Anarchism and the Experiment / Introduction

Anarchism and the Experiment: What is an experimental poem?

It is important at this juncture to define the parameters of the experimental poem for my work. I have opted for the term “experimental”[i] over the term “avant-garde”[ii] for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the military connotation of the latter. I also employ Graeber’s skepticism of vanguardism, which is, I should add, also a poststructuralist concern[iii]. As such, the texts I read in this project, texts that I maintain are experimental, share not only an anti-traditional poetics, but a poetics that resists the vanguardism that marks many of the movements of the literary avant-garde outlined here. These texts avoid vanguardism’s hierarchical nature in favour of a more egalitarian relationship between the reader and the writer – and between texts themselves – by complicating the role of the author (through, for example, chance or indeterminate operations, “plagiarism” or copying, direct or collaborative engagement with the reader, &c) and demonstrating an interest in the commonality of language. In light of this, any definition of the experiment is nebulous, a compendium of ideas that forms a collaborative series of suggestions rather than a prescriptive map of what the experimental poem should be. I include these criteria only to gesture toward a theory of the poetic experiment.

  1. Artifice: The experimental text is concerned with exposing and/or foregrounding artifice, as Charles Bernstein writes in “Artifice of Absorption” (A Poetics, 1992). Bernstein argues here that a poem’s meaning is located in a “complex” (9), wherein the artifice opposes the realism and mimesis often attributed to conventional texts (and especially to the lyrical poem). Artifice, which also includes “nonsemantic” effects (11), is necessarily part of a poem’s “meaning.” This is to say that a poem’s form is meaningful in and of itself, rather than simply contributing to an overall meaning, or enforcing the meaning of the poem’s content (10). As such, radically experimental form in poetry threatens to negate (or, at least complicate) semantic meaning in the same way that the reverse can be true for traditional verse (15).
  2. Open: The experimental text is never exhausted or exhaustive, and its production is a constant revisionary practice. As made famous in Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure” (1985), the experimental text refuses the “smug pretension of universality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth” (2). Closed texts, for Hejinian, maintain a stratified position for text and author, enforcing a single interpretation, and shutting out their readers from the process of their production. An experimental text then, as a text that resists closure, leaves itself open to multiple readings because of gaps in the text left to be filled by the reader. This notion of the closed text is also famously critiqued as fallacy by Roland Barthes, as I will discuss shortly.
  3. Chance: The experimental author leaves him/herself open to the intervening forces of chance, indeterminacy, improvisation, or spontaneity. This includes collaborative inclusion of the reader or other participants, as well as uncreative or Oulipian modes of writing that leave the writing process (in part or whole) up to external procedures. This element recalls the scientific meaning of the term “experiment,” wherein the parameters of the project are set, but the role of the initiator is severely limited regarding the final result[iv]. Jackson Mac Low argues that leaving oneself open to chance in the production of experimental texts is a necessarily anarchic political decision; it reproduces an anarchic “state of society wherein there is no frozen power structure, where all persons may make significant initiatory choices in regard to matters affecting their own lives” (“Statement” 384). In other words, the initiator of these procedures anarchically refuses authoritative authorial control over the production of his/her poem, and thus relinquishes power over the final product.
  4. Politic: The experimental text is political. What Bernstein, Hejinian, and Mac Low all suggest in their aforementioned manifestos is that formal manipulation in poetry is a necessarily political (anti-traditional, anti-authoritarian) act that seeks to disturb, amongst other things, the organizing and thus limiting principles of overcoding inherent in language. This is made most apparent in John Cage’s frequent references “to N[orman] O. Brown’s remark that syntax is the arrangement of the army” and Cage’s subsequent “devot[ion] to nonsyntactical ‘demilitarized’ language” (Writing Through Finnegans Wake 1). For Cage, the experimental poem is a way out of this militarization, a way not to resist, but to refuse; as he suggests in Silence, we need a new language in order to have new ideas (203).

I should also add that, in the vein of Bey’s definitions of the TAZ, the experiment must also be defined by what it does not do. The only concern here is that the experimental text does not reify, rely on, or relish the individual as author. This runs in direct contradiction to John Ashbery’s definition of the experimental avant-garde in his 1968 Yale lecture, “The Invisible Avant-Garde.” Here, Ashbery argues that the very existence of his lecture proves that the avant-garde has become “stratified” (394), insisting that the primacy of anti-traditionalism in the avant-garde has created another tradition that eventually subsumes the individual prowess of the author. In the end, he tellingly laments: “has tradition finally managed to absorb the individual talent?” (397). Recalling Eliot’s famous treatise on the subject, Ashbery maintains that the real avant-garde is the individual; it is not a school, genre, or group, but rather a personal refusal[v]. I maintain that while Ashbery’s privileging of the individual, monadic author is indeed a marker of the avant-garde, it is also the antithesis of the experiment, which embraces the influence of tradition, the mutability of the writing subject, and the collaborative nature of the processes of reading and writing[vi].


[i] And here I define the experimental, first and foremost, as a matter of formal innovation. In this way, the experimental text is one that does not discount or ignore innovation in terms of content, but that necessarily ties innovative content to the creation of new, alternative forms of expression.

[ii] The terms themselves are clearly etymologically linked. As the OED notes, “vanguard” is “avant-garde”’s contemporary aphetic.

[iii] Poststructuralism has long been concerned with critiquing the vanguardist nature of resistance or oppositional movements. See, for example, Paul Bové’s foreword to Deleuze’s Foucault: “Deleuze emphasises that Foucault’s sense of the diffusion of power is a challenge not only to Statist theories but also to theories of the oppositional or vanguard party” (xxix).

[iv] And yet, it should be noted that, despite indeterminacy’s indebtedness to the scientific meanings of “experiment,” its end-goal is markedly different. The scientific experiment seeks category, system, hierarchy, and Truth (bolstered by juridical, medical, logical, and scientific discourses); the experimental poem seeks to disrupt these methods of overcoding.

[v] While I refute Ashbery’s notion here, I do want to make note of the fact that Ashbery holds this very true for his own work, and this is the primary reason why his poetry has proven so difficult to classify in terms of experimental school/genre.

[vi] It is important to note that, at some point in the scholarship surrounding them, each of the authors studied in this project have, in some cases mistakenly, been described as a part of the avant-garde. While I will expand on these distinction on a text-by-text basis in the plateaus on each piece, I should now note that ascribing an author a position in the literary vanguard is a political choice that runs counter to the explicitly anti-vanguardist stance of postanarchism as a reading practice.

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