“The tradition has always been that you may more or less describe the things that happen but nowadays everybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not really interesting, one knows it by radios cinemas newspapers biographies autobiographies until what is happening does not really thrill any one . . . . The painter can no longer say that what he does is as the world looks to him because he cannot look at the world any more, it has been photographed too much and he has to say that he does something else.” (Gertrude Stein, “What Are Master-Pieces” cited in Perloff, 162-3)
“Writing is 50 years behind painting.” Bryon Gysin.
In 21st Century Modernism, Marjorie Perloff takes up the virtues of a literary avant garde, arguing that despite its seeming absence, despite declarations that the avant garde is a purely modernist beast murdered at the hands of post-modernism, that the avant garde of the early 20th century was only an infancy, a beginning, and that it remains relevant today, that is post-modernism that in a way, and I am massively paraphrasing, perhaps even projecting my own opinion here, wore itself out. I think of the metaphor, growing up in Illinois, of a tornado in a valley, a destructive force to be sure, but moreover, one that eventually wears itself out because it has nowhere to go, so it spins and spins until it has no more strength. The point here, and I digress, is not to engage in a debate on post-modernism vs. modernism, a debate that I am not really ready to settle at the moment. But I am very distrustful of the proclaimers that all that came before me is now dead and over. Further, my own personal take is that postmodernism itself is not contrary to the avant garde, but emerges from it. That if Futurism, for example, with its embrace of a fascistic nationalism, can be seen as the ultimate form of a modernism that is born of enlightenment values, emphasis on apparent rationalism, and the rise of the nation-state, then Dadaism, with its embrace of ir-rationalism, of nonsense and it’s highly inter- and anti-nationalism, along with its progeny Surrealism with its interest in the dark occult and the unconscious, make up the beginnings of the post-modern, of the multiplicity, of the backlash, and that therefore, modernism and post-modernism are temporal but contemporaneous to one another.
Perloff’s assessment of an unfinished literary avant garde, aborted, perhaps before it could be fully realized, when it was merely quickening, is near and dear to my heart then. If we take Bryon Gysin at his wise word that writing is 50 years behind painting, then we can look back 50 years ago to see Abstract Expressionism, particularly of the Pollock strain, all form and accident, lacking not only representation, but meaning itself. What is the meaning inscribed into a splatter painting? A chance operation? If meaning is created, if it is gleaned somehow by an audience member, it is nonetheless, not a meaning that can be “read” infallibly, deciphered authoritatively by a critic. It is an accidental meaning, a meaning created by a subconscious connection to a form or element or color within the piece, a synaptic pre- un- sub- conscious meaning, not a semiotic meaning to be read.
Where is the abstract expressionist poetry? Even a pre-splattering, Surrealist Pollock, a poetry of images to evoke imagination, idea, fully over meaning, story, intent? For all of her avant garde sympathies and apologetics, which are mighty, Perloff still spends much of her time explaining the meaning of things with a reading of poetry that still seeks to explain, that is about metaphor and enjambment and all of those things that matter most and maybe only to graduate students in English, not readers or audience hungering for the liberations (even if they don’t conceptualize it that way or don’t know that they are hungry yet) of imagination, of images. Watching her decipher a poem by Charles Bernstein, ironically, can make it harder for me, personally, to distinguish it from the non-avant garde poetry she sets up as contrast. Is it because her own avant garde of today is Language Poetry, a poetic avant garde immersed in and engaging with semiotics and teories of meaning in ways that, at the end of the day, still engage more with rather than subvert, semioitics and the tendency to “read everything as a text?” After all, if everything can be read as a text, is it possible to create a text that is not meant to be read, but felt, experienced, understood on a different level? Can we have experiences outside of language, and in particular, can we use language to create experiences outside of language? A heady question (pun appreciated, but not intended), to be sure.
Even Craig Dworkin, whose work on the avant garde I greatly admire and who has influenced and supported my own ideas immensely, has, in some of his writings on Zaum (To destroy language”, Textual Practice (18)2, 2004, 185-197) still focused on meaning. Dworkin describes the work of zaum’ as a utopian activity that seeks to circumvent what he sees as “totalitarian” desires to fix meaning. Using semiotic analysis, Dworkin suggests that zaum’ actually can be read not through the usual system of differences, but through chains of similarities and through linguistic and syllabic innuendo. In his reading, Dworkin shows that the “problem” to be solved with zaum’ is not that of making meaning, but the difficulty of limiting the number of possible meanings within each work. He places zaum’ within a matrix of nondiscursive literature including children’s nonsense rhymes as well as lettrism and experiments with concrete and sound poetry. Nonetheless, the very basis of his work shows that we have a hard time talking about poetry, even the avant garde, outside of semiotic analyses. While his work may be about “limiting” meanings, it still assumes that with enough imagination, we can learn to “read” the short syllables of zaum, to somehow understand them. To talk about them on the rational level of academic discourse seems to make it difficult, if not impossible, to talk or even think about them outside of that discourse. Is this the same criticism that writing about performance faces, that it potentially kills the very thing it seeks to examine? Is the avant garde, even a literary one, not always inherently performative, a performance, in the way in which the reader and audience must individually, privately engage with the piece, even if not necessarily on a private or personal level, the way they would with a piece of confessionalism?
Of course, I do not mean to belittle the great work and thinking done by Dworkin and Perloff and others. But it is to say that few people have been able to truly rethink poetry and language and the functions of language. If, as Perloff says, poetic culture has conventions just like advertising or journalism or all other forms of writing, and if as Stein says, those forms of writing make the “reportage” function of poetry are dated and irrelevant (100 years ago in Stein’s day—let alone today in our over-mediated cable television clear channel CNN You Tube etc etc world) then what is the new function of poetry, the Dadaist post-modernism of a poetry that is about freeplay and free association of language to generate its own pictures of a 1000 disjointed words to make the picture of a Pollock, quite outside of story, narrative or even (c)overt attempts at meanings, outside of any attempts at something that can be fixed, understood rationally, something to stimulate both left and right brain simultaneously, not only one or the other separately or sequentially.
“If we could change our language, that’s to say the way we think, we’d probably be able to swing the revolution.” (John Cage, M 210)