Adam Fieled
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Pleasures of the Post-Avant Text


Much post-avant poetry adheres to the dictum prescribed by William Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that works of art (poetic or otherwise) be purposeful. More often than not, post-avant poems bear the weight of strong moral, political, social, and aesthetic convictions as to what constitutes responsibly forward-thinking poesy. Convictions create purpose, purpose creates structure, and structure creates meaning. A nexus of interrelationships is created wherein conviction, purpose, structure and meaning cleave together, chafe, or work out a kind of text-driven bargain. Part of this bargain must be the consideration of an assumed audience, who may or may not share the convictions that inform the poem’s sensibility. The poem, if it is to skirt the abyss of solipsism, must enact a “reaching out”, whether through purely formal or other constitutive elements. It must give pleasure, whether the pleasure is built into the poem’s structure (i.e. through melopoeic craftsmanship, heightened/poetic diction, etc.) or if it resides in the implicit or explicit convictions that inform the poem’s “purposeful” ethos. Thus, fully realized post-avant poetry can lay claim to a greater completeness (beyond considerations of purpose) than most other forms of poetry, as the ambition (to fulfill conviction, purpose, structure, meaning, and the poetic pleasure principle) is extensive and unsparing.

Yet pleasure is, has been, and may always be the hardest part of the “text-driven bargain” for post-avant poetry to fulfill. This remains so because often the conviction driving the text is that conventional pleasure-giving forms and characterizations (the “epiphanic I”, the poet-as-universal-truth bearer, etc.) must be subverted, re-contextualized, or done away with all together. The post-avant poem is as much a reaction against something as it is a movement towards an imagined ideal (and, ironically, “imagined ideals” are often being rebelled against too). So how does pleasure get into the text? Where does the “text-driven bargain” stop, and the joy of “pure textuality” infuse the work? Obviously, a simple answer would be inappropriate. It may be instructive, however, to look at a sample from the work of Rae Armantrout, a leading post-avant poet whose constructs successfully and somewhat miraculously manage to fulfill all parts of post-avant’s text-driven bargain without sacrificing one ounce of pure pleasure.

Armantrout achieves this balance through a kind of ambivalent eroticism. That is, her poems “tease” the reader with flashes of narrative and representational imagery, then withdraw before a complete narrative or representational enactment is shown. Armantrout's procedure brings to mind a passage from Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text, which I quote here in part:

“it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly
stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin
flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers
and sweater), between two edges (the open-
necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is
this flash itself which seduces, or rather:
the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.”

“Intermittence”, in the context of a discursive analysis of Armantrout’s work, would refer to the elements that are overt and assumed as “givens” in Centrist poetry: narrative, characterization, imagery, candor, emotional resonances, mythological or other kinds of metaphor, elevated diction, controlled syntax, etc. Armantrout offers “shadows”, “hints”, “flashes” of these things, and the pleasure we take from her poems is the novel combinations she creates, in what might be called “shadow plays”. These entail formal and thematic elements vying for center stage, only to find that the poem’s “center” is precisely a “no-center”. This isn’t to imply a lack of focus, but that the focus is on creating a series of signifiers and “signifying hints” that leave the field fundamentally open for myriad interpretations, rather than “closing” the text through “prompts” that more or less tell us what to think and feel about it (a common syndrome in Centrist work). A prime example would be “Precedence”, title poem of a book released in 1985:

“The dead boy
was found
clasping, “wrapped around”
a tree,
one chosen in a
roiling wilderness,
the urgent dream
where love gives way to rescue.
Or rescue to love.”

What is the “shadow play” being enacted here? How and why is pleasure given? Rather than try and “close” the text by offering an authoritative interpretation, it might be better simply to offer a few interpretative vistas down which a reader may wander. Armantrout drops in the narrative hint or shadow quickly, without much fuss. A vignette is presented which at first glance seems commonplace: a dead boy, a hint of the pastoral. What seems “closed”, however, quickly opens up, owing to a sort of Surrealist jolt that arrives when we realize how unusual it would be for a corpse to be “wrapped around” a tree. So we get representation, but it’s skewered and inconclusive, and the narrative “wrapped around” the representational imagery seems equally inconclusive.

The pleasure in this scenario resides, in part, in noticing how much information Armantrout packs into a very few words, how a “text-efficacy” is achieved seemingly without strain and with complete control. Everything in this poem is “appearance-as-disappearance”: the boy, the tree, the dream. All are subject to the same skewered sensibility, further enhanced (and also complicated) by the poem’s title: “Precedence”. What, exactly, does this poem precede, and what precedes this poem? One could take the stance that the boy in the poem is a metaphor for the atomized, isolated, autonomous Romantic verse-maker (certainly, on one level, a precedent to today’s post-avantist) “dying of love”. On a slight tangent to this would be an interpretation of the poem as an answer to Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, which also involves a young man, a “roiling wilderness”, an “urgent dream”, and the death of love. If one looks at the substantive elements of the poem’s structure (boy, tree, wilderness, dream, love, rescue), they do seem very Romantic. But of course this is an implied third person narrative, rather than a first person narrative, which would be the Romantic convention (just as a side note, it’s interesting to remember that Keats’ poem is also slightly skewered, in the sense that it veers from a second to a first person narrative focus). Furthermore, Armantrout is fastidiously careful to offer nothing “personal” as such, but only glimpses of an “anti-visionary vision” (i.e. a dreamscape unburdened with idealizations, sentiments, or any other signifiers of poetic epiphany). Thus, the poem could be a critique of the Romantic, an allegory of the limitations of the Romantic, or a loving remembrance of a bygone (“preceding”) era. It could also be a hundred other things; the aesthetic at work here seems utterly “meta” (i.e. inhabiting many different levels simultaneously, including a possible self-referential one).

It is interesting to note that the designations we use for Armantrout’s sensibility (skewered, inconclusive, anti-visionary, impersonal, etc.) don’t seem conventionally “attractive”, or likely to give pleasure in the normative poetic/poetical fashion. For Roland Barthes, “perversion…is the realm of textual pleasure”, and indeed it would seem that the composition and enjoyment of this poem could be a “collaboration in perversity”. In other words, our pleasure here is an unusual kind of pleasure: the pleasure of accesses only half-granted, “intermittence” elevated from the physically arousing to the intellectual arousals of art. We remember that the victim presented in “Precedence” is a boy, not a man; is this child (that, perhaps, wants “full access”, “wholesome” pleasure) a part of our nature that has to die for us to grow up? Is this the last gasp of the Romantic hero wryly satirized? For those engaged in the purposeful struggle against cliché, complacency, orthodoxy, and catechistic worship of old tropes, these are deeply pleasurable questions, engaging as they do our convictions, purposes, structures, and meanings. “Precedence” can be seen from many angles, this is just one; nevertheless, it is an angle in which much remains to approach, handle, examine, and savor.