[A response to Adam Reynolds’ letter of 24 April 2018]

Dear Adam,
Thank you for sending your very smart letter about the literary “avant-garde.” You are right about the near-absence of any example in current North American poetry that would resemble its historical, combative spirit. As you indicate, we’ve been saying it ourselves, for some time.

These pointed questions from you stand out:

If they were alive today would the likes of Blake, Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky be professors in creative writing depts? Would a 20-year-old Arthur Rimbaud have written Illuminations had he been studying on a literature program akin to those in existence in the west today? I would contend it’s impossible.

There is no way to separate the groundbreaking singularity of those writers from their principled dismissal of institutional sanction and benefit. Dickinson and William Carlos Williams would be of their company, too. For them, to paraphrase the writer of the Illuminations, poetics is an Other—a realm wholly apart from the careerist professionalism of the Salon or the Academy. And the thought of those vanguard figures worrying about tenure, wearing their Creative Writing credentials, is downright knee-slapping hilarious. As is the notion of any number of later writers sitting in a Department of Literature: Pessoa, Breton, Péret, Vallejo, Pizarnik, Acker, Lorde, Debord, Baraka, and on. Could one conceive of any of them advertising themselves as holders of an Ivy League Professorship of English that is named for one of the overseers of the 1980s genocide against indigenous communities in Central America, as the most prominent living “avant-garde” poet of the United States repeatedly does? That would be one troubling instance of how bad things have become.

Which is not to say that the absorption of resistant gestures by the official culture (commonly accomplished via seemingly benign institutional means) isn’t inevitable, in some measure or other. That process of recuperation is, actually, the historical, organic rule, and the evolving experience of the avant-garde has defeat, retreat, and betrayal locked into its past and future dialectic. Nor is it to say that poets committed to negative critique must–or can–remain totally outside the pull of the authorized culture and its professionalizing dispensations.

The matter of opposition and resistance is not a question of purity, but of intent and position and sacrifice. Writ large, the age-old options are to 1) acquiesce to forces of authorization and careerist capture (to abide in a habitus that seems given and “natural”), or 2) to stake out zones of recalcitrant praxis beyond those dominant ideological forces, thereby recharging traditions of insubordinate poetic autonomy (even if the gesture be temporary and likely destined for defeat). We require, now, something like a second “New American” moment to get poetry untied from its collective ensnarement in the first condition.
Here are a couple pieces you might find relevant to the topic, written by us a couple years back.

Thanks for writing, Adam. And onward.

No Avant-Garde: Notes toward a Left Front of the Arts

Racing for the Prize