Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Produce Basket

Cherry

Whence the gravity of your deep, deep red,
o cherry?
You’re some vestigially corporeal internal organ of an angel,
perhaps,
lingering since the celestial being could never quite shed
a taste for sole in sauce and malicious wit.
These weaknesses lead direct
to the fruit’s fine and parabolic taste.
The lover of cherries is chained to earth’s rack
knowing no better than to eat and eat
until the bowl is exhausted --
the plate littered with stems and stones.



The grave sweet pear philosophizes, grows
Sitzfleisch, its subtly honeyed heft aspires
to heaven still, borne up by old afflatus.
The pear d’un certain age remembers still –
each time it hears the wind or sees the sun –
the nectar and ambrosia of its youth --
white blossoms fluttered perfect, without thought.



The banana’s not at all like Carmen Miranda,
stodgy rather with carbohydrate respectability,
wrapped in the most mild of sugars,
mysterious seeds all but intangible,
and a flavor that fits noiseless to the tongue,
a blanket of taste leaving no room at all,
a worthy confidante in tiny house,
full of lace and African violets,
hissing radiators, and mail order catalogues.
And when the parcel arrives in the mail,
the banana is always satisfied.


The apple’s a salesman of industrial screws
with a sample case in the trunk,
spare suit hanging by the back seat,
smelling of cologne and slick hair,
he dreams of fraternity friends
and that ingenious Green Delicious
from the orchard’s edge
he met one night in Cincinnati
and never saw again.



The grapefruit’s
a lovely face
glimpsed from a train window,
hanging laundry like an angel,
linens aloft like wings
in a small town back yard long ago.
Grapefruit taste’s cut loose from the ground
and mounting fast to vanish,
but still the fruit has vegetable leather skin,
that seems to bear the onus of memory
of faithless friends,
unaccountable pain,
failed exams,
and indigestion,
till the knife frees them all
and displays inside
a star’s radial symmetry
bracing to tongue and eye alike,
consumed in a flash.


Carrot

how honest an orange your tone
you never would deceive
and your pattern, with tapering elegance
though none would take you for a debutante,
your inner core’s like some great oak’s
and you have, too, an esoteric side,
secret given only to strivers with good teeth
(let me kneel beside Bugs Bunny!)
though shorn of your fine feathery top
and trimmed of that lowest reach of root
that pursued ever downward into earth
in search of inspiration
flayed now of your wholesome skin
and eaten without thought
I hope to steal your wisdom yet
o honest orange carrot

fragment from Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry

(This is part of the conclusion that seeks to distinguish characteristics of oral and written poetry. The essay keeps getting longer. Again, the notes will have vanished.)


The arrival of writing necessarily transformed literature. The oral text has flexible form. Depending on the audience it may be edited for content or style. Even such a scripted spectacle as the circus varies in every performance. However, once performed, it is then fixed form in the experience of the viewer. Furthermore, every spectator’s response is shaped in the social conditions of reception by a tendency to conform to the reactions of the group (just as in a movie theater the viewer is more likely to laugh or gasp or drop a tear in concert with others). For a written text, the contradiction is reversed: the text never changes, but it invites a fresh construction from every reader. New meanings may always be adduced from the code, just as Augustine thought new readings of scripture may be as authentic as old. While a new reading may attempt to supplant an old one, more often it simply joins already existing readings. The poetic text glories in polysemy, whereas other forms of discourse seek simple clarity.

I noted at the outset that the boundary between oral and print cultures is often elusive. Indeed, over four hundred years after the invention of movable type, print culture is not in fact nearly so dominant as one might think. A recent study indicates that the average American now spends about twenty-four minutes a day reading material of all sorts including newspapers, work documents, and the television schedule. On the other hand the average time spent watching television is over four hours, for radio over three. One wonders how enough time can remain for computers and recorded music. People absorb countless narratives through films and television and countless lyrics through song and advertisements. Even the consumption of poetry remains primarily aural if popular music is counted, overwhelmingly aural, if school assignments are not.

Spontaneous oral composition as well as oral performance characterizes the classic oral poetic form first described by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. The poet, whether a Homeric singer or a Pentecostal preacher, draws on a common store of expressions, and these expressions, by their very repetition, are foregrounded as significant. Thus for Homer the process of a warrior’s arming and the attributes of the gods are among the details that embody and transmit the culture while for the Christian these are replaced by tropes of the individual’s rebirth and the Savior’s passion. Oral-formulaic verse is ideally suited for the education of the youth as it systematically emphasizes the lessons most important to the tradition. In this way it is the inverse of post-Romantic poetry which seeks to expose contradictions and ambiguities in idées reçues. Oddly, today’s rap freestylers present a similar case, since the pressing necessity to rapidly invent material leads to the same consistent reemphasis on the values, themes, and characters central to their culture.

There can be no doubt that oral performance adds a new register of signifiers to the poem. For poetry, form is always content, and critics have long explicated the role of rhythms, rhyme, and other sound patterns. Modulation of volume, pitch, and stress has immense expressive potential, as well as offering formal possibilities of patterning (just as rhyme, meter, assonance, and alliteration do on the page). Study of ancient tragedy suggests that aurally oriented audiences were capable of great sophistication in perceiving and following rhythmic pattern and variation. Of course, the experienced silent reader can appreciate the metrical facility of Alexander Pope, for instance, but the equally competent listener very likely responds more subtly, if unconsciously, to sound. The cost of these additional data is the swiftness of the experience of the poetry.
Unlike the written text which the reader may peruse at leisure and reread repeatedly, the performance occurs and then is forever gone. Even if it is captured on film or tape, every theater or concert-goer is aware that the experience of viewing a recording of a live performance is different in quality from attending the performance itself.

The line of what might be called classic American spoken word (which has influenced many other traditions) descends from Whitman through Allen Ginsberg to today’s café stage and reflects these conditions of reception. This long-line declamatory (rather than melic ) style, tends to rely on anaphora (as well as other forms of repetition), delivery emphasizing emotion and featuring broad modulation of tone and volume. Parataxis replaces hypotaxis in the syntax. The poet’s body language and expressive delivery become part of the text. This can result in a seductive, hypnotic, almost enchanting theatrical experience of poetry, but it can also, in less skillful performances, result in gratuitous volume and histrionics on stage, but ennui in the audience.

Many of these characteristics arise out of the requirement that spoken word be transparently lucid. The long line allows the writer freedom in syntax and avoids unnatural and enigmatic structures. Listeners need not suspend understanding, waiting for the conclusion of an elaborate colon, but simply observe the series of paratactic structures one after the other. Actual catalogues are common, as is the repetitive reinforcement that used to be called amplificatio. The signification of strong emotion through high volume is unambiguous. The spoken word poet is more likely to work through narrative than through imagery.
Similarly, the figures of speech the oral poet used in antiquity were traditional. The audience was already familiar with many while others were generated according to strict rules. The work of today’s spoken word poet must still be immediately intelligible, barring subtle or complex metaphorical leaps and fostering cliché (sometimes torrents of cliché). Even innovative figures must be instantly comprehensible.

Whereas traditionally the themes of performed poetry were normative, those evident in today’s reading events tend to represent a specific subculture, one that often defines itself in opposition to the majority culture. The conscious separation from the bourgeoisie (even antagonism) that marked the notion of the avant-garde from its outset in the Romantic era, encourages the sensational (sexual, political, or artistic) and the comic. Difficult as it may be to shock in the twenty-first century, titillation is still readily available. I recall from the very first readings I attended the titters that greeted an approach to obscenity (even when the reference was far from humorous) and the analogous subcultural satisfaction with which the hip audience heard blasphemous or revolutionary sentiments.

Nonetheless, it would erroneous to suppose that either oral or written presentation is inherently superior. If mere multiplication of signifying systems indicated value, we would want to hear only grand opera, that Gesamtkunstwerk that includes poetry, music, theater, movement, art, and costume. Just as a film of Hamlet differs in countless ways from a stage production, and each must be judged by its own standards, oral and written poetry are distinct genres. The artist may be clumsy or adept in either; skill in the one by no means implies equal facility in the other.

Acadiana

In the evening we heard Cory Arceneaux and the Hot Peppers at El Sid O’s Zydeco and Blues Club on Martin Luther King Drive across from the projects in Lafayette. Sid greeted us by coming up and saying “I’m Sid.” He went on to speak of his brother Nathan Williams whose Zydeco Cha-Chas have been nationally successful. The band was first rate, playing straight blues tunes as well as zydeco.

To our left was a craggy-faced man in a shiny brown suit with boots and broad-brimmed hat, silent with the ancient fatalistic physiognomy of a junkie pharoah. With him was a slender woman with a suit that could go to church, and a face like a sinking cliff, unmoving, beyond corruption. At times they would dance and he circled with a reptilian sensual intensity. A classy guy, he had ordered a bottle of whiskey which arrived in a plush bag. It was followed by a large tray with glasses, mixers, ample ice. Every now and then with a minimal but masterful gesture he summoned the rounded and smiling waitress and received fresh supplies. They seemed never to speak.

But if he was cool hip, hot hip was not long in arriving. The band paused and waved when a long-legged, loose-jointed character showed up. He duckwalked forward and exchanged bon mots with the band, then performed a rapidly mutating funny walk in front of the stage and back again. Only occasionally sitting to fidget, he jived around alone and partnered, making six or eight movements for each beat of the music. A veteran lady drinker from the bar joined him, but was instantly betrayed by high heels and hit the floor. With a grand effort, her partner modulated his movements to help her up, and she returned to her perch on a stool, looking thoroughly disgruntled.

Around midnight a warm and spicy odor began to arise from the kitchen where there had been sporadic action for some time. The band was in the same stage, really at that point, but we were ready to retire, suddenly slightly worried about Henry’s car in the parking lot.

Leonidas of Tarentum

(I haven't rendered the notes visible here -- should anyone wish to see them, they are in the original Word document.)


Leonidas of Tarentum lived on the coast of Italy’s boot heel (in his day Magna Graecia, now Apulia or Puglia) during the third century B.C.E. Travelers in his day and our own may pass through on their way to Brindisi to take a ferry to Greece. Horace describes the region in glowing terms, with first-rate honey, olives, and wine and mild weather, an excellent place to be buried, and to Propertius the area suggested a pastoral Eden. Scholars have sought to specify his dates through several apparent historical references in the poems. Style, however, not time or theme, is the present focus.

During the modern era, his work has found few admirers. Lord Chesterfield went so far as to tell his son, “I recommend the Greek epigrammatists to your supreme contempt.” "[They are] the worst company in the world.” Wilamowitz couldn’t stand Leonidas. St. Beuve sounds almost apologetic when he says the poet epitomizes the Anthology and is “du moins” “la plus honorable et la plus digne” of its authors. He has been called facile and tedious, offering “little to admire.”

If Leonidas is little-appreciated now, he enjoyed great popularity in antiquity. His work is represented second only to Meleager in Cephalas’ tenth century Anthology. For centuries he was the most-imitated of Greek poets. Generations wrote in hommage to his verses, more or less closely imitating his words, seeking only to polish his wit or to sidestep a rough consonant he may have overlooked. What alteration in taste produced this gap between his ancient and modern reputation?

The Greek Anthology has survived into this present age primarily through translated selections: Kenneth Rexroth, Dudley Fitts, and Norman Douglas each produced volumes worth reading. In particular, many pieces on death and love retain their power and pathos even in renderings that are no more than adequate. Reading a poet translator’s choice bits in this way, the reader has little sense of the overall form of the collection. Just as in the case of much Western appreciation of Asian lyric, an extremely highly conventionalized form is read as spontaneous and direct. The metrical scheme is fixed; the topoi recur again and again; and the themes are so intertextual that succeeding poems of the Anthology sometimes read like a series of rewrites. One poet after another seeks to perfect the verse’s music while polishing such tropes as “you are the flower among flowers” or “like the sun, the stars of other women vanish when you appear.”

While this sort of craft-conscious, highly stylized art in which excellence is built on imitation of masters may remind us of Elizabethan sonneteers, individual inspiration has been fetishized in the practice of high art since the Romantic Age. Innovation is equated with value, though conventionalized work has hardly vanished. It survives in virtually all the oral and popular forms from Child ballads to situation comedies and even “reality” shows. People continue to enjoy the old formulae (which are, often, given yet another turn) and, in fact, enjoy their own competence as they evaluate every new performance against a remembered background of many others.

Some critics found particular fault with Leonidas because he sometimes used ornate and artificial “Alexandrian” literary devices while characterizing the lives of humble working people. He speaks of his own penury and respectfully describes fishermen, peasants, and carpenters in a sophisticated form reminiscent of pastoralism. Indeed, this subject matter was a part of Leonidas’ reputation in antiquity. In his description of the contents of the anthology he assembled, Meleagar speaks of the “luxuriant ivy-clusters of Leonidas,” and likely means to invoke the commonness of ivy, almost similar to Whitman’s use of grass.


(V, 188)
I do no wrong to Eros. (I call my sweet good-nature’s witness
Kypris.) I’ve been attacked from an evil bow.
that would have me burnt to ashes. Fire on top of fire he sends my way
and won’t let up the arrow-slinging.
Now I, a mortal, must seek to pay him back, this wicked flying daimon.
Will I be blamed for fighting in self-defense?

(V, 206)
Melo and Satyra, aging fast,
daughters of Antigenides,
they gladly do the Muses’ work.
Melo for Pimpleian Muses dedicates a flute
(on which the lips can dance) and case,
while Eros’ lover, Satyra, will give this drinker’s friend
she joined with wax, this pipe,
sweet whistler that she played till dawn,
till light made her glad
to see the door still shut.

(VI, 221)
The winter night was filled with driving hail
when, fleeing storm and freezing mountainsides,
a single lion, looking rather lame,
walked in to where the goatherds pass the night.
Afraid not for the goats but for themselves,
the goatherds sat and called on Savior Zeus.
The night-beast, waiting out the storm, attacked
no man, no goat, and later he walked out.
For Pan of mountain leaks they put this sketch
of what had passed on this thick oak.

(VI, 226)
Here’s the little place where Kleito lived, the plot
where he grew food. A few grapevines are round the back,
and here’s some brush where he would gather wood. It’s here
that Kleito kept on going right through eighty years.

(VI, 298)
A wallet, and a goat-skin coat made stiff
with age, a walking stick, an oil flask
(uncleaned), a dog-skin purse wuite innocent
of coins, the cap from his impious head:
these things were stripped from Sokhares in death
and hung up on a tamarisk by Need.

(VI, 300)
Lathrian goddess, take the wanderer’s gift!
From Leonid the poor (who starves at times), accept it!
Take excellent olives and fat barley cakes
and this green fig, fresh-plucked
from fine wine stock these five perfect grapes – take them!
My mistress, take these last few drops of wine,
but if, as you’ve saved me from disease,
you lift me up from goddamned
poverty – you’ll get a goat in thanks.

(VI, 302)
Leave this hut, oh darkling mice, and know
that Leonidas’ sad flour bin holds naught.
The damned old man gets by on bread and salt.
His line has long been known for living poor.
Why dig in that far corner, greedy mouse?
You won’t find even supper crumbs to taste.
No, run to other homes, there’s nothing here.
You’ll g=have to dine away to get a feed.

(VI, 309)
This loud wood rattle, this silent ball,
Philokles gives Hermes these things.
The bone-dice he once loved, his top,
he renders up his childhood’s toys.


(VII, 35)
Pleasing to foreigners, much loved by Greeks
was Pindar
who worked
for the sweet-singing
Muses.

(VII, 67)
Hades’ awful deacon, sailing Acheron,
over the water on a dark boat, receive me,
though your nightmare barge is groaning full of dead.
I’m the dog Diogenes.
An oil-bag and a wallet, all I bring,
One old coat, the obol sea-fare needed here.
All of the things I had gathered in life to Hades
I came holding. I left nothing under the sun.

(VII, 264)
Fair wind to sailors! But if in the blast
you follow my lead and find haven in Hades,
blame no cruel depth, blame just yourself,
if you started your trip from my grave.

(VII, 295)
Theris, the old, old man who lived by catching fish,
who knew more ways of waves than any bird,
who poked the sea-floor, dragged nets, and took home fish –
he never sailed a ship with many oars;
Arcturus didn’t bring him death in war;
no storm pushed his strong old frame too far.
He died in his hut, went out like a light,
quenched by the simple weight of many years.
His sons made no marker, nor his partner from bed,
but the band of his fellow catchers of fish.

(VII, 452)
Think of Eubolos the Sober, you who go by,
and drink! For everyone’s end will be Hades.

(VII, 455)
Maronis the wine-lover, drainer of bottles,
here lies the old hag, and shown on her tomb –
a Greek drinking cup (the meaning is clear).
Down under she moans, but not for her children
and not for the man whom she left in great debt.
Her one cause to moan – that the grave-cup is dry.

(VII, 472)
Measureless time, o man, before you saw the light,
and measureless will be your time in death.
The time you spend in life between these two?
A point or smaller yet if that can be.
Short life for you and suffering, for learn:
life isn't sweet -- it's wretched worse than death.
Men -- sacks of bones -- they try to lift themselves
to airy heights where clouds float free.
Man, see how mad! At your thread's furthest end --
a worm sits on a coat that's seen no loom
and works it down to dried fig leaves and sticks,
more hateful than a withered spider's corpse.
Ask your heart at dawn what power's your, my man,
and live a life that's simple. Always know
however long you walk about in life,
you're made from stalks of straw. You can't escape.

(VII, 657)
Herdsmen roaming hills around this ridge,
tending goats and sheep with fine thick wool
pause to help Kleitagoras, for Earth,
for underground Persephone (I’ll not ask much).
I’d like the sheep to bleat for me, the shepherd
on a rock to pipe soft notes as his beasts feed.
In early spring a native of these parts
should crown my grave with meadow blooms
and sprinkle the spot with a ewe’s rich milk
(one with many lambs). Let him then lift her udder
to wet the tomb’s top.
We among the dea
Have payment to return to those who do us good.

(VII, 660)
Stranger, Orthon of Syracuse would speak to you:
“Never go out drunk on wintry nights.
That’s how I met my fate. And now I lie
In foreign earth, not in my fair home.

(VII, 715)
I’m dead far from my Italy, far from Tarentum
my home. This fact is bitter worse than death itself.
A life without livelihood comes to the wanderer,
but I had the Muses’ love and now I taste honey
rather than gall. The name Leonidas has never sunk low. –
my gifts from the Muses proclaim it forever.

(VII, 731
“I’m already propped up like a leaf on a pole,
now death calls me to Hades.
Gorgos, get smart! How can you be glad
you can sit still in sunlight a while?”
Speaking simply the old man pushed off from life
and went to join the many.


(VII, 740)
I’m the stone on Kretho’s grave. I show
his name. These days he’s dust beneath the earth,
the man who once was rich as Gyges, once
had many cows and herds of goats,
who once – but why talk on? All envied him.
Oh god! His share is now so little land.

(IX, 24)
The stars dim out and the wonderful moon-circle, too
when the fiery sun with its whirling axles rides across the sky,
and Homer brings to nothing the herds of singers of hymns,
he who holds the Muses’ brightest torch.

(X, 1)
The right time’s come for sailing. The swallow already
babbles chirps; the soft-running West Wind is here;
the meadow’s in blossom; the sea’s fallen silent
(its waves no more thrown up by violent winds).
Take up the anchors and let loose the cables –
cast off, my seamen, set out all your sails!
I lay these things on you as Priapos the harbor god
So you, my man, may sail for far-off goods.

(XVI, 230)
Lone traveler, don’t drink that dirty draft
from the warm, steep mountain torrent cutting through.
Just up a little way at that high point
where cows feed, over by the shepherd’s pine,
you’ll find a fine stream murmuring through rock
with water colder than the northland snow.

(XVI, 236)
The watchful Priapos stands on the wall;
he’s set to guard Deinomenes’ greens.
“But look at me, thief, see how I’m aroused!
You wonder if I lust for greens?
for these!”

(XVI, 306)
(on a statue of Anakreon)
See Anakreon the tosspot, twisted on the stone
And note the old man’s dull but greedy eyes.
He drags his costly robe around his feet.
Of his two boots, just like a sot he’s lost
The one (the other hides a claw-like foot).
He sings of longed-for Bathyllos or Megisteus
And hold up in his hand his lovesick lyre.
Protect him, father Dionysos – it’s not right
that Bakkhos’ servant fall by Bakkhos’ hand.

The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde

The few discursive notes are indicated by numbers in brackets. Parenthetical references are to the list of Works Cited.

Intellectuals are comforted by the philistinism of the remark sometimes attributed to Goebbels, “When I hear anyone talk of culture, I reach for my revolver,” [1] but the noted dada poet, anti-fascist, and psychiatrist Richard Huelsenbeck provided its lesser-known complement: “to make literature with a gun in my hand [was] my dream.” (Motherwell 28) In rhetoric, the two balance; in practice, of course, only one of the speakers was armed, and the other was lucky to escape his homeland with his life. We remember, fifty years after the defeat of German fascism, the meaning of the Nazi gun, but what is the meaning of Huelsenbeck’s dream?

The late seventeenth century trope of the “battle of the books” simply provided an image for the long-familiar pattern produced by the dialectic of tradition and innovation in the procession of literary generations. Before long, the metaphor was embellished through the association of literary styles with “progressive” or “reactionary” attitudes and movements. With the coming of industrial capitalism and the Romantic era the link between new artistic practice and political revolution became considerably stronger.

The very term avant-garde appears in the late eighteenth century with a purely military meaning. It was first used in the cultural sphere by utopian socialists for whom artists were likely “forward troops” who could educate the masses through the dissemination of radical ideas through their work. (Russell 16) This is plausible, of course, only if one assumes a mass audience for the arts. Raymond Williams notes that, though Shelley’s calling poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the World” is very frequently quoted, the helplessness implied by the term “unacknowledged” is rarely explained. (See Russell 19)

Since the Romantics artists have been expected to consistently oppose the status quo. Thus the young Wordsworth and Shelley admired the French Revolution; Baudelaire and Rimbaud flirted with the revolutions of 1848 and 1870; and the Nixon White House was chagrined to find that no cultural figure was a guest on whom one could depend to behave. [2] Even on the right, poets have often been fierce social critics, tending even, like Marinetti, Celine, and Pound toward the fascist extreme. While there has been considerable “charitable” poetic sympathy for the humanitarian ideals of progressive causes, there has also been a particular fascination with the destructive content of the radical agenda, the cry to do away with the old. Thus Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau all praised John Brown whose apocalyptic rhetoric and fearless uncompromising acts were the logical end of the antislavery imperative, though more pragmatic abolitionists might question his tactics or his sanity.

The militant rhetoric of the avant-garde is familiar to us all: Rimbaud calling for the death of the wealthy, chanting the powerful “Perissez! Puissance, justice, histoire, a bas! . . .Le sang! Le sang! ., . . Tout a la guerre, a la vengeance, a la terreur.” (noted in Russell 42-3); Marinetti’s flat declaration: “We will declare war” (quoted in Russell 88); Tzara’s proclamation, “There is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished” (Russell 103); Desnos’ idealization of terror (see Russell 154); Artaud’s denunciation of “all writing” as “pigshit” as his slogan “shit to the spirit” (anticipating the Weather Underground’s trope on a Maoist line: “serve the people . . .shit”); Jolas’ declaration of cultural war; Diane di Prima’s smash and burn rhetoric in Revolutionary Letters which counsels, “avoid the folk/ who find Bonny and Clyde too violent.” (di Prima 12); and Baraka’s dictum: “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. (Baraka 382)

It may seem as though in these last examples the putative political values have come to dominate the cultural content. It is true that, quite often, as Berkman found after his attack on Frick, the workers don’t get it. Whole movements have arisen in which the philosophic and artistic formation outweighs the political calculation: Russian anarchists, Goldman’s Mother Earth, The Masses, the rock and roll revolution of John Sinclair, Baader-Meinhof, the Weather Underground in certain phases, the punks and squatters of Berlin and the Lower East Side.

It is surely not surprising that the very groups most lacking a mass base and a plausible political strategy are those with the most absolute and nihilistic rhetoric. Clearly trade unions, resistance groups, and guerilla armies must address the desires of the population (including their own cadre) for a peaceful and productive life. Those formations which lack a mass base, whose appeal is to alienated intellectual rather than to workers are infallibly the ones producing the noisiest and most violent rhetoric.

Whereas real politics is a matter of compromise, an aesthetic party with no real following need make no concessions. The ecstatic celebration of destructive rage is a direct reflection of powerlessness. Thus the first signifiers of upheaval are generated by weakness as the language of combat replaces genuine struggle. Politics becomes then a spiritual or symbolic enterprise, as valuable as other such rituals. Civic action becomes self-conscious performance art instead of a technology for influencing the lives of the people, and the Trotskyites split into ever more minute and dogmatic sects, each convinced that the grace of its correct political line will compensate for lack of a constituency and will lead eventually to salvation.

From the artistic side of the dialectic, art which lacks social and academic authority, which lacks an audience and an economic base, will embrace and intensify its own powerlessness by veering toward the extreme, the unintelligible, the arbitrary. The lack of readers becomes the guarantor of the work’s validity. In Tzara’s phrase, dada “sets up inconsequential bayonets.” (Motherwell 75)

Once the position of the avant-garde in literature has been imaginatively constructed, through a series of tropes, into the structural equivalent of the military, a number of propositions become available. An array of possibilities opens out, just as such an array always emerges when any figure of speech enters the realm of the conventional: the original figure occurs, accompanied by its ironic double, by its reversal, by any number and variety of twists – the process is evident not only in high art, but also in heavy metal lyrics, graffiti, and bumper stickers. Thus, if the avant-garde is the equivalent of the military, it may assume the posture of a threat that may overthrow the ruling class. It may on the other hand spotlight its own inadequacy. It may seek to reinforce the state’s genuine military power or it may be aggressively antiwar. The Vietnam era slogan “Bring the war home!” indicated not pacifism but the ambition to pursue armed insurrection. The artist may indulge in self-caricature (or may be ridiculed by opponents) as an absurd and impotent force. (Compare the vision in Dharma Bums of a generation of enlightened backpackers with the contempt with which the Beat were received during the 1950s.) All these mutations and many other point back toward the same basic convention and arise in the first instance from a sense of the irrelevance of art in modern society.

The definitive moment of the avant-garde is dada. At no earlier time did artists so radically challenge the conventions of artistic creation, and much of what has passed for avant-garde since has merely replicated the dada gestures. The Dadaist movement was born, though, in political struggle in the real world, in resistance and repulsion against World War I and in particular against German imperial culture.

The word culture has been highly politicized especially in German usage since the late eighteenth century when Herder protested the claim of superior culture as a justification for imperialism. Many of dada’s practitioners, especially in the German branch, were active revolutionaries. It is said that Huelsenbeck was made Commissar of Fine Arts in the Bavarian Revolution of 1919. He did, at any rate, feel sufficient distaste for Kultur to define it as “shit,” to call for its violent destruction, and to compose the presceient call to arms Deutschland muss untergehen! In 1920. For Huelsenbeck, “Dada is German Bolshevism.” (Motherwell 44)

The same malaise and alienation which led to dada’s birth brought many artists of the avant-garde to political activism as communists, socialists, anarchists, or at least antifascists. The Second Surrealist Manifesto, for example, promises (with a revealing use of the future tense) “we shall prove ourselves fully capable of doing our duty as revolutionaries.” (Lippard 141)

The Nazi state responded with official denunciations of dada by Hitler years after whatever influence it had once possessed had waned. Prior to the infamous exhibition of “degenerate” art the Reich sponsored a show of “Dadaistic Works of Shame and Filth.” (Hitler’s exalted idea of the danger presented by the avant-garde was feebly echoed by Jesse Helms’ absorbed interest in a few works of art that have received public funding.)

The extreme rhetoric of the Dadaists was generated, though, not by the fascist threat in Europe alone, but in the first instance by their marginalization in modern society which they saw as proceeding ever further into mass cultural forms which obscure rather than enlighten. The same reaction represented in Horkheimer and Adorno’s declaration that modern mass “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” (120) producing a culture without satisfaction where the promise of pleasure is an illusion. (139) Even the “ecstasies” of jazz dancing are mere “pseudoactivity” and “mimicry” (Adorno 292), while high culture has only vestiges of an audience. Lukacs decried a modernism which had displaced the authentic grand European tradition. For him the new style “leads not only to the destruction of traditional literary forms; it leads to the destruction of literature itself.” (45) Like Marx himself, these critics feel powerful nostalgia for earlier days and, doubtless, their own excellent German classical educations, but is the “totality” Lukacs seeks not identical to the “uniformity” that Adorno and Horkheimer lament?

If popular art is false and high art suicidal and elitist, if society at large regards uncommodified art with placid indifference, art responds by cocking a snoot, which is to say by drawing its metaphorical gun, aggressive language. In its most extravagant forms this desperate appeal for attention approaches the language of total war: “TO THE PUBLIC: Before going down among you to pull out your decaying teeth, your running ears, your tongues full of sores, before breaking your putrid bones . . .Before all that, we shall take a big antiseptic bath, and we warn you, we are murderers.” (Ribemont-Dessaignes in Motherwell 109)

The posture of this statement indicates not only a rejection of the established social and cultural order, but a profound philosophic skepticism as well. It creates a dead end in thought and artistic practice. This has stalled the avant-garde ever since, rendering it useless as a gadfly to the state and unproductive in new aesthetic ideas. The chief techniques of the Dadaists, abstraction, aleatory composition, performance art, ethnopoetics among them, are still the leading methods today, eighty years after the Cabaret Voltaire. The practitioners of these forms receive foundation grants and university appointments, and it has become virtually impossible to épater les bourgeoisie.

Evidence of this motif of adversarial militancy, increased rather than calmed when ignored, is abundant and familiar. Janco: “a purifying and scandalous force to consume the past,” Breton’s claim that “a volley shot into the crowd” is “the surrealist act par excellence,” Desnos: “REVOLUTION means TERROR,” Artaud: “I foresee a destruction by fire,” not to mention the very concept of the Theater of Cruelty, di Prima: “The vortex of creation is the vortex of destruction,” and “SMASH THE MEDIA . . . BURN THE SCHOOLS,” Michael McClure: “Revolt necessitates destruction.”

As the rhetoric of militant revolt is the dominant form of the figure, I will simply note in passing the possibility of significant variations, ironic uses, inversions, and reversals. Among the avant-gardists who came to identify their revolutionary artistic powers with the interests of the state are Mayakovsky (who described himself as a guerilla warrior), Marinetti (whose futurist manifesto declared, “We will glorify war . . . the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and the scorn for women” [Russell 88]), and the poets of “socialist” states such as Cuba, Sandinist Nicaragua, and China (especially during the era of the Cultural Revolution).

The militant pretensions of the avant-0garde were ridiculed by Baudelaire (who preferred dallying with dandyism and sin, though he did, of course, support the 1848 Revolution. “On the Frenchman’s passionate predilection for military metaphors. In this country every metaphor wears a moustache. The militant school of literature. Holding the fort. Carrying the flag high . . . More military metaphors: the poets of combat. The literature of the avant-garde.” (Baudelaire 188-9)

The program of the avant-garde have very frequently been attacked by critics from the left such as the Frankfurt School theorists already cited, and by such Marxists as Caudwell for whom surrealism, for example, is self-negating and anarchistic. (110)

Self-parody is sometimes difficult to define in self-important circles, but it surely includes the burlesque of war in Sloan and Duchamp’s storming of the Washington Square Arch and in the showers of produce tossed at Dadaists and then at Futurists and later reenacted by Carl Solomon in the scene memorialized in Howl. The real crime of the musical Hair was not its cooptation of the counterculture, but the way in which it unashamedly reveals the triviality of coiffure as militance, but also the hollowness of confrontation in their bathetic repetition of the nudity of cast members of the Living Theatre.

A more thorough review of the forms of the figure of the poet as militant is impossible here. But even the examples cited will suggest that the imagery of the avant-garde artist as destructive warrior has not consistently, simply, and stably signified its opposite: impotence. The rhetoric has claim on further semantic territories which I can here only suggest: art which claims to attack and destroy may simply provide a dream-like wish fulfillment for the aggressive component in human nature. It may satisfy the same fantasies in the minds of intellectuals for which the Mexico Coty civil servant may turn to bloody tabloid newspapers or American youth to the car-in-the-air-shoot-‘em-up school of Hollywood. The same impetus is the realm of art rather than psychology would point toward the critical role of literature, so celebrated since the Romantic era, the tendency of art works to point to problems, tensions, and contradictions in received ideas, in other words to disturb complacency. This is undeniably a function of poetry, though no more than the function of restating the central cultural assumptions and reassuring the reader of the rightness of the status quo.

The extreme of that critical role is the vatic idea of the poet as a seer whose vision is wholly unlike most peoples, in fact higher, wiser, and more sublime. His task is to shake up his listeners, to undo shortsightedness and replace it with a higher truth. This is the archaic poetic vocation, familiar to students of ethnopoetics, and often conscious invoked in the last few centuries. Indeed the topos of the poet as priest reaches a sort of culmination in recent times when the higher truth the poet reveals may seem nihilistic, bringing news of nothing beyond the signifier’s distress at its own inadequacy, its declaration of epistemological bankruptcy, its self-destroying candor. Benjamin regarded fascism as the force that shaped l’art pour l’art to an end in which the convulsions of violence in war seemed the definitive object of beauty. But his communist alternative has fared little better in history. Beyond the polarities of twentieth century politics lies the final term of interpretation for the images of avant-garde militance: the writers rage not against their weakness in the structure of society, but against the weakness of the word itself.

The death of the avant-garde has been announced many times,[3] most memorably perhaps by Leslie Fiedler and Hans Magnus Enzensberger during the 1960s. Its resuscitation seems unlikely in a culture whose government can sponsor programs of jazz music and abstract expressionism and instruments of foreign policy and whose advertisers sell blue jeans and cologne with techniques devised for the derangement of the senses. The literary world, including its establishment of editors, foundations, and universities is quick to coopt any radicalism, while art is ever more commodified; those formation and phenomena that seem to resist are marginalized, and non-artistic radical social challenges seem exhausted. Under these conditions an active avant-garde is a wandering corpse, lamenting its own enervation. The imagery can march no further forward.


1. The actual quote is "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!" [“Whenever I hear 'culture'... I remove the safety from my Browning!"]. It is sometimes attributed to Goering or Streicher as well, though it comes, in fact, from the first scene of the play Schlageter, written by Hanns Johst and first performed in April 1933, in honor of Hitler's birthday. The leader of the Hitlerjugend Baldur von Shirach, speaks the line as he actually draws a gun in Frederic Rossif’s documentary De Nuremberg à Nuremberg.

2. The experience was repeated during the Bush White House when in 2003 plans for a symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” had to be abandoned.

3. Including my own “Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde.”



Works Cited


Abrahams, Edward. The Lyrical Left. Charlottesville (Va.): University Press of Virginia, 1986.

Adorno, Theodore. “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 2005.


Baraka, Amiri. “State.Meant.” The Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1973.

Baudelaire, Charles. My Heart Laid Bare, trans. Norman Cameron. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1950.

Caudwell, Christopher. Illusion and Reality. New York: International, 1937.

diPrima, Diane. Revolutionary Letters. San Francisco: City Lights, 1971.

Horkheimer, Max. “On the Problem of Truth. Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodore Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1977.

Lippard, Lucy, ed. Surrealists on Art. Englewood Cliffs (N.J.): Prentice Hall, 1970.

Lukacs, Georg. “Art as Self-Consciousness in Man’s Development.” Marxism and Art, ed. B. Lang and F. Williams. New York: David McKay, 1972.

Lukacs, Georg. “The Ideology of Modernism.” Realism in Our Time. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Poets and Painters: An Anthology. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951.

Poggiolo, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1968.

Russell, Charles. Poets, Prophets, and Revolutionaries: The Literary Avant-Garde from Rimbaud through Post-Modernism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University, 1985.