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History, the Aughts, and the Avant-Garde

History, the Aughts, and the Avant-Garde

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Published by Adam Fieled
This essay attempts to formulate the rudiments of a critical rubric around the new, avant-garde English-language poetry of the Aughts of the twenty-first century.
This essay attempts to formulate the rudiments of a critical rubric around the new, avant-garde English-language poetry of the Aughts of the twenty-first century.

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Published by: Adam Fieled on May 17, 2014
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History, the Aughts, and the Avant-Garde

What amounts to a twenty-first century version of avant-gardism in English-language poetry
emerged in the first decade of the twenty-first century (the Aughts) and has now established
itself in the Teens as its own gestalt form. The version of avant-gardism which flourished in
vehicles like The Argotist Online, Great Works, Jacket Magazine, PFS Post, Seven Corners,
and moria poetry was involved, as healthy avant-gardism always is, in exploring the
complications of attempted formal-thematic innovation within the confines of a profound
engagement with the history of the discipline in question. What particularly distinguished
Aught avant-gardism, in the creative and critical writing of myself, Steve Halle, Jeffrey Side,
and others, was a sense of the imperative to reinstate, against the henchmen-like severity of
the American Language and New York School poets, the fundamental and ineluctable
importance of narrative, and strong narrative voices, as a backbone of poetic discipline and
practice. We in the avant-garde in the Aughts were united by a collective sense (which
birthed a kind of creative compact in us) that our immediate avant-garde predecessors had
delivered us, via their experiments and the methodologies which informed them, into a kind
of trough or ditch which, as an expanse of creative space, confined forward progress to
narrow, and intermittently inane and incomprehensible, grooves, all represented to have
achieved elite status by sanctimonious self-privileging.

As an Aught avant-grade median space, Ron Silliman’s blog, by offering posts displaying a
strong and quite phallocentric narrative voice which yet espoused texts whose plummets into
utter anti-narrativity were appalling and appallingly mechanized and inhumane to us, gave us
a useful (if often combative) antithesis, and a direct link into the mainstream of our avant-
garde predecessors; yet it is our body of completed creative and critical work (and I mean to
include visual artists like Abby Heller-Burnham in this) which demonstrates the fruits of an
implicit compact which dared to create roots more profoundly dug into a longer history than
Ron Silliman or his compadres ever dared to be. What was ostensibly off-limits to Silliman
seemed absurd to us— the major Romantics (Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth) with
Milton and Shakespeare looming over them; the French Symbolists and later Victorians; and
even, for the most part, Yeats and Eliot. Silliman’s historical sense was that of an aesthetic
child, a historical innocent; even as his rhetorical adroitness made for compelling reading,
and a sense of avant-garde centrality which was difficult, in the Aughts, to ignore. Yet, we all
found ways of ignoring Silliman, the hulking man-child— and our own gardens were tended
with an eye towards the very historical targets he insisted on ignoring. Jeffrey Side’s Aughts
criticism, in particular (now featured in his Argotist E-Book Collected), was very germane to
those with historical awareness as applied to avant-garde poetry; his own self-created critical
compact was strenuous in several directions simultaneously. To be worthy of Side’s critical
attention, a text would need to offer some sort of innovative edge, formally or thematically;
yet Side prized texts which were able to accomplish this without losing the ambience of
poetic history’s omnipresence, over and beyond any attempt at innovation; all in defense of a
closely watched and guarded, self-consciously English, intellectual scrupulosity on his part.

Indeed, one occurrence marked by avant-gardism in the Aughts was an unusual and fruitful
chiasmus between English and American minds and the methodological approaches they
employed; partly owing to the respect younger American artists evinced for the history of
English literature, also partly owing to a generalized zeitgeist spirit of quest and aesthetic
adventure which meant that English poets, critics, and editors were unusually receptive to
the influence of perceived innovations and critical perspectives. It cannot be overstated that
the rise of the Internet as a valuable resource and tool for the dissemination of novel
aesthetic data marked what may grow to be recognized as the preeminent poetic
achievements of the Aughts. While conservative, middle-of-the-road venues floundered, not
attempting forced entry into the realm of the digital (and preferred digital vehicles like the
blogosphere), both in England and America, the pioneering venues of the Aughts avant-
garde took the battles which before the turn of the century could only be fought at odd and
comparatively infrequent intervals and made of them daily rites of passage towards critical
and creative maturity. It is no accident that the venues mentioned in the first paragraph of
this essay were all web-journals; those reluctant to join the web-poetry fray either did not
recognize or recognized too late that, by solving heretofore irremediable geographical
problems, the Internet had created a kind of fluidity and reception velocity which turned the
pursuit of aesthetic goals towards the possibility of profound crescendos and sustained
momentum. As futile attempts have been made in the Teens to turn back the clock behind
our bold advances, it must also be seen that Internet technologies of maintenance,
conservation and preservation have already substantially advanced the sum total of the best
Aughts work done in the higher arts, towards stability, permanence, and easy access within
the context of both. Understandably and undoubtedly, what we were able to accomplish is
fearful and even anathema to improperly and impurely motivated forces around the arts—
but their strategic-seeming ignorance, and its disingenuous insistence on totalized novelty
and theoretical banality, cannot withstand numbers and other indications which so drastically
assert the continued ascendency of the Aughts avant-garde, both on the Net and in print.
The Teens salvos against us (both self-acknowledged and willfully ignorant ones) constitute
red herrings, put forth as a stop-gap measure towards a resurrection of a time and a context
which is permanently gone, and cannot be resurrected.

The history of the Aughts avant-garde is a dynamic one; some flash-points recurred, others
fizzled fast. All of us took an interest in the term, coined by an unknown, “post-avant,”
designating a mysterious and not agreed-upon form and manner of avant-garde poetry;
hundreds of pages, from various sources, were scribed in determined pursuit of what post-
avant was. I argued, in a piece published in the Penned in the Margins print anthology
“Stress Fractures,” that the pursuit of a workable definition was more interesting than the
definitions produced themselves, for a number of different reasons (remember that “Stress
Fractures” was UK published and released); because the form and the manner of the
discourse around post-avant was a new one (informed by the reception velocity of online
interchanges), because the dialectics produced proved that the Aughts were an era of
thoughtfulness within collective vision-quests, adventures, and imbroglios; and because
(most importantly) in the Aughts, even our errors and fallacies led to solid, reasonable,
workable conclusions regarding what was and was not appropriate to expect, from
Philadelphia, Chicago, or London, from serious literature and its adjunct disciplines.

As has been said, the Internet age in the Aughts created a context in which more daily
excitement could be derived from serious literature; even as the major Aughts players I have
in mind set a greater store in developing a keen and incisive historical awareness with which
to grace their productions. As we constructed new narrative voices to gird texts like Map of
the Hydrogen World, Apparition Poems, and even small gems like Brooklyn Copeland’s
Borrowed House, playing around, sometimes gingerly and sometimes assertively, with
various forms and manners of narrativity, a sense of honestly, painstakingly earned verticality
grew around us, lighting up the Aughts years, both then and in retrospect (for me, at least),
with a memorable glow. As is invariably the case, many of the names which recurred at
regular intervals in the Aughts, poets and critics who fought alongside of us in the proverbial
trenches, will have to be forgotten— as will brief crazes like the Issue 1 incident in 2008, and
the regular influxes of new web and print journals which failed to distinguish themselves
over a long period of time. The Argotist Online blurb for my e-book “Disturb the Universe”
(I am counting ’10, strategically, as an Aughts year, and a year of culminations) posits,
implicitly, the Aughts as an era of “transition and turmoil”— and the transition to a new
technological and aesthetic century, which sought to create a palimpsest over the rigidly
confined formalism (against thematic awareness outside critiques of language itself) of the
twentieth century’s avant-garde elite, was a fortuitous one, as new outlets readily appeared to
advance new agendas. Seen from later in the century and centuries to come, it may even
appear to be somewhat charmed— a magical confluence of personalities and energies which
determined much of what followed it in twenty-first century poetry. As we know, the Aughts
of any given century are often determinative.

To bring these conjectures even closer to home— in 2014, the Teens appear to be very
much up for grabs. I have confidence that the Aughts seeds will ripen and bear fruit in due
time— but that is the work, always, of decades and centuries. In the short term, it will be
interesting to watch how the Teens choose to configure themselves around the Aughts. Here
and there, we’ve seen the arrival of new, potentially major, venues— such as the Huffington
Post and the Boston Review, who have gone out of their way to ignore our innovations and
turn the clock back to the comparative thoughtlessness and adolescent clannishness of much
of the late twentieth century. Luckily for the Aughts crowd and our body of work, these
venues seem to espouse no coherent, cohesive aesthetic agenda. The craze for lists on these
sites (Buzzfeed and Alternet, also), as though serious literature should be reduced to a
People Magazine or Rolling Stone-level context, has not (thankfully) coalesced into enough
of a zeitgeist force to render them indicative of what the Teens may bring, or be. Conceptual
Poetry, another turn-back-the-clock gambit, is similarly contrived and unconvincing, a failed
palimpsest over genuine theoretical rigor; and the likes of Kenneth Goldsmith, for many of
us, a failed avatar. Every decent century for the higher arts yet has off decades— whether
this is true or nor for the Teens, in ’14, remains to be seen. This decade’s machinations aside,
the Aughts seeds, their historical interest, are strong and potent and, whether the growth out
of our early soil is visible or invisible, the truth remains that what is planted has more or less
guaranteed a fruitful century for those who lament the aesthetic aridity and inhumanity of
the one which came before, and set the stage for us.

Adam Fieled, 2014

***painting is “The Lost Twins” by Abby Heller-Burnham, Philadelphia, mid-Aughts***

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