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Vikings and Yellow Submarines

- Ravi Shankar


"The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit...
the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution."

- Igor Stravinsky


I’d like to begin my case by isolating a few of the terms that Stravinsky uses—constraint, arbitrariness, and precision of execution—as those terms go a long way towards describing the situation of an “avant-garde formalism,” a phrase that for all intensive purposes may be read as an oxymoron in connotation. I’m not speaking of the etymology or application of the terms here, but rather to their trajectory—formalism, in its musty adherence to dead or inherited forms, points towards the past, while the avant-garde, a term that has been loosely applied to everything from Maya Deren’s films to the skyline of Beijing, is resolutely forward-pointing. Or put another way, formalism is positional, it situates us in relation to certain conventions, forms of order and modes of epistemology, whereas the avant-garde is oppositional, antagonistic, revolutionary, directed against tradition and conformity. Let’s set aside, for the time being, the fact that both terms have been (and continue to be) grossly misapplied and dwell instead on the interstice between these two terms. The point at which the historicized ends and potentiality begins, or alternately, to return to Stravinsky’s terms, the point at which arbitrariness ends and precision of execution begins.

Art critic, Clement Greenberg, in his seminal essay, “Kitsch and the Avant-Garde” writes, “A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences.” Now while formalism, in a certain light, can be seen as the codification of certain aesthetic structures that partake of and deal in a widely circulated vocabulary, the very thing Greenberg claims artists depend on for communication, there’s another side to formalism, which exists prior to its codification, and that’s the creation of the forms themselves. The moment at which a new form comes into existence is both revolutionary and well-ordered, spontaneous yet retrospectively choreographed.  Prior to the deluge of sonnets that glut the pages of our literary journals, the sonetto, or little song, was a short Italian lyric recited with musical accompaniment, and it was avant-garde in that it found what form sufficed. What Petrarch did was popularize the form and what Thomas Wyatt did by introducing the sonnet into the English language was disseminate it to future generations, but the moment of its conception, lost forever in time, was an initiating act of both formalism and the avant-garde. It’s when the new form begins to bear weight, to enable a tradition, to become institutionalized, that the aesthetic object passes over from the category of the avant-garde into that of formalism. That’s part of the point Paul Mann was making in his book, “The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde,” when he writes, “there has never been a project for delegitimizing cultural practice that did not turn immediately, or sooner, into a means of legitimation…the avant-garde has in fact served, in most cases quite unwittingly, as an instrument for the incorporation of its own marginality. The avant-garde is outside of the inside, the leading edge of the mainstream.” Ouch! That’s a rather grim view of the commodification of the avant-garde and serves to collapse the distance we presume exists between it and formalism, but the generative act itself and its subsequent deployment by the earliest practitioners is where the potentialities of the future are balanced by the subsistence of the past.

To return to Stravinsky’s quotation, one of the terms he identifies is arbitrariness, which offers a particular resonance with respect to our own poetic avant-garde (or post-avant as the more inclusive term goes) yet contains an anathema to formalism. The arbitrary is the very antithesis of the necessary, and so the logic goes, that which is not well thought out, that which is random and incoherent, that which is the basis of a chance operation is constitutive of a very different kind of meaning than what is possible when a work’s import is predetermined or more cogently hewn. Yet the argument could be made that nothing characterizes our current literary environment more that the poetics of indeterminacy. Indeed, Paul Hoover in his introduction to Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, which is probably as canonical a work as the avant-garde has produced, claims that indeterminacy, “or a compositional tendency away from finality and closure,” is our “period’s most important theme” and Marjorie Perloff in her seminal book from 1981, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage traces how alongside the Modernists there is another intertwining lineage that goes from Rimbaud to Stein, Pound and Williams, via the Cubists, Surrealists and Dadaists. The indeterminate, it should be point out, is not synonymous with arbitrariness (nor ambiguity as Perloff makes a point of developing in her chapter on Stein), but both share an underlying principle of chance occurrence and the idea that observable, quantifiable processes are not mimetic of the construction of reality, at least not as it can be represented by language.

Of course this is not a new idea. As John Cage brought attention to in his musical compositions, the Chinese I Ching was an ancient system of cosmology and philosophy intrinsically aleatory in nature, and many early systems of belief use the element of chance as a compositional strategy. There’s a sense in which every successful poem, avant-garde or not, formal or not, is a result of chance operations, since the materiality of language is polyvalent and signifiers, by the very nature, point in many directions at once. As Gertrude Stein wrote, describing her own language practice, “I took individual words and thought about them until I got their weight and volume complete and put them next to another word, and at this same time I found out very soon that there is no such thing as putting them together without sense. I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible.” The human mind, being an organic synthesizer, is attuned to recognizing patterns, and in the absence of finding anything discernable, imposing a pattern. That mental process often masks the arbitrariness at the root of what’s being described. Take any inherited form, whether sonnet or sestina; the decisions we have to make are, in a sense, made for us, since we know structurally what parameters the poem must fulfill. But aren’t those choices, which we take as transparent and self-evident, actually deeply arbitrary? Why an octet and a sestet? Why an envoy? Why not sixteen lines instead of fourteen? Why not rhymes at the start of lines instead of at the ends?

This brings us to another of Stravinsky’s terms—constraint. Intrinsic to any formalism is some notion of constraint, whether it is Shakespeare patterning the stresses in traditional metrical prosody or Marianne Moore delimiting the number of syllables per line in syllabic verse. In these cases, the writer is bound by certain self-imposed conditions that forbid certain elements while simultaneously imposing a design. The very same thing can be said about the Oulipo, the group founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau in 1960. Oulipo, of course, stands for OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, and the group is populated by writers and mathematicians who produce literary output under a variety of formal constraints, ranging from lipograms, where particular letters or group of letters, are disallowed, to palindromes, which must read the same forwards as they do backwards; from alliteratives where every word must begin with the same letter, to univocalics, where an entire work must only use one vowel; from slenderizing, the removal of particular letters or group of letters from a text, to larding, the addition of text between any two entry points in order to attain a passage of a desired length.

 These are just a few of the countless constraints developed by Oulipiens and Para-Oulipiens and make no mistake, though they might appear arbitrary on the surface, there is nothing random about them. Rather there is exactitude and mathematical precision about the application of these principles to the act of writing. In fact, I’d argue that 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. There is no corollary to the substitution of a trochaic foot in an iambic line for the Oulipien—there are only the rules of the game and playing the game according to the rules. As critic Jean-Jacques Poucel has written in his introduction to the Oulipo folio in the latest issue of the international online journal of the arts, Drunken Boat, “the Oulipo positions itself as paradoxically pre- and post-avant-garde, deeply invested in traditions of poetics, but somehow critically detached from historical measures of value they dictate. Indeed, the group is more invested in regenerative writing than in deconstruction writ large…the Oulipo is incessantly engaged with collective memory, directly taking its raw materials and tools from the public domain, only to return them enriched via formal sophistication, personalized signatures and a crafty optimism steeped in curiosité savante.” This brings us back to oppositional nature of the avant-garde. Though Poucel describes the Oulipo as simultaneously pre- and post-avant-garde, it has been embraced by the post-avant, for the very reason that, in its playful inflections, it is situated against “serious” literature, that in its transmutation, at times, of the author into a quasi-computational device, it literalizes Roland Barthes’ proclamation of the “death of the author.” And yet, as has been pointed out, the Oulipo proposes a project of the most radical formalism.

Other examples of the intersection of formalism with the avant-garde abound. Take the cento, or patchwork poem (from the Latin), consisting entirely of lines taken from other sources and rearranged to create something new. It is at once avant-garde, being a collage construction, and formalist, proceeding from a set of explicit imperatives, in which the author’s own words never impinges. William Burroughs was perhaps the great modern exponent of the form as he made a number of visual and verbal cut-ups, and believed that collage techniques allowed him to disrupt and deconstruct the dominant narratives of the mass media, thereby illuminating the subliminal, secondary messages at work there. For Burroughs, the cut-up could potentially be an act of political resistance, a stance that aligns him with other artists of the historical avant-garde. But the cento itself is centuries old, has its genesis in Aristophanes usurpation and reamalgamation of lines from Aeschylus and Homer and in the Roman poets’ collages of lines from Virgil.

Or take hybridization, the avant-garde impulse towards creating work that transcends the boundaries of genre by creating forms that are capacious enough to hold various forms and syntaxes, graft appropriated texts alongside original source material, veer from prose to verse and back again. I’m thinking of Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Leslie Scalapino and the work of younger poets, such as Jena Osman and Lee Ann Brown, who all accomplish hybridization, or cross-pollination, or miscegenation, or transcendence of authorial control and reinvention of formal structure in particularized ways that would never lead you to confuse one of their poems for another’s. And yet the scaffolding for the form itself is not new—just take zuihitsu, or literally “following the brush,” the ninth-century form adopted in Heian Japan by predominantly women writers. Zuihitsu can be a compendium of brief impressions, likes and dislikes, anecdotes of events, critical commentaries, quotations of found texts, expressions of opinion, lyric outbursts interspersed with longer vignettes, etc. Sei Shônagon wrote The Pillowbook in this form and Japenese-American poet Kimiko Hahn has written a number of contemporary zuihitsu.

Or take the example of contemporary poet Nathaniel Tarn, who is as emblematic a figure of the “avant-garde formalist” as I can imagine. Born in Paris, educated in France, Belgium and England, trained as an anthropologist under Claude Levi-Strauss, founding editor of Cape Editions and Cape-Goliard Press, translator of Neruda and Vallejo, among others, Tarn’s work is polyglot and multi-ethnic, political yet deeply personal. While he would never be accused of being “confessional,” he nonetheless cultivates a notion of voice and writes, at times, decidedly straightforward statements of emotion or speculation. He is also an expert in the contemporary ode and this is perhaps the place where his formalism most asserts itself. He writes in sequential forms explicitly based on the Pindaric and Homeric odes and he has written persuasively of the relationship between the vocal and the choral, yet he stands outside any particular aesthetic school or narrowly defined sensibility. Tarn himself has written, “I take the aim of art to be the creation of an order so surprising that it cannot fail to be perceived by receivers as new and different from what went before.” In that statement, I see the avant-garde impulse towards newness married to the formalist’s urge to create order.

In reality, then, rather than being antithetical forces, formalism and the avant-garde can and indeed do fit together. Think of Peter Bürger’s “Theory of the Avant-Garde,” where he lists a number of potential characteristics for avant-garde practice, including montage, the creation of the “new,” chance enterprises, the use of shock, the emergence of non-organic works of art, attacks on the institution and reception of art itself, and attempts to reintegrate art into social praxis. None of these elements, in and of themselves, resist formalism in the larger sense. It might be that our inherited forms are not supple enough to contain the new, but it’s our imperative as artists to find the form that will suffice, and that—I’d argue—is the real point of contact between the avant-garde and formalism.

I’ll like to end with two definitions of the terms that have animated this discussion. The first comes from Elliot Weinberger’s rather scathing review of the “New Formalist” anthology Rebel Angels, published in Jacket Magazine: “What is difficult, as Pound said at the beginning of the century, is not to write in iambs: "to break the HEAVE”… 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. For real formalism, we must go to the Old Formalism, to the days when forms were forms and form had nothing to do with etiquette. We must go back, that is, to the Vikings.”

The second is Joe Amato’s definition of the avant-garde from a round table discussion published in Boston Comment. He asks us, so I ask you, to substitute “yellow submarine” for the term “avant-garde”: “So the yellow submarine is, in a fundamental sense, forever. It reclaims the public domain as a domain of freethinking public action -- it brings all citizens in from the cold ambience of social neglect and injustice -- and it torpedoes power brokers where they live by insisting that their love of power is but a corrupted application of the power of love. The yellow submarine makes power brokers look silly, and therein lies its transformational power. 

And a yellow submarine that doesn't do these things ain't shit.” 

An avant-garde formalist, then, is nothing more—and nothing less—than a Viking on a yellow submarine.

Ravi Shankar

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