Soft Avant-Guard


Calvin Bedient

Judith Goldman's avant-garde is not the soft kind prevalent in most of the more lively contemporary poetry magazines (among them The Colorado Review, Conduit, Fence, jubilat, New American Writing, Verse, and VOLT); it's the hard kind still associated with Language writing. But, unlike much of the latter, Goldman's work isn't earnest with didacticism. Almost always, it wants to delight as well as instruct

I had forgotten about the ominous soft rubber "hammer" reference which follows this... I would think Bedient would include Joshua Clover, Timothy Donnelly, Ethan Paquin, Brian Henry...


Barbara Fischer

As contemporary poets turn in increasing numbers to the fashionable strategy of combining experimental techniques with lyric and narrative modes, many of these recent efforts have taken on a familiar look and a familiar set of conventions. (Calvin Bedient, writing in these pages, recently dubbed it the "soft avant-garde.") One image leads to another in associative or nonsequiturial cascades. Sequences of sentence fragments are interrupted by bursts of conventional syntax. The page is manipulated as a visual space to the extent most word processors allow, with varied patterns of indentation and spacing. Descriptions reflect distraction and fragmentation, and are often accompanied by philosophical inquiries into the nature of perception. The poems explore (or ransack) personal and historical archives and document these explorations through cut-and-paste procedures. And throughout this accumulation and disjuncture, they dutifully rehearse the postmodern axiom that the natural, the personal, and the social are linguistically constructed.

But Kathrine, I think if Fulton wants fractal followers, then she's going to have to use and define her terms correctly! Daisy, I agree: it is boy art and girl art, and easier to think of in terms of visual boy art and girl art, which have more well-developed vocabularies now.

I think part of the problem here is that most LANGUAGE poetry was very political poetry, and I do not think most of these poets have been radicalized. Also, there's the way that third wave feminism seems to have left most younger white feminists out in the cold, because of the post colonial focus, while postfeminism is quite ecumenical. Then there are people like Lisa Lubasch, for example, quite focused on beauty, but I can't think of her work as soft avant guard.

1) I know absolutely nothing about John Ashbery

2) there are two Wallace Stevenses when the imagist-influenced blank verse Stevens is separated from the logical-mannerist Stevens, as is frequently done now! and I think it is Stevens' "snapped logic" which underlies so-called fractal verse

"If you put on an aquamarine choker and look in the mirror and don't see anything, then you must be the sea." a materialist lyric "she sang beyond the genius of the sea"?

3) New York School collage and etc. is derived from surrealism

4) John Cage has the more influential version of Chinese and Japanese poetry than Pound for most, I think, although he went through Pound, right??? and our current understanding of Japanese poetry, including Haiku, is far better than that of the imagists -- and it is that which is most important now, I think -- collage poetry, postmodern forms, collaboration (live & with lit, other arts, information, etc.) really do have a relationship to the Chinese book of poetry and poems written as alternate song lyrics as well as with Japanese season words, extreme constraints, etc. (which ultimately derives from Chinese in a way, but ... Sarah knows WAY MORE about this than I do)

5) let's not forget collage poetry master Marianne Moore

6) I would argue the "soft avant guard" poets are more influenced by James Tate's surrealism and David Lehman's version of the New York School than by Pound, Cage, and Ashbery, although they have been led to the male surrealists through Pound, Cage, Ashbery

While I know that this Janus-faced Stevens, together with Moore, Yeats, Pound (my first four poetry books) have influenced my own understanding of poetry -- perhaps, then, I read all poetry through this scrim --

there is a connection here. It's what my haiku class is about!

I started this my last workshop with a q&a rant because I figured "what the heck? I've already quit." Diverse as we are (everybody stayed), we are talking like grown ups about things like, yes, rapine.

My rant included:
-- This is a college-level course at a major research university. All workshops at this institution are 100-level (true).
-- Within this academic setting, I attempt to create a course which can read writing about any topic written in any way, and offer you support as you work on your writing. We don't shock easy, we're grown-ups.
-- Critique will be similar to that in college-level studio arts courses. I.e., if we think it's bad, we will tell you, and why, and in excruciating detail.
-- If you can't discuss it, don't bring it to class. Bring some cheesemo exercise poem. If you have to explain, you aren't ready to discuss.
-- Not only am I not a therapist, I have no people skills. Thus:
-- This workshop is not about you, what you know, me, what I know.
-- You are not teaching. You will not be able to teach this course after completing it.
-- We're readers, not recruits. We don't agree with you or each other. For example, I am prejudiced against privileging victimhood/twelve stepping, religious witnessing in poems, new age/psychology, misogyny, and hundreds of other ideas and practices. Doesn't mean you can't write poems on these topics; doesn't mean we don't understand your writing if it is on these topics; probably means I won't like it very much, and will give a very close reading.

Well, figured it was better to go out in a blaze of glory.

P.S. This was in person, not online, so I was able to say it smiling, take lots of questions, and use the questions to explain my syllabus and outline.
While Mark Weiss associates the contemporary Mexican neobaroque with a deliberate spareness of language which seems sort of like Stephen Burt's "ellipticism" to me (and I'm sort of unclear about how he gets from Sor Juana there), I'm looking at extremely marked surfaces that have a sort of radical objectivism.

If langpo is a move from language into object, then neobaroque after langpo, beyond OuLiPo and popular exercises and constraints, is also even beyond the "new form" of Ron Silliman, or Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr. Well, I would consider most of their stuff neobaroque, but not as rich as it could be. You know, what if Jena Osman's periodic table poems said something about human beings or feelings? We have chemicals. What if the Fibonacci sequence constraint in Silliman's Tjanting was important to book-making or writing?

In these poems, the poem's an object, and the words therein are objects. The form / structure and content and sound and critical theory and images are objects almost "embedded". Poems for the object's sake -- which is a return to euphuism, etc. The female Brown mfas (Lee Ann Brown, Prageeta Sharma), the younger Canadian langpos (Christian Bok, Adeena Karasick, Erin Moure), some iowa grads, Christine Hume, Harryewtte Mullen, some of Will Alexander, Walter Lew, Brenda Hillman -- it's distinct from bedient's "soft avant guard" and ubiquitous neosurrealism, but it is also distinct from other types of experimental and academic writing.