March 4, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Reginald Shepherd and the Post-Avant

About a month ago, Reginald Shepherd posted some thoughts over at the Poetry Foundation’s blog “Harriet” about what exactly the term “post-avant” means and if such a thing actually exists in today’s poetry. The post seemed harmless enough: Shepherd essentially defined “post-avant” as poetry that somehow employs some form of linguistic innovation, but doesn’t wear a specific experimental school (LANGUAGE poetry, New York School, etc.) on its sleeve. His description is much more nuanced than this, but in short, post-avant writing is that which exists somewhere between traditional, narrative, experience-based poetry and the unapologizingly experimental avant-garde. Shepherd then goes on to list both established and younger writers who could be termed post-avant.

The reaction to this post was overwhelming and, in a strange way, inspiring. Over the course of 116 (!) responses, a mostly civil debate took place about this term, and by proxy, contemporary poetry in general. Some were encouraged by post-avant writing as a “third way” of proceeding in poetry that is based on openness and can operate as a hybrid of styles that are usually antithetical to each other. Others argued that post-avant writing is a compromise of lyric and anti-lyric, and that no writing can claim avant status (post or otherwise) without having nonconformist political ideology backing it up. All in all, it is an extremely interesting document about today’s poetry and well worth a read.

Here’s what I was left thinking about after reading the discussion:

First of all, this may reveal some skepticism on my part, but I was encouraged by the simple fact that so many people gave enough of a damn to respond to Shepherd’s poet. Not that I think today’s poetry readers and writers are complacent in any way, but the urgency and eloquence of some of the responses took me aback. Even when things got heated, it never crossed over into name-calling. I think people scrapping about aesthetics is really great. 116 responses is amazing–if blog responses were put in terms of record sales, this post has gone quadruple platinum.

I also realized that it is only really through blogs that strangers can argue about literature nowadays. Readings, Q&A sessions, panels (i.e. pretty much all public gatherings centered around literature) are all pretty civilized. Sometimes the letters to the editor section of Poetry magazine can get a bit chippy, but not like what happened at “Harriet.”

Lastly, and most importantly, Shepherd’s post solidified for me the fact that this issue of the post-avant is something that, if you are going to be either a serious writer or reader of poetry, you must have an opinion about*. These types of things don’t necessarily appear all that often. Not that all of these issues are in any way parallel with the current post-avant debate, but I would imagine that in their time, the emergence of free verse, the trial of Ezra Pound, Beat Poetry and LANGUAGE poetry were topics that the literary-minded had to have an opinion about to be relevant.

Frankly, when I try to bring to mind some other recent controversies in poetry, I can pretty much shrug my shoulders at judges picking their former students’ manuscripts in book contests (obviously I would prefer contests to be fair, but this isn’t something I’m going to lose sleep over), or at the feud between the New Yorker and the Poetry Foundation (it’s not like their asking me what I think anyway“). But in our current moment, the post-avant feels to me like the most significant issue in poetry. I’m less interested in arguing about who should be labeled post-avant (although I think Shepherd’s list is a good one) than looking at how in general writers are using linguistic innovation in their work without sacrificing emotional power.

Two things are clear to me: first, Ashbery’s quote “You can’t say it that way anymore” is absolutely true and inescapable. Secondly, the post-avant (or third way, or elliptical poetry, to use Stephen Burt’s term [these terms all seem to overlap quite a bit]) does exist and the poetry coming out of it is the most exciting and vital being written today. The next issue, one that is addressed in the “Harriet” discussion, is whether there are so many poets that could be labeled as “post-avant” that the term is simply a description of the predominant style of our moment. In other words, are there so few strictly “conventional” or strictly “avant-garde” poets writing today that the middle ground between them is so wide that it cannot be considered a meaningful group separate from the rest? I’m not sure we can know whether post-avant denotes a group or a style until after the fact. For now, poets like Forrest Gander, Peter Gizzi and Mary Jo Bang among many others show us ways to write a hybrid of lyric and anti-lyric that, whatever label you put on it, will stand the test of time.

* This discussion of “third way” poetics is not just an American one. Check out Roddy Lumsden’s analysis of new poetry in the British journal Magma.