ΔΙΑΛΕΞΗ ΣΤΟ ΠΑΝΕΠΙΣΤΗΜΙΟ ΤΙΜΙΣΟΑΡΑΣ ΡΟΥΜΑΝΙΑΣ
OBSCURITY AND OPACITY IN RECENT AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE POETICS
BY PANOS BOSNAKIS
PROFESSOR OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR AVANT-GARDE POETICS
Dear Colleagues and friends,
I will begin my paper with some observations:
1. American avant-garde is a peculiar phenomenon and presents its own poetic history mainly derived from alternative American modernisms of the 1930s (for example the Pound and W. C. Williams tradition) coupled with the objectivist traditions of the 1950s (the Olson & Zukofski ones, in particular).
2. American avant-garde is distinctive of most Western European avant-gardes which mainly politicize the subject, draw largely from futuristic, surrealistic and dadaistic traditions representing a radical critique to bourgeois notions of culture. American avant-garde takes the precepts and ideas of Western European avant-gardes as textual material and signifying processes and builds on them the “neo Avant-Garde of the 1960s onward”.
3. American avant-garde is mostly preoccupied with questions of subjectivity and language signification. It is Americanocentric but also, especially in the last 15 years, enjoys a kind of openness to other cultures and movements from the rest of the world.
After these comments I will start my presentation of the special characteristics of alternative modernism (such as obscurity, intransiveness, and opacity to name a few) that permeat most of the avant-garde in the sixties and seventies and some of the eighties that finally foreground a two-fold path 1) towards language-oriented poetry and 2) towards visual and new visual & audio poetics (plus what is today electronic poetry, web poetry, photo-cinetic, 3Dimensional etc) Expansivity has taken over the entire spectrum of post-modernist & postmillennium poetics. All kinds of expansivity, which is the most interesting way to go but we need to slow pace and think for a while of humanistic & other theoretical & philosophical issues as we go into the present moment.
If Ludwig Berhold is the avant-garde library and archivist wizard for US Library System, David Antin is the father of all American Avant-Garde criticism. Everything comes from him & returns to him. David Antin, The Man. He gave all the ideological battles and won, he raised all his children Bill Spanos, Paul Bove, Charles Bernstein among many others, he went through innumerable battles and trials and came stronger.
In his seminal essay “Modernism-Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry” David Antin takes over the whole spectrum of US Modernity & Postmodernity making innumerable stements that shake over the foundations of conservative and academic criticism of Modern American poetry. According to him, Olson & Black Mountain poets mark the end of metaphysics and the beginning of a new era in America poetry. Pound is now re-identified as a great collagist artist, along with him Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Rakosi, Reznikoff, Rexroth and others who follow. A new American poetic line is born in Olson’s Projective Verse, in Maximus Poems, in Zukofsky’s “A” in his later short poems, and in George Open’s “The Materials”. Olson defines “the breath” not the stanza as the foundation for poetic verse:
“If I hammer, if I recall in, and keep calling in, the breath, the breathing as distinguished from the hearing, it is for cause, it is to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not …been sufficiently observed or practiced, but which has to be if verse is to advance to its proper force and place in the day, now and ahead. I take it that PROJECTIVE VERSE teaches, is, this lesson that the verse will only do in which a poet manages to register both the acquisitions of his ear and the pressures of his breath”
that is, the pressure to utterance is supported by a surge of breath, which is alternately partially checked and released by what presents itself as a phonological entity -- the syllable -- until the breath charge is exhausted at the line ending. What we, in addition to it, see in the line of Pound-Olson-Bunting-Creeley-Ginsberg tradition is that extra linguistic elements attached to line such as music and dance and performative qualities complement poetics in an unconventional organization of ecstasies, pitches, variations, modalities, mantras and even invisible powers of heavens coming straight to poet’s mouth, ear and body to a fully completed universal attitude (see for example Ginsberg’s Howl).
In a single volume The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book edited by Bruce Andrews & Charles Bernstein we find collected most of the earlier Language Poetry essays written during the 1970s. Language Poets (Andrews, Bernstein, Palmer, Scalapino, Hejinian, Harryman, Armantrout among many others) are reactionary to subjectivist feelings of the New York School and the Beat Generation poets and foreground the field of a new poetics based on language signification and semiotics, deconstruction later on, feminism and pop meta-postmodernist lyric etc. But above all, they respect the Olson-Pound tradition and pay special attention to materialistic nature of language (see George Oppen, Marxist criticism etc in Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman and so on.). For them reification, intransiveness and opacity brought to poetic language help “detranscentalization of the subject” an aporetic stance towards the metaphysics of the lyric voice. According to Abigail Child: “THE MAKING IS THE MEANING IS HOW IT CAME INTO QUESTION, UNITS OF UNMININGNESS INCORPORATED ANEW”. It is this dystopia of meaning that preoccupies most of language poetry opening the field of uniconic, unimagistic, supermagic utopia of nothingness and nowhere (much of this was very well taken over by Jean Beaudrilliard in his America).
In his essay “Code Words” Bruce Andrews states:
“Subject becomes simply ‘the instance writing’, is hollowed out by the operation of the linguistic system. System, here, is an empty process that some self always seeks to stuff & upholster. In one discipline after another, we have this recognition of the importance of system or code”
For Andrews and other Language poets writing is a surplus, culture is a system, language may also be dissemination in the text, text is not immobile, it moves, it is live, it breaths, it changes. Utopia, a camera obscura, a sexual body, a surplus money, a video track, a contextual anarchy is the magnificent other, the universal stereoscopic eye/and I that is created/generated in most Language poetry. Or again using Andrews’ words “ the consummation is concrete, graphic, erotic, physical, phenomenal, a greeting, not a keepsake. An absence embodied in a presence. Words hover above usage. Meaning is not use, is not all use.”
By the end of the 1980s Language poetry had been predominant in the American alternative poetry scene. In 1987 Language poet Bob Perelman was invited by our English Department at Ohio State University to lecture and read from his poetry. In the answer-question session that followed I asked him a couple of questions regarding Americanocentricity in most Language poetics. I raised the question whether a possibility could exist for a language generated poetics outside the late capitalist American canon. Bob was confused “why?” he said! “why should that happen? No, no I don’t think so, well, never mind, let me think…I don’t know…what do you think??” and we both laughed. It was Fredric Jameson who in an essay on Third-World Writing in 1973 --a year when many shameful things happened in America with regards to liberties and freedoms in the Universities, civil rights, and so on-- well, Jameson who proposed Language poetry as a singular and particular style of American postmodern sensibility. Only American society, consumerism culture and postsignifying codifications could find appropriate place in this new style.
It was after 1989 when I started a very long project to collecting and studying avant-gardist and other innovative poets from around the world and especially the third-world countries of Asia, Africa and the Pacific. And of course Eastern and Northern European countries, as well. By the year 2000 Language poetry movement, or more precisely post language poets, began to look outside the US for their models. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris published their Poems of the Millennium which was an all consuming exhaustive two volume work of most represented American and European Avant-Garde of the 20th Century. A few months later I published a book-review of this book in a Greek academic journal stating among other things that:
“now was the time to discover and re-discover all completely forgotten poets like the Greek émigré Nicolas Calas of all misrepresented and unacknowledged poetries in the world including their ambiguous diasporas”.
Nicolas Calas was a Greek leftist, homosexual and avant-gardist poet who escaped Greece in 1930 and went to Paris where he associated the Surrealist and anarchist and Marxist circles, wrote excellent criticism in French and during the War escaped to America where he lived until his death in 1988. Nikolas, or Nikos for his friends, became one of the most prominent minds of the American avant-garde and his critical expositions remain unparalleled among his US colleagues. However, Nikos also wrote poetry in the Greek language, perhaps the best Greek poet of the 20th Century and one of the best world poets in his era. Greek academic or non-academic criticism and poetry circles have chosen to disregard and diminish Calas’ work. In the place of Calas they chose Cavafy & Seferis. Americans, on the other hand, do not know Calas’ poetry simply because was never presented in English or because no one has ever spoken to them about it. So, the great poet Calas went altogether unnoticed by his contemporaries. I firmly believed that Calas was not an exception but every minor literature possibly had her own Calases, her own prodigal sons and daughters. I started looking at world literature from Nikos’ viewpoint, from Nikos’ microscope and the results were impressive. Another world - till then well-hidden - was presented to my eyes. Another humanity, timid and tender, suffered and vanished by the mechanisms and cliques that regulate each literature began to emerge. Strange enough but three Nikos became the most important Greeks after the war who tried to save Greece and the pride of the people from total submission and obscurity: Nikos Calas, the poet, Nikos Raptis the leftist refugee and Nikos Zahariades the leftist warrior, three men with a Promethean passion and endurance whom the postwar commodity and reactionary cold war tried to completely suppress.
This parenthesis helps us to understand the challenges to canonical powers, to the assimilating forces that foreground the field of literary writings. American avant-garde until very lately was centered around itself. Multiculturalism offered alternative views of minority competing traditions but soon was assimilated into newly established ethnic canons and ethnic presses. Ironically enough but internet helped to widen the space and discover other voices from around the globe. Internet has in some respect revolutionize poetry or at least opens a new space of possibilities. Yet before we come into that let us summarize some of the results of American Language poetry:
1. On the positive side, we note that literary theory (especially Deconstruction) and cultural criticism (especially gender criticism) have enriched poetic discourse and a whole new vocabulary or a new field of all possible ideas came into play
2. On the negative side, we note the self-referential nature of this tradition and the exclusion of the socio-political historical acting with the substitution of the textual-oriented universalized writing.
Sometimes occurs to my mind that American poetry, despite her exceptional tendency towards the oral and the aural qualities of poetry, still remains attached to a certain notion of “writing”. Sometimes it is the “typewriter effect” (see Williams, Gertrude Stein), other times the line processual character (Olson, Creeley), then the Language poets, or the Concrete poets, even today World Wide Web poets. It is always “writing”, a writerly element that commands the poet. To me, this is a writing of a closet. Strange enough why the subject of poetry is not heavens, the blue sky, the deep see, unforeseen realities, shamanistic views, primitive images and a thousand of other capabilities by a sheer poet, for example. Strange enough why we do not deal with the unwritten. Russian poetry has dealt a lot with unconventional phenomena. Arkadii Dragomoschenko who is excellent in triangulating reality and opening the fields of experience and self-consciousness is stating that “writing is an error to vision”. When I returned back to Greece in 2002 I began writing a poetry that in most cases was not a poetry as such (namely a composition or decomposition of words and linguistic elements), but a p o i e s i s (that is processual and procedural serialized sound-demanded phonemic particles coupled with satellite-oriented energetic hyperspatial tones). At the same time, literary history was substituted by primitivistic research into the most remote prehellenic past. Greece helped me to create a distance from dogmatic truths and visualize other potential realities.
Electronic poetry becomes the trend in our times. In the last 10 years or so, we have witnessed some poet-artists to undertake a few interesting initiatives by exceeding the limits of poetic representation (i.e. Loss Pequeno Glazier, Philadelpho Menezes, Edouardo Kac and Marcos Novak among others). We are currently moving to a new sensibility of cultural artifacts beyond teleological purposes or territorial cultural investments. Electronic poetics is diversified to many fields of digitalized poetics, such as electronic poetry, web poetry, animated poetry, new visual and new sound poetics. Most of these works are available in English and with the help of the World Wide Web they reach almost every available audience. At the moment, there is a lot of preoccupation with the medium itself. It seems to me that many of these artist poets re-assimilate their writings into late predominant avant-garde or postmodern tendencies as seen in the Western world. I hardly see some kind of real experimentation or fresh theoretical ideas. Although they gain the priviledge of an ecumenical pantopical universalized language and culture, they are hesitant to re-invent traditions and differences. History appears not attractive to them. Society seems to be a burden. Comparing them with earlier experimentalists like John Cage, Jackson MacLow, Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis etc. they seem to priviledge the idea of the medium more than the work of art itself.
To re-establish bonds with history, society and humanistic-political spirit I offered to them the idea of Media Performance Poetry. Media performance poetry originates from performance poetics of the 1970s and 1980s and mixes up media arts, digital poetics, computer graphic arts, visual and language poetics and other avant-gardist and post avant-gardist concepts of new poetics. Its basic characteristics include: open-formatted avant-gardist structures, the liberty of the spectator to choose his/her own end, modulations and aleatorics, speech in tongues, computer-formatted languages, new authorship-collaborations between author/creator and audience/creator, deconstructed roles, genders, capitals and geographies, nomadic practices, liquid and mobile conceptions of spatialities, disorientated and alienated geographies, anarchy of method, transterritorialities of languages etc. New refreshing modalities emerge out of this poetics that qualify for new collective partnerships and new envisioning of worldmaking. Yet what is most and foremost important here is the act of performance, the idea of performing, even the idea of collaborating. New performance poetics and especially new digital performance poetics will pave the path for the future mankind and social change.
So, where all this does it end? It seems that in the dawn of the 21st century America cannot contain all culture(s). We have to learn from each other, to listen carefully to others’ traditions and vision makings. Internet and other global communication networks are transforming the present but still there remain many unknown and hidden territorialities. We must act, we cannot wait but above all for human beings future culture must remain a humanistic territorial culture.