Years ago, a relatively well-known, now relatively well-forgotten, poet came to a reading I was a part of. I don’t remember the venue but it had squirrels or rats running in cages around the walls and was so cold it was hard to leaf through the poems, so I just dropped them one by one as I finished them. For a while it became a pretentious habit, especially if I’d forgotten my reading glasses, so was ad-libbing a bit.
Afterwards the poet, whom we knew when he was young and aspiring, said: “I thought I’d come to see what the avant-garde were up to.” A put-down, or compliment? It didn’t matter much. We bought him a beer or two and he made his excuses before buying his round.
We’re all old now. Why remember this? Because last week, somebody read my longer poems on this site and said: “Complicated but I couldn’t stop reading. So avant garde.” What’s it mean, this label? Literally, obviously, it’s French for Advance Guard. So I suppose, leading the way. Really? I doubt I’m leading anyone anywhere. Certainly not by intention.
I think it’s come to mean ‘different to the norm’, the work of an outsider. If that’s the case, yes, I hope so. It’s true that every so often I weaken and write something more ‘conventional’, as if there’s still some need to speak in a way that’s expected. Thankfully the lapse doesn’t usually last long and the aversion to being a part of the ‘poetry club’ returns. I go back to trying to find images and lines that link from somewhere deep in the brain and hook them into something that moves me. Talking of ‘from somewhere deep in the brain’ I remembered the words of John Stuart Mill, which might well apply to the ‘How To Write Poetry’ blockheads who populate the scene with such back-slapping camaraderie in search of something approaching fame. He wrote, in 1823: “I see something of fashionable people here, and… there is not a more futile class of persons on the face of the earth.” Well said, sir. Perhaps he can hear me two hundred years on, who knows?
For good or bad, or indifferent, it seems the right time to write something without stopping, without prior intention. The words will come. The title will go on last. I just like writing this way. Is it ‘avant garde’? Who knows or cares?
SOMEWHERE NEAR SALINAS, LORD, I LET HER SLIP AWAY
And so it begins, said with wonder or menace (it’s up to you).
On a cloudy day in high wind Alison married a woman named Happy.
When the photograph was taken, the temperature was dropping.
And you hold my hand. We don’t care who sees.
The women in maroon cloaks walk through the London rain.
And somewhere in 1902 Susan Watkins paints A Lady In Yellow.
Each placard has the face of a woman missing or murdered.
You sat by the clean river and played Me And Bobby McGhee.
Six thousand children are taken away on a bus for re-education.
Come to me if you grow old, come to me if you need coffee, wrote Leonard Cohen.
The sandstone waves of Arizona mean no more than any other shipwreck.
They built the lighthouse from the rocks it stood on.
Somewhere in the gated community, it’s always National Polar Bear Day.
Somewhere in the long grass, Emily worries about the feathers of hope floating from a cruel sky.
Somewhere in the roaring wind, The Amazing And Dapper Mr Jones is dancing like Fred Astaire.
One day the predators will turn on themselves.
The sound of you singing Somewhere near Salinas, Lord, I let her slip away.
That small yellow hair-clip you wore, to tuck your hair behind an ear.
The Northern Lights will be visible tonight if you live in the south and there is no cloud.
You caught the sun today. It’s time for you to leave. It’s time we left.
And you hold my hand. We don’t care who sees.
2 thoughts on “FOR THE AVANT GARDE”
Another thought on the idea of “avant garde”. I think it also means ” newest” or “latest” and by definition, not “old-fashioned” or “classical” like Absurdist theatre was to the well-made 3-act play. Avant garde, for example, DaDa, was a response to staid, stagnated and traditional art – stemming from the mess of WW1 – and set out to break outdated moulds and forms that could no longer properly explain the chaos of modern life. I think what is NOT avant garde might be, for example, a sonnet, which has a specific format -14 lines and a precise use of meter and rhyme – and the poet’s job is to tuck what he wants to express into the format. Tricky. And he / she would be judged on that. Nowadays, I think, avant garde has simply come to mean “no specific format” or “anything goes” – which is probably also a reflection on our perception of the modern world. Especially lately.