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  • Relaxing the Avant-Garde:Tan Lin and the Language-Oriented Tradition
  • Mathies G. Aarhus (bio)

Of course, it goes without saying that poetry should not be difficult it should be very very easy and relaxing on a synaptic level.

—Tan Lin (2003, 17)

The legacy of Language poetry has once again spurred a heated debate—this time primarily unfolding on the Internet. In her recent polemic against The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Marjorie Perloff criticizes the editor and publishing house for excluding several important American experimental poets, including Language-oriented poets such as Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein. For Perloff, this anthology is a symptom of the triumph of creative-writing workshops and “the delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech” (2012) that continues to dominate the poetry establishment even though Language poetry, already by the 1970s, had presented a serious challenge to its whole foundation. Conceptual poetry, carrying the torch of appropriation, is seen as the legitimate heir to the avant-garde tradition and the necessary antidote to workshop poetry’s predictable emotional manipulations.

Setting aside the question of whether or not Perloff’s critique is reasonable, her whole project of canonizing the avant-garde contains a bit of a paradox. As Perloff herself has often pointed out, the pathos and impact of avant-garde groups must be seen in accordance to the specific art institution they stood in opposition to. If we consider early Language poetry as an avant-garde movement, in Peter Bürger’s sense of the word, we must consider its poetry not so much in accordance with a universal idea about lyric poetry (and what this genre might necessarily entail) but more as an attack on the historically contingent “institution of art.”

Perloff’s plea to canonize the avant-garde, thus, touches upon an often discussed term in relation to the avant-garde: recuperation. That is, if we canonize appropriation, as Perloff seems to be arguing for, would we not at the same time be disarming it as a political interventionist strategy? Such recuperation is, of course, what Peter Bürger saw as the failings of the [End Page 293] neo-avant-garde, because it institutionalized the anti-institutional art practices of the avant-garde. In repeating the gestures of the historical avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde only served to disarm the avant-garde’s critical mandate by recuperating it into the very same institution it had initially attacked. In this sense, if Perloff’s polemic is intended to include the post-WWII avant-garde into the canon of American poetry, then this canonization would stand in opposition to the avant-garde’s initial institutional critique. Perloff, of course, is well aware of this dilemma (“by definition, an “avant-garde mandate” is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it” [Perloff 2012]), but she does not seem to be especially concerned with questions about the politics of art.

Perloff speaks of conceptual poetry not in the terms that a revolutionary avant-gardist would but in terms of its alleged realism. This becomes clear in her closing remarks: “Increasingly, the ‘true voice of feeling’ is the one you discover with an inspired, if sometimes accidental click” (Perloff 2012). In a world dominated by the Internet and visually pleasing Web 2.0 interfaces, feelings are no longer to be found in the depths of subjectivity but on the surface of the screen. Appropriation turns out to be preferred not as an oppositional gesture but rather as a realistic portrayal of our new media reality. As a result, it is clear that Perloff is not putting in a “mandate for the avant-garde,” understood in the Bürgerian sense, at all. On the contrary, her polemic is celebrating a more experimental realism, extending the modernist tradition.

Of course, as times change so must categories such as realism, lyric poetry and the avant-garde. Not only has the institution of art changed since the context of early Language poetry, but, moreover, the structures of everyday language have changed as well.

In his seminal work, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes the Internet as a specific organizational network that...


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pp. 293-307
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