The Second Avante Garde Wave

The 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 1300’s that brought proportion back into the world of art went through multiple phases until it exhausted itself in the 1800’s. 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. Stravinsky’s 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 on.

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. Whitman’s total poetry and Blake’s 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 language’s 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 ones.

Harvest 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 Kerouac’s 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 centuries—all 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 language’s 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 garde’s reach. The old was pushed further outward and inward.

1. 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 past.

2. Poetry’s boundaries dissolved with other arts and the poet became central to this.

3. Experiments with dream-work and altered states of consciousness made language into an instrument of vision. Drugs and meditation entered the fray.

4. Poetry was still performance.

5. There were language experiments with sound and typography in an attempt to develop a non-syntactic and non-referential poetry.

6. Spoken language and prose became an instrument of poetry with an exploration of previously suppressed languages.

7. Free verse and poetry was left raw and unfinished.

8. There was a broadening of cultural terrains directed by the sense of an ancient and often surviving subterranean tradition with poetry as its center.

9. There was an attack on high culture and an exploration into ethnic, gender and class identities.

10. 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.

11. There was an exodus from ideologues towards an openness and freedom of expression on a world-wide scale.

12. Poetry became a struggle to save the wild places of the world and the mind. Indeed, poets and poetry were seen as an endangered species.

13. There was still the same sense of excitement and play in the new poetry and prose.

14. The life of each poet was now connected to the larger human fate in a vast array of speculative poetics.

Modern 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.

All contents of this site © Finberg Books by Michael Arthur Finberg