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Among many things I love about John Latta (aside from his mazy, musical poems—see here and here) is the fact that he reads interesting books that I would never read and nutshells their ideas over at Isola di Rifiuti. One of his recent posts, “Bruce Serafin’s ‘Avant-Garde Mentalities'”, is a case in point. While Serafin seems like a sensible, engaged critic, literary criticism is near the bottom of my reading list–just below memoirs of politicians and just above tales of addiction and recovery in Hollywood. Thankfully, Latta tracks lit crit, especially as it relates to the doings of the avant-garde, in this case the work of Canadian poet and scholar Steve McCaffery. Latta, who has spent a good deal more time on McCaffery’s work than I have or ever will, uses Serafin on McCaffery to make a larger salient point about current avant-garde writing:
[McCaffery’s] texts are as misshapen as they are because he has lost the writer’s intense connection to his own language. And I believe that this is a function of writing for a group. Do that–write for a group–and you get security. Your writing becomes protected: you no longer know the anxiety of writing “blind,” of wondering whether your work will be entertaining, or read. And without that anxiety the work turns bad. Intensity drains away: your writing becomes tedious, right-minded. You go to books for your ideas; you learn what you are supposed to say. Ultimately, you become unfree.
Of course, many in the avant-garde argue that the poet’s submission to more or less random rules* results in texts that free the reader from dictatorial rhetorical strategies. But I suspect there is something sadder at the heart of this. Poet Geof Huth, for example, recently announced his “major daily project,” a book entitled This Thine Earth: Selections from a Year, “which consists of poems created out of phrases pulled out of the book, Farrar Year Book: Selections from the Writings of the Rev. Frederic W. Farrar, D.D., by W. M. L. Jay. I have to pull the phrases without any change, so my only writing is to choose where the phrases begin and end and what order I put them in.” We have before us the desire to write, to “be a poet,” without a fundamental need to communicate–no intention beyond fulfillment of a rote procedure. It puts me in mind of the psychiatrist-cum-sonneteer Merrill Moore, who reportedly generated 50,000 sonnets–an average of approximately 122 sonnets a month throughout his adult life (he died in 1957 at age 54). Unsurprisingly, when he was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, Geof Huth won the Merrill Moore Award in recognition of his “literary promise.” I wonder if the Vanderbilt English Department would recognize a fulfillment of that promise in This Thine Earth. Well, anything’s possible.
* Among the tasks Charles Bernstein evidently assigns to his students is this one: “Tzara’s Hat: Everyone in a group writes down a word (alternative: phrase, line) and puts it in a hat. Poem is made according to the order in which it is randomly pulled from hat. (Solo: pick a series of words or lines from books, newspapers, magazines to put in the hat.)” Sound familiar?