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.