Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ravi Shankar On Avant-Garde Formalism

Ravi Shankar in The Writer’s Chronicle
Vikings & Yellow Submarines: On Avant-Garde Formalism

Not a lot to interest me in the December issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, but it was nice to see the piece by Ravi Shankar. His contention is a bit like one I’ve seen Ron Silliman make in the past, that there is a space where a lot of avant-garde writing is formalist writing.

It’s not my favorite argument, as, by and large, I’m oblivious to form, as well as most things having to do with most things that one has to remember to do while writing. Once, years ago, when I was studying with Wayne Dodd (a poet who I believe has been greatly undervalued in contemporary American poetry, both as a poet and thinker about the art). He and I were talking about lines, and he was remarking on my poor ear for the music of a poem, an assessment that I admit. He said at some point it’s interesting to look at one’s own poetry and decide if one is more tied to the line as a unit of whatever, or the sentence. It didn’t take me long to respond: sentence. All this to say, whenever I see a conversation about form, I feel like the neighbor looking over the fence. But, moving along.

Shankar’s idea is an old one. He goes all the way back to the very beginning of written poetry to show that the ways of OULIPO have a history, a formal history. The difference being that while what most of us call received forms (Sonnet, etc) are not feeling very fresh these days, though they once were, themselves, avant-garde, it is the formal practices of avant-garde writes today are not arbitrary or ambiguous, as many non-avant-grade people say they are (and to remind us that this poetry has also been described in the past as Realism), going so far as to say, “in some quantifiable way, the Oulipien undertaking is the purest form of formalism that exists today, because once a constraint is set, there is meant to be no deviance from its application.”

Interesting stuff. And he sums it up with a shot across the bow of what has been called New Formalism (the contemporary poets who write primarily in received forms [sonnet, villanelle, and such]), with this snippet from Elliot Weinberger’s “rather scathing” review of one of the New Formalist anthologies, called Rebel Angels:

“The only American formalists of the century may well turn out to be Louis Zukofsky, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low, who invented their own idiosyncratic and inflexible rules: placement of letters according to mathematical or mystical formulae, predetermined word lists and selection processes, and so on. I’m sorry, but these Rebel Angels are wimps, café Republicans measuring out their lives in coffee spoons that keep changing size.”

I’ll add a caveat to that. There are many other writers of course who have written to harsh formal constraints, and Shankar mentions many of them in the article (I’d like to add that writers like Richard Hugo also participated in this sort of formalism, which tend to muddy the waters—which, apparently, I like to do). It’s well worth the read if you can find a copy.

In the future, once the issue’s been archived, I’ll post it here.


At 11/15/2009 2:01 AM, Blogger Noph angel, son of Georgiel said...

Hi John, interesting post. Have you ever read the poetry of Dana Gioia? I think he shows that one can be a great poet from within rhyme and meter. The way I see it, poetry like philosophy is subject to social and cultural fads. There is no objective reason why Avant-Garde should mean original and groundbreaking vs formalism.

At 11/15/2009 5:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Noph, thank's for stopping by. Dana Gioia could be considered the poster-child for what Elliot Weinberger is complaining about in his review of Rebel Angels. And Shankar's point, I think, is specifically to kind of agree and kind of disagree with your final bit, his point being that Avant-garde formalism IS formalism, and is the most interesting use of the way formalist structures (creating inflexible criteria the poem must adhere to) can open up the possibilities of what language can do at our present moment, and poets like Gioia are (I'm not sure how Shankar would phrase it, so I'll guess) belated and overly conservative and tentative in their practice, motivations, and outcomes. Somethign like that maybe?

At 11/17/2009 5:39 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

This is interesting, but not startlingly elucidatory. Hasn't a lot of criticism antedating Shankar's article said the same thing? Sestinas, N+7 poems--what's the difference? Both are games you play in order to engender ideas you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. I've never understood a poet who won't write heroic couplets because he aligns himself with cool, au courant guys who wouldn't write anything so powdered-wiggish. Besides, you can't always distinguish between avant-garde and traditional. Recently I wrote a poem that probably looks fringy: it has wild associative leaps and no apparent prosody. Actually it's a variable word-count poem with a buried acrostic, and the second word of each line begins with s. Is that avant-garde or traditional? Who cares? A lot of people, I guess...

At 11/17/2009 6:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


There may be a cult of the new going on with some of this. I've not really paid enough attention to say with confidence. But Shankar (and others over the years) do make a point when they say, in general, people who use recieved forms also tend toward backward-looking content. It's the old "new forms = new content" argument.

It makes some points, but there are also large examples that would make the point more difficult to make without a lot of exceptions (Ashbery, for instance, who has always liked recieved as well as ad hoc forms).

I think of this more as a shot across the bow of New Formalists who tend to write conservatively and who deny the formal nature of much avant-garde writing.

At 2/04/2011 7:18 AM, Anonymous Viagra Online said...

Wait a minute, what is that thing? I think we can't ignore something like that, it's huge and modern, specially if we're talking about "modernity". By the way, why you used the word "formalism" in the headline, I think you're wrong in the concept.


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