by Linda Kinnahan


Elisabeth A. Frost
The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003
Paperback, $24.95 (ISBN 0-87745-574-0), 245 pages


The very terms Elisabeth A. Frost chooses for the title of her rich study of twentieth-century women poets bring the tasks she must undertake into immediate view. The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry complicates narratives of both feminist and avant-garde poetics across the century by rethinking them in relation to each other and to the necessary politics of gender, tradition and language that arise through this relation. A welcome addition to recent scholarship interested in tracing genealogies of feminist experimentalism, which include works by feminist critics such as Ann Vickery, Megan Simpson and Lynn Keller, Frost's study focuses on a group of five twentieth-century women poets, discerning the “feminist poetics” emerging variously from their work and locating the strategies of each poet's work as it intersects with/responds to/challenges popular discourses of particular eras, dominant discourses of the avant-garde, and networks of lineage constructing a “usable past” for a feminist avant-garde. Judiciously choosing two poets from the modernist period, one from the sixties, and two contemporary poets, Frost argues not for a clear line of influence between them (though there are often such connections) but for a rethinking of multiple “versions of a linguistically based feminism that locates poetic and other discourses as primary sites of feminist intervention” (xi). Taking the century as a whole, Frost is interested in exploring potential and divergent models of feminist innovation, all of which share a rejection of an “essential, shared female identity” while creating a “language for a new feminist consciousness” through distinct linguistic strategies enacted within and in relation to historically specific discursive realms (xii, xiii).

The big surprise, and the most rewarding because of the newness it brings to rethinking intersections of feminist poetics and avant-garde theories, is the inclusion of Sonia Sanchez as a kind of conceptual bridge between modernist and current moments of feminist poetic innovation. Occupying the center chapter of the study, set off as its own section, the discussion of Sanchez follows chapters on Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy, and is followed by chapters on Susan Howe and Harryette Mullen. I want to return to Sanchez shortly, but need to note here at the outset how the inclusion of this poet — and through her, the cultural project of the Black Arts Movement — in itself compels a renewed articulation of “avant-garde” that both exposes the gender-blindness (indeed, the overt machismo and even misogyny) linking distinct formations of historical avant-gardes, even those that imagine themselves in opposition to oppressive assumptions of race and privilege inflecting the century's most dominant strains of avant-garde aesthetics. If in “theorizing that a new aesthetic could foment revolution,” the cultural project of Baraka calls back to his “radical predecessors” in the early century, even while rejecting their specific agenda, then the context of “avant garde” is expanded beyond the Anglo-European center; paradoxically — or perhaps typically — that expansion elides gender, remaining male-centered and masculinist (65). The tension between a radical commitment to the consciousness-raising potential of formal innovation as a form of political engagement and a radical commitment to feminist consciousness as a form of political engagement informs Frost's discussion of all five poets but is most searingly underscored in the treatment of Sanchez and her conflicted allegiances to Black Arts and feminist assertion.

To back up a moment, Frost's choice of “avant-garde” as an aesthetic category for discussing Stein, Loy, Sanchez, Howe and Mullen reflects in part the semantic discomfort characterizing many discussions of poetic practices that reject the notion of language as transparent or reportorial, or the idea of the individual subject as independent of linguistic systems and structures. Many feminist critics, myself included, have agonized over appropriate terminology, alert to the nuances and ambivalent valences hovering around such labels such as “linguistically innovative,” “experimental,” “language-oriented”; while useful, how do such categories do justice to a vast range of “experiment” that can be argued in the terrain of feminist poetics? What kind of false divisions or oppositions are possibly kept intact through such terms? Attempting to disabuse unhelpful polarities of “experimental” and “expressive,” while recognizing differing conceptions of language and identity underlying these categories as loose formations, Frost turns to historical, discursive formations of poetics to ground her argument. Frost deliberately chooses “avant-garde” to locate the experimental in relation to the political, defining “avant-gardism as any artistic practice that combines radical new forms with radical politics or utopian vision,” and eschewing a popular generalization of the term as “anything new.” Moreover, Frost is interested in thinking about feminist experimentalism in direct relation with “so-called historical avant-gardes” and the aesthetic/political theories issuing from their male-centered formations. To claim a feminist avant-garde, Frost dissects the theories and accounts of avant-garde movements relevant to these poets, most notably the self-proclaimed modernist avant-gardisms of Pound and Marinetti and the “neo-avant-garde” revolutionary stance of the Black Arts Movement. Moreover, Frost calls to account recent theories of the avant-garde — such standards as Peter Burger, Charles Russell, Andreas Huyssen, and even the French feminist trio of Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous — for contributing to the exclusion of women and gender from considerations of the avant-garde. Seeing both a limited definition of the political (too narrow to admit gender) and a material disregard for women artists, Frost takes issue with the dominant histories and theories that define the study of avant-garde poets and poetics. To recast the question of gender's relation to avant-garde formations, she begins instead with gender theorists Monique Wittig and Judith Butler, whose investigations of “the parallel between gender division in culture and the basic structures of language” provide theoretical frameworks for intervening into the gender blind-spots of avant-garde theory and literary history (xxiv). Indeed, Frost does not merely read poetic texts “through” theory, but persuasively argues for the contribution that poetics can make to “recent debates in feminist theory,” particularly those involving history, language, sexuality and gendered/raced identity (xiii). Moreover, Frost's genealogical construction of a “feminist avant-garde” valuably contributes to understandings of female and feminist-centered intellectual, poetic and theoretical networks of production, rather than reinscribing masculine narratives by reading women primarily as subsumed within traditions of male thought and interaction.

Particularly in this way, from the beginning, Frost links her project to the cultural project of HOW(ever) and its initial group of poets and critics, especially founding editor Kathleen Fraser. In mapping trajectories of feminist avant-gardism, Frost acknowledges her debt to Fraser's writings on the position of the experimental woman writer, and she sees the journal as somewhat of a parallel project to her own. Indeed, Frost shares the earlier journal's objectives of connecting feminist poetics, poetic practice and theory; of constructing a usable past from what Fraser brilliantly termed a “tradition of marginality” of innovative women writers; of expanding the concept of feminist poetics to investigate structures of language; and to insist upon the political in these endeavors (Fraser in Frost, 108). In relating her project to HOW(ever) , Frost deftly demonstrates the recovery not just of individual writers but of reading communities necessary to understanding feminist lineages. Rather than Pound's idea of tradition passed from the head of one great man to another — or “father to son,” as Williams once accused him — we are offered a more useful model of reading through communities and networks as a fundamental shift in how to think about “lineage” and uses of myriad traditions.

Frost's book falls into three sections, each historically circumscribed and conceptually distinct. We begin with Stein and Loy working in the 1910s and 1920s, move to Sanchez in the 1960s, and then to Howe and Mullen in the 1980s and 1990s. The first section situates each poet within a popularized discourse of the period; the second looks closely at politics of gender and race, and of the personal and the public within the neo-avant-gardism of Black Arts; and the third delves into the textual strategies two late-century poets enact to create enabling traditions alternative to the limiting traditions of the acknowledge avant-garde. Throughout, Frost stays clearly focused on “poetics — the work that results from a desire to create a language for a new feminist consciousness” within each historical context (xiii).

Treating Stein's Tender Buttons and Loy's ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose' within the “discourses of the emerging fields of psychology, sexology, and eugenics,” Frost first undertakes, in “‘Replacing the Noun': Fetishism, Parody, and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons ,” a skilled and downright fun reading of Stein's 1913 sequence of cryptic prose poems celebrating domestic objects and spaces (xxv). In the radical linguistic experimentation of these pieces, Frost reads an exploration of the contours of lesbian desire enacted through a rewriting of Freud's theories of fetishization. Clearly and concisely outlining Freud's male-oriented theory of desire and object substitution, Frost interweaves Stein's own theories of grammar and her innovative poetic practice to argue that “words in Stein's practice function as fetishes,” particularly in the “loving exchange of names” and nouns marking Stein's most erotic poetry, including Tender Buttons . Stein's love of nouns and her practice of making “the named thing new by renaming it, or, rather, by circumventing the original name” functions, for Frost, as “erotic substitute.” Engaging with Freud's “narrative of male fetishism,” Stein's linguistic playfulness and parody retell sexual pleasure as multiple (rather than fixated on the single object) and textual. Radical in its “difference” from Freud's narrative, while paying a kind of parodic tribute to his theories, Stein's fetishization of the word develops as a play between material signifier — the word as physical, sensual — and the word as meaning-making vehicle. The processes of substitution and renaming rampant in Tender Buttons allows for “the lesbian sexuality necessarily absent from Freud's theory of the fetishist” (19). Frost's readings of specific passages are sharp and insightful in teasing out this argument, and also in demonstrating quite lucidly the significance of Stein's noun-love and substitutive play as a gender-laden linguistic distinction from the privileging of the verb (of action, force, insemination) that Frost shrewdly traces in the avant-garde rhetoric of Pound and Marinetti.

Similarly, Frost sets out in “‘Crisis in Consciousness': Mina Loy's ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose'” to read Loy's 1920s auto-mythology in relation to this avant-garde masculinity but also in the context of popular discourses of eugenics. As with her treatment of Stein, Frost sees both an influence of and a parodic challenge to an emerging discourse of modernity in Loy's long poem, and Frost illuminates the workings of parody (via Judith Butler) that textually expose the assumptions of racism fueling arguments for eugenics. Useful to this discussion is Frost's concept of “satiric overwriting”: “an overdoing of poetic technique to the point of parody, an overdeterminacy of meaning in verse saturated with polysemy, alliteration, inflated diction, punning, bathos, and ironic rhyme — a rag-bag of techniques that mimic poetic convention.” Frost distinguishes this “overdetermination of words” as the “inverse” of Stein's “sensual fetish-making,” seeing in Loy a “renovation” of male literary tradition as part of the poet's ongoing combat with “the linguistic and cultural determinism she believed were destroying women's lives” (30). Frost provides a useful gloss on her reading of this modernist text in claiming that “[b]y implicating the high art of (masculine) epic with the racism of eugenics, Loy deflates literary tradition and offers an explanation of her strategic war on language as a means of exploring the social construction of gender identity” (33). Indeed, Frost vividly traces these strategies through her readings of the poem, and in the course of the chapter offers what to my mind is one of the most cohesive, attentive readings of this difficult poem that I've encountered. My only regret is that Frost did not more fully flesh out the context of eugenics beyond its most general lines of argument and rhetoric. The inter-discursive nature of Loy's poetry offers ripe approaches to delineating the poetics at work at particular points in her career, and while Frost takes us part way in this regard, my own curiosity yearns for a more textured and in-depth analysis of this extra-literary discourse in relation to the poem.

In “‘a fo/real/ revolu/shun': Sonia Sanchez and the Black Arts Movement,” Frost plunges into the rhetoric of the Black Power movement and its aesthetic manifestation within the Black Arts movement, residing in uneasy relation with Sanchez's emergent black feminist focus on female experience and voice. Despite its placement after the chapters on Stein and Loy, the discussion of Sonia Sanchez does not seek to trace this black feminist poet to either modernist but instead asserts “yet another new beginning for feminist avant-gardism” (xxvi). Seeming to distance itself from earlier avant-garde movements through its overt foregrounding of racial identity and the use of poetry as a form of reportage and witness, the Black Arts movement is not typically included in studies of avant-garde poetics. Frost, however, argues that the claim to poetry's revolutionary power and inherent linking of poetics to politics (“its pursuit of political overthrow through the shock of a new aesthetic”) constitute this movement as a neo-avant-garde formation, but importantly sever the dominant notion of “avant-garde” from a solely European-derived aesthetics (66). Her interest in this chapter is to consider the conflict between personal expression and nationalist unity attending the positioning of women within black nationalism of the 1960s. Tensions between racial unity and feminism, historically traced, coalesce within a “radical black feminist poetics” that Frost reads across two diverse volumes produced concurrently by Sanchez, which demonstrate the “disjunction between public and private discourse [that] dramatizes the political division faced by Sanchez and other women involved in the Black Arts movement” (68). In a move that seems brilliant in its obvious but overlooked significance, Frost produces an intertextual reading of the “revolutionary” and “oratorical” We a BaddDDD People (1970) and the “more confessional” and “intimate” Love Poems (1973) (67). Although separated by three years in publication history, the poems in the two volumes were written during the same period, not as two diverse stages in the poet's work, as Frost demonstrates through looking at the dating of the poems that appeared in now out-of-print selections of Sanchez's poetry — a dating dropped in later editions. Offering a thorough analysis of the “militaristic, masculinist rhetoric” marking the “concepts and goals of Black Arts,” Frost brings into sharp view the ambiguities toward Black Power rhetoric and allegiances to the Nation of Islam jostling against an emerging black feminist consciousness (69).

The treatment of Sanchez aligns itself in one significant way with the discussions of Stein and Loy — as Frost asserts, none of these poets had the advantage of an enabling tradition of innovative feminist writing in challenging masculine discourses forcefully shaping accounts of poetic experimentation. The final section of the book, with individual chapters on Susan Howe and Harryette Mullen, examines the “question of tradition,” a question that in itself unsettles the antipathy toward the past so often assumed of avant-garde formations of the “new.” Tracing Howe's predecessors through centuries of American letters and thought in “Unsettling American: Susan Howe and Antinomian Tradition,” Frost follows Howe's own leads in pointing us toward a lineage of “women's spiritual and political dissent,” including such historical figures as Anne Hutchinson, Mary Rowlandson and Emily Dickinson, a lineage that distinguishes Howe's uses of the past from many of her contemporaries (107). As Frost claims: “Howe reveals the association in U.S. history and literature between constructions of the feminine and the accusation of antinomianism, and she connects both to ‘avant-garde' activism from the period of Puritan settlement onward.” Frost traces Howe's intellectual excavation of these “feminist forebears,” a digging deep into covered layers of history to reclaim the “feminine” in American narratives of nation and self (107). Seeing this reclamation as an importantly gendered architecture for Howe's long poem ‘Articulation of Sound Forms in Time,' Frost embarks on a close reading of the poem, attentive to subversive and transformative possibilities suggested by the poem's hybridity of sources, languages and voices. Upsetting linguistic systems, Frost claims, upsets “codes of difference,” and Frost makes the important link between gender constructions, linguistic structures, power systems and historical narratives/contexts to argue that Howe's rejection of gender difference is an unmasking of “its pernicious historical effects,” particularly evident in the “gendering of transgression” as feminine. Such unmasking, for Howe, charges the feminine/feminist “line of descent” running through history and informing her own feminist avant-garde practice (127).

“‘Belatedly Beladied Blues': Hybrid Traditions in the Poetry of Harryette Mullen,” the final chapter, picks up on almost every theme pursued in earlier chapters, returning us to Stein through Mullen's own revisionary relationship with Tender Buttons but layering the discussion with links to Loy's socioeconomic concerns and satiric ways, Sanchez's black feminist consciousness and uses of popular culture, and Howe's construction of enabling traditions and hybrid methods. Buoying all of these connections is the great sense of playfulness, linguistic fun and parodic movement that Frost aptly reads into Mullen's two book-length poems, Trimmings and Muse and Drudge . The most wide-ranging and eclectic of these poets in the sources for her art and the traditions she employs, Mullen's “increasingly disjunctive uses of intertextuality and allusion” rely “on an impressive spectrum of predecessors, from Sappho to Bessie Smith, from Callimachus to rap” (138). Frost provides, to my mind, one the most thorough and attentive reading of Mullen's poetry that I've seen, and she constructs through this reading a theorization of feminist avant-garde poetics and lineage that suggests the generosity and openness that linguistic innovation can enact: “Combining classical lyric and blues lyric, syntactic fragment and epic scope, the aural and the visual, Mullen's work demonstrates new directions in feminist avant-garde poetics, fostering both cultural and formal hybridity to demonstrate the ‘mongrel' nature of contemporary culture and avant-gardism itself. Far from revealing concern about belatedness, or from proposing any single derivation for feminist avant-gardists today, Mullen bears witness to an alternative feminist poetics that seeks — and successfully constructs — a diverse lineage of its own” (138).

This sense of expansiveness is what I value most about Elisabeth's Frost's book. Frost charts lines of poetic activity across generations, across reading communities, across reading practices. She resituates “lineage” and “avant-garde” in productive relation to each other, recasting these terms and their deployment in literary history through pressures of gendered awareness and material histories. As a close reader of texts, she reminds us of the rewards of attentive engagements with the line and the word and the movements between/among them. Theorizing the necessary multiplicities of feminist avant-garde practice, she mines the texts to show forth “theories” they embody, to chart textual signals that help us sense and then articulate a poetics at work. And the work is always an integral part of the picture — the “feminist avant-garde in American poetry,” Frost never lets us forget, is an avant-garde engaged in cultural labors that matter and that matter expansively.


BIO: Linda A. Kinnahan is Professor and Chair of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches 20 th -century American & British poetry, feminist studies, and modernist studies. Her recent book, Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse (University of Iowa Press, 2004) explores the politics of the lyric engaged by North American and British contemporary women poets. She is currently working on a study of women modernists, poetics, and economics in early 20 th -century America.

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