Calling the Bluff of “Innovative” Poetics

I have heard, from multiple sources, that there is a movement afoot, especially within academia, to rebrand what I have known as avant garde or experimental poetry as “innovative poetry.” The phrase strikes me as redundant, if not tautological. All poetry worth reading innovates in some way upon language. Furthermore, the four-thousand-year history of written poetry has been punctuated and advanced almost exclusively through innovative techniques. The differential between the poetry of forbearers like Walt Whitman or Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the majority of other Nineteenth-century verse, is far greater than that of any contemporary experimental project as it is compared to mainstream poetry.

While contemporary experimental projects, which often pursue a particular aspect of poetry in the extreme, do advance the art — even as exercising isolated muscle groups improves fitness — labeling such efforts “innovative,” with all this implies about other projects, is the worst kind of synecdoche — as absurd as defending thumb wrestling as the ultimate sporting event. Allowing experimental poets to call themselves “innovative” is like allowing a political party to rename itself — not as Democrat, Republican, or Tory — but as “The Party Which Stands For All That Is Right And Good About Politics.”

Repackaging postmodernism is not the great project of our time, nor is narrowing the scope of poetics down to a few theoretical elements. We must call such bluffs. Any art, in fact, which requires hefty intellectual defense, is unlikely to weather the common sense of individuals who know, on instinct, what moves them. Certain forms of experimentalism do provide a valuable antithesis to traditions like lyricism, but it is only an emergent synthesis — a whole-body poetics, that stands, like a body, complete and functional without explanation — that can truly be called innovative. Making a play to label one’s project as representative of the most fundamental aspect of poetry — innovation — amounts to a dangerous kind of wordplay, if not an all-out attempt to legislate taste.

Determinism in Experimental Art

“Everything changes except the avant garde”

 — Paul Valéry

Our new place is walking distance from Libbey Bowl, so we sauntered over last night to hear some world-class contemporary classical as the kickoff to the 2007 Ojai Music Festival. The evening was predominantly focused on works for two piano performed by Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams. The most accessible piece was probably the two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky‘s Dumbarton Oaks. Other works ranged from a piece composed exclusively of decorations (glissandi, trills and the like) to an electronic piece made from cricket chirps. The finale was this:

Symphonic Poem For 100 Metronomes
by György Ligeti

Though I am tempted to spend the rest of this tirade denouncing the attribution of the word “poem” to any piece of art in which the artist wants to convey a quality of elegance, I actually want to talk about something more important to me: when the avant garde fails for me, and why.

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