- Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics by Brian M. Reed
Marketed by the Cornell University Press as “the first book to treat the emergence of Flarf and Conceptual Poetry in a serious way,” Nobody’s Business is Brian M. Reed’s attempt to develop an approach to reading what he characterizes as the “twenty-first century avant-garde.” Reed’s thesis is that the poetic avant-garde is alive and well in “post-9/11 anti-poetry.” He defines the avant-garde against the traditions of the “revered poets,” such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “language heightened” or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order” (xii). Rather than prizing erudition, the recognized avant-gardes of modernism in the 1920s and Language poetry in the ‘70s and ‘80s, respectively, wrote against established structures and expressed leftist politics in an era of Cold War accommodation. Therefore, what is at stake for Reed is contemporary poetry’s ability to be political and to resist hegemonic forms. He identifies a set of poetics that has been accused of being empty of significance and he claims that through a properly contextualized reading, the adventurous aesthetics of what seems to be “unintelligible and irksome” contemporary poetry actually serve radical political ends (161). By recuperating this poetry as a new avant-garde, he refutes claims that the canonization of previous avant-gardes signals the end of oppositional writing. Instead, for Reed, the new avant-garde affirms the continued political possibilities of language.
Reed’s preface frames Nobody’s Business as a conversion narrative. As a young professor in the early 2000s, he had been scornful of the ugly new poetry that was trendy among his students. The book that follows provides the reasons for his conversion. Over time, with sustained engagement, Reed came to understand that “the radical gestures of negation that most irritated [him] about post-9/11 anti-poetry—its blank indifference to literary history, its scorn for conventional markers of craft, and its [End Page 195] disdain for polish and perfection—were in fact the very attributes” that make twenty-first century avant-garde poetics urgent, significant, and appealing (xii). He persuasively argues that “blank indifference” is actually a misinterpretation of this poetry’s calculated attacks against the socioeconomic status quo and the institutional domestication of literature. In case studies, Reed reads many twenty-first century avant-garde poets with, against, and alongside more recognized poets and artists, to prove that the new avant-garde is in fact strongly connected to literary history. The canonical figure of William Wordsworth, for example, is used in chapter one to situate Rachel Zolf’s use of corporate language and to understand the Flarfists’ turn to Internet-speak in chapter four, while the domesticated modernist Ezra Pound recurs as a foil, especially in chapter five. The radical ends sought by these poets are revamped through new means more pertinent to the twenty-first century avant-gardists in their own time. Other ways that Reed uses major figures include tracing the influence of modernist pioneer Gertrude Stein, alluding to the questions asked by conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, and comparing and contrasting contemporary avant-garde poets to prominent Language poets such as Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, and Barrett Watten.
These references establish a poetic lineage as well as bolster Reed’s argument that the new avant-garde should be contextualized in its own social moment, rather than be expected to replicate exactly what previous avant-gardes did. Both similarities and differences to previous avant-gardes should be understood as a result of changing social concerns. Stripped to its essence in this way, Reed’s thesis may not sound particularly original; it is the same traditional argument used to understand oppositional art in general. What makes his deployment of it interesting is how he applies it to a body of literature whose capacity to be oppositional at all has been called into question. In chapter two, Reed convincingly criticizes those who interpret the rising popularity of hybrid poetry...