“Reconnaissance Poetry”: An Avant-Garde Mandate
by Sam Witt
“Picasso said once that he who created a thing is forced to make it ugly. In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not now what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness.” Gertrude Stein, Picasso
Whenever I think about the ongoing debate about avant-garde mandates, I return to the quotation above, because I think that Picasso, and Stein’s point, is not that the writer exists to wow everybody with her originality and brilliance, but that it should be done with the intensity of experience, like raising a child, or loving somebody. This is only one reason I am skeptical about manifestos and mandates: they reduce writing to an exercise, or dogma, when in fact it should belong to the urgency of the one moment you have to capture, the one moment that will never return. When Stein quotes Picasso above as using the word “ugly,” she might just as well have meant the word “undiscovered.” Isn’t that the point of writing, to discover something that wasn’t there before, to really see something for the first time?
I do think that one should make it new, as Pound famously wrote. One has to, and there’s precious little of that going on at any given time, which I suppose is how it ought to be. That is, rare. But as far as an avant-garde mandate, that sounds dangerously dogmatic, and I can’t stand it when writers and critics are constantly telling me how it is, that is, how poems and stories ought to be written, as if they were evangels of some sort, handing down the golden tablets rather than describing one possible way of writing among many. Hasn’t it always been an imperative to be new? And isn’t part of the drama of writing the seret suspicion that such a thing doesn’t exist? After all, as Borges once wrote, all art strives towards the condition of unreality, so why should the prize itself be a fiction? I remember in poetry class at the Univeristy, all those years ago, Charles Wright reading us a sentence or two about the anxiety of influence, and asking us to guess who the writer was. If memory serves, the quotation went something like this: Would that I lived among the times when ideas were new. One of us guessed Pound, another Walter Pater. It was an Egyptian scribe from the fourth millenium BC. Has there ever been anything new under the sun? I’m not so sure. Isn’t it the yearning, the striving, that’s new?
I doubt Terance Hayes and DA Powell look at writing in precisely the same way; I know for a fact that Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein didn’t—how can there be any sort of mandate of the sort Perloff describes in her incredibly persuasive piece in the Boston Review this past year? Her trick was to quote bad poetry as if it represented a bad school. I have news: somebody could easily run through the poorer examples of “avant-garde” poetry and make an argument for more traditional modes of writing. I believe Dana Goia has made just such an argument in the past, and it was equally persuasive. But I’m not on either side of this continental divide, except to say that his is my mandate: write it new, keep it close, make it challenging, be subtle, look to the future, keep your eye on the poetry of the past as well as the present, be the intensity, say what needs to be said, and don’t to reinvent the form consciously.
I don’t doubt that, right now, there is a sublimely inspired sonneteer spending his break at Wal-Mart scribbling down sonnets. Likewise, there are folks I know who are operating within the strictures of chance operation and using it to discover wonderful poems. But both sides of the argument serve some pretty awful masters, and produce some pretty mediocre crap. Why choose sides in that little battle? Mediocre writing is mediocre writing. That’s a major critique I have of this entire question; that is, the artificial divide between the experimental and the traditional, as if the two were mutually exclusive. As best as I recall, the term “avant-garde” is a military term, meaning the advanced guard. This, to me, points out the inherent practical nature of this term. It suggests somebody who is on a mission, and let’s keep in mind that the mission is not to shock, not to point out the stupidity of human institutions, not to be the most original cat on the block, not to worshop Shakespeare, but to make it new, and good. Therefore, Jaded Ibis Productions Publisher Debra Di Blasi and I prefer the term Reconnaissance Poetry, rather than experimental or avant-garde, because it doesn’t lose sight of the complexity, the deep practicality of this issue.
Sometimes, the most daring and original thing you can do is to make a moment lyrical, and beautiful. Sometimes, the truly radical move is to make it sound like a poem again. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good N+7 generator as much as the next guy, but I also love sonnets, which was the radical experiment of another time. My problem with “traditional” or “formal” poets is that they are letting the dead write their poems for them; my main critique of experimental poetry is that many of its practitioners haven’t read widely enough, and have therefore, deliberately or unintentionally, severed those connective tissues to the past. As a consequence, they are often repeating the experiments of the past. (Side note: I was in Paris last Summer and I was pleased to hear Harry Matthews give a reading that was so lyrical and lovely I almost wept; to coin an old-fashioned term, it was downrght poetic.) I like to think of myself as positioned within the experimental mode, but not afraid to reach back into the past when I need to. Too much of what passes for experimental today is merely easy crap, language that was generated rather than written. God save us from that.
Make it new, sure; but make it good, and make it human. Otherwise, you are just writing for other writers. I don’t worship the poets who came before me, but I am fascinated by that country we call the past, and I have much to learn from the poets who came before me.
What’s missing from a lot of experimental writing today is a sense of sacrifice, I think, a sense that you, the writer, is discovering something of value to the reader, rather than merely wowing that read with the next flashy thing, idea, turn of phrase. That’s why I began this essay with the Stein quotation about Picasso: let’s not forget the risks inherent in discovering something new. Let’s not forget the wonder.
Should a writer be accessible in their writing and what does this mean to you? Well, in a word, not really. The writer should be as good as he or she can be, while keeping in mind that she is writing for people and not necessarily other writers. To write for other writers invites vanity and competitiveness; to write for other humans, for, as Stein says, myself and strangers, or for myself and the dead, as I amend that quotation, invites pathos, humility, acts of imagination, and ultimately art. One must write forward without losing cite of the past, which is one of the major critiques I have of so-called ‘experimental writing’ these days: too much of it is revisiting the forms and experiments of the past, ironically enough. N+7 generator anybody? How about a poem derived from Burrough’s cut-up method? And as for American Surrealism, I thought that was a political movement from a particular period in history, not a way of writing. Nothing wrong with those techniques, but too often they are an end in themselves, and the zaniest, most ‘original’ mad-libs sort of writing is the result. I want art that makes a deman of the reader, and I want my reader to be a human being, not a writer.
Postscript: A few last questions
- Alain Badiou, in his final thesis on contemporary art, writes, “It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.” In light of Badiou’s claim, what is imperative to you about a piece of prose in terms of the political, the social, the unconscious?
- As every act is a political act, and as poetry and literary fiction are increasingly untouched by the marketplace—which we all complain about—this also presents an enormous opprotunity to the writers of today not to be fiddled with and adjusted for a consumer end. This is endlessly frustrating on a bad day, when you are comparing yourself to Justin Bieber, or answering that dreaded question on the airplane: And how do you make a living? But on a day when you truly consider what poetry ought to be, a poetry of witness, a radical act, something which can’t be undone, it’s a truly blessed thing.
- How do you navigate the tensions between audience, your compositional practices, and your imagination?
- It’s simple for me: I don’t think of, imagine, or, in my best self, even want an audience. Of course I want people to read my writing, but I count them one at a time. The Greek poet Elytis once said, when Kevin Prufer apologized for the size of an audience in central Missouri, that the poet only needs three people in an audience, and one of those people is the poet herself. Of course, that read—the dead? myself? stranger? can be replicated many many time over the years, and I hope they will be. But I will go mad if I sit around wondering why I don’t have a bigger audience. Poetry, literature, fiction: the fruits of it are in the intimacy with a reader, not the numbers, which is lucky, as the audiences don’t compare with on a consumer scale. Remember what Blake said: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. Eternity is not in love with sales. My imagination is an inherently strange place. I’m rather proud of that fact, but it isn’t likely to get me on the Oprah Book Club, although she has sponsored some great books, I am loath to admit. I just don’t know what else to say: to the extent that I do think of a reader, I try to imagine that reader as one person so that the poem can be comprehensible and challenging to that person each time. And I would define a writer as the first reader of their own work, so it isn’t far off in the end.
- To conclude with your question, what compels me to write what I write and why?
- It’s a sense of shame and emptiness and panic if I don’t do it. Trying to find fresh modes of expression, the new productions of time, is a compulsion for me. It’s also a gift, the reason to be alive, and I wouldn’t want to go too many days without engaging in it. What else am I good for?