Friday, October 05, 2007

Note to the Aspiring Professional Avant

Your terminus is somebody else's syllabus.


Mr. Horton said...

I think I hurt myself laughing at this.


mark wallace said...

But seriously: who exactly do you mean? Could it be that your note ain't meant for anybody?

rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Good question! Since course adoption is the single biggest mover of small press poetry books, I guess I was thinking all of us.

Hard to epater the bourgeois when their kids are your captive market.

mark wallace said...

It's a complicated problem indeed. Whitman, Williams, Woolf, Pound, Stein, Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Dickens, Byron, Wordsworth, and many others are perhaps read most widely at this moment in courses that feature them on the syllabus. On the other hand, the wit and wisdom of George Bush is widely available in almost every daily venue in this country and many others. It's almost enough to make you wonder whether "general audience" popularity is a good measure of value.

rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

That's a good point about "general audience" being perhaps a bogus measure of value--I think of "Harmonium" or "Alcools" or whatever selling like 200 copies in their day. That's sort of the hero-story of the avant-garde, isn't it? 200 today, tomorrow a statue in the Tierpark.

The proposition of the avant-garde (a relatively short-lived literary phenomena in the history of English-language literature) was a "we few, we happy few" sort of affair. I'd suggest that one of the many reasons for its demise, at least in its cosmopolitan early 20th century form, is our growing awareness since the '60s that the American college syllabus is where we'll live or die.

That's no diss on the syllabus, just a ponder about how that terminus changes the shape of what any of us think we're doing, our position or even function in U.S. society.

mark wallace said...

You're certainly raising some important problems, Rodney. I would add only the obvious point that of course poetry also lives on in the community of people who are interested in it. The college course is definitely one place where some of those people try to extend that interest to others, so that a course ends up being related at least to the possibility of community development, if only because a person here and there in those courses ends up being interested in poetry.
So maybe the syllabus isn't a terminus so much as one point of possible contact with those who haven't yet developed an interest.

rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your note--I realize I really ought to bring this topic up to a full post, and tie it to the lively conversation on your blog about academic poetry.

On most days I'm inclined to agree with your latest comment. Models of "extending interests" that come to mind are Kasey's Emergent Forms reading series at SOU, and your own at San Marcos. Both of these places would be poorer, poetry-wise, without you there, and the "exposure" as they say in show biz is entirely laudable. Beats Kooser in the cornbelt papers any day.

I'm apt to think of the community of the interested--especially on grey days--as somehow not sufficient to sustain the ambitions and energies of an avant-garde, with its promise of radically transforming not just poetry, but art itself, and beyond that the world. The idea of a "terminus"--some imagined point in the future that would redeem the work's obscurity and enjoy a shiny new context for understanding it--probably HAS been swapped out for "points of possible contact" through syllabi, universities, blogs, small press journals, etc. Modern to post-.

The historian in me misses the urgency of the manifesto, but I recognize also the institutional and social changes--most of which I'd rather see extended than rolled back to, say, 1910--that's caused the avant to bow its head and accept a "post-."

Hope to have something to offer to the conversation on "academic poetry" soon. Thanks for weighing in!

konrad said...

What about this idea: there is always an avant garde. It's just not always in art or writing.

The term can't shake its military connotations. What gives an avant garde its reason to exist is an enemy, what sustains it is a struggle, a fight. Its purpose is to whack the present course of culture, to storm the stage. And its fate is usually dissolution. It's supposed to die, and it knows why.

If you think it or even its members are to survive and fight another day, then it's not an avant garde, it's a school or movement.

That's where you turn pro. But when the avant garde happens to not be in your field, or one is not consitutionally suited to throw everything away in that fashion, what better thing to do than earn an honest living at what you're good at? One is lucky to have the opportunity.

rodney k said...

Hi Konrad,

I like that formulation and I’d like to think more about it. So, if it’s the case that the avant garde didn’t collapse along with the particular sense of time that sustained it—that it’s still with us, just somewhere else—where would that somewhere be? I’d like to think one of the arts, but maybe it’s genetics or computer science or something?

If it is one of the sciences, I wonder if the avant garde was really a rearguard action all along; the last chance for poets to assert they had something to legislate as science washed away their traditional authority.

konrad said...


No "the" avant garde did collapse. Every one does. It's just that a new one comes along.

I certainly am not in a lofty enough position to speculate where the "fronts" are, or even where they aren't.

But i do wonder if in fact you have to be willing to lose everything if you want to be at the avant garde. You have to find yourself hopeless and irrational, and maybe even just at the right place at the right time. Otherwise you're just doing "normal science" (Kuhn) with all its normal attendant risks.