Second Avante Garde Wave
Ok, before I focus on the second literary avante garde wave
which began after World War Two, I want to briefly touch on
developments in painting and music in the earlier part of the
century to show how all the arts marched into unchartered territory
together. How they influenced each other in their surge away
from Newtonian linear, mechanistic world of linear proportions.
Indeed, modern art began to rebel against the Newtonian machine
even before it began to collapse. The big break up that was
coming began to release underground energies that heralded the
coming of a deeper new psychic age. One which is still barely
understood because we are too close to its starting point. It
is an age of fractal geometries. Not Euclidian ones.
All modern art was an art of alternative realities. Different
meanings were mined in a new multiplicity that became part of
the message itself. It was a psychic brinksmenship that hinted
of a new regeneration even in the midst of the explosive chaos
that the modern age had brought. It was a Giotto kind of moment.
This medieval avante garde in the 1300s that brought proportion
back into the world of art went through multiple phases until
it exhausted itself in the 1800s. The age of Picasso,
Joyce, and Stravinsky is also going through multiple phases
and is nowhere near close to exhaustion. If anything modern
culture has still yet to absorb its full impact.
Impressionism in painting emphasized a transient reality over
a stable one. Also a subjective spontaneity and an immediacy
of vision. It was lightning painting with broken color techniques.
Quantum mechanics had already destroyed any idea of an objective
reality even as the machine age began to self-destruct independently
of this scientific revolution in perception. Violent and accelerated
mechanized death had been the main shock of the 20th century
and the arts began to reflect this in an extreme way. This trauma
forced artists to transcend the shock by seeing the transient
nature of life in an almost Zen like way.
The fixed temporal rhythms of the machine were being challenged
even as it was speeding up and hitting a brick wall. The very
speed of the machine age was blurring its precise outlines.
This is still going on now. Art needed to find a less confined
space. Visual and musical explorations led to bigger ranges
of perception. More mind was at play on more levels. Artist
looked for a way out of the chaos of the industrial age by seeing
things from multiple angles. Thus expanding the vision of the
dissolving civilization. It was a survival strategy. Technological
advances were no longer a guarantee of political and social
progress. Rationalism was discredited. Free association was
now welcome. Verbal, visual, and musical accidents were exploited
sometimes to the point of incoherence in a search for newer
kinds of logic. Radical collage was the new game in town and
it had its own mysterious rules.
Wagner abandoned the home key and with it any safe harbor for
the musician to return to. An endless thread of melody with
a limitless range of keys was the order of the day. Single tones
were stretched to the breaking point. Charles Ives experimented
with multiple rhythms and cross harmonies. Stravinskys
rhythms were complex and asymmetrical. Jazz and its syncopated
rhythms became not just popular entertainment harnessed by the
factory world to keep the worker drones in place, but also a
complex form of sonic meditation. Rock was born out of this
musical mutation and also evolved into new kinds of art forms
before becoming commercialized. John Cage would question the
very nature of sound itself by experimenting with ambient sounds
and their chance selection.
Modern art was turning into a wild meditation as it searched
for new kinds of freedoms from the dying speed machine from
which it came out of. This difficult process is still going
The Second World War had destroyed the first avante garde. The
new one forming in America was reacting to the Pax Americana
which was no pax at all, but a low burning form of World War
Three along with accelerating ecological disasters. Poets and
artists continued to experiment in the name of human survival.
Western civilization was attacked aswell as western literature.
Free verse was under siege as a capitalist form of artistic
realism came to dominate the American consumer scene.
A realism that hid the terrors of the atomic age. Academic critics
endorsed an attack on free verse and new artists began to once
more question all poetry at is very root.
A post-war counter-poetics was looming from many directions
and modernism was resuscitated in the nick of time. The post-war
generation started with the bomb as its baseline. The post-bomb,
post-holocaust era was the new starting point for poets. Both
the past and the present were once more called into question.
The military-industrial complex was firmly rejected along with
its Newtonian/Cartesian roots.
Poems were allowed to freely move between spoken and literary
modes as old and new varieties of free verse and free words
were explored. The rebellion against a completely sensate civilization
was continuing. But it was also an opening to more popular modes
and voices. Submerged dialects and ideolects became new-old
vehicles for poetry. Whitmans total poetry and Blakes
visionary language began to bloom in the American post-war era.
There was an open and unlimited vocabulary where all subjects/themes
were still possible. The most demeaned, exhalted, and commonplace.
Also the learned, mystical and, historical, from the present
into the past and future. It was a persistent questioning of
languages relation to any experience whatsoever, to any
reality, even to that of language itself.
The post-war ideal was to throw all bad things down and restore
life as the poet became both seer and chronicler. The big change
with the post-war avante garde generation which has influenced
my own work quite a bit was when old avante garde techniques
were aligned with formerly suppressed religious and cultural
forms: Shamanism, Tantricsm, Sufism, kabbalah, and Peyotism.
The poet became the hero and sacrificial figure in defense of
the planetary tribe and even unseen ones connected to the seen
and Two Short stories takes this literary evolution as its own
baseline. The monastic and sadhu experience goes beyond what
the Beats pioneered, but it has its cultural roots there especially
with Allen Ginsberg who turned Kerouacs American travels
into a global form of pilgrimage. It was a haphazard adventure,
but it was a new start to be sure.
In the new avante garde wave classical, romantic, material,
and spiritual forces were further fused. A poetry of displacements
and dreamings was fused with the familiar here and now. Real
life and concrete things with proper names and precise details
and exact data, statistics, facts, and quotations were thrown
into the fray. Mini-poems and long poems were explored. Minimal
and maximal works were created using the entire poetic tool-box
that had been created through the centuriesall to explore
the urgency of the historical present. Investigative poetry
became a kind of political resistance on a world-wide scale
as western, eastern, and shamanic heritages were mined and utilized.
The new avante garde reflected the tension between individual
and communal extremes: Kerouac and Pound were like bookends.
Chance and choice experiments allowed poetry to write itself
and invite more of the world to enter the poetry. Twists with
collage and language centered experiments was the norm. The
scattered and casual breakthroughs of the first avante garde
took new directions with the second and became the central work
with the new wave of poets and writers in many other countries.
Not just in the west.
There was a renewed focus on languages role in shaping
the perception of reality. But language was also a trap the
poet had to break out of. It was a process of in investigating
the laws and limits of language and breaking those limits deliberately.
It was about playing variations on language as discovered in
a vast range of cultural and linguistic contexts. The key word
here is range. Broader cultural horizons were being fused as
space and time were being destroyed in the new global village.
This process was also not always completely benevolent. Cambodia
and Bosnia are good examples.
Language was seen as both familiar and uncanny. It was a mediumship
which could be ambiguous and awesome. The second avante garde
extended the old vante gardes reach. The old was pushed
further outward and inward.
There was exploration of new forms of language, consciousness,
and social/biological relationships both by deliberate experimentation
in the present and by re-interpretation of the entire human
Poetrys boundaries dissolved with other arts and the poet
became central to this.
Experiments with dream-work and altered states of consciousness
made language into an instrument of vision. Drugs and meditation
entered the fray.
Poetry was still performance.
There were language experiments with sound and typography in
an attempt to develop a non-syntactic and non-referential poetry.
Spoken language and prose became an instrument of poetry with
an exploration of previously suppressed languages.
Free verse and poetry was left raw and unfinished.
There was a broadening of cultural terrains directed by the
sense of an ancient and often surviving subterranean tradition
with poetry as its center.
There was an attack on high culture and an exploration into
ethnic, gender and class identities.
There was move towards a new global nomadism An inter-cultural
poetics that broke both boundaries and definitions of self and
of nations and this became a source of latent creative power.
There was an exodus from ideologues towards an openness and
freedom of expression on a world-wide scale.
Poetry became a struggle to save the wild places of the world
and the mind. Indeed, poets and poetry were seen as an endangered
There was still the same sense of excitement and play in the
new poetry and prose.
The life of each poet was now connected to the larger human
fate in a vast array of speculative poetics.
American poetics was closely allied to modern jazz and abstract-expressionist
painting. American poetry was also part of a larger global awakening.
It was a poetry from ALL DIRECTIONS. It was both rich and unbounded.
It was a rupture with the past or a renewal of the interrupted
ruptures of the first avante garde wave. It was a strange merging
of art and life, of intermedia, of ironic relation to the products
of a sleep-walking consumer culture.
Today in the early 21st century this is where we are now. A
third avante garde wave is beginning in the shadows of the post-cold
war world. Asia is going nuclear and Islam has violently attacked
the west. We are all caught between a rapidly developing technology
and a resurging economic conservatism that is threatening to
become political and cultural aswell. The core conflicts at
the beginning of the 20th and 21st centuries are basically still
the same. The global mind is being born out of the ruins of
the industrial machine. The wiring of the planet is accelerating
the global dissonace of enforced cultural encounters while nuclear
and ecological disaster still loom over the horizon. Poetry
is still an instrument of transformation and redemption. Poets
need to arouse humankind and to finally sing songs beyond it.