“‘Reject rejoice rejuvenate’: Reframing the Criticism of Women's Experimental Poetics”

by Brian Teare


Review of We Who Love to Be Astonished:
Experiemental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics
Eds Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002
Paper $24.95 (ISBN 0-8173-1095-9), 308 pages

There are an introduction, eighteen essays, and one poem in Hinton and Hogue’s critical anthology, We Who Love to Be Astonished, and these facts seem ordinary enough. Yet this anthology presents us with the insistent awareness that there’s a substantive difference between the tenor of this venture and those of other critical projects surrounding contemporary experimental poetry. Though there are, no doubt, many more reasons for this difference than those I suggest here, perhaps the essential ones are these: while containing eminently readable critical prose, politically engaged arguments and aesthetically erudite close-readings concerning a truly wide range of women writers of experimental texts, the essays in this volume also undertake to “reject rejoice rejuvenate,” as Stein writes in “Patriarchal Poetry.” [1] They reject a tradition of criticism that doesn’t account for both textual and social practices, rejoice in a wide variety of women’s experimental writing, and rejuvenate the ethics of a feminist critical tradition.

To do this is to subtly but significantly reframe current critical discourse about experimental writing in general. In recognizing a greater number of political contexts in which experimental poetry is written (especially those of gender, postcoloniality and race—though not, alas, sexuality), and by expanding our notions of what such writing might look and sound like, both on the page and in performance, the essays in Hinton and Hogue’s anthology enlarge the notion of what it means to encounter the work of others, and “create… a ‘space of appearance,’” [2] as Lyn Hejinian writes elsewhere, a place where “aesthetic discovery occurs through encounters, at points of contact, and so [do] political and ethical discovery.” [3] We Who Love to Be Astonished creates these encounters by questioning, as Kathleen Crown writes concerning the work of Tracie Morris, “whether and how poetic ‘voice’ might be detached from its baggage of transparency, presence, authenticity, and identitarian claims to representativeness without losing its ability to invoke communal participation and meaningful political response.” [4]

Though some strains of this project can be seen at work in the excellent 1990 critical anthology The Politics of Poetic Form, [5] that volume differs from We Who Love to Be Astonished in consisting of critical writing by, and discussions with, the poets themselves, many of whom are already part of the same “avant-garde” writing community. In fostering newfound and surprising contiguities among and between critics and the work of women experimental writers, the clarity and resourcefulness with which the essays in We Who Love to Be Astonished carry this off is as unusual as the project itself. Additionally, it has been a decades-old trope of critics of what’s known variously as postmodern, experimental or avant-garde writing to insist that politics is communicated only by the way a text is organized and how it engages language. Following post-structuralist thought they imply that, though a text may take place within a politics, we as readers mustn’t take seriously the validity of identity-based notions of community, or the politics that both define and arise from these communities: to do so would mean being duped by naïve “narratives.” For these reasons, though critics concerned specifically with the “avant-garde” often engage the political content the text generates through its use of artifice (its conceptual politics), they often either make little of the political context in which the works were written (its contextual politics), or choose to discuss writers whose political context can be taken for granted (as in white and/or male and/or straight and/or middle-class).

In shifting critical debate away from the “avant-garde” in particular and toward the many practices of experimental writing by women, Hinton and Hogue and the essayists in the anthology have produced a critical discourse in which political and social contexts are determining factors in what Erica Hunt terms “oppositional poetics.” [6] This is possible, I would argue, because the epithet “avant-garde,” which is so often used in current critical discourse to connote both style and aesthetic market value, has long been the crux to such a problem. Ironically, its vagueness as a marker of value and/or substance has gone as universally unremarked upon as its meaning has been taken for granted. In his essay on the work of Harjo and Waldrop collected in We Who Love to Be Astonished, Jonathan Monroe interrogates both the vagueness of such a critical term and its relationship to social practice: “What characteristic stances toward audience do such approaches imply and what formal strategies do they deploy? What connections can we establish between such strategies and the demands, desires, and needs of particular communities?” [7]

By way of answer I would submit that, in the very fabric of its history and usage, the phrase “avant-garde” holds uninterrogated and inherently patriarchal thought-structures that persist into our current critical discourse and create significant blind spots in discussing experimental poetics. Further, its very vagueness protects its status as a critical sign that posits and polices both aesthetic boundaries and cultural value. Without interrogation, it continues to put into effect an exclusionary system of cultural and social hierarchies antithetical to the social practices of many feminist texts. As Renate Poggioli writes in The Theory of the Avant-Garde, the phrase avant-garde first originated in mid-nineteenth century France as a leftist political term that only later gained somewhat pejorative literary and artistic connotations. [8] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, its political and artistic connotations clearly parted ways, and the notion of a literary avant-garde divorced from a culturally and historically specific leftist politics “passed over the frontiers as ‘exchange currency’ into the international market of ideas,” [9] where the term both represents and circumscribes an ideology and “therefore is always a social phenomenon.” [10]

Poggioli posits that the term avant-garde is nothing without social context; hence critics of the avant-garde are quick to provide one. In this effort, their favorite scarecrow is “Official Verse Culture,” as represented by the work of Anthony Hecht or Edward Hirsch. [11] But the real problem is three-fold: that this is cultural context, not social context (though in this case what’s cultural is read to imply what’s social); that this is the easiest possible critique for an intellectually sophisticated critic to make against a tradition that values affect over intellect; and that aiming critique outward, toward the aesthetic limitations of other poetics, ensures that the term avant-garde as used in discourse often barely touches upon its own limitations, the very real and specific social and political contexts from which arise the avant-garde’s own particular ideology.

As Jonathan Monroe writes, the astonishing variety of women’s experimental writing has the potential “to explore the generative possibilities” between cultures and “to move between and among, if not within, to transform communities,” which is “a prospect as unsettling and haunted as it is ecstatic.” [12] However, rather than aiding such writing in the transformation of community by including a wider range of writing practices and writers in their criticism, critics of the avant-garde insist instead on maintaining the already secured boundaries of avant-gardism, flogging the already chastened horse of “O.V.C.,” and thereby insisting that this is the only context against which the work should be read. Thus we see how what’s “avant-garde” often passes into the marketplace of ideas marked by an always already self-defined social context, its very identity “an argument or self-assertion or self-defense used by a society in the strict sense against society in the larger sense.” [13]

We can also see that when criticism takes from the (usually self-elected) avant-garde its own parameters and values (as Marjorie Perloff borrows from Charles Bernstein both the term “official verse culture” and his rhetoric against it), the avant-garde is thus further reified; and the term remains a closed set, a definition as policing as it is policed, one that allows no entry to “others,” cultural, social or otherwise. [14] Such critical boundaries both enact hierarchy and define value in a way that mimics patriarchal discourse and logic, or as Stein writes of “Patriarchal Poetry,” it “makes no mistake in estimating the value to be placed upon the best and most arranged of considerations… and as cautiously considered as in allowance which is one at a time.” [15]

I would suggest that in taking its cues from Erica Hunt’s essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” the editing of Hinton and Hogue reframes the aim of criticism of experimental poetics, avoiding the reification that results from privileging an already circumscribed group of poets—the “avant-garde”—and instead promoting what Erica Hunt terms “contiguities.” [16] Hunt’s oppositional poetics is a critical practice that, as Hinton and Hogue write, consists of “finding or building the interconnections among the various audiences of oppositional writers” (what Hunt terms “contiguities”), and whose main advantage is that it is both “a textual and social practice.” [17] I would further argue two points: one, that this is a particularly feminist ethics of criticism, which draws the first-wave aim of changing the structures of patriarchal thought into a second-wave theoretical framework without losing sight of hope for actual political efficacy; and two, it is an ethics that has been sorely lacking in the work of many critics of “avant-garde” texts.

The essays in We Who Love to Be Astonished establish their elaborate social/textual network of contiguities in two ways. First, they consider the experimental writing of a diverse range of women writers of color—Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Denise Chávez, Harryette Mullen, Joy Harjo, Erica Hunt, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Tracie Morris, and Jayne Cortez—alongside that of white women writers such as Susan Howe, Fanny Howe, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian and Rosmarie Waldrop, among many others. Second, they also explore writing whose genre blurs arise from the boundaries between social and textual practice, such as Cha’s multimedia Dictée, Morris’s performance (or “slam”) poetry, Cortez’s jazz performances, Waldrop’s postcolonial and feminist interrogation A Key into the Language of America, Notley’s feminist epic The Descent of Alette, Harjo’s hybrid prose-poem/Native oral history The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and Hunt’s textual collaboration with visual artist Alison Saar, Arcade.

The anthology’s organization underscores the task at hand. Its chapters move from “Formal Thresholds,” a relatively de-politicized chapter in which the work of Fraser, Armantrout, Notley and Berssenbrugge is discussed mostly on an aesthetic level, to “Performative Bodies,” a chapter that considers the highly politicized writing and performances of Cha, Morris and Cortez alongside those of Acker and Waldman. Between these two poles lie “In the Margins of Form” and “The Visual Referent/Visual Page,” chapters notable for juxtaposing radically differing contents and contexts. For example, an essay in “The Margins of Form” considers books by Harjo and Waldrop that explore Native American postcoloniality through radically different textual strategies; the essay creates a specifically charged instance of contiguities built between writing with similar political content but radically different aesthetics and political contexts. In “The Visual Referent/Visual page,” another particularly fruitful contiguity is made through the juxtaposition of two essays, each one discussing a differently racialized textual resistance to history. The first analyzes Susan Howe’s use of the page, with its radical re-visioning of the visual/textual history of white America in letters, while the second reads the textual/visual collaboration of Hunt and Saar, Arcade, a project that embodies the “oppositional poetics” of two African-American women artists. And though these essays stand out as stunning examples of work that create surprising social/textual contiguities within their own pages, there are also excellent essays on Harryette Mullen, Lauterbach and Cole, and Fanny Howe and Hejinian, that taken together enact the same project.

Further, the anthology is organized in a way that does not enforce or police aesthetic categories such as schools or movements. Rather, within its loosely defined chapters, affinities are made across previously well-policed boundaries. Here, poets who would elsewhere be discussed separately as descendents of the New York School, or as Language poets, and poets who wouldn’t be discussed at all (not belonging to any “avant-garde”), meet instead on their own terms: those of their texts. Such juxtapositions both create the social/textual contiguities of Hunt’s “oppositional poetics” and serve as models for reading texts and bodies “raced and gendered in the eye of the western world,” as Linda A. Kinnahan so poignantly writes, [18] encouraging the reader to do so in her own reading and critical practice.

Triumphantly, We Who Love to Be Astonished finishes with an ecstatic “Afterword” by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Draft 48: Being Astonished,” a section from her ongoing long-poem Drafts, whose early sections were recently collected in her 2001 Wesleyan volume Drafts 1-38: Toll. Composed very much in the spirit of Stein’s dictum “Reject rejoice rejuvenate,” DuPlessis’s poem is at once a polemical record of the critical and experiential conflicts facing the woman writer, an ecstatic and sensual riff of sonic silliness and associative eye- and ear-rhymes, and a call to innovative action, to “Exfoliate rupture genderation by genderation,” to “Get secular, get mixed, get everything you know / and what you don’t know, down, and don’t shun nothing neither: allow.” [19] In invoking the reader so often and asking her to participate in “Rearrang[ing] arrangement,” [20] DuPlessis, too, creates textual and social contiguities, builds “of the human confrontation with space / its politics, alphabets / longings and losses… the deep flung crevasses / of…female-historical shapes / that embody the imprint of intricate substance.” [21]

Taken together, the essays collected in We Who Love to Be Astonished and DuPlessis’s “Afterword” rejoice as palpably as Stein’s wild hybridity, and rejuvenate a feminist ethics by enacting a criticism of aesthetic depth and political engagement that, because of its challenge to patriarchal thought and conventions, contains all the etymological implications of the word “astonish” as outlined by Hinton and Hogue in their introduction. Like the writing that inspired the critics of We Who Love to Be Astonished, DuPlessis’s extended riffs and passionate polemic take aim at criticism and history and, with erudition and accuracy, sublimely stun as well as stupefy, shock and bewilder the tradition that would hamper it. Coming as it does at the end of We Who Love to Be Astonished, one feels the total power of the anthology’s hard-won contiguities behind her lines as the poem rejects: “It’s deposition time,” it warns, “Take down the full ghost”; [22] as it rejoices—“I want the much-maligned slither / bopping hither,” it claims, “a writing whose condition is lubricated over writing / resisting poetry, the whole contestable site”; [23] and, when asked “so what’s the point,” as it rejuvenates: “I can’t show you anything,” it says, “except a vast history of radiant practices.” [24] Which is exactly what We Who Love to Be Astonished reveals to us.


[1] Gertrude Stein, The Yale Gertrude Stein, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) 111.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 198. As quoted in Lyn Hejinian, “Some Notes toward a Poetics,” American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. eds. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002) 235.

[3] Hejinian, 236.

[4] Kathleen Crown, “‘Sonic Revolutionaries’: Voice and Experiment in the Spoken Word Poetry of Tracie Morris,” We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, eds. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002) 217.

[5] Charles Bernstein, ed., The Politics of Poetic Form (New York: ROOF Books, 1990).

[6] Erica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: ROOF Books, 1990) 197-212.

[7] Jonathan Monroe, “Untranslatable Communities, Productive Translation, and Public Transport: Rosmarie Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America and Joy Harjo’s The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” We Who Love to Be Astonished 90.

[8] Renate Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-garde (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968) 12-13.

[9] Poggioli, 12.

[10] Poggioli, 4.

[11] Marjorie Perloff, 21st Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002) 155.

[12] Monroe, 102.

[13] Poggioli, 12.

[14] Perloff, 155.

[15] Stein, 124.

[16] Hunt, 205.

[17] Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue, “Introduction: Oppositions and Astonishing Contiguities,” We Who Love to Be Astonished 2.

[18] Linda A. Kinnahan, “‘Bodies Written Off’: Economies of Race and Gender in the Visual/Verbal Collaborative Clash of Erica Hunt’s and Alison Saar’s Arcade,” We Who Love to Be Astonished 178.

[19] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Afterword: ‘Draft 48: Being Astonished,” We Who Love to Be Astonished 253.

[20] DuPlessis, 247.

[21] DuPlessis, 239-240.

[22] DuPlessis, 240.

[23] DuPlessis, 253.

[24] DuPlessis, 241.


BIO: A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Brian Teare is currently an NEA Fellow in poetry. His poems have appeared and are forthcoming in Boston Review, VOLT, Ploughshares, Pleiades and Colorado Review, among other journals, and his first book, The Room Where I Was Born, won the Brittingham Prize and will be published in the fall of 2003. He lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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