By Sophie Seita

Stanford University Press. 256 pages. £24.99. ISBN 978-1-5036-0957-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is a problem here in that we are faced with the difficulty of defining the avant-garde. Sophie Seita offers the following suggestion: “The word avant-garde is popularly understood to refer to an individual or group with an anti-establishment attitude, producing stylistically innovative work, often with political aims in mind, sometimes articulated aggressively against previous generations or against tradition more broadly”.

She further says that, if this is the definition most people are likely to accept, it has “led to a seemingly coherent set of now-canonical and historical avant-garde movements with key players, clear manifestos, and an identifiable style”.  Which seems to be true enough. There are books providing detailed accounts of all the “isms” that are an essential part of any history of the avant-garde. And there is what some might see as the irony of those anti-tradition individuals and groups now being part of the canon and often almost-revered by would-be experimentalists.

Seita quotes Ben Hickman, who stated “an avant-garde in a university is a contradiction in terms”, though it’s not something that she herself would agree with. And the subversive thought occurs to me that what we find in universities is not so much an avant-garde, but often a mannered mode of writing (I’m thinking of poetry, in particular) that seeks to separate itself from the kind of work that most people prefer to read. Seita asserts: “Thanks also to the New Critics’ appraisal of difficult modernist poetry, and its incorporation into university syllabi, our own appreciation of the ‘difficult’ as critics and poets has reinforced a striking difference from so-called mainstream and more-accessible writing”. I think it was Norman Holmes Pearson who claimed that an academic career studying and teaching modernist poetry had equipped him for work as a cryptoanalyst when he was recruited for the OSS during World War Two.

There are some other anti-avant-garde comments from a poet and publisher, Richard Owens, who declares that “what publicly announces itself as avant-garde through market and state-funded megaphones scarcely ever is. Their daring lies in doing what others have done with the blessings of the market” and “any identification with an avant-garde or commitment to innovation paves the way to a promising career in the culture industry”. 

The literary avant-garde often made its first claims to originality in the pages of little magazines. Seita says that “Definitions of the little magazine have been debated as hotly as those of the avant-garde, and these definitions resemble one another in telling ways”. She quotes Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzle as asserting in their The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History (Pushcart Press, 1978) that little magazines “generally put experiment before ease”. I’m not sure that this is always the case, though looking at Anderson and Kinzle’s selection of magazines they deal with, it might appear that way. But there have been hundreds of little magazines, most of which were fairly conventional in their choice of the work they published. It may be that such magazines are not seen as worthy of consideration (Ezra Pound said, “a review that can’t announce a programme probably doesn’t know what it thinks or where it is going”), but not everyone feels the need to “make it new” or concoct a manifesto. I’m put in mind of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, (very much a member of the avant-garde of her day) who thought that manifestos were largely a male-prerogative and “a means of self-aggrandisement”.

However, leaving aside the question of the general run of little magazines, we can discern that Seita’s main concern is fixedly with what she sees as the current avant-garde. I’m tempted to play devil’s advocate and wonder whether or not there is an avant-garde anymore? Some people would incline to the view that there isn’t. And it’s often hard to single out what is avant-garde about much of the work that lays claim to being in that category. Most conceptual art simply stems from a few provocative acts many years ago. Marcel Duchamp has a lot to answer for. Before him, they were painting copies of the Mona Lisa, with a pipe in her mouth, back in Montmartre in the 1880s, but it was looked on merely as a joke. I doubt that anyone at that time thought it was much more than a cheeky send-up of the artistic establishment’s worship of the painting’s supposed value.    

There are some interesting comments relating to conceptual art: “Lucy Lippard, one of the earliest scholars and curators of conceptual art, defined it as ‘work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious, and or ‘dematerialised’. The dematerialised art object was often supplemented or replaced by a text that outlined the purpose of the object, or, in the absence of an object, of the project, and labelled it as art”. I’m slightly puzzled by the purpose of such an exercise which seems to relieve the artist of having to actually create anything worthwhile in terms of an art object.

Talking about art thus takes the place of producing it, which some might say makes it ideal for a university. Other might want to see it as a recipe for pretentiousness, and a refuge for those lacking the skills to paint a picture or shape a sculpture. Conceptual is usually a term applied to the visual arts, but if extended to poetry or the novel could eliminate the need to write anything once the thought about it has occurred. Félix Fénéon may have got it right in the early-1900s with his novels in three lines, though an extremist might want to dispense of the three lines as well.

Seita does appear to accept that from around the 1970s, “you notice a distinct trend: the little magazine has become a critical-theoretical apparatus”. She discusses the “Language Poets” and their magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and states that: “Although the definition of Language writing continues to be disputed, the group’s early critics generally agreed that it rejected the ‘expressive self’ of the so-called romantic lyric and marked a ‘shift of emphasis away from subjectivity’ “. There was no longer “the cry of the heart” but instead “the play of the mind”.

It’s frankly not easy to get away from the “academicisation” of Language writing as critics applied theory to it. And the question might arise, was it almost a creation of academic critics who ensured its success with reviews in influential magazines and newspapers, and publication in trend-setting anthologies?  In fact, it could be suggested that Sophie Seita is contributing to the “academicisation” with her book, which it can’t be denied has been written for specialists in the universities and colleges. A general reader who likes to read poetry for pleasure (“How quaint”, the professors and poets may say, as they play with their minds, though that can also be a pleasure) will find it sometimes hard to get to grips with the academic nature of the prose.

It’s difficult to know how much of the poetry that seemed to come under the term, “Language writing”, if only because of where it was published, did actually meet the criteria that was established for it. Seita points out that there was a “more-divided and diverse network than is acknowledged in canonical accounts”. She is of the opinion that “Most critical studies of Language writing tend to focus on a narrow range of authors”, and a limited number of magazines. In contrast to this, Seita ranges around the avant-garde little magazine network, and while doing so concludes that the work in them can include poems that don’t necessarily conform if strict guidelines are applied. I suspect it has always been the same for any movement that, in retrospect, is seen as avant-garde. A glance at the 1932 Objectivist Anthology will come up with a few names that no longer find a place in later accounts of the group. Robert McAlmon is one example I can immediately bring to mind.

As the title of Seita’a book indicates, the emphasis in publishing by so-called avant-garde poets has moved away from print to the Internet. There are now numerous publications which exist solely on-line. But Seita’s concerns rest with what she considers represent an avant-garde. And it’s true that Internet outlets provide places to experiment with typography and the like to usefully supplement the texts of the poems. Publishing in this way also emphasises what became obvious during the so-called “mimeograph revolution” of the 1960s - it’s possible to produce a magazine without having to conform to commercial requirements. In addition, being on-line can help to avoid the distribution problems faced by little print magazines. Gone are the days of weary editors calling at scattered bookshops with copies of their magazines, an experience I encountered when editing a couple of little magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. I hasten to add that I never thought of myself as avant-garde, either as editor or poet, though as a critic I don’t think I was unsympathetic when I wrote about poets who were seen as practitioners of what was then often referred to as avant-garde work. I did object to what I felt was almost-wilful obscurity.

I suppose the only difficulty is that, as happened in the 1960s when everyone and his brother who had access to a mimeograph machine (duplicators, as they were referred to in Britain) became editor of a magazine, there were wide variations in what developed.  Some of the results were excellent as the imaginative combined good taste in the poets they published with a concern for the appearance of their publication, whereas others were often scrappy sheets of self-indulgence. I’m not sure what standards are like on the Internet. Possibly not much different, and in any case, most poetry at most times is mostly quickly forgettable. And it has often occurred to me over the years, as I’ve collected and written about a range of little magazines, that nothing looks so dated as the minor work of yesterday’s avant-gardes. As for avant-garde ideas, does anyone apart from a number of academics still bother to read Charles Olson’s long-winded theories of “Projective Verse”?

Provisional Avant-Gardes is a stimulating book in some ways, despite its insistence that an avant-garde of major significance still exists. And there is the worrying evidence that its academicisation has led to a situation where so many poets are located in universities and other places of higher education, and as a consequence feel the need to accord to the ideas and opinions of those establishments. One has the impression that if a poet who favoured the “cry of the heart”, as opposed to the “play of the mind”, turned up on campus he or she might well have a hard time of it, and almost certainly wouldn’t be taken seriously.

I could be wrong, and it needs to be noted that Seita is largely writing about the situation in the United States. There are only a few, scattered references to British publications and poets. However, she has obviously done a great deal of research into the magazines and their contributors, and provides a lot of useful information about both print and on-line outlets for the poets she favours. I still can’t be sure if an avant-garde does continue to exist. Perhaps the answer lies in the words of Gabriel Josipovici in “Off the Grid: Thoughts on the avant-garde” (TLS, 9th August, 2019)  when he suggested that the test shouldn’t be whether or not a work of art is “experimental” or “avant-garde”, but is it good or bad?