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Response to Seth Abramson

 

 

The following is my response to Seth Abramson’s critique of my Introduction to The Argotist Online feature The Academisation of Avant-Garde Poetry. I have included, here, my Introduction, Abramson’s critique of it point-by-point and my response to Abramson point-by-point.  

 

Incidentally, Abramson has also been critical of Bob Grumman’s definition of the term “the Otherstream”; a term Grumman coined in the 1980s. Grumman’s response to Abramson can be found here.

 

 

 

MY INTRODUCTION: Jake Berry's essay, "Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)" deals with the issue of certain types of avant-garde poetry as not yet having found favour within the academy, or with poetry publishers of academically "sanctioned" avant-garde poetry. The damaging aspects of this exclusion, and the concept of an "approved" versus an "unapproved" avant-garde poetry, are also examined in the essay. And these things could well be described as "the academisation of avant-garde poetry”.


SETH ABRAMSON: This is a good example of the increasing incoherence of avant-garde literary criticism. In the paragraph above, "academy" is used as a catch-all to include both literary studies and "creative writing"

 

JEFFREY SIDE: I don’t think the term “academy” is being used in the way you claim it is. If you read the paragraph, you will see that it simply mentions “certain types of avant-garde poetry as not yet having found favour within the academy”. Creative writing is not mentioned.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: … two forces that have been at war for approximately 75 years, that generally have sanctioned and promoted entirely different poetries, and that are now administratively segregated at most colleges and universities due to the decline and fall of the academics-oriented creative writing MA (and the subsequent rise of creative writing MFA). So when the above author speaks of "types of avant-garde poetry...not yet having found favour within the academy”, no one reading that phrase could possibly have any idea what's being discussed.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: Yes they would, if they read Bob Grumman’s response to Berry’s essay that listed these types. Grumman writes:

 

Such a list would include […] visual poetry, sound poetry, performance poetry, contragenteel poetry, mathematical poetry, infra-verbal and grammar-centered poetry (the two main schools of genuine language poetry), cryptographic poetry, cyber poetry and others I've forgotten about or missed.

 

This seems fairly clear to me.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: Are we speaking of passive receipt—and translation into scholarship—of avant-garde literary material by literary studies professors, most of whom are now suffused in literary theory, but a few of whom are historicists or New Historicists or (even fewer still) neo-New Critics? Or are we speaking of whether or not these "types of avant-garde poetry" are being taught by working writers in creative writing workshops—most of whose faculty and students have minimal to no familiarity with or interest in literary theory, historicism (or the New Historicism), or even (though they may have had some "training" in it in high school) the New Criticism?

 

JEFFREY SIDE: I would say we are speaking of passive receipt, translation into scholarship, and these types of avant-garde poetry not being taught by working writers in creative writing workshops.

SETH ABRAMSON: In other words, precisely who is excluding whom? And from where? Who is doing all this "sanctioning"of what, and where, and when, and how? Who is doing the "approving"and of what, and where, and when, and how? Nobody in these discussions amongst avant-garde poets and critics really knows.

JEFFREY SIDE: Well, in the UK, two of the academic “gatekeepers” are the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre at Birkbeck University, and the Poetry and Poetics Research Group at the University of Edge Hill. And in the US, there are the various organisations connected to the University of Pennsylvania, which I mention in my Introduction.

SETH ABRAMSON: But we do have the boogeyman of "academicisation" [sic] brought out from under the bed yet again, the only problem being that the term is not (of course) being used literally here, or anywhere, as the above author is neither claiming that avant-garde poetries are increasingly being written by literary studies professors ("academics"), nor that avant-garde poetries are now being produced primarily in literary studies degree programs ("academic degree programs"), nor even that the only evident consumption of avant-garde poetries is now happening on college and university campuses

JEFFREY SIDE: True, I’m not saying that. I’m merely saying that certain types of avant-garde poetry (those primarily listed by Grumman) are being excluded from consideration and study by academics in the UK and US who are scholars of contemporary avant-garde poetry.


MY INTRODUCTION:
Academic poetic output is operating to a healthy extent in the US, where university creative writing departments are flourishing. The University of Pennsylvania has its Kelly Writers House programme, its PennSound website and its Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, all sympathetic to academic avant-garde poetry. The University of Pennsylvania also edits Jacket2, an influential online poetics website, which was formerly called Jacket, and which was edited by the independent John Tranter before he passed it over to the university. And similar things are happening in the UK, with various institutions such as the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre at Birkbeck University, the North West Poetry and Poetics Network at Manchester Metropolitan University, the MA Creative Writing: Innovation and Experiment course at Salford University and the Poetry and Poetics Research Group at Edge Hill University; all of which promote academic avant-garde poetry.


SETH ABRAMSON: We must put aside that the only university referenced here
Pennis one that does not have a graduate creative writing program (which maybe, depending upon our working definition of "academy", puts it outside the "academy"?),

 

JEFFREY SIDE: I am not claiming that graduate creative writing programs matter in the way you think I am suggesting. By and large, they are outside the scope of the Argotist feature. I don’t know why you keep bringing them into it. And as you can see, Penn is not the only university referenced.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: … just as we must put aside the author's minimal awareness of what's happening at any of the 200+ American universities which do have graduate creative writing programs.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: My apologies for not being able to keep up to speed with the 200-plus institutions you mention. Again, though, I am not claiming that graduate creative writing programs matter in the way you think I am suggesting. By and large, they are outside the scope of the Argotist feature. I don’t know why you keep bringing them into it.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: No mention is made here of the evident and notable avant-garde sympathies of the MFA programs at Brown University, University of Notre Dame, University of California-San Diego, Temple University, California Institute of the Arts, Mills College, Cornell University, Columbia College Chicago, Naropa University, The New School, Saint Mary's College of California, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Montana, University of Utah, or any of the other avant-friendly universities even the greenest MFA applicant in America would be aware of. Nowe get none of that.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: It seems you have misunderstood the argument of the Argotist feature. It is not about the avant-garde sympathies of MFA programs, but about the exclusion from scholastic study of the types of avant-garde poetry Grumman has listed.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: We get no such acknowledgments here, becauseas noted already on this blog, in previous essaysthe avant-garde, of whose various poetics and poetries I consider myself both an admirer and a student (and sometimes an adherent, poetics-wise if not often aesthetically) seems fixated on discussions of "the academy" despite not understanding its contours in the slightest. It is no coincidence the author of this brief piece mentions Penn, one of the only universities in the United States to have a conspicuous non-degree-granting avant-garde outpostas no other presence of the avant-garde in the academy is cognizable to these avant-garde poets and critics. It seems their distaste for academia is so virulent they're unwilling to even "know thy enemy”.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: It seems you have misunderstood the argument of the Argotist feature. It is not about Penn being a conspicuous non-degree-granting avant-garde outpost but about the exclusion from scholastic study of the types of avant-garde poetry Grumman has listed.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: A greater issue is this new coinage, "academic avant-garde poetry", which bears the same ills of easy misinterpretation (or even meaninglessness) as does its originary term "academicisation" [sic]. What does it mean for an "avant-garde poetry" to be "academic"? Again, the discourse of these fellows is designed to create the appearance of a mutual understanding of terms when in fact no such consensus doesor couldexist.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: For an "avant-garde poetry" to be "academic" it has to be studied, taught and disseminated by academics who specialise in writing about avant-garde poetry.


MY INTRODUCTION: Consequently, one could say that the term "avant-garde" has now, essentially, been appropriated by the academy, and, as such, has become associated with the sort of poetic writing practices that could be fairly said to represent "establishment" poetry, to the extent that the historical resonances of the term "avant-garde" have become meaningless. In contrast, Bob Grumman’s term, “otherstream”, which Berry uses in his essay to describe poetry that is marginalised by the academy, can be seen as a more apt replacement for the term “avant-garde”, which has now become obsolete as an appropriate description for poetry that isn’t anecdotal, descriptive or prose-like.


SETH ABRAMSON: We see here that the author's use of the term "academy" has suddenly switched; as "poetic writing practices" are being discussed now, we must assume we've now returned to "creative writing" spaces within the academy, and literary studies scholars
all of them; their entire institutional historyhave suddenly been divorced from any working definition of "the academy".

 

JEFFREY SIDE: You seem obsessed with introducing creative writing into the discussion, when what I am referring to are “poetic writing practices”. The two are not necessarily the same discipline. The latter is a theory-led practice, the former about acquiring poetic skill-sets.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: … (For surely we could not include those scholars, else we be forced to admit that the avant-garde was "appropriated by the academy" just as soon as prominent avant-garde poets started storming the academyvia the acceptance of teaching positionsin the 1980s. Indeed, we might then be forced to note, too, that literary studies scholarship adopted the avant-garde during that very same period, meaning that "creative writing" spaces in the academy are nowassuming the author's claim of "appropriation" is trueeither experiencing a generative "bleeding-over" of their peers' work in literary studiesa phenomenon which would be worthy of study, if identifiable

 

JEFFREY SIDE: It seems you have misunderstood the argument of the Argotist feature. It is not about literary studies scholarship adopting the avant-garde during the 1980s but about the exclusion from scholastic study of the types of avant-garde poetry Grumman has listed.

 

SETH ABRAMSON: … or else that the avant-garde has found its way into "creative writing" via other meanswhich might suggest, to the horror of all these fellows, that there is something inherent in "creative writing" that is amenable to, susceptible to, conducive to the introduction of avant-garde poetries and poetics).

 

JEFFREY SIDE: Again, you seem obsessed with referencing creative writing in your arguments.


SETH ABRAMSON: In any case, if "the historical resonances" of the term "avant-garde" have become meaningless
per this author's contentionwe would need to say, also, that the term "establishment" (used by this author) has likewise been rendered meaningless, as the avant-garde historically used the term to denote the hegemony of the New Criticism, then once the New Criticism was gone it used it (per Bernstein) to denote Official Verse Culture (which the data now suggest did not originate in the academy), and now... well, now we've simply no idea what the term "establishment" means to these guys. Except to say that it's a murky term all of whose myriad valences we're presumed to disapprove of instantly.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: That is why I placed the word “establishment” in quotation marks in my Introduction. I’m well aware of the problematic status of the word.


SETH ABRAMSON: I'm no New Critic, but I'll note also how generally shabby a job of "close reading" avant-garde critics often do when they choose to avail themselves of the tools of their oppressors. The fellow writing the above paragraph defines "establishment"/"academy" poetry
produced by whom, and where, and when, we don't entirely know, but surely somewhere on some kind of campus at some time by somebodyas "anecdotal, descriptive or prose-like”. These three terms historically have nothing in common. "Anecdotal" poetry could well be used to describe the highly-social "walking-around" poetries of the New York School, or the literary tradition of the Black Arts Movement, unless the author means "epiphanic" poetry, in which case we're speaking of those same Romantics "mainstream" poetry has lionized and the avant-garde has merely adopted wholesale as to their theories of "creative genius".

 

JEFFREY SIDE: The questions you raise are valid, but they are not relevant to the Argotist feature under examination. I have written peer-reviewed and other articles that address them.


SETH ABRAMSON: As an anti-descriptive poet—I almost never use metaphors or similes or "describe" anything in my work, which is quite intentional (I read rather a lot of Dorn in Iowa City)—I know that those who feel otherwise could as easily claim the avant-garde Imagists as their direct predecessors as anyone else. And "prose poetry" was, of course, an avant-garde creation entirely. So the aesthetic engagement of the essay-introduction above is minimal; we might even say it's only gestural. Which would be less of a problem if the article weren't entirely grounded in a study of aesthetics.

 

JEFFREY SIDE: Again, these issues are covered by me in articles elsewhere. Just to add, I think you’ll find that the theoretical roots that evolved into the concept of prose poetry can be found in Wordsworth’s poetical theories, and was not an avant-garde creation as you assert. Among the first poets to use it as a literary device was Whitman, who was an admirer of Wordsworth.


MY INTRODUCTION: This Argotist Online feature presents Berry’s e
ssay, the responses to it from poets and academics it was first shown to, and an interview with Berry where he addresses some of the criticisms voiced in these responses. Many poets and academics (including those most famously associated with Language Poetry) were approached for their responses but declined. Other poets and academics that had initially agreed to respond ultimately declined. I mention this not as criticism but merely to explain the absence of people who one would normally expect to have responded and taken part in such a discussion.


SETH ABRAMSON: Here we encounter the old "poets and academics" canard. You know, those "academics"
the ones every other paragraph implies work in creative writing programs and are themselves working poets and not academics. Or does "the academy" now mean only literary studies programs, and we ought to presume that no one in a literary studies course could possibly be a working poeteven though almost every creative writing MFA and definitely every creative writing MA and definitely every creative writing doctoral program requires literary studies coursework from its working poets? (The last form of program even requires, too, the same preliminary examinations as English Literature doctoral candidates take.)

 

JEFFREY SIDE: Again, your obsession with creative writing and MFA degree courses has made it impossible for you to engage your critical faculties to the purpose of discussing the argument of the Argotist feature, and caused you to veer into areas that the feature is not concerned with.