More on the Beats/Outsiders

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?


6 thoughts on “More on the Beats/Outsiders

  1. This is a thoughtful post, although I think it’s maybe off the mark. (Silliman’s sweeping ex cathedra statements do tend to inspire that kind of reaction: I’ve written some thoughtful but off the mark posts myself!) By “off-the-mark” I mean that you get drawn into a false debate. Wikipedia’s definition of the “central elements of Beat culture” is shallow, focused as it is on abstractions and behaviors; Silliman’s claim is just silly, man. The question is: assuming that “post-avant” means anything at all, what does it mean and how does it connect to the Beat movement?

    I think if you were to examine the core ideas of the Beat movement, you’d find Blake and jazz more relevant than Emerson and Thoreau; the fascination with Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan) goes far beyond anything the Transcendentalists had in mind; and their almost religious attitude toward travel is something really new in American literature. (I’ve often thought that some scholar should look into the impact of WWII on the American appetite for travel, which became damn near voracious in the post-war period. The first wave of modern globalization?) What you’d find in the end, I think, is a very different attitude toward writing than the one propounded by Silliman & Co.

    Anyway, your final observation about the whole post-avant enterprise is interesting to me for two key phrases: “break out of the bubble” and “the blur of poetry.” Post-avant writing, it seems to me, creates its own bubble—a much smaller one than any Beat poet ever lived in—and “blurs” poetry into prose in a way no Beat poet would recognize. I’ve begun to think that the blurring of poetry into prose, while it can produce some wonderful writing, generally sacrifices everything important poetry has to offer. Emily Dickinson saw it:

    They shut me up in Prose–
    As when a little Girl
    They put me in the Closet–
    Because they liked me “still”–

    In another poem she writes:

    I dwell in Possibility–
    A fairer House than Prose–
    More numerous of Windows–
    Superior–for Doors–

    Now, I know the post-avant wants to have nothing to do with ideas in poems (“no ideas but in ideas about things” would be their mantra), but I’d say that Emily has it right and we’d do well to listen to her. Poetry is all about not being “closeted,” but instead learning to dwell in “a fairer house than prose.” Not breaking out of the bubble, but enlarging it. Yes?

    Anyway, along these lines, or in the midst of all this (however you want to put it) you might be interested in this article: … The poor guy, poet Matthew Zapruder, lays the blame for poetry’s unpopularity at the feet of poetry critics! An act of intellectual desperation, but interesting, especially for the furor it caused in the comment stream…..

  2. Hi, Joe. Alas, I am guilty of sweeping generalizations, but in this case of trying to figure out the beats as a form, I struggle(d) with trying to identify what sets beat poetry apart from other forms. And maybe poetry-like-jazz is a more specific avenue to pursue. The pursuit of travel also has my brain ratcheting into hyperdrive. All in all, I think it is important to look at the attitude towards writing (as you said). Is it this attitude that forms theories, styles, and contemporary forms?

    As I’m studying language poetry, (and I’ll try to tackle this in my post about it) I’m wondering if it really is possible to completely have no ideas but ideas of things. The language is rich, the wordplay is fun, and the interaction between sentences is intellectually engaging. And in regards to your comments about blurring poetry and prose, I’m stuck on lines. Zapruder mentions that readers should observe the choices that writers make. I want to say that eliminating the line eliminates many of those choices. But this is also a sweeping generalization–especially since eliminating the line is a choice and can serve its own unique purpose.

    What’s interesting about the p-a “bubble” is that the sects that Silliman qualifies as members are expanding the bubble of poetry, but I’m wondering if the herding of certain styles/viewpoints/theories is adding a bit of electricity to the corral fence rather than adding acres onto the poetry ranch. Wow. That was cheesy.

  3. Can I say “huzzah” to your idea that eliminating the line eliminates choices? It’s profound in part because it’s counter-intuitive. Writers of prose poems (I’ve done it and plan to do more) often viewed that choice as liberating, but in practice it’s not, because in practice prose is better at explication than vision, better at argument than revelation, better at narrative than at the subtler movements of thought and feeling. Ergo, when prose is good at vision, revelation, and the subtler movements of thought and feeling we call it “poetic.” Anyway, the importance of the line in post-avant writing is negligible, in my view; almost always it’s handled as Olson might handle it but without conviction, because his whole idea of lines based on the poet’s breath (as opposed to hearing) — see here: — is essentially illegitimate in the eyes of the post-avant, because it is “personal,” i.e. about the poet’s need and reality and not “the language” as some autonomous thing. They claim Olson, but deny him at the root, so when they imitate his use of line it comes off as quite false. To me! Others can and will differ. But I’d suggest you pick up Alice Notley’s Grave of Light to see what happens when a post-avant sensibility tries to wield Olsonian lines. It ain’t pretty.

    On that last point. Do they put Poetry Ranch Dressing on the salad over at the Poetry Ranch?

  4. Seriously, I tried to read that link. I think I heard something snap behind my eyes. The idea of line becoming illegitimate because it becomes personal seems silly to me. Isn’t rejecting the line just as personal? The poet has still created a reality, and the need to find meaning solely in language is still a need. Oh well.

    And about the salad dressing–it’s a no go due the theory that the salad should stand on its own, generating its own flavor without drawing on any resources from the reader…the eater I mean.

  5. That’s really funny…but what if we’ve simply uncovered a p-a truth: the meaning came simply from language about objects within a created context without the writer forcing himself, meaning, or purpose. Arrg. To quote you in a comment thread (on your blog maybe?): Logic is limited and overrated. Now I need to finish the Mullen book so I can post about this in detail.

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