.

    Intensity, immersion, much to say…

    Talking circles…we don’t know how to do em…

    Kate because she has spent decades in cultural theory and affect theory gets us thinking about layered affect; and criticism generally wends its way towards nuances of multiple co-present responses.

    Why do we subscribe to these forms. Why did anyone in the designated audience not leap in while anyone at the mic was speaking and say hey wait a sec can we tease this one out a little, can we theorize together?

    (Manners, manners…)

    Community is a noun, not a verb. Communing gives a whole other sense of how it is bodies will be cohabiting a field… and what innovative writing so often explores form….reflecting and perplexing known approaches, riffing off/into them…

    Angela’s “Commutiny”–a few puns were needed…why are puns so potent…

    The cafe, the terrace, the post event event is where the event is, and now here, in digiland, we finally have a form that matches our desire, but you are the only one getting to drink the wine….

    How does one afford to sit in a bar/cafe and talk as a form of work…how does one allow for this necessity…

    Wholeheartedly agree that it’s more than possible to elucidate how a book works or not but I would point to the let’s shit on this book in 300 words and get paid $125 bucks for it as a central contemporary disaster for our letters and an abysmal excuse for “criticism”–I would say your own essay on Holbrook is a great example of engaged critical attention that gets us deep into both the virtuosities and the limits of her book….which always keeps us on the road to imagining where a bookwork will go next as it transforms toward another bookwork…

    But our existing critical field can rarely hold a text like yours, and so form form form we need invent, that’s our responsibility I believe…

  11. cartywheel Says:

    I want to say something to this and want to say something clever but suspect I’m going to trip up on my words but will give it a go.

    For, this:
    “If the avant garde wants to describe the complete failure of the communicative cycle of literature (writer to reader, and back again) as a “positive space”, as positive as that’s cycle’s successful iteration, then what’s left to constitute a “negative space”? Put another way, from where can the reader of the avant garde(s) generate a vocabulary to describe the not-workingness of a finished product presented in front of them? Have we made not liking something into a logical fallacy?”

    I think this is not so different from approaches to other forms of poetry, only the terms of reference. I also agree in broad strokes that it’s positive to approach a text w/ a sense of intelligent curiosity, rather than fear. (Which quite frankly, some readers feel when exposed to ANY poetry, never mind a piece that’s considered avant-garde.) There are pieces that anyone can read and not ‘get’ at first go, that you’ll re-read, re-consider, toy with, maybe come up w/ a better understanding of what the writer was trying to do or the process behind it, and you still might not like it. You can still designate a poem as a failure for technical or personal reasons, much the way you could for more narrative or lyric poetry, where the content might be more easily assessible.

    You can (and people do) get strong negative responses for others when they say “I don’t like this” to any poem. Whatever the camp. You might be told you don’t understand what the poet was trying to do, that your reading wasn’t deep enough, that you don’t understand the technical issues, etc.

    But I emphasize, I think this applies to poetry generally, not avant-garde specifically. I just think people can get away a bit more w/ saying a whole lotta nothing sometimes about a poem if it’s more easily understood in terms of content because you can focus on that in a critique or review. Similarly, you can say a whole lotta nothing about process.

    I do think there are ‘processes’ behind other forms of poetry too, but they’re not examined in the same way, maybe because sometimes the point of avant-garde stuff sees the idea of communicating content (language, ideas, social meaning) itself to be problematic so the process becomes part of the statement.

    For me, this does not negate more accessible poetry, straight lines, etc. I’m a materialist at heart, I like the bones of things, how things shape on the page and in the ear, but also the strength of a what an idea or a line can carry. Really, I’m interested in taking/learning whatever I need, what I find intelligent, beautiful, wonderfully ugly, soul pricking. Curious about most stuff.

    And there’s wide swathes of poetry that I think technically brilliant, for its process or its nice scansion, its clever line breaks, good use of form, nice visuals, which I find, boring, cliche, empty and sometimes ethically questionable.

    It’s just part of the spectrum for me. I try to approach whatever I encounter w/ an open mind and if I don’t understand it, I do enjoy that because I might discuss w/ other poets, question, read, re-look. The energy expended is worth it as part of my study, as a poet.

    (And I’ll say as a tag on to this that I find the broad generalisations of ‘avant’ and ‘traditional’ really limiting …. strong desire to kick a can.)

  12. I too find it ridiculous that a rather narrow subset of poetic discourse that responds directly to an equally narrow and specific subset of fashionable postmodern critical texts has somehow, over the years, managed to claim a de facto trademark on the words “avant garde” (i.e. at the forefront of the art), “experimental”, “difficult”, “innovative”, etc., as though other kinds of poetic discourse are by extension NOT these things.

    Often built-in to this brand of poetics is the notion that all other kinds of poetic discourse are forthwith illegitimate by virtue of wishing to engage with other concerns. Rather than admitting to a difference of taste or area of aesthetic concern, one finds poetics belonging to other traditions labeled backward or obsolete, and a refusal or disinterest to engage in the new poetic order frequently comes with accusations that one is simply intellectually ill-equipped to engage with it. It’s all well and good to talk about inclusiveness and rigor, but it’s hard to swallow sometimes when the poetic dialogue so frequently includes such insults and sophistry.

    I don’t wish to invalidate any kind of poetic discourse, but I would like not to be condescended to for my preferences, and like Jacob I would like to see a critical vocabulary that allows for so-called “avant garde” texts to be honestly and qualitatively evaluated. Certainly not every “avant garde” text written in Canada (or anywhere else for that matter) is “good”, but I have honestly never heard anyone who self-identifies as belonging to the “avant garde” tradition call anything “bad” that didn’t belong to a recognizably different tradition.

    And before this is thrown back at me, I will go on record as saying yes, a great deal of poetry written in other traditions is bad. Most of the poetry ever written is bad. I admit it is bad, and I can tell you exactly why it’s bad. But can the “avant garde” do the same?

  13. voxpopulism Says:

    This is in many ways a frustrating discussion. Adding to this frustration is the fact that, I believe, it’s also an exceptionally important discussion, and one that needs to “happen well” from the point of view of ambassadorship among camps and confederacies.

    I understand that maybe a blog isn’t the best place to have this conversation, Margaret. But, a blog’s what I got. Other conversations will hopefully be happening over pints and coffees, between students and teachers, booksellers and clients. I have reason to suspect, from the various people who’ve emailed and facebooked me in the last 12 hours, that these things are happening. Let’s not let our standard bickering stand in for the effusive atonal choir of the whole, Bunny Lady. Let’s not do that :)

    I still think my concern stands, though, and nobody’s really answered it directly. If we as readers are willing to find communicative failure to be a sign of aesthetic success, then where does this leave truly great avant garde writing? If all we are left with is a vocabulary that can only speak in terms of “kinds” of excellence, are we not blinding ourselves as readers (and, not that it matters as much, critics) to our true guttural decision between art we like, and art we dislike, a distinction that we can call petty or slight or unengaged, but remains the root phoneme for all reaction to art? Am I alone in this sense of intellectual dread?

  14. Margaret Christakos Says:

    I’d say you did not read my post, Jacob.

  15. voxpopulism Says:

    I did, Margaret.

    Looking it over again, perhaps you and I have woefully different definitions of the term “answered it directly”.

    Am I allowed to say I misunderstood your reaction?

    If I was to ask you, instead, the following, could you answer it for me: How do you know when you dislike something? How do you express this to your peers?

    And, as a corollary, if expressing a like, or dislike, of something is not considered important in your reading, how do you go about expressing something as simple as a recommendation to a student or peer? How do we tell your appreciations apart from each other?

  16. Is not the accusation that the reader didn’t read / understand / engage with the writing at the heart of Jacob’s original query? That any criticism, or disagreement, or requests for elaboration or elucidation can be dismissed in this way?

  17. Brian Palmu Says:

    Communicative failure is NOT a sign of aesthetic success, though. The avant-garde becomes traditional in a process of sifting and evaluation, so I agree with others that the “two camps” dynamic is bogus. (Do the front guard’s works, by definition, become worthless when a certain mass of readers “get it” especially when they don’t get it?)

    The problem, it seems to me, is that a theoretical tradition of language suspicion has anointed themselves “avant-garde”. A great amount of time is spent on ancillary poetics (which are embedded in, and often the same, as the poems).

    Why not return to poems once considered avant-garde, and ask what made them work, what made them fascinating. Pound, e.g., was considered “radical”, the etymology of which is “returning to the root”. To be radical or innovative or experimental are concerns of what we now call traditional poetry. Pound’s famous call to “make it new” has been creatively re-interpreted so that novelty is the only thing worth pursuing in some quarters.

    To circle back to the question of how to compare works within the so-called avant-garde: logical, but especially emotional, reaction to “text”. To play the cool sleuthing game is to engage with the “text” on exclusively theoretical terms. Is the poem pleasureable? Does it have anything interesting, if not important, to say, or is it just self-referential, a display of poetics? The more things change ….

  18. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rob Taylor, NatalieZed. NatalieZed said: Jacob Mooney continues the conversation from this afternoon's panel discussion. http://met.al/46z In which I appear "adorably concerned." […]

  19. Margaret Christakos Says:

    Is difference woeful?

    Why does the word “accusation” enter?

  20. The word enters because it’s accurate.

  21. […] can read the entire post here. Make sure to check out the comments section – it’s where things get […]

  22. voxpopulism Says:

    I admit, Margaret, it took me some time to figure out who you were addressing with that “Is difference woeful?” question. Surpises of surpises, it would appear to me. I think it’s a rather acrobatic manoeuver to go from my saying two things are “woefully different” to your suggestion that in order to say such I thing, I must be the kind of person who despises differences in opinion between people, and considers them universally “woeful”. Calling that a logical leap seems to understate it, somehow. A logical leap powered by willfullness, maybe. A logical leap with rocket skates.

    But it is an excellent example of what I’m talking about: an array of defensive linguistic landmines that take someone else’s dissent and mark it with pre-selected signposts suggesting the dissenter’s ignorance and smallmindedness.

    What if, with this protective instinct to inoculate ideas and texts against potential aggressors, we also inoculate them against praise, against fandom and the very expression of readerly love? The critical language that can’t place an adjective in front of a noun without someone chiming in with: “So do you think all [Noun]s are [Adjective]?” is incapable of formulating a rhetoric of real self-celebration or recognizing exceptionality within its ranks. This, in brief, is my concern as someone who loves a lot of these books, but can’t see a way to discss them that doesn’t flounder in the same beige theoretical mediocrity as the books I don’t love.

  23. Margaret Christakos Says:

    Jacob I’m not going to continue posting here as it seems highly unproductive, but happy to talk in person anytime.

    I have not said anything about what kind of person you are, not have I suggested any dissenter’s ignorance and smallmindedness.

    I like you and find you interesting.


  24. voxpopulism Says:

    That’s fine.

    I mean, it’s frustrating as all hell, because I can’t think of anything *more* productive, or interesting, than a frank discussion of the questions posed above. But I get that this venue is harsh and often prone to the nuance-killing hallogen light of Internet Speak. And that it’s not for everybody.

    You should fully expect, of course, that I’ll want to ask them all to you again in person. So in the interest of a productive conversation, I hope you don’t let them fall too far to the wayside.

  25. cartywheel Says:

    kay (this is Christine by the by, bloody frivolous blog of random has re-christened, me, as it tw’ere.)

    My question to yours: what would allow you to discuss those books in a non-flounderyway? what would you need in terms of tools?

    Is it easier w/ other types of writing? What makes it easier for you?

    Maybe these are dumb questions, ones already answered, but I’m curious and the cat has been eaten.

  26. LH Says:

    How can this be called a productive discussion when the word “avant garde” is offered up in sarcastic quotes, and when the parties are coming to the table with preconceived ideas they’ve stated elsewhere over and over again.

    I thought a productive discussion took the ideas somewhere completely new. In any case, that was what I was hoping for when I checked in this morning.

    And when there is an assumption that one way of thinking is more logical than another? People do think differently, right? They do express themselves differently, right?

    Sorry to see things shut down…

  27. Why haven’t certain poetries developed a critical vocabulary for distinguishing the bad from the good?

    And so the question is met with evasion, flippancy, purposeful misunderstanding, a red-herring insinuation, a flimsy denial, and reframing ad nauseum (as though the request were not clear enough), but never an answer.

    This isn’t poetics. It’s politics.

  28. The quotation marks I put around the words “avant garde” aren’t sarcastic. They indicate that we are talking about a kind of writing that isn’t avant garde, or not the truest representation of what might be the avant garde, but that nevertheless uses the term as a kind of brand name. The quotation marks are there for clarification, not sarcasm.

  29. LH Says:

    Once again we have perception no? I read a lot of hostility in some of these replies, but perhaps I am the only one.

    Paul, it seems that one assume that the way one thinks about poetry, and wants to read about poetry is the way others think and write about poetry…it seems to me that when one doesn’t see a system or logical rhetorical style that one recognizes as valid this is described as flawed rather than appreciating the difference.

    I quite admire the way you take a position, and Jake takes a position, but if other people take positions differently I don’t automatically think they’re wrong, or lacking…they have different rhetorical styles. Something that seems to get little air in discussions…

    As for failure and evaluation–I’m not sure who you are talking to that doesn’t see the failed texts in the avant garde as much as anywhere else. The difficulty of assessment plagues all poetry, no one more than the other.

    I hope I’m making myself clear: I’m a bit rushed and will have to sign off shortly. Very much hope there can be a little headway as there was earlier in this discussion.


  30. LH Says:

    One more thing…I notice in a few links to this post, that people are titling this discussion “accountability in the avant-garde” or some such. As if only the avant-garde must be accountable. As if other texts are immediately readable to all? This is a classist, elitist statement if ever there was one. Quite frankly Gertrude Stein is as readable or “difficult” to me as say, Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot, a book I admire a good deal.

    All poetry requires some way to it…we all had to learn to read it. We were just made to read a certain kind of poetry. Seriously, some of the blandest poetry in this country seems to me to be from another planet entirely and in need of much introduction and accountability…but again, perception.

  31. Then Lemon, would you care to fill us in sometime? Which are the “avant garde” texts that you think are failures, that you are bad, and why do you think that? I imagine that would be instructive and lend some clarity to the discussion.

  32. LH Says:

    I note the difficult in quotes and here the snappiness in it. Hard to avoid it seems.

  33. LH Says:

    Hopefully others will chime in…I’m being too quick now, as the clock ticks and I have to run, but certainly not running away from the discussion, just from adding more typos to my posts…

    Again, cheers.

  34. LH Says:

    Well, for starters, here I am trying to grapple with beaulieu’s Flatland, a difficult text that I clearly state I don’t think succeeds…



  35. Thanks, Sina.

    “The text must be able to speak for itself.”

    I like that. That’s a very good start.

  36. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Hound.

    Was waiting to see you around these parts. Always good to have you in a conversation.

    Some quibbles:

    There was never a sarcastic element to my original placment of “avant garde” in quotes. I just wanted to allow for the fact that those words mean different things to different people, that there are many avant garde schools and ideals, and that the word, then, is something of a placeholder, a token. It’s imperfect to talk in terms of placeholders, I know, but one needs a certain number of usable terms in order to frame a conversation. No disrespect was intended.

    I don’t want you to “read hostlity” into my replies. I would like you to read a great amount of frustration, but hostility suggests an unwillingness, and I’m more than willing to engage and to interact. You know well that I’m a fan of many books that self identify as experimental, and many more that can stake a territory between procedures (Nikki’s [Sic] being the most successful recent example I can think of. Believe me when I try and tell you I’m not casting myself as Prosecuter for the Mainstream.

    I understand that when certain people get involved in this discussion, the argument gets recasted along old lines (formalism v experimentalism, traditionalism v. the avant garde). Those are, as we both know, highly stupid argument and will never produce epiphany among those with vested interests. I don’t want to come across like I’m lobbing a grenade over no man’s land. I’m really not. I think that checks out in the record above.

    All I asked was a couple of, I think, innocuous questions, and the reaction has been a veritible carnival of deflection, defensiveness, condescension (more in the original panel than here), and general panic. Does it not startle you to think, as it did me, that it took 33 comments for anyone to even think of posting a link, or even mentioning, a specific example of a troubled review of an “avant garde” text?

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my questions, Hound. And moreover, I don’t think that my naiviete is somehow the product of logical blinders or simplifications. I think they’re simple, yes, but that’s what makes them hard.

    So, Hound: Do you worry that the experimentalist critical vocabulary (a vocabulary I see you struggle with valiantly in the d.b. review above) is more comfortable considering texts within the context of appreciation, than in the context of non-appreciation? And yes, that question pre-supposes that such a specialist vocabulary exists. I’m comfortable enough that it does to let it go.


    Christine: The first thing I would need, really, ia an answer from Sina Queyras to the question above.

  37. James Langer Says:


    Just a few fragmented and no doubt oversimplified comments (set phasers to stun, people):

    The avant-garde poet is involved in a private struggle to free herself from tradition. Tradition is public. Your questions are public questions (they emerge from and are about the public), and the answers require a tradition.

    When a so-called traditional poet uses the structure of an ode, for example, or evokes the metrical contract, they enter a public realm because they choose to, in a sense, speak our language. This is why I don’t consider these poets to be avant-garde — innovative, fresh, brilliant but not avant-garde. Avant-garde poetry seems to be a state of perpetual Pentecost, and that’s one of its great qualities.

    Yet it still manages to be classified as poetry, so evaluations of the effectiveness of form and the freshness of figuration should still apply.

    The avant-garde and what gets dubbed “traditional verse” share the same ancestors. This avant-garde we speak of was born from Pound’s free-verse. Pound’s free-verse is impossible without Chaucer, Marlowe, Milton, Wordsworth, and Whitman (to name just a few on the English side and a couple that Pound scoffed at). Free verse has always existed. It has always existed by negation. These avant-garde writers paved the way for free verse by allowing, little by little, what had once been negated. Before Marlowe, blank verse was bad verse and was negated by the presence of rhyme. Your search for “the negative space” is a search for what is to be negated. What we negate publicly as “bad” would become the next revolutionary’s private frontier. This is a yin-yang thing, a “you complete me” thing. And, yet, we have civil war.

    We are forced to evaluate avant-garde poetry privately because it chooses to refuse the familiarity of tradition. There is no shared public ground, so it’s a private relationship. This is why Derrida is so often paraphrased in its defense. Every evaluation of avant-garde poetry is a personal narrative (And, no, I don’t think this is the case with all poetries: a great deal of criticism is involved in what I would call a public narrative). In this sense, the evaluation of avant-garde work seems democratic. But as a private relationship, I tend to evaluate avant-garde poetry by the quality of its seduction: even the seduction of its impenetrability. Wait a minute. Seduction is socially constructed so there must be ways to deconstruct it. And this is what makes me uncomfortable: The seduction of the difficult, the impenetrable or the unattainable, and this might be a stretch, sounds like shorthand for capitalism. Throw in the old Protestant work ethic as the answer to “difficulty” (work at it and you’ll eventually “get it”) and you’ve got oppressive capitalism. (I would welcome arguments against this notion. Tell me I’m out to lunch and why, please.)

    Now it sounds like I’m making an argument against the avant-garde. Not my intention, just a problem I have. But the discussion of seduction seems like some kind of way into evaluation. Certainly, this isn’t a new idea.

    LH: Thanks for the link. I’m on my way there now in an attempt to catch-up.

  38. voxpopulism Says:

    Wowsers. Lots to like there. I think that I can appreciate James’s public/private designations. Surely, I understand that they’re simplifications. But really, what wouldn’t be? Ironically, the quest for the public avant garde was a recurring conversation point in the panel conversation that inspired this blog post. Really, I wish someone had taped it.

    I don’t know about the difficulty therefore seduction therefore capitalism therefore oppression angle. It sounds like an exciting idea, surely, I’m just not sure it reflects the readerly reality all that well. Unless you’re Abbie Hoffman.

  39. Carl Wilson Says:

    I really strongly beg to differ with James’s public/private distinction.

    First of all “avant-garde” has been used by almost everyone in this discussion as a term for a tradition – not, of course, “the” tradition, which is a mythological creature anyway – but a tradition of 20th-century poetics that begins (arguably) with modernism and proceeds through various revisions and reactions to modernism and reaches the Language/KSW/etc. point by the 1980s. (Whether we can point to major ruptures of the kind that characterized the branching of the avant-garde throughout the 20th century after the 1980s, and if not whether it still makes sense – or is necessary or compelling – to talk about an avant-garde would have been a good question for the panel. My fault for not raising it.)

    Second, a lot of the people who work within the “avant-garde” regard their practice as political and public – not a “private attempt to free herself from tradition,” but a public critique in poetic form, about the use value of language, its imbrication within systems, etc. This requires a public language (“our language”) to begin with. Avant-garde poetry isn’t speaking some *other* language – it’s (sometimes) highlighting, making-strange, and otherwise playing with the features of “our language.”

    Third, a lot of the people who work within the “avant-garde” may not be doing that at all but I still doubt they’d call their practice private. But maybe some would, just as some lyric poets would.

    Fourth, in terms of the actual basic common language of English speakers in our culture – let’s call it TVE (television English) – an ode at this point is way weirder than, say, flarf.

    There’s no inherent correlation between choice of form and the artist’s intention, even though it may imply a different public/audience.

    I was going to say something about the more general point but that’s enough for now.

  40. Carl Wilson Says:

    PS That wasn’t meant to be a defense of the avant-garde just as James’ comment wasn’t meant to be an argument against it. Just to say I think his logic was too tidy to be helpful.

  41. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Carl.

    Welcome to the blog. Thanks for joining in. I read your Celine Dion book and really enjoyed it.

    If you’re sticking around, I have some comments about your comments. I’d love to have you comment on these comments about your comments, if you so desire:

    Maybe my earlier discussion of the “magical language lacking a word for ‘no'” was hyperbolic. The word I’m really looking for is vocabulary, specifically a bias in the preferred vocabulary for discussing avant garde poetries towards a very accepting and by extension (let’s face it) passive, readerly response. As Jenny said above and at the panel, it’s about (re-)defining readerly reactions as kinds of “positive spaces”. Some of those reactions, I’d maintain, are just negative spaces stripped of their reality by the passivity of the vocabulary.

    What I’m really talking about here is a defense of taste, which I know is something you’ve written about. Not “my” taste” or “good taste”, or even taste as an object, but rather the ancient procedure of personal taste. There’s something cooly dehumanizing about a critical vocabulary that wants to teach me so badly about how to love something, one that doesn’t recognize or want to dwell on the actual reaction, and move forward from there.

    And there is a tidiness to James’s logic. And, I understand the irony for asking for clarity in a conversation about experimental literatures. But, part of what sustains these endless arguments, I think, is that no one ever stops to consider the original questions in the first place.

  42. James Langer Says:

    Yeah, Jake, let me strike that avant-garde/capitalism remark. I think there might be something to it, but I wouldn’t want to be the person to actually follow the train of thought. It was just one of those ideas that springs up mid-paragraph and gets posted despite a lack of real argumentation.

    Thanks for responding, Carl. Yes, the public/private binary is tidy, but logic is tidy, and I think it is more helpful than you suggest even if only as a starting point. I also didn’t mean to imply that avant-garde poets write without public concerns. I deeply admire the work of Peter Gizzi, for example, and I read Gizzi as a political and civic writer. But there are times when Gizzi’s language and associations seem hermetic to me, and I am forcefully reminded of Gizzi’s privacy (his difference: a good thing). In fact, I think Gizzi’s work achieves much of its emotional power from just that sense of privacy and intimacy (the traditional lyric does, too). But just because a book is published (public) does not mean that its author has engaged with the public in the same way a writer of the pentameter has engaged (I hate to bring up the monster of the pentameter, but there it is). A reader can recognize the pentameter and think “Hey, that sounds familiar. I know where I am.” The strophe, antistrophe, epode are familiar public spaces. The forms of the avant-garde are more like private dwellings because they are the only ones that have lived there (or should be the only ones that have lived there). Because I write a certain kind of poetry, people (the very few that have read my work) might think I value one over the other, but I do not. Like everyone else, I am both private and public.
    Oh, and Jake: I was trying to approach your original questions as I understood them, but I derailed myself in places, mea culpa.

  43. S.K. Says:

    The question of accountability asks another question: to whom is this alleged avant garde confederacy accountable?

    If they answer your question with deflection and trickery, maybe it’s because they don’t wish to be accountable to you, maybe it’s because you’re not invited to their party, or maybe it’s because deflection and trickery is the point they want to make. A poetics rooted in deconstruction is bound to be prone to the same excesses and subject to the same criticisms as its parent theory, n’est-ce pas?

    What vocabulary can we use to talk about it, you want to know? You could learn “their” language, which is jargon, which I think is different than the “vocabulary” you’re looking for. Jargon in any field is a specialized language designed to control the dialogue and prevent “outsiders” from participating. You’re looking for a language that encourages understanding, that reaches out to people, that includes others and democratizes the conversation. Is that right?

    Perhaps this is what is scary to some people. When you relinquish control of the conversation by allowing for outsiders to participate, one relinquishes too much power. Better to seem the mandarin in possession of secret knowledge, better to seem unapproachable, than to let the rowdies into the house, right?

    I think Carl Wilson is right that everything starts with “our language,” so I think our language, ordinary language, should suffice for discussing it, but maybe some people think that to discuss work that seeks to undermine clear and frank communication with clear and frank communication kinda kills the work. But they can’t, or won’t, tell you that, because maybe being clear and frank about that part of their motivation defeats the point, too.

    Maybe. Maybe. For some it may be an ideology they cling to. For others, yeah, it might be a cop out because it’s easier to write something that doesn’t make sense and ask the reader to do the heavy lifting. And for others, maybe it’s all just a practical joke and your frustration amuses them.

  44. Matt Carrington Says:

    Isn’t at least one of the points made by poetics that seek to undermine clear and frank communication that there really is no such thing as clear and frank communication? That all reading is misreading? There is no “our” language, and language is always ideological, social. Yes, this can be argued against, but I do think it’s a basic starting point for many poets and should not be forgotten in a discussion like this.

    I was at the panel event, but I’m not sure exactly what Jake is asking here and am not sure why he is focused on the word “difficult” (who likes to think of their work as difficult? playful, maybe, non-representational, language-centred, sure, but difficult? — this is a term applied from the outside, surely). Perhaps it is useful to think of other kinds of art: a painting of a red square is very easy to dismiss as bad art, as is _Tender Buttons_, and perhaps this easy dismissal is reason enough for the focus for those who like a kind of art/poetry to think about why it is interesting/vital instead of ways by which it can be easily dismissed? Poetry that undermines communication is still after all these decades a mostly marginal poetics in Canada.

    I am really enjoying reading Jeff Derksen’s book of essays, which was sold at Scream and discusses many of these issues directly.

  45. Brian Palmu Says:

    S. K. gets it. Excellent post.

  46. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Matt.

    The equating of “avant garde” to “difficult” is an unfortunate simplification of the conversation. I apologize for any role in it, though you’ll note that a few comments back I was already identifying the simplification and suggesting alternatives.

    Actually, one of my favourite recent Canadian collections, both among those identified as avant garde and those not so-identified, was Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting. That’s an avant garde text that I don’t think a person could reasonably describe as difficult. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t shun difficulty either, I also really liked the new Erin Moure, she being one of our more ambitious, and pleasurable, experimentalists.

    But notice how, to speak of relative exceptionality, I had to drop out of the academic language that surrounds micro-modernism and into a more common (or, “public”) vocabulary of words such as like, favourite, and pleasurable. I understand that my saying “Here are some recent books I really liked” doesn’t add anything to the critical dialogue per se, but that’s not exactly what I’m complaining about. I’m asking for a more inclusive, and balanced, vocabulary of reader response.

    I think, maybe 10 comments in or so, Jenny had suggested that I’m “looking for a way in”. That’s not really it. I can find the way in fine. What I’m looking for, to follow the figure of speech, is a way out. A means to report back on my findings that doesn’t suffer from the translator’s bane of moving from a specific local language (I don’t think S.K.’s wrong in calling it Jargon) to a second one in the interest of convincing would-be readers of the joy and quality I found on my travels.

  47. Matt Carrington Says:

    Are you really unable to speak about, in a non-academic way, your own experience/enjoyment of a text such as Holbrook’s recent book (which I also love and, to your point about it not being difficult, have purchased for at least two friends who generally don’t read poetry)? I have talked to friends about how “Good Egg, Bad Seed” surprises me, plays with language and expectations, pokes fun at ideas we have about the world and is also hilarious and almost constantly amusing. These are not academic terms.

    But I don’t know what’s wrong with specialized language in the art/literary world. Poetry is complex and social, and specialized language can be used to discuss it; poetry is also immediate and intimate and affecting, and personal language can be used to discuss it. But different things are being said in each case. I think it’s possible finding and worth exploring a criticism that includes both of these, and perhaps it’s what you’re looking for?

    I understand why you use the word “jargon,” but I would argue that using a word like that is always an argument, is never, like all language neutral. To call certain language jargon is to dismiss and denigrate it as other and as elitist. Other terms (such as “specialized,” sure) privilege it. These are different languages being used, each containing their own arguments and value judgments, and I don’t think one is plainer or more frank than the other.

  48. voxpopulism Says:

    That’s all well-taken, Matt. I’m also excited that you’ve used the Holbrook as an ambassador text for non-poetry friends. I’ve done the same.

    I think, getting back to the original post a bit, the word I used in my most recent comment that’s been left behind in your response is “balanced”. It’s not that the constructed vocabulary system for avant garde criticism (criticism being a more interactionist word for “reading”) is too hard, either for me or most other readers who own and operate dictionaries. It’s that it’s become, to the eye of this Open Letter reader, a sort of formalized crutch that removes the evaluative core of readerly expression from the picture. The pangea of “positive spaces” described earlier is indicative of this. So, to clarify, it’s not specifically that the language is heightened that concerns me, it’s that it’s been engineered to negate, or dismiss, the idea of opinionated readership, repainting the very readerly act of disliking something into a form of intellectual sloth.

    I think the most common reaction to a negative response to an avant garde text is the one you quoted in your last response “to call it x , is to dismiss it as y”. Another common one is “this reaction comes from a place of misunderstanding/non-engagement”. These come across as cloying to a reader, as they negate the negative, blend it into a broad, non-evaluative, discussion of the work that, to my eyes, is more about the text’s supporting theory of creation than the words on the page.

  49. Matt Carrington Says:

    Jake, your reference to Open Letter reminds me of one thing I noticed when heading back into grad school: academics don’t like talking about taste, will very rarely talk about something being bad. There’s only so much space and time, so critics are writing about the things that excite them, that they want to praise and bring to light. _Open Letter_ is like this. Book reviews (do they still exist?) are not like this. Book reviews talk about taste (of the reviewer), about good and bad. But when was the last time a book that could be called “avant-garde” actually reviewed in a mainstream book review section (when poetry is reviewed at all)?

    I wouldn’t dismiss someone not liking something I like as non-engagement (maybe sometimes); however, it is still a question of taste, which is difficult to concretize in any way.

    Do you not think that all criticism engages with a “text’s supporting theory of creation” (poetics)? For example, if the euphony and rhythmic precision and detailed, finely wrought imagery of poem is praised, is this praise not based on the idea that these are what the poem was created to do? My point of course is just that this is as true about “traditional” poetry as it is about texts that are intended to be more radical. I am OK with that and think that that sort of self-consciousness in criticism is important.

  50. Matt Carrington says:

    “For example, if the euphony and rhythmic precision and detailed, finely wrought imagery of poem is praised, is this praise not based on the idea that these are what the poem was created to do? ”

    This has been an article of faith for a long time in the social sciences and humanities. Advances in neuroscience and brain imaging are debunking the notion, however, that such things as “euphony” and “rhythmic precision” are social constructs, but are rather things that have cross-cultural, universal, physiological appeal. The failure of dissonant music to catch on outside of certain coteries, e.g., is not the story of harmonious music’s dominance in the media. Rather, harmonious music’s dominance in the media is the story of what human beings respond favourably to. See, for example, Dennis Dutton’s book, _The Art Instinct_ for elaborations on these ideas.

  51. Matt Carrington Says:

    Fair enough. But I think that misses my point a fair bit (I’m not sure if you’re just sharing an interesting note or refuting a point I was making).

    Even if people naturally like euphony/beauty, I would maintain that the idea that what poetry does/should do is euphony/beauty is a social construct. Poetry is not natural. Poetry’s social role has changed many times (and been multiple) over the few thousand years. What we want poetry to _do_ is an important question still. I personally do not turn to poetry for beautiful and comforting language.

  52. Who said anything about “comforting”? Not a word I introduced.

    I think description and prescription get mashed together far too often. Verse–can we use this term instead of the more value-laden “poetry”?–has been predominantly euphonious since time immemorial, whatever vicissitudes the art form has taken over space and time. It continues to be. Dissonant language has, within euphonious writing, typically been used as a counterpoint/contrast to the overall euphony of a piece of verse. Verse in which dissonance has been predominant is a relatively recent invention and is almost always a reaction against the dominance of euphony. Dissonance will always be marginal because the vast majority of people simply don’t like listening to it. This is descriptive: I’m not saying dissonance is bad and should be banned, I’m saying that people (other than members of elite anti-establishment coteries, whom one suspects adhere to certain aesthetic doctrines more for political reasons than because they actually like the sound of dissonance) don’t care for it and this has been shown in numerous scientific studies. It isn’t socially constructed because it’s cross-cultural and even if it was, it’s begging the question to say so, because the question of where social constructions come from–a very inconvenient question–still has to be answered.

  53. Carl Wilson Says:

    It’s worth noting here that academic criticism has generally not been about whether things are good or bad, in most fields, for a very long time. And that’s not because it’s clubby, but because the job is to be analytic and propose theories about work. There is the assumption that because something is an object of academic inquiry, it’s worth discussing (even if the writer indicates that there are flaws, even fatal ones, in the work, that’s not its point). This style of critique – and manner of thought – carries over into discussions of styles of writing that are heavily theory-influenced. (And perhaps into the writing itself, less often.)

    I think there’s value in that – my work on taste has been to argue that getting a sense of where a cultural object is coming from is probably a more interesting thing to do with your sensibility than to make quick judgments. But of course art wants to be loved and we want to love art, which means we need to allow for strong negative reactions too.

    Anyway, just saying that because academic criticism doesn’t talk about avant-garde work as good or bad, it’s not because the *work* is trying to dodge it. It is probably because it’s not being talked about in other forums where judgment is a bigger factor. Except a few places, such as here, which is a good thing.

  54. Carl Wilson Says:

    “Verse–can we use this term instead of the more value-laden ‘poetry’?”

    Okay, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.

  55. voxpopulism Says:

    “Okay, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.”

    I liked it too. But, instead of the evaluative word “funny”, can we agree to all say “helicopter”, instead?

    Good points, Carl. I think that somewhere between the casual flippancy of the living room and the unashtonishable lucidity of academia, lies something like the ideal I’m talking about. Let’s just call it “really, really, good reading”, for now.

  56. “I liked it to. But, instead of the evaluative word ‘funny’, can we agree to all say ‘helicopter’, instead?”

    That’s really helicopter, Jake.

    Carl writes: “There is the assumption that because something is an object of academic inquiry, it’s worth discussing (even if the writer indicates that there are flaws, even fatal ones, in the work, that’s not its point).”

    This is a problem for art production, for writing, isn’t it? Doesn’t this line of inquiry privilege the teachable over the masterful? The theoretically correct over the well-made (but perhaps theoretically inconvenient)? Doesn’t it relegate literature to the role of secondary text, useful to the academic critic only insofar as it accommodates or illustrates the preferred theory at hand?

    What’s the logical conclusion of such a system? Some writers begin to cater to academic fashions, and if the fashions don’t require the writer to “write well” as long the writing supports the theory, then we have a discourse of poetry that’s primarily made-to-order by academics only secondarily interested in poetry. Still, some will write well, much better than others, because they are talented, but because the line of inquiry is disinterested in this fact, there is no call for differentiating exceptional texts from mediocre ones, so long as they more or less equally fulfill their role as theory-illustrations. Over time, a system will develop so disinterested in the relative exceptionality of its illustrative texts, that exceptionality ceases to matter and it’s not even discussed anymore. Indeed, there is no recognizable starting point from which to begin such a discussion. This might be an acceptable arrangement as far as certain kinds of theory are concerned, but I don’t see how it can be a good thing for poetry/poetries.

    Personally, I still believe in the role artists play in the intellectual and cultural landscape, and I prefer criticism in the service of art over art conscripted into service by criticism.

  57. E Martin Nolan Says:

    If I may make just a quick comment, it seems to me that avant-garde is defined as “outsider” or “against the grain.” Yet, there are just so many grains out there today. I’m surprised by formal verse, because it seems to go against the grain, especially if one considers this conversation. Does that make it avant-garde? I’d say it is, as much as language poetry is, because even if the tradition is to break from tradition, that itself establishes a tradition of breakage. As Emerson wrote, “this surface on which we stand is not fixed but sliding.” Therefore, I suggest that either all poetry is an experiment and avant-garde, or none of it is. In other words, they are just poems and each is different. After all, are we really shocked by anything anymore (besides, of course, excellence)? But then, standardless, how to judge excellence? Well, since I believe I’ve known joy and wisdom, I’ll stick with what ever strikes me as containing that, no matter how the poet decides to bring me there. And for the record, most of what is trying to be avant-garde fails to scratch the surface, probably because it is too focused on the method of the attempt.

  58. Souverian Says:


    Just wanted to comment on a comment here…specifically on what SK (and Brian Palmu by agreement) had to say about jargon. Because I’m lazy, I sought a definition for the word from some quick online dictionary. but I think several options out of its spread of meanings will suffice for our purposes.


    1. The language, esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.

    2. Unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish.

    3. Any talk or writing that one does not understand.

    5. Language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning.

    It’s pretty clear that SK would accept definitions 2, 3 and 5, but wouldn’t accept 1. And you’ll notice that the inflection of SK’s own definition (“jargon in any field is a specialized language designed to control the dialogue and prevent ‘outsiders’ from participating”) does not appear there. I believe that SK is wrong on two counts here: their definition of the word itself (perhaps they mean to say that it is a sort of “cant” they read into certain modes of avant-garde/experimental analysis/critique?), as well as their assumption that jargon is a bad thing.

    Jargon is indeed used in a lot of very complex and/or complicated fields. Jargon is a shorthand for a lot of very complex and/or complicated ideas. My personal view is that jargon should be by its nature translatable, but that translation can be very hard, can take a long time, a lot of reading in uncomfortable areas for both parties, and sometimes it just plain isn’t worth it. To say, as SK did, that an avoidance of translation is tantamount to “trickery” is to miss the point. One thing that I wish SK would have remembered is that every critical tool, if it’s something you write down or speak aloud, is itself jargon. Even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are pieces of jargon; so is ‘rhythm’, ‘beauty’, ‘clarity’, etc. We’re simply more familiar with those pieces of fossil jargon, their audience is very wide, and there’s nothing wrong with them, besides the fact that they quickly become inappropriate in some fields. Surely no one here actually wants to take the discourses on and between different poetics and simplify them by the use of one system of jargon that lets everyone in? What is to be gained by such reductionism? What would be lost?

    When I read the comment by SK and some by Brian Palmu, I hear, more than anything else, that they feel unfairly excluded. I hear that they perceive a common response from those who represent marginal poetics to be something like “oh well, you didn’t try hard enough in your reading, you didn’t play by my rules”. Sure enough, that happens. But in such cases the end result for the review, essay, critique or whatever, shouldn’t be about the text being good/bad, a buy/don’t buy, or success/failure (can anyone judge this? even those accustomed to the jargon that surrounds it? is a “you win!” conclusion even helpful?); the end result should explore the misunderstanding and what led to it. I think that Margaret Christakos was getting at that idea when she pointed out the shortcomings of the panel form of dialogue as an area for jargon translation. When we really want to approach a work, through dialogue or a personal reading, and when we find it unapproachable, it’s all too easy to say “but how will I know if it’s something that is worth approaching? if it’s good or bad?”. If we try to do a close reading with unapproachable work (I’m thinking of Charles Simic’s readings of Robert Creeley, as they appear in bitter contestation on Ron Silliman’s blog) then only a reflection of one’s jargon of choice can result. More can be gained from an inspection of the unapproachability itself – perhaps a post on the panel or forum style of conference regarding its suitability for different poetics or intersections of poetics; perhaps a book review that, beyond “approaching the author on their own terms”, attends critically to the terms used on both sides. These things need more than 300 words of space, as someone noted earlier. These things frequently need something more than a gaze at the page/blog, they need sustained voices in discussion. Like I said: sometimes though, they just need to be left alone.

    No one needs to have an opinion on every poetic stance. No one HAS to go up to Lisa Robertson and say “your new book is bad because it has no rhythm, it’s not beautiful writing, the images are flimsy, etc…”, just as no one HAS to go up to Zachariah Wells and say “your new book is bad because it doesn’t engage with theory, it doesn’t innovate in terms of form, it is far too apolitical and uninterrogated, etc…”. No one really does go up to each other. Are we all just talking jargon behind each other’s backs? Are we impatient with the task of jargon-translation? Are there things our time can be better spent on? Worst of all, a lot of what goes on in the grappling-with of unapproachability gets generalized beyond a particular book or poet. There is no “jargon of the avant-garde” there are personal jargons that frequently overlap. For example, SK suggests that the avant-garde holds a poetics that is based on deconstruction. Who? What is it about the jargon of the avant-garde as it stands today (and where?) that hearkens back to deconstruction? I mean here to point out that glossing over the deeper gaps in translation, the deeper misconceptions and generalizations on all sides, is systemic.

    I remember something Ken Belford said at a poetry reading in Victoria a year or two ago. Lorna Crozier was there, obviously a very different poet than him, and she was unhappy with a lot of what he was saying through the poems regarding the lyric, the trade book industry and industrialized poet, and so on. Ken didn’t get into jargon – he said something like “hey, there’s plenty of nice wide branches on this tree called poetry, so you just let me sit on mine and I’ll let you sit on yours”. Now, should Ken Belford have been accountable to the crowd in defending his poetics in a way they can easily understand? It’s not like he was mouthing off post-reading, this really was a case of his poetry speaking for itself. I just don’t think that Ken thought much could come out of a real discussion in that setting. I think that Ken wanted to resist being accountable just because he was exposing himself by doing the reading in the first place. To be accountable to; to answer to someone. Does any poetics need to have all the answers for any given partisan of any other poetic?

    Jargon. SK says finally that “for some it may be an ideology they cling to. For others, yeah, it might be a cop out because it’s easier to write something that doesn’t make sense and ask the reader to do the heavy lifting. And for others, maybe it’s all just a practical joke and your frustration amuses them.” Are those the only options? What a one-sided, short-sighted and negative portrayal of jargon. Here’s my take: For some it may be a scaffold for impressive new architecture. For others, yeah, it might be a thing that turns into its own object of investigation in a manner that is far more rewarding to a much smaller readership. And for others, maybe they’re so enamoured with or perplexed by the act of poetry that one jargon isn’t enough.

    Sorry about going on so long. I hope that makes a bit of sense.

  59. James Langer Says:

    Paul, Carl, Matt, and Jake:

    Whew, what a relief. I was just starting to think that it was our fault for failing to address Jake’s questions in any practical way. But now that I know the academics are to blame, I’ll sleep easy.

    I know: there’s a construction crew pouring a new sidewalk outside my front door tomorrow morning, and I’ll just walk out there and ask the hard-hats for their input on a vocabulary with which we can evaluate the work of avant-garde poets. I’ll say it just like that. And as soon as I’m released from the hospital, and back on solid foods, I’ll fill you in on my research.

    Much, much respect, guys, but that horse is lame.

  60. If I may shine a light on something that has popped up more than once…. This is not intended to be hostile, or even flippant, but something that I hope will serve to ultimately deepen this discussion, not just here but wherever it might take place, so please trust me that I’m being sincere.

    It has to do with the supposition that “more than anything else, that they feel unfairly excluded,” or the earlier supposition that Jacob is “saying [he] want[s] a way in and can’t find it.”

    You see, this familiar line of the avant-poetics dialogue, and versions thereof, is what makes people feel like they’re being condescended to. And there’s a good reason for that: it’s condescending. Please stop it.

    I think it’s useful that different kinds of artists ask one another difficult questions, and simple questions too, especially in the interest of mutual understanding, but it’s only productive if we take a deep breath and try our best to answer them. It’s also only productive if we can find a common language for the discussion, perhaps another kind of language than the ones being bandied about in this forum, the fourth definition of “jargon” that Souverian left out: “pidgin” i.e. a language of middlegrounds, overlaps and compromises, a language that tries to build bridges of understanding rather than edifices of idiom. It’s in the centre where a productive dialogue can happen, and where artists can learn, if their egos will allow it, from both sides.

    At both the radical and conservative ends of the poetic spectrum you find ideologues who tout their own methodologies and label other modes unworthy. That’s bullshit no matter which end it comes from. A lot of us have lived through circuses like the intermittent Starnino-Bök debates of the last decade. Both of these guys have contributed a great deal to Canadian poetry, but their polarizing, intractable debates were not a high point. If anything, that kind of sideshow just adds fuel to the fire, further entrenches camp-like attitudes, and exacerbates an atmosphere of competition and mistrust.

    Let’s all try to be less arrogant and more open. Let’s not assume people are stupid because they speak another language. And let’s all stop trying to evangelize our positions, and instead try find that centre, that common ground, where we can really talk, for the good of the art.

  61. Brian Palmu Says:

    Souverian, thanks for the detailed post.

    You say that S. K.’s dismissal of jargon leaves out definition #1: “The language, esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.” That’s part of the problem, too. You’re confusing the role of the (hopefully informed) reviewer or other reader who must, at times, categorize (for clarity and connective pleasure) elements of the poem into definition #1’s “metaphor”, “enjambment”, “trochee” (or, latterly, “signifier” , “clinamen”, “valence”) with the language the poet (or versifier, in a nod to Z Wells’ suggestion) him/her self uses.

    Poetry is the art of the generalist. That doesn’t mean “populist”, of course, but that it reflects or enacts experience. (I realize that many post-posters will laugh at the arrogant usage of that last simple word as being, itself, an agreed upon value of a particular coterie, with a limited or misinformed application, but there you are, misunderstanding abounds.)A frequent tactic (if not outright manifesto) of many post-post-versifiers is to reflect on the reflections of the human experience, cubed ad infinitum. 27 degrees from Kevin Bacon. The farther from the solar system the (upcoming sarcastic scare quote alert) “poem” becomes, the more it relies on jargon definitions 2, 3, and 5.

    Of course, those who regard with suspicion the veracity of any word choice (which gives them an out as to responsibility for their own words) can then, by extension, deny any qualitative or fundamental difference between language as honest experience and language as a game, a meta-commentary, a multiplying field. It would be useful here to look at the complex exploration of positive first-instance language in Paul Tyler’s “Adam Naming The Animals” from his debut poetry book, A Short History Of Forgetting”.

    In short, I rework an earlier comment made by others as well as myself: a discussion about finding a common ground for sorting out vocabulary, on either side of differing viewpoints, has to be made in good faith. If the pre-emptive attitude is one of language as fundamentally ineffective — or worse, dangerous — I don’t see as there’s a way forward. It only takes one person to ruin a marriage, as the old saying has it.

    An addendum to an earlier point: Context is everything. I have no problem with meta-verse if it serves the experience instead of co-opting it.

  62. […] way (Bill: I bought my own ticket, but expect eventual yeast-based remuneration). The reaction to my post last week was interesting enough at first, but I don’t know… I kind of burn out on this stuff. I […]

  63. […] July 11th, 2010. Jake’s Provoquestion, restated. In which our hero comes back pissed off from an afternoon of stewing in a fog at the Scream […]

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