I wrote last week about Outsiders and Beats. This week, Ron Silliman posted a list of styles that fall under the list of post-avant. In his defining, he includes the Beats in his long list of p-a card-carrying members. I was surprised by this, and I think it’s ludricous. According to Wikipedia, “Central elements of “Beat” culture include a rejection of mainstream American values, experimentation with drugs and alternate forms of sexuality, and an interest in Eastern spirituality.” I suppose it’s possible that the combination of these values within American literature could be considered new, but in the bigger picture of humanity this is old news.
Rejection of mainstream American values
I’m sorry if the beats want to take claim of this (typical baby boomer behavior), but it’s nothing new in American history. James Fenimore Cooper tried to fight against growing materialism (weak example, and I’m not sure it started here, but this is early 1800s). Emerson and Thoreau were disgusted with the social herd that manipulated and strangled the individual. Emily Dickinson thumbed her nose at the puritanical tradition (like it or not, that tradition is a part of American history and literature). Other authors criticized mainstream values (Twain and Fitzgerald) but didn’t necesarily make a life change to truly reject the social standards of the time. I understand how Whitman and Dickinson can be a part of the p-a clique, but does following in their tradition constitute admission into the p-a country club? Isn’t imitation and copying merely quiet, old, and dead?
Experimentation with drugs
Uh…Kubla Kahn? So Coleridge wasn’t an American, but according to Ron’s post the p-a must include writers outside the American sequence. If this were the case, again, there’s nothing new or experimental here. Unless I’m at fault for misunderstanding experimental. If experimentation isn’t limited to poetry and poetics, then Bill Clinton and Marie Curie could join the club.
Alternate forms of Sexuality
This is a silly label. It should be “Exploring all forms of sexuality” but oh well. Ancient Greece had this whole sex-religion thing going on, and Aristotle claimed that Greek drama tied deeply to religion. Therefore, can it be said that exploring sexuality was ingrained in the literature? If so, then again, there’s nothing new or envelope-busting going on with the Beats. They are merely lassoing in on a past (passed?) tradition.
Interest in Eastern Religion
Again, I’ll bring up the transcendentalists. This idea of incorporating Eastern mysticism into American literature/culture is over a hundred years old. So in the name of originality and newness, this can’t suggest being a part of the p-a crowd can it?
Maybe, just maybe, the synthesis of all these elements could suggest relation to the post-avant because the combination of them under the American umbrella is revolutionary. But Silliman writes, “Post-avant poetics involves literally thousands of American writers. It would be very easy for me to do nothing but focus on just this portion of English-language poetry in my blog, as tho nothing else existed. But that’s the fundamental move Quietism makes that I would challenge, so I don’t.” With this thought in mind, I don’t think one can use the justification of synthesis to label the Beats as purely post-avant.
Finally, is post-avant a lifestyle or a poetry? Silliman is a language poet, but his prose writing uses language traditionally. So is the theory of language poetry a lifestyle or a form? I would assert that it’s a form. In this same train of thought, is Beat “poetry” a lifestyle or a form? From what I’ve read, it’s a lifestyle that is recorded and replayed via literature. So the label of p-a becomes muddy and contradictory. Is this what makes the Beats p-a?
Now, I do think that the Beats revolutionized American literature, and in a sense they were pioneers (this is easy to see if we wear our “America Only” glasses that Silliman accuses the Quietists of), but in the larger scope of literary canon I see nothing truly “new.” So, despite our attempt to break out of the bubble of the old and rocket into new forms, languages, and ideas, I wonder if it is even possible for us to do. If so, is the p-a crowd simply a large historical slingshot hoping that the faster we are launched into the blur of poetry the more creative we think we are?