Avant, Again

  • Gregory Betts
    Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Peter Quartermain
    Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde. University of Alabama Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

The publication of these two important contributions to the field of avant-garde studies confirms not only the enduring fascination that writings variously positioned as “avant-garde” still exercise on readers, but also the productive instability of a term which has been understood, adopted, critiqued, and rearticulated by different generations of writers in historically and culturally contingent ways. Such instability is addressed by Gregory Betts through historical probing and meticulous attention to literary and cultural context in Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations, and underlies Peter Quartermain’s resistance to attempting new definitions in Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde.

Quartermain emphasizes the recalcitrant nature of “difficult” writing and, especially, writing that resists the logic of meaning and explication by foregrounding the “thereness” of poetic language, its “facticity: that quality which resists explanation and interpretation and cannot be accounted for.” Barely mentioning the term avant-garde beyond the title, the author privileges a way of reading grounded in Olsonian processual and open forms of the long (post)modern/ist moment.

Quartermain’s book collects essays written between 1989 and 2006 “for and to an occasion,” thus embodying in its very form the postmodern suspicion of critical methods that congeal reading practices in ahistorical or universalist stances. With the exception of discussions of Basil Bunting, Richard Caddel, and Mina Loy, all British, the essays engage with North American poets ranging from William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Lorine Niedecker to Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, Robin Blaser and Steve McCaffery. Every piece is a reading act that responds to its own time and place. As Quartermain suggests in the introduction, more questions are raised than answers given. The very fact that the book was not conceived as a collection, nor a book for that matter, testifies to the importance that the author places in the reading act, rather than the authorial intention, but also urges us to rethink the relationship between vanguardish writing and the historical: What prompts the publication of these essays as assemblage at this juncture of (neoliberal) history?

Gregory Betts delves into a fascinating exploration of the transhistorical and transnational vectors that shape the formation of avant-garde nodes within and beyond the borders of the nation. This highly ambitious and thoroughly researched volume dedicates a long first chapter to the theories of the avant-garde as “historically and philosophically different positions”—rather than a unified theory—to show the “motivations and ambitions” that informed avant-garde artists in their own time and space. The chapter recasts the reading of the much-contested “military” and “aesthetic” forces of avant-garde discourse in the context of the socio-political. Betts’s engagement with key European and North American theorists of the avant-garde, as well as critics working on the specificity of Canada’s avant-gardes, lays the ground for uncovering and reconstructing an “alternative literary history of Canada” (one, for example, that includes the contested position of decadence). But it also highlights the interconnectedness of different avant-garde formations, including Canada’s that problematizes in postcolonial fashion, the metropolitan-periphery model lingering on in avant-garde theorizations. While addressing the problematic aspect of naming, Betts is more interested in taking up “avant-garde” as a site of negative dialectic and critical différance.

Betts’ next three chapters focus on three specific nodes of difference. The first addresses “The Cosmic Canadians” (a term derived from Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke’s 1901 treatise) and discusses, among others, Lawren Harris, Merrill Denison and Herman Voaden (part of Toronto’s Little Theatre movement), W.W. E. Ross, and Bertram Brooker. “Surrealism and Automatists” carefully maps the interrelationship between French Surrealism and Canadian artists’ flirtation with the movement before attending to the Automatism of Paul-Émile Borduas and Claude Gauvreau. It also gestures toward West Coast Surrealism in the work of Gregg Simpson and Roy Kiyooka. “Canadian Vorticism” focuses on the influence of English Vorticism and Wyndham Lewis on the Canadian artistic and literary scene—specifically Wilfred Watson and Sheila Watson—and the effects of Vorticist aesthetics on the socio-political. Nodes are never presented as self-enclosed or auto-referential clusters but always through a dialogic model in conversation with the contemporary interrogations, reflections, and practices taken up again in the concluding short chapter “L’Envoi: The Future of the Avant.”

While the book centres on the problematic of the avant-garde in its early formation, as the title suggests, Betts attentively foregrounds the dangers of constructing a teleological model, albeit an “alternative” one. Given the scope and depth of the research offered, this effort is to be commended. If, at times, overlappings appear, Betts’s weaving of past and present, theory and literary practice, aesthetics and politics is carried out in a brilliant way.

This review “Avant, Again” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 125-27.

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