“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
-Jack Kerouac, On The Road
The thing about experiments is that they don’t always work out. In this way, experimental poetry can be seen as a high-risk, high-reward art form. Unlike other modes, where poets endeavour to generate sufficient heat to boil water, experimental poets go for either Roman candle effects or stink-bombs — but nothing in between. Much of it ends up the latter for me. I find it falls somewhere between a riddle and an inside joke, packed with cleverness and cerebral effect. It is so often the cerebral quality, above all, that leaves me cold — poems written from the neck up only, leaving the author safe and aloof.
This is why I have so enjoyed discovering experimental poet Ira Lightman‘s work. Ira pushes the boundaries of word-play, but retains something of the human in doing so. Consider this poem from Duetcetera, a collection of concrete poems arranged with gaps in the middle:
Apropos of the current US presidential election, the poem captures a certain sense of foreboding I have detected in Brits who follow the slings and arrows of the American political process. Continue reading…
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.
“Everything changes except the avant garde”
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.