We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
What is “avant-garde poetry”? is a question long on answers, if short on consensus. On the one hand, the notion of the avant-garde is invariably seen as a historical category. The history of modernism and the authority of certain authors converge here in a kind of hermeneutic presumption, as if the meanings and values of both constituted readymades. The avant-garde poet emerges as a figure (invariably male, invariably white) that history and culture no longer need to put in question. But on the other hand, those European and American avant-gardes posed a question about the relation between the reading and practice of poetry that goes beyond the category of the avant-garde itself. If certain forms of poetry can now be so easily decoded or read as avant-garde, then clearly the culture industry and the historical avant-garde are now analogous. But somehow if a discrepancy between poetry and the culture industry in part defines what it means to write experimental poetry, then perhaps the very notion of the ‘avant-garde’ is no longer relevant. It is as if the category of the ‘avant-garde’ now inheres in such an anachronistic sense of form and value that it escapes reflection, and so is no longer adequate to the very notion. How can this gap be overcome?
The aestheticization of the term avant-garde is a refusal to think what the alienation of human being in the modern era was made of.
When one turns to black avant-garde writers and poets, these impasses (at the level of definition) are inadequate. In the history of black avant-garde poetics, the aestheticization of the term avant-garde was invariably seen as a shibboleth: that is, a refusal to think what the alienation of human being in the modern era was made of. Aimé Césaire was very aware of the dangers of conflating poetic form with hermeneutic readymades – as, for example, in modernist racist discourse, which both historicized and aestheticized race as sentiment and meaning (traces of which can be seen in all white modernist authors). But the double sense of form on which Césaire insists indicates that avant-garde poetry and radical politics are not the same, and that we must explore the productivity of their relation without reducing either to presupposed concepts or categories. The problem is that in the scholarship of modernism and the reading practices which have now become commonplace, black experimental form has itself become a readymade in the marketplace of modernist content, which is precisely why contemporary black avant-garde poetry is only read (often very badly) insofar as it resembles the old modernist boudoir, or imitates the avant-garde’s wishful resembling of its own lost discrepancy.
Amiri Baraka, theorist of black musical and political form, revolutionized how we should understand their relation by suggesting – after years of close study of black music – that chiasmus rather than dialectic was the exact form of black avant-garde poetry. This was avant-garde criticism with a capital A, but only in an existential and analogical sense. In fact, Césaire was much more radical and expressed his insights into revolutionary black poetry via a language of the unconscious in which syntax rather than lexis, non-sense rather than sense takes precedent. His belief was that in order to be modern (and in a way which is never simply, or historically, avant-garde) the black poet had to become a scientist of the marvelous in which radical unintelligibility is not so much the exception as the rule. Césaire’s immense productivity consists in creating a poetry of events that does not have form or content as its end, but is rather the pursuit of their irremedial alienation. Instead of claiming, as the various European avant-gardes did while reading Marx, say, or Freud, that he was producing a new dialectics (of culture, or meaning), Césaire claimed that poetic production was productive because it consumed knowledge. Or rather–that it was the ‘poetic’ itself that was productive, often against the express conscious and political wishes of the poet. As Césaire explains in his famous letter to Maurice Thorez:
I'm not going to confine myself to some narrow particularism. But I don't intend either to become lost in a disembodied universalism. . . . I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.
I can think of no better statement of why black avant-garde poetry should not be reduced to the usual modernist dilemma of aesthetics versus politics, or why its attentiveness to richly diverse modes of being should not be seen for what it is, i.e., a politics of the word defined by an incessant fidelity to creative negation. If this is a fidelity which can too easily be appropriated by the forces of cultural industrial control, that is because the value of its creation coincides with the terrible universal insecurity that is both its origin and truth, but one that also defines how each particular gives on to the world a newly embodied universal which provides for and bears along its own richness of meaning. As a result, Césaire remains for me the incomparable world-historical producer of black poetic form and one who continues to haunt.
David Marriott teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “In Neuter” (Equipage, 2014); The Bloods (Shearsman, 2011); and Haunted Life (Rutgers, 2007). He is currently completing a new book of poetry, titled The Nothing.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.
“I was my father’s son. My father was Nai Nai’s least favorite.” A Taiwanese American man, driven from home by a secret, reevaluates his childhood memories of his grandmother.