Schools of Thought and Mine

Joseph Hutchison posted a blog about theory versus experience.  There’s actually quite a debate going on between all these different poets/voices/schools. Each is passionate and right (just ask them!). This blog probably has the best collection of links if you’re interested in the exchange.  You can see my muddled thoughts in the comment stream of the first link.  Joe asks a great question: Why describe with theory when you can embody with experience?

My initial response was to along the lines of there’s some pretty bizarre poetry, weak poetry, that exists only because some theory justifies its existence.  Everything went south from there (why don’t things ever go north?) in my attempt to justify my stance on justification. I now realize that I’m barking up the wrong tree because I lost sight of the true question: Why would anyone want to begin with theory?

So I started reading up on various poetic theories (or schools or camps or whatever)–I actually started with the Language poets, fell into the rabbit hole, drank the potion, and am now rather small and insignificant–and am quickly coming to the conclusion that theories are/can be/should a prism for the experience/image rather than the origin. For example, here is an informative article by Adam Fieled outlining some of the post-avant theory, specifically the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Excerpts from the article that are especially worthwhile for me (emphasis mine):

Post-avant poetry is distinguished from other forms of “po-mo” by its deliberate shying away from the directly “personal” (despite a generally held respect for the New York School & Frank O’Hara’s “Personism”), as well as its engagement with “morally motivated abstraction”. That is, post-avant poets are engaged with a struggle against the “epiphanic I” (poet-as-bearer-of-universal-truth, as expressed in the “language of epiphany”) that predominates in the milieu of Centrist poetics (for example, in the work of Billy Collins, Ted Kooser or Mary Oliver).

Post-avant poets are adamant that for a poet to take a simultaneously personal and authoritative stance in a literary context is not morally defensible in our complex, relative, dynamically unpredictable world. The question of the poet’s “place” becomes urgent, and post-avant becomes a struggle for appropriate “contextual” stances. If the poet’s “I” is not to be authoritative, what is it to be?

The answer seems to be that the poet’s “I” must act as a verb, rather than a noun; the “I” must be a searching-for-a-self, rather than an assumed constant. The self is perceived as “dynamic” rather than “essential” (Hejinian, 203), a process rather than a stabilized, identifiable element. As such, post-avant poets look to poetry for a way to question the established values of socially constructed identities; poetry becomes a means whereby complacence is transmuted into a quest for moral, social, aesthetic, & personal justification.

The theory determining this method is that by taking out the “I”, the post-avant poet can develop a more comprehensive view of the human condition as it exists in the world: in politics, art, social groups, countries & histories of art, politics, social groups and so on. In addition, by eschewing the epiphanic “I” (who usually has a sermon of some kind to deliver), the post-avant poet is free to cultivate a unique relationship to language, which often takes the form of a kind of interrogation.

In this process, language itself, and the manner in which it determines our lives, becomes the focus of scrutiny.

So the P-A crowd avoids preachyness and cannot be both personal and authoritative because of all the uncertainty in the world. “I” is okay if it is searching-for-a-self (What if the poet find that self? Can he/she/it no longer be post-avant? Or would that morph into post-post-avant? Or is it simply impossible in a post-modern sort of way?), but the quest is for justification through language. All this with forced abstraction. Okay. Sounds like post-modernism to me. Which post-avant is. But if I were to be a post-avant poet, this theory seems to define my approach to poetry, or the prism through which the poem escapes the ethereal and breaks into pieces of reality.

Reginald Shepherd’s attempts to define the post-avant “school” here. He quotes, “People who follow the arts like to talk about schools; often they prefer talking about schools and trends to talking about individual poets and their poems.” I want to talk about poems and poets, but I need to understand this “school” first so I can maybe figure out the “poems” themselves. He quotes Rebecca Wolffe, that P-A writing “intentionally blurs the distinction between ‘difficulty’ and ‘accessibility,’ preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.” Ron Silliman suggests that people can learn all sorts of things and never take sides, thus avoiding the preachiness mentioned above. So, if I have this right, the P-A camp is supposed to explore our world’s disjointedness without getting too personal, but never land on a side which I equate with a conclusion. Why bother exploring chaos merely for the sake of being chaotic? I can’t wrap my mind around this.

It appears I’m merely scratching the surface of this P-A thing, but it already doesn’t seem to be an appealing way to build a poem. I keep going back to this word prism, but Joe asked about beginnings, or origins. So what begins a P-A poem? A bunch of abstract, intentional confusions portrayed through words that may or may not represent what they mean for the sake of putting order to the chaos resulting in more chaos. I don’t even know how to start a poem with just those thoughts. But here’s my attempt using “metonymy, synecdoche and paratactical structures”:

Power
the roof
collection
paused; 3
feet of social
security cards
shredded,
died green.

I’m not sure this is much of poem in terms of changing the world, but it isn’t preachy, there is no “I”, no resolution, nothing personal, and it was fun to write. Take a guess, leave a comment–how does this poem mean?

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8 thoughts on “Schools of Thought and Mine

  1. A rich, thoughtful post, Joel. These debates are good for writers, if not necessarily for readers (does a reader care how a good poem gets written?). While I’m antipathetic toward post-avant theory, I do enjoy certain poets who are at least claimed by post-avant theorists: Fanny Howe, Rae Armantrout, Linh Dinh (whose work was championed early on by Ron Silliman, though I’m pretty sure the poet himself would reject the theoretical association, preferring, as he says on his blog, “human-made poems”), Karen Volkman, and a half dozen others. (I haven’t figured out yet why it seems to me that women write more compelling post-avant poetry than men. Hmmm.) Your foray into the post-avant strikes me as a parody, but then much post-avant writing strikes me as parody, so does that mean it’s inauthentic? As the King of Siam remarked to Anna, “It’s a puzzlement!”

  2. Good thoughts, Joe. I can’t quite agree with the theory as a whole, but I am intrigued by some of the ideas presented. Good question about authenticity. From what I’ve read, authenticity can’t be questioned, accepted, or denied because of all the uncertainties in the world. Can something be authentic that doesn’t involve self? Even the most abstract post-avant writing is a reflection of the self, even if the poet claims otherwise (until poems just appear on paper without any human interference, some sort of the self–physically, emotionally, subconsciously, etc.–is present). Is it possible to be authentically inauthentic? I’m thinking Monty Python going to Camelot, “Don’t go there, it’s a silly place.”

  3. “Why describe with theory when you can embody with experience?”

    Well, there’s always a point in asking such things, ture, but if we think into that question too far, we’d never much talk about anything…

    It also rests heavy on how you define “experience.”

    Not all the poets who some might name Post-Avant would agree with the theory around the basic inclination, and when actual examples of poems enter, many are appealing. All theories sound reductive and dry. As in the theory of sex.

  4. John, thanks for the thoughts. There is an interesting correlation between theory, experience, and…moisture (?). There are some great ideas out there presented in theories, but if you put all your eggs into one airplane, and there are no parachutes, what comes first, the chicken or the theory?

    Tom, so does this mean I can’t join your smartguy club?

    Gokhan, you’re welcome. It is indeed a poem, but value/purpose/strength/validity could all be argued!

  5. John, am I reading you correctly? You’re saying that there’s some dispute over the difference between theory and experience? And you prefer theories of sex to the experience of sex?

    But seriously, it seems to me that all theories worthy of the term ground themselves in experience and are descriptive rather that prescriptive. Darwin, probably the greatest theorist in human history, never attempted to say how things should evolve. Poetics should work the same way.

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