I am sympathetic in some ways to Ron Silliman's (in)famous classification of "School of Quietude" vs. "Post-Avant"*, at least within limited historical parameters. I have used the terms myself from time to time, effectively as synonyms for "mainstream" and "experimental" (labels that are admittedly problematic in themselves). But a central problem with Ron's binary is that it attempts to conflate two separate (though often coinciding) realms of distinction: the aesthetic or formal, and the social or political. At one point, perhaps, such markers pointed to a tangible divide, but that divide has itself become divided so many times over that it has become increasingly less possible to maintain the dichotomy. What kinds of conceptual violence have to be committed in order to make, say, Adrienne Rich fit into a quietudist pigeonhole, or in order to think of Jorie Graham as post-avant in Ron's sense?
"School of Quietude" is probably most intelligible as a description of the aesthetics governing a narrow range of practices in the American and British tradition constituted by the type of writers represented in Donald Hall and Robert Pack's New Poets of England and America (Anthony Hecht, Kingsley Amis, et al.), and by the "New Formalists" of the eighties and nineties (Dana Gioia, Timothy Steele, et al.). The trait shared by these writers is a generally conservative attitude toward versification and language in general as it is manifested in poetry. It is untenable to extrapolate outward from this formal conservatism to social or political conservatism, though the tendency is perhaps slightly greater among these poets than their mid-century nemeses, represented in part by Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry.
Even when one acknowledges the provisional utility of SoQ as a concept, it is difficult to support its opposition in a unified sense to the category of "Post-Avant," a term so broad and vague as to be functionally inert. Even if it can be construed so as to produce an intelligible meaning, it still doesn't provide a functional antithesis to SoQ as defined above unless it is constrained to refer solely to the New American Poets.
As a general term, Post-Avantism implies a contrast with Avantism. The contrast could be understood in a number of different ways:
a. as denoting the simple fact of influence and generational posteriority;
b. as suggesting that the signature strategies of the historical avant-garde have in some way been superseded or abandoned;
c. some combination of the above.
The oxymoronic collocation of post and avant tends to support the second of these options, though to my knowledge this aspect hasn't been developed at any great length. Certainly Ron himself often seems to use the term primarily in the first sense, in order to imply that the present generation of experimental poets has somehow internalized a lesson taught them by their predecessors (though if I looked back through his archives more carefully, I might find a more subtle formulation). I will say that a better term for meaning a might be "Neo-Avantist" or just plain "Avantist," whereas meaning b strikes me as more useful for identifying a certain retrograde or superficial trend in contemporary writing and publishing.
I'm going to argue that meaning b has already demonstrated its inclination to emerge as the dominant meaning. For one thing, few poets want to be called "Post-Avant," "Postlanguage," or post-anything. For another, a strong negative sense has come into usage almost immediately upon Ron's coining of the term, in much the same way that a derisive usage of "PC" quicky supplanted its original usage. The negative sense of "Post-Avant" is usually leveled against trendy poetry that exhibits many of the surface characteristics of historical avant-gardism, but exhibits them as they have been transmitted in a professionalist context rather than as the result of independent experimentation or innovation. This is overly simplistic of course, but gives some idea of the accusation implicit in the derogatory use of the term.
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I remarked in an old post that "negativity" might serve as a preferable opposite to "quietude." I still think there's some merit to this suggestion, but I missed the obvious and most immediately parallel term: disquietude.** I don't think these terms can be used to separate whole "schools" or even (always) tendencies of an individual poet as much as they account for local aesthetic effects, or, and perhaps more interestingly, the availability of those effects to different interpretative agendas. For example, the work of a poet like Keats might seem, according to one set of criteria, to fit Ron's definition of quietudist verse perfectly, on the grounds that it is mellifluous, soothing, aesthetically oriented toward sonic and imagistic ideals of beauty, and that it therefore somehow serves the interests of the dominant culture. But this reading is only possible at all because of the circumstances attending Keats' eventual induction into the English canon, and the critical and popular readjustments and reevaluations that followed. Many of his contemporaries (Byron for instance) found his work awkward and grotesque. That it can now be experienced as controlled, masterful language in a conservative tradition says less about the work "itself" than it does about the unstable ground of literary reception and preservation.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that some poems favor an aesthetic of tranquility while others favor more confrontational and discordant effects. One way of conceiving this distinction is as between a poetics of palliation and a poetics of catharsis.*** Catharsis means literally to purge or expunge, as through the eruption of a boil or ejection of stomach contents. Palliatives, on the other hand, work by suppressing symptoms, simply killing pain (temporarily) rather than removing the cause of the pain. Cathartics make us belch, vomit, scream, thrash, burst apart. Palliatives make us sleep, swoon, forget, dream, lose ourselves. Both of these are of course important and effective modes of treatment.
The value of a palliative poetics is obvious. Poetry must at a rudimentary level comprehend the demand of the human senses for a composed stillness, just as it must also comprehend their demand for derangement. Wordsworth's argument in the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" that poetry should provide a contemplative alternative to the hyperactive excitements of contemporary life is cogent, if only half-right.
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Opposing quietude to post-avantism misleadingly suggests that there is no palliative work produced by those commonly classified as post-avant. Surely the "mood" of a good portion of the poetry written by such writers as--just to name the first few names that come to mind--Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Liz Willis, Graham Foust, Michael Palmer, Cole Swensen, Jennifer Moxley, Joseph Massey, and Rae Armantrout could be characterized as "quiet," in the sense that it works via such effects as euphony, meditativeness, placidity, ethereality. Conversely, there are quite a few supposedly "mainstream" poets who routinely write in an emotionally and rhythmically volatile register. However one feels about the aesthetic value of a poet like Sharon Olds, for example, it is untenable to classify her verse as "quiet" or palliative.
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Certain work is made to fall into the post-avant category largely because of certain conspicuous formal markings which may or may not be present in the work of numerous so-called post-avantists, but which are much less often present in the work of so-called quietudists.
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Ultimately, the quietude/disquietude division can only be used as an invidious distinction (like "square"/"cool") in narrowly conceived, limited contexts. Certainly there are historical moments, or just particular times of day, when it seems more or less advisable to shout or whisper, depending. It is only when quietude is adopted as an all-governing aesthetic that it takes on its more oppressive dimensions. Likewise, disquietude in isolation not only becomes exhausting, it loses its meaning in the absence of the quietude it disrupts. Poetry can never be only about beauty, nor can it be only about the absence of beauty.
The politics surrounding the arguments about how much beauty or ugliness in art is appropriate or inappropriate when and where and why are just that--politics. This is not to say that they are irrelevant or without use in art, just that they should not be confused for static artistic principles.
The error of distinctions like "quietude vs. post-avant," or for that matter "quietude vs. disquietude," is that they attempt to abstract outward from specific discontents and insufficiencies to general judgments about larger formations, and to maintain those judgments across time. It is harder than it ever was before to argue that there is a consistent "mainstream" whose adherents uniformly subscribe to dominant ideologies of literature and culture--just as it is increasingly hard to argue that anything like a consistently "resistant" avant-garde is comprised by the totality of writers who adopt "experimental" aesthetics.
* See, for example, here, here, and here.
** A Google search turns up one use of the phrase "school of disquietude" in passing, by Eric Selinger.
*** A few days ago, Jessica Smith remarked on the underuse of catharsis in recent poetry. I'm not sure catharsis is really underused, but her comment did make me think that it is not often enough acknowledged as one of the principal effects produced by interesting poetry, and that in turn led to many of the reflections I've made here.