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"Purity" and the "Avant-Garde"


The Boston Review has been publishing a series of articles on “Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde.” Many of the pieces have taken to task “conceptual” poets like Kenneth Goldsmith. The latest salvo comes from poet John Yau:

I am sick of the term “avant-garde,” a European invention that has been presided over and refined by white critics since the French banker, mathematician, and social reformer Olinde Rodrigues first used the term in 1825. Contemporary discussions about the artistic avant-garde seldom address race because the term has come to be a force for maintaining pedigree, establishing lineage and bloodlines—bloodlines largely presided over by supervisors and administrators: those individuals who control access to the descriptor “avant-garde,” and determine the reception of poetic works through publication, reviewing, and public readings.

Most recently, the ideal of avant-garde poetry has become tangled up with another term: post-identity writing. According to the Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith: “Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.” In 2008, he summarized Marjorie Perloff’s keynote address for the Tuscon, Arizona Conceptual Poetry Conference, writing that she “questioned the values of a poetics based on identity in a time when neither phone numbers nor email addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located, nor does an email address provide vital statistics about its possessor; when an AOL or Yahoo address, for example, reveals neither nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age—and often not even gender.” If such marks of identity are now passé, then why did the 2010 Arizona legislature find them so dangerous as to require prohibition? Law HB 2281 bans public school courses that, among other things, “advocate ethnic solidarity,” including, for example, Mexican American Literature.

Visit the Boston Review website to read the rest of Yau’s piece.

Above image: Kenneth Goldsmith