My previous couple of posts may paint me as a stick-in-the-mud, an opponent of “innovation,” a reactionary sonneteer or lover of Tradition (cue Tevye). No. There is a dimension of the avant-garde I enjoy and admire (the two responses need not align, but it’s best if they do), and I believe one of the best spokesman for this dimension these days is Kent Johnson. I bring Kent up merely to direct Perpetual Birders to his Chicago Review takedown of Marjorie Perloff’s “Avant-Garde Poetics” section in the latest edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Kent’s piece speaks for itself, though he fails to state the obvious: Perloff is a phony, a PoBiz Operator, as devoid of intellectual credibility as a McRib sandwich.
Kent cannot say such things, even if he thinks them (I have no idea if he thinks them, but he did, in a poem of his own, write of W. S. Merwin that “he is our Tennyson,” so I imagine he could tell the truth about Perloff if he felt so moved), and I can say such things only because I am less than a bacterium in Perloff’s world. What luminary would concern herself with the squeakings of such a microscopic creature? And yet this is the peculiar freedom of being a poet, as opposed to an Operator. My failures are easily overlooked, since no editor at Princeton University Press would ask me to do anything but fetch him or her a cup of coffee.
I’ll fetch my own coffee, thank you very much. And I’ll let Kent say, with infinitely more eloquence, what I would like to say myself about the avant-garde. Essentially that it is alive and well, but is misrepresented by the Conceptualists and Flarfists of whom Perloff is such a fan. Birders who want a reliable, impassioned guide would do well to consider Kent’s Chicago Review essay, because it not only critiques Perloff but provides the beginnings of an authentic “Avant-Garde Poetics” entry. As Dylan sings in “Thunder on the Mountain,” “The writin’s on the wall / Come read it, come see what it say.”