Jeffrey Side: You’ve been critical of what you perceive as a tendency towards careerism in US avant-garde poetic circles, can you tell me more about this?
Kent Johnson: I’ve spoken about this in other places, and my comments haven’t always been too popular, I suppose. Let me answer this one in a somewhat unusual way, maybe allegorically, if that’s the word, answering your question by quoting myself from a somewhat fanciful post I wrote for Digital Emunction blog—just yesterday, in fact. I’ve been writing at DE (the cabinet of curiosities of the lit blogs, I believe) the past few weeks, as you know. The post was rejected by the blog editor, Bobby Baird, who felt the points raised were “old news.” Maybe… Though “old news,” if so, of the kind that hasn’t been sufficiently discussed, I’d propose. But the reader can judge. I had titled the post “The Clinking Sound of the Avant-Garde: A Short Story”:
In the 1980s, Language poetry was at its apogee. Its most prominent figure was Charles Bernstein. The most coherent and ambitious left-wing avant-garde formation in the history of American poetry was then under sustained attack from the literary establishment; the Language poets, with analyses of “Official Verse Culture” and its fraught complicities in the Ideological State Apparatuses of Literature and the Academy, countered the attacks with trenchant, withering critique.
This was during the reign of the Reagan Administration, which ended twenty years back. Soon after, the Berlin Wall collapsed and the First Iraq War began. Coincidentally (though perhaps not entirely), it was around this time that the first major studies of Language poetry began to appear in the most prestigious scholarly journals, and prominent figures associated with the group could be found interviewing for jobs at the MLA.
When Bernstein was editing (with Bruce Andrews) The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and writing some of the brilliant, anti-Institutional essays later collected in Content’s Dream (1986), Donald T. Regan was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury and Chief of Staff, a central figure in the Administration’s murderous policies in Central America and the related sideshow scandal of the Iran-Contra affair. Bernstein would of course still vehemently repudiate those policies, but a little more than two decades thence, he is Donald T. Regan Professor of English at a major Ivy League School. His books are now published by Harvard, and his work is included in the Norton.
Language poetry, in general, is well down the road as a welcomed and apparently pleased fellow traveler of the Canon. Like Bernstein, numerous of the original members now profess at elite universities, industriously partaking in (indeed, often openly arguing for) the fuller legitimation of their work. A growing tenure industry of secondary critics occupies itself around study of the group’s theory and writing. Versions of abstract or “hybrid” lyric, genetically descended from the textual experimentalism of Language poetry, rule the roost in MFA programs across the land. The AWP and the MLA are now homes to “radically formal” poetry, and the Young Turks who write it make annual pilgrimage to these institutions’ gatherings, to network, read, present, and interview for academic position. All the major journals are open to such work. Even Poetry and the New Yorker now feature it.
All of this has happened very quickly, with a speed to awe the most visionary Futurist. Earlier this year, celebrating its 100th anniversary, Charles Bernstein declaimed Felippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, angrily hitting, as he did, a hammer against a metal lectern. This was at the MoMA. There among the Picassos and the Matisses, the implement made a repeating clinking sound. A kind of death knell for things, one might say, though the gathered crowd of poets that applauded and cheered did not quite seem to see it that way.
It’s perhaps time, I’d propose, to think extra hard about the irony and velocity of this denouement, which is very much the “ontological” surround of the subculture we in the “post-avant” inhabit. Though as we do, we must grant that none of what’s transpired is a matter of ill-intent: In truth, the path that’s been taken is, and has always been, the “way” of the “avant-garde.” It’s nobody’s fault, and nobody, personally, need be blamed. And thank goodness, of course, for professors and scholars.
But to ask, if awkwardly, as this short story ends: Is this it, this seemingly natural “Where We Now Are”? Is this where we’re more or less to remain? Or is there an elsewhere, as it were, and how would we begin to imagine it, if so?
Well, in his rejection email to me, Baird, who is former editor of the Chicago Review and has an acute mind, to be sure, chastened me with the following good questions:
What do you, Kent, take to be the significance of the Langpos capitulation to the powers they once abhorred? Is it that Langpo (and its anti-OVC stance) was a sham from the start? Is it that Langpo wasn't a sham but was sold out by morally soft people like CB? Is it that the whole business of literary movements is just a game that we shouldn't get in a tizzy about?
Do you think there's a need for an avant-garde right now? Why? What should it do? What's it for? What's it against? Why is an a-g poetics better equipped to do what you want it to do than a non a-g poetics like [Michael] Robbins's or Josh Clover's?
I have some opinions, of course, on factors that frame and enable the processes of cultural “recuperation” that Baird alludes to. But I don’t think it has much to do with anyone being “morally soft.” Younger poets can acknowledge a significant debt to the earlier thought and work of the Language poets, for example, even honor their important contributions, and still reflect honestly on their “sociological” transformation as a literary formation. So Baird’s questions to me in his “rejection” email are actually quite in sync with the ones I proffer, there, at the end. I ask them sincerely, because I don’t claim to have any easy answers.
But speaking in broad terms, that the relocation of “experimental,” “oppositional” poetry to an academic habitus has had deep, denaturing effects on radical poetic impetus seems fairly clear to me. I'm aware that back in the eighties the Academy seemed for some an important site of contention and that this has been explicitly argued in defense of the "institutional turn" taken back then. But the novelty's long over, the pacts have been made, and a protocol of polite irascibility has well settled in.
There are admirable exceptions, of course, but the U.S. “post-avant” is fundamentally a professional phenomenon now, and the bulk of its verse, aesthetically impressive as it can sometimes be, is in no way culturally oppositional in our moment. For the most part it doesn’t even claim to be, despite humorously poignant declarations by someone like Ron Silliman, every now and then. It is a near-fully integrated formalist phenomenon, essentially vacated of any sense of resistant, agonistic drive or mission. And it stands to reason that this would be so.
full interview here.
Baird's response here.