The 'avant garde', 'experimentalism' in poetry, all that stuff: waste of time, yes?
Not at all. My own inclination would be that the avant-garde is where interesting stuff happens and then in due course filters back into the mainstream. Media and literature are fickle things and what is derided at the time often turns up later to surprise us: see, for instance cut-ups and collage and the 90’s phenomenon of mash-ups in music.
But the people who care about experiments in language, they don't matter, do they, in a wider society?
Who is to say what affects society? I don't know anyone who is out to ‘change the world,’ more that they are interested in language. On a personal level I've learnt that being able to be approachable and talk about my work in plain English wins over audiences.
So who actually matters when it comes to reading poetry? Why?
Anyone who is pushing boundaries. We all need amusing and entertaining, but the things that change the world are films/music/poems/novels that challenge us and make people think. On the poetry front, I for one am tired of shaggy-dog poems with a punch line. I'm far more intrigued by the big projects of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Tony Lopez and Charles Olson.
There is an implication in some circles that without experimentation coming from the margins into wider society, society would stagnate. (Well, it's an idea I put forward in classes for debate.) But a common criticism of the avant garde is that it has sometimes (e.g. Eliot, Pound, et al, pre-World War 2, or Mottram, Griffiths, et al, 1970s) taken disproportionate control of mainstream channels in order to promote minority interests, to the detriment of wider readerships. You say, "Who is to say what affects society?" but this is an example of someone taking the reins and controlling. This is bad, yes?
If people understand how language (or paint, or photography, whatever) works then they can understand a wide variety of art forms. Postmodernism suggests linear narratives & histories are an outdated construct and that lots happens simultaneously and in a network. I would agree with this notion.
I would also argue that we live in an age of more and more diversity and smaller and smaller audiences. We can do what we want and probably find an audience for it. I don't know many poets, avant-garde or not, chasing fame and fortune. They, and I count myself in this, simply want their work read – and, in the main, the internet now facilitates that process.
Society and the media manipulate and are manipulated. That seems the way of things to me. I'm inclined towards democratic anarchy and individual responsibility – the latter means I would encourage people to think for themselves and engage with life in the fullest sense, including the arts.
I don't really want to get into a Mottram and Griffiths debate again. I think the Poetry Society saga they were involved in has been blown out of all proportion by both sides. I am on record elsewhere, and am happy to be so again, saying that actually in the late 70s and early 80s the exciting poetry stuff was happening elsewhere in London anyway. I didn't expect the Poetry Society to be relevant or exciting, there was too much improvised music & film, performance poetry, postpunk music, and exciting visual arts and dance/performance theatre going on to worry about damp rooms in Earls Court, or who was controlling the duplicator in the basement.
You say "the avant garde is where the interesting stuff happens", but this is relative. If the “interesting stuff” is only interesting to a minority, then surely it is merely “stuff that interests geeks”? You point out that some stuff does cross over, like cut up and collage techniques, which implies that the geeks get left behind. Do you think geeks deserve more recognition for what they do, or should they continue to work in obscurity and let people with a better understanding of the mainstream carry their ideas across to society? And why?
Who you calling a geek? As I said in my last answer, the world has more and more small networks. I'm happy in my network[s] of readers, colleagues, friends, publishers, students and fellow writers. Human beings all have different tastes, and that's fine.
We all need entertaining at times – so sometimes I watch TV and sometimes I like funny rhyming poetry – but I can't abide people telling me they are writers when they don't understand how language works and what it can do. You don't have to like Jackson Mac Low or Charles Bernstein's poetry, but it's not incomprehensible: if you move beyond content, the poems work in the same ways that mainstream poets do. That is the work is constructed with language, with words, deliberately organised and arranged for the viewer (even if a chance procedure has been used in the writing process).
I always get my students to approach a poem with that in mind, to accept it as finished work the way the author wanted it – and to engage with how it has been made and what it might be doing, then on to content and what it says, and lastly whether or not they like it (which I'm not that interested in anyway; we're usually looking at poems to find out about poems, not the students' tastes).
And to close, a two part question about “shaggy dog poems with a punch line”: Why are you tired of them? And, given the prevalence of this kind of work in current publishing, doesn't this suggest that it has more importance to poetry's readership than you give credit for? [I'm thinking partly of Pound's loathing of 'How to write' manuals, but his feeling that there was something a student of language and writing could learn from them - but what?]
I'm confused that you think marketing and mainstream publishing has anything to do with readership? We all know the 'big' publishers don't sell a lot of poetry books apart from a few authors (Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Ted Hughes, etc). It's fashion and marketing, and I don't worry about it.
I've played some of those games in the past as a publisher, sometimes to good effect, but basically they absorb a lot of time and effort that can be better used actually publishing work and getting readers. More than ever, with print-on-demand and the internet, and the current state of the mainstream book trade, it's easier than ever to sell books and find readers. However, it's harder than ever to break the financial and fashionable strangleholds of the publishers who cling to the outdated publishing model of warehousing long print runs, and investing huge amounts of money supporting teams of staff and wining & dining competition judges. Those days are gone. Salt and Shearsman prove it – they are currently where the poetry powerhouses are.
As for why I don't like poems that are shaggy dog stories… I don't want to know answers, I want more questions. I don't want to empathise with an author, I want to be told something new. I don't want confession, polemic, opinions, wise thoughts or epiphanies. I think there are more interesting things to be said and more interesting ways to say them. That probably makes me a geek in your reference terms above, but I can honestly say I want poems to challenge, excite, confuse and astound me. Small-minded narrative squibs usually don't do any of that. I like poems I can return to time and time again; that continue to befuddle and confound, amuse and irritate me.
I really do think that works, such as The Waste Land and The Cantos, Berryman's Dream Songs, The Maximus Poems and others, last because they can't be pinned down, however many books get written about them. They continue to intrigue, because of their very ambition, complexity and language. We need more ambitious writers – whether they are revitalising a traditional form (there seems to be a spate of sonneteers around at the moment) or creating their own projects. Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Drafts project is just such an intriguing and ambitious work; Robert Sheppard's Twentieth Century Blues project also.
Rupert Loydell's latest collection of poetry, An Experiment in Navigation, will be published by Shearsman in April 2008. See also Stride Books, Stride Magazine