- The Question of Race in the American Avant-Garde
In his study Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965, Timothy Yu analyzes how the American definition of the literary avant-garde was transformed in the sixties and seventies when social justice movements began to undo white dominance by demanding political equality and calling attention to the fact that cultural productions such as literature could justify and reinforce racial inequalities. Yu's particular focus is on the emergence of Language and Asian American poetry, as both reflected in and engaged with the political upheaval of the sixties and seventies, albeit in different ways. Race and the Avant-Garde centers upon the following claim: both Language and Asian American poetry qualify as avant-gardes, as they "see poetry as a revolutionary practice," but they also have expanded the definitions and contours of the category (2). The change hinges on race, and in particular on the avant-garde's historical exclusion of those deemed to embody racial difference by Euro-American culture. Yu shows how Asian American poets expanded the avant-garde to include the antiracist critique at the core of Asian American political movements. In turn, the Language poets responded to what many perceived as a fracturing of the left through identity politics by constituting themselves in racialized [End Page 831] terms. As Yu writes, "central to both is a surprisingly acute sense of how race can inflect aesthetics, and of the relations of power that racial difference creates among contemporaneous avant-gardes" (2).
Yu draws on Renato Poggioli's theorizations of the avant-garde as a sociological construct rather than an aesthetic movement to make the argument that race became a key factor in the construction of both Language and Asian American poetry. In The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Poggioli detaches the avant-garde from aesthetics and describes it instead as a small society congealed through dissatisfaction with popular culture and therefore detached from society at large.1 For Yu, Poggioli's idea that the avant-garde is a particular and socially constructed group aligns with the fabrication of an Asian racial identity from an array of distinct cultures: "The Asian American artist, like the avant-gardist, puts forward a tendentious argument for cultural particularity—invents a culture—both as a means of organizing a specific artistic community and as a means of critiquing the larger culture" (6). This argument sidesteps the role American racism has played in the construction of Asian American identity and the force it wields in economic, psychic, and cultural life. In other words, Race and the Avant-Garde does not acknowledge the real differences between having an "acute sense of how race can inflect aesthetics" because one has been interpellated as "Asian" by American culture and confronting the fact that the implicit whiteness of American literary culture and left politics has come under serious scrutiny. At the same time, by placing Language and Asian American poetries in conversation with each other, Yu's study greatly expands established understandings of both literary movements and performs crucial work recasting the categories through which we read and understand contemporary American poetry.
The first chapter of Race and the Avant-Garde is devoted to the work of Allen Ginsberg, as it raises important issues about politics, community, and poetic form that became central to the formation of Language poetry. It is well-known that the political claims Ginsberg made for poetry unleashed it from New Critical orthodoxy so that it could engage with and reflect the counterculture movement. [End Page 832] Yu brings nuance to this truism by analyzing the distinction between "Howl" (1956) and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (1966), which present very different understandings of poetry's relationship to political particularities and universals. From a particular location and community, "Howl" suggests universality and utopian vision. By contrast, "Wichita Vortex Sutra" seeks to directly—and polemically—transmit its message to a universal audience. As Yu writes, "'Howl' depends for its effect on its portrayal of...