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  • Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics by Brian M. Reed
  • Ingo R. Stoehr
Brian M. Reed. Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2013. 248p.

Several years ago, I read an article on, if I remember correctly, French artists and scholars voting for Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” (that is, a urinal presented as art) as the most influential work of art of the twentieth century. Brian M. Reed uses the “Duchampian challenge” to our understanding of what art can be as a point of departure to preempt the need to defend the decision to discuss new avant-garde works as poetry (rather that conceptual art) and, thus, to free himself to focus on the discussion itself: “Assuming this is poetry, what does it tell us?” (46).

The business of Nobody’s Business is, after all, about poetry that is strangely “deskilled” because it relies heavily on “remediation,” that is, “the transportation of information from one medium to another” (74), as well as “sampling,” “remixing,” and other techniques inspired by contemporary technology. This type of poetry—as “post-9/11 anti-poetry” (xii)—is also an expression of its historical and political moment and, as a result, engages in a critique of, and even protest against, the inhuman politics of the New Economy. For Reed, this poetry is in the best sense “of the moment” because however “remediated” it seems, it challenges its readers to think anew about our moment in history. In this manner, this poetry is the true heir to Pound’s modernist dictum to “Make it new.”

Other types of poetry, while written at the same historical moment, fall off because their aesthetic challenges are yesterday’s challenges. In this way, most poets whom Reed includes in his list of contemporary “luminaries” (xii) are likely to produce “New Consensus” (or “hybrid”) poetry. Even Rae Armantrout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Versed (2009) with its poet’s “impeccable counter-cultural [End Page 111] credentials, deep learning, and precise craft” (123), offers only the “skillful use of once-estranging literary techniques” (145). It is in the contrast to celebrated New Consensus poetry and hyped e-poetry, as well as in the context of literary history, that Reed presents the post-9/11 anti-poetry as the real thing.

Reed’s main argument--here is the poetry that is both genuinely new and yet akin to the historical avant-garde of the early-to-mid-twentieth century--rests primarily on the following poems: in chapter 1, Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (2007), which remixes Web-derived data to “ponder[…] whether current business practices are transforming labor and the marketplace in ways that could ever be described as humane” (16); in chapter 2, Craig Dworkin’s Parse (2008), which is a rewriting of a nineteenth-century grammar handbook by replacing each actual word with the technical grammatical term for that word (but he introduces subtle and fascinating errors); in chapter 3, Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather (2005), for which Goldsmith “record[ed] radio [weather] broadcasts on tape and later transcrib[ed] them” for a year (but there is added strangeness, such as reports for 308 days instead for the whole year); in chapter 4, works by the Flarf Collective based on results from Google searches; in chapter 5, Andrea Brady’s Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (2010), an anti-Iraq-war poem that is also generated by using Web-derived data; and in chapter 6, Danny Snelson’s 1-100 #4, which reworks performances by his mentor Charles Bernstein and which is available only as an online sound file (a recording of a 2009 reading).

Of course, the old, historical avant-garde is not the twenty-first-century avantgarde. Reed works out two main differences--responding to the information flow and embracing obsolescence--which derive from obvious technological changes. This is not a superfluous or superficial observation, and it is a topic that I would like to see discussed in even more detail. Reed’s discussion is brilliant as it is, so my remark is not a criticism of his current book but a wish for future work. My...


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