“They Shriek in Finely Turned Sentences":

The Poet as Subverter in the 21st Century Avant-Garde


A Paper by Prakash Kona


Rejection is the shaping force of society. – Pier Paolo Pasolini




The corporatization of the publishing world has lead to a canon formation from the traditional author-based kind to one that manufactures taste to suit a consumerist audience. Poetry as an art form that counters the violence of bureaucratic governments and MNCs has suffered a serious decline for no reason except that it has the potential for social transformation. The general decline of humanities and social sciences with the exception of economics - which has a strong institutional bias - reflects the overall control mechanisms at play in the production of certain knowledges termed as useful while excluding others. This is the context where one needs to place the avant-garde poet.


The avant-garde poet is as much a fiction writer as she could be a pamphleteer, a graffiti activist, a drug-induced mystic or simply anyone overwhelmed by a sense of nothingness. My paper recognizes in avant-garde poetry the defiant and consciously stylized nature of writing as opposed to the inspired and dreamy kind of creativity while it shows how such a stylization can lend itself to conformism of another kind.


The avant-garde poet walks the thin line that separates political conformism from creative rebellion. To challenge conventional forms of writing is not merely to reject mainstream notions of the fall of the poem as opposed to the rise of a fiction-based readership but to work proactively to dismantle institutionalized forms of discrimination and serve as a voice to the marginalized that Fanon metaphorically refers to as “the wretched of the earth.”


My paper examines what it means to be an avant-garde poet in the global context.


Keywords: Gramsci, Avant-Garde, Poet, Realism, Resistance



To Destroy is to Create

At the very beginning of his 1913 article titled 'The Futurists', Gramsci says: “The Italian intellectual hen-house is all of a flutter. It is no longer enough to cry shame. People thrust their hands in their hair: there’s no more religion! They shriek in finely turned sentences: the world is going to wrack and ruin! The second millennium that will mark the end of this putrid humanity is approaching!” (Gramsci, 1999, 89). This prophetic rant that Gramsci begins with sounds in fact like the futurists themselves who make a virtue out of shrieking in “finely turned sentences.” It’s not the apocalyptic tone that Yeats adopted in 1919 when he wrote 'The Second Coming' in a profoundly pessimistic tone that 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity' (Yeats). Gramsci is both parodying the apocalyptic tone and using polemics to deride the futurists.


Gramsci relies on the poetic and the metaphorical to make his point –a writing strategy not different from the futurists. Gramsci observes in Prison Notebooks that, “The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare” (235). There is an inclination to use military-related metaphors to explain the operations of both state and civil society. The metaphor grounds the reader in the reality of these institutions rather than be lost in Hegelian abstractions that are euphemisms disguising reality rather than metaphors interpreting the truth. In the 1921 article 'Marinetti the Revolutionary', Gramsci sees in the futurists a revolutionary potential to provide an alternative in the domain of culture to the present bourgeois version. “They have destroyed, destroyed, destroyed, without worrying if the new creations produced by their activity were on the whole superior to those destroyed” (Gramsci, 1999, 96). He goes on to call the futurists “revolutionaries” and that in supporting the futurists “the workers’ groups showed that they were not afraid of destruction, certain as they were of being able to create poetry, paintings and plays, like the Futurists; these workers were supporting historicity, the possibility of a proletarian culture created by the workers themselves” (Gramsci, 1999, 97). And yet only a year later a slightly wizened Gramsci writes to Trotsky a bitter letter about the futurists in the resentful tone of a son complaining to his father: “The Italian Futurist movement completely lost its character after the war. Marinetti is not particularly active in it. He has got married and prefers to devote his energies to his wife” (Gramsci, 1999, 98). The promise of “destruction” of the old cultural order that defined the futurist manifesto was never achieved. Gramsci’s complaint is a familiar one: Marinetti the “revolutionary” these days devotes his energies to his wife. “Destruction” of an unjust order is the tone of both Gramsci and the futurists. While Gramsci substantiates his point-of-view through intensive analysis – for instance, what he says of Marx in 'Our Marx' is as true of Gramsci himself: “He is an example of intense and tenacious work to attain the clear honesty of ideas, the solid culture necessary in order not to talk in a void, about abstractions” (Forgacs, 2000, 39) - the revolution of the futurists is an unleashing of rhetoric without achieving a similar transformation in the life-worlds of masses.


The “futurist” tone can best be seen in Marinetti in the 1909 'The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism': “Poetry must be conceived as a violent assault launched against unknown forces to reduce them to submission under man” (Rainey, 2009, 51). A few lines later he adds: “We intend to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman” (Rainey, 2009, 51). The framework of Marinetti’s tone of rejection is not something that the futurists thought of for the first time. How in fact different is what Marinetti says from the 19th century Russian nihilist Sergey Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869) that opens with the lines:


The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it. (Nechayev)


In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) we catch a glimpse of a definition of what Nechayev (a distorted Bazarov figure) stands for: “A nihilist is a person who does not bow down to any authority, who does not accept any principle on faith, however much that principle may be revered" (Turgenev).  


The elements that constitute the discourse of avant-garde poetry can be discovered in the sense of nothingness that consumed the 19th century revolutionary consciousness along with the attitudes of individual revolutionaries. In embracing the ‘nihil,’ every kind of authority is rejected and faith relegated to being a steward before reason its radical master. To imagine the avant-garde poet without a revolution is futile. To imagine a revolution in the global discourse whose defining trait is consumerism is a fallacy. Unfortunately in the attempt to reconcile futility with fallacy by being ahistorical and apolitical, the avant-garde writer of the 21st century is striving for the same objectivity that in the first place instigated the challenge to produce an alternate way of looking at the world. Christopher Innees in 'AVANT GARDE THEATRE: Themes and definitions', points out that: “Borrowed from military terminology by Bakunin, who titled the short-lived anarchist journal he published in Switzerland in 1878 L’AvantGarde, the label was first applied to art by his followers. Their aim in revolutionizing aesthetics was to prefigure social revolution; and avant-garde art is still characterized by a radical political posture” (Goodman, 2000, 70).


At the heart of the avant-garde is a “radical political posture.” This is the gesture made by the small publisher and the equally small poet alike. Unless the gesture of defiance is made it won’t enter the discourse of the avant-garde. The avant-garde poet is the bard of the resistance challenging genre-based writing or the so-called opposition of theory to practice, not in the sense of Marinetti – which is more of destroy for destroy’s sake - but more in the sense of Gramsci – which is to destroy that you may create: “In this field, ‘to destroy’ does not mean the same as in the economic field. It does not mean to deprive humanity of the material products that it needs to subsist and to develop. It means to destroy spiritual hierarchies, prejudices, idols and ossified traditions” (Gramsci, 1991, 96). Through his creative re-reading of Marxism and his insights into the politics of fascism that uses culture as an instrument of politics in many ways Gramsci is much more avant-garde or literally futuristic than Marinetti:


After the failure of the experience with a futurist political party in 1920, futurist politics, as captained by Marinetti, swiftly renounced the libertarian motifs of its ideology and the utopia of futurist democracy. With the advent of fascism to power, Marinetti and the futurists returned to fascism with a de facto acceptance of its politics as the “minimal program” of the futurist revolution. (Gentile, 2003, 64)


Within the creative function of destruction one finds the seeds of avant-garde poetry that takes the form of experimental writing beginning with the second half of the 20th century and diving straight into the intellectual whirlpool of the 21st century. While they “shriek in finely turned sentences” the point of the shrieking is to recreate an alternate vision to the existing order and not merely play with words without changing the reality constituted in language.


To Reject is To Be

The turning of the sentence is not for poetic effect. Rather it is about poetic affect. While the effect is an end in itself the affect is a series of disjointed ideas that produce an impact on the reader similar to that of the Eisensteinean montage. While wholeness is what the montage aspires toward, the avant-garde poet leaves the fragments in the open giving the reader a chance to configure meaning on her own or look for none. The affect brilliantly comes out as a “political gesture” because it forces the reader to confront reality not as the truth but as a possibility of arriving at the truth. The whole point of the shrieking in “finely turned sentences” is to make sure that the reader is without respite. Says Gandhi in Attenborough’s movie version: “The function of a civil resistance is to provoke response and we will continue to provoke until they respond or change the law” (Attenborough). The avant-garde poet is a civil resister and does with language what the activist does through deeds. She provokes the passive bourgeois reader to view reality from the point of view of resistance rather than power. The basis of the provocation is the rejection of an existing order to make way for an alternative one.


Unlike the celebration of destruction in Marinetti’s manifesto, the politics of rejection touches the core of one’s being. The 1971 volume of Pasolini’s poems is titled To Transfigure and to Organize (Pasolini, 1996, 207). To transfigure is to invent a metaphor that will encompass the revolutionary aspirations of the masses. Metaphors that do not evolve from a struggle to organize the daily life activities of men and women in relation to their personal space are meaningless. The political can only be the personal. The personal is the barometer of social and political change. It cannot happen externally. It cannot not happen internally. The without and within do not complement one another. As a matter of fact they occupy one and the same being.  Gramsci makes the point that, “In reality it is not possible to separate living from philosophizing” (Gramsci, 1992, 363). In embracing a politics that does not separate living from “philosophizing” or any other creative activity, rejection shapes the order of things. Rejection is not just about saying “no” to the unethical and the unjust but a way of life in itself. The avant-garde poet plays the role of an educator as much she is as a poet.


In the avant-garde discourse, poetry cannot be separated from political education. The best instance I can think of is the British poet Alan Morrison whose anthology Emergency Verse - Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State is not just a collection of poems from an extraordinarily diverse group of poets but an argument for a just society. “I just seem to instinctively itch to use my poetry for social and political subjects in the main” (Interview with Morrison) says Morrison in an interview to the webzine Sociological Imagination. When Pasolini declares, “my only hero is Reality,” (Hanshe) he is speaking of the instinctive “itch” to reach out to “social and political subjects” rather than loiter in the corridors of metaphysics.


The irony of being an avant-garde poet is that you cannot be radical in language without a conception of reality attached to it. While the small press in all fairness opens the doors to big ideas and in that sense is the real harbinger of change, it is mandatory that avant-garde writers bear the reality in mind that’ll reflect in the language of a history that cannot find space in text-books approved by the corporate state. Avant-garde poetry is a 20th century invention; it is political and it is revolutionary; if it is neither of them it cannot make claims to be avant-garde. A language cannot enter the narcissistic domain of celebrating itself as language; it can only celebrate that which is not itself. The self is an object of performance that can be located neither in the ‘I’ nor the ‘You.’ It is translated, transformed, transfigured and transmogrified.


The ‘real’ self being the performing self, the avant-garde poet is a radical performer. It cannot be otherwise. To bring the future into the present, to introduce the present to the future, to recreate the present as the future, to imagine the future as a possibility in the present, to rewrite history as point-of-view, to explore within point-of-view a history of archives or an archival history - the histories that history has concealed all along, the history of remembering what you’re certain is forgotten, to comprehend “history” as a word in language, to comprehend the language of history or the history of a language – that’s where performance and radical politics meet.


What is the political in politics? And, what is the politics of the avant-garde? The phrase “in the nature of things” is an empty, meaningless one. There’s nothing natural about ‘nature’ nor is culture which gives us a definition of both nature and the natural ever apolitical. Politics is about the power to define; it’s not innate but connected to what individuals and groups believe or are persuaded to believe in terms of their own rhetoric. What kind of a language describes the reality is as important as the reality; it’s not the reality but, without it reality would exist in a vacuum.  


Avant-garde’s sworn enemy is the discourse of realism. Realism attempts to mirror reality in the language of the so-called reality. The avant-garde literary artist shatters any complacent notion of either such a reality or a language that makes claims to it. In mirroring reality, realism justifies the politics of an unequal society. Realism is a discourse of power that thrives in the big publisher’s market. Marx famously said that he made Hegel stand on his feet. What the avant-garde poet does is to free reality from the clutches of realism and in the act of subverting institutionalized meaning forces reality to stand on its feet.


A manifesto must be rewritten for the “small” publishers who, in fact, are the intellectuals that create the taste of mass audiences that the “big” publishers cleverly exploit to their advantage. The above statement is a generalization that needs to be contested on a larger terrain: which it is not possible to do so because the forces are not equally placed. The financial constraints and the audience reach of small publishing houses do not stand comparison with the big ones. But the contact with the creative “masses” is more so with the small publisher given the interactivity between the publishers, the writers and the readers. The politics of the avant-garde writer is the politics of the “small.” It’s the “David” complex of fighting the Goliath of money and power as embodied in a corporatized state and reinforced through the “big” publisher that controls and manipulates the taste of the readership. With the small publisher the readership can only be an active one; that’s where avant-garde politics manifests itself because it is constantly at war with words that make claims to reality.


Being Avant-Garde

Peter Eckersall in the article 'From Liminality to Ideology: The Politics of Embodiment in Prewar Avant-Garde Theater in Japan' notes that: “The aim of the avant-garde is nothing less than to bring about a revolution of everyday life by aesthetic means—to transform the modern world” (Harding, 2006, 225). In the global discourse the postmodern parody element meant to deconstruct attempts to arrive at absolute truth has the negative consequence of preventing a serious critique of power. Globalization has created a calculated desperation for heroes and heroism, either to become one or to find one that you uncritically dedicate yourself to; the vacuousness of overconsumption does not come without a price. Polemics is the answer to that kind of vacuousness; Pasolini’s 1975 film Salo or the 120 days of Sodom responds to the ideology of consumption which is the guiding force of the bourgeoisie – you not only literally eat “shit” but you also prostitute your children and you’ve no problems enslaving and abusing them mentally before you do it physically. Polemics does not reject point-of-view; it problematizes it. It shows that points of view are neither innocent nor meant to be so. It shows that innocence is a false ideal of a decadent bourgeoisie invented by their organic intellectuals to make exploitation seem human and at all times unintended. What the polemicist does is “to direct one's attention violently towards the present as it is, if one wishes to transform it” (Gramsci, 1992, 175).  


The avant-garde poet of the 21st century is neither the nihilist we see in the character of Nechayev or Bazarov nor the misogynist Marinetti glorifying war and militarism. Years after his essay on the futurists says Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks not without a sense of the future that, “What "ought to be" is therefore concrete; indeed it is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality, it alone is history in the making and philosophy in the making, it alone is politics” (Gramsci, 1992, 172). The politics of the avant-garde poet is the politics of what “ought to be;” while the politics of the big publishing houses is the politics of “what is” that rejects the notion of reality as a changing entity and reduces it to stasis.


To rephrase Gramsci’s comment on the futurists in a 21st century context, the global “intellectual hen-house is all of a flutter” especially with social networking occupying much of intellectual space in the lives of the youth across the world. Digital technologies carry within them the unfortunate tendency to distance poetry from human concerns such as war, floods and famines – more so when the agents of environmental and social destruction can be clearly identified in the global corporate agenda. The avant-garde poet throws down the gauntlet to the forces of reaction restoring poetry to its original function of being a critical voice of the masses: embrace the irreverence to forms that characterizes the “ought to be” in the face of “what is,” celebrate the power of labour to invent itself anew through a poetry of perpetual resistance, confront the rhetoric of nationalism whose political expression is fascism, reject that which comes in the way of social change and shape the order of things enabling the weak and the disempowered to have a chance to fight back.



Prakash Kona © 2013






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