- Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian-American Poetry Since 1965
"Race and the avant-garde have been linked since the dawn of the twentieth century" commences Timothy Yu's ingenious Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian-American Poetry since 1965 (1). In his exhaustive study, Yu delineates the political and social upheaval that defined the 1960s American climate to probe two social groups, Asian Americans and Experimentalists, that emerged from the turmoil to create synchronous aesthetic movements that redefined the avant-garde and American poetry. Since their inception four decades ago, both groups have altered and reformalized their sui generis [End Page 210] methods while emending who warrants inclusion into their poetic schools. Specifically, Yu demonstrates the modus in which Asian American poets and Experimentalists egressed as indeterminate poetic groups that adhered to avant-gardist standards by elucidating their social demarcation.
One of the most turbulent debates of the 1960s was the anti-Vietnam War movement, which served as a major catalyst in the Language poetry revolution. Chapter 1 of Yu's study examines Allen Ginsberg, an original pioneer of the avant-garde style, and his poem "Howl," which politicized the usually aesthetic genre. By focusing principally on a point in history and crafting the work from a nonconformist perspective, "Howl" defies traditional poetics by suggesting that vision cannot truly embody universalities. Yu's inspection of "Howl" reveals that the poem's platform relies on the cognizance of the protesters who evolved as social "outsiders" who challenged the supererogatory conflict. The idiosyncrasies of discontent are imparted mainly in Ginsberg's phraseology. In the spirit of Language poetry, Ginsberg applies fractured language and imagery to actively involve the "conscious" reader "who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge that actually happened and walked / away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown / soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even on free beer" (30). Yu informs the reader that although Ginsberg subsumes individualist constructions, he recognizes that inspiration is derived from the situation of the group in which one is a member. Ginsberg's apperception, according to this study, establishes the foundation for the Experimental poetry movement.
Yu continues Race and the Avant-Garde by investigating the work of a divergent Language innovator, Ron Silliman, who was sonorously influenced by Allen Ginsberg's style of literary recording. Conversely, Silliman's employment of formalistic modus operandi transformed the Language intendment from person in relation to his outside influences, as was the case with Ginsberg, to the collective experiences as the subject of the poetics. Yu exposes that this catalyst forced Silliman into a "much greater awareness of the location and the limits of his own perspective" (38). But the avant-garde is a movement outside of the mainstream, so the repositioning of Language poetry brought a characterization of the social grouping of its artists as well as the consciousness of other social dimensions within the environment in which the poetry originated. Whereas Ginsberg's focus lay in the anti-Vietnam movement, social revolutions, including the Women's Rights Movements and the African American Civil Rights Movements, were concurrently stirring. Yu divulges that Silliman exploited those happening to differentiate his writing. His embrace and utilization of the distinctiveness of "others" to influence his poetry served as a means of denoting Language poets just as there existed women and gay/lesbian poets.
In the opening chapter of Race and the Avant-Garde, Yu asserts that race and the avant-garde are incontrovertibly linked, yet Language poets, who subscribed to the aesthetic and social requirements of the avant-garde, appeared racially and sexually exclusive. Silliman argues that the "social codes" that barred women, homosexual, and ethnic minority writers also dictated Language poets as they aesthetically diverged from other social groups. Yu comments: "This formulation . . . can be and has been interpreted in at least two ways: as an honest, descriptive assessment of the historical and personal forces that seem to have given rise to Language writing . . . or as an exclusionary, prescriptive formula that suggests women and minorities do not or cannot engage...