Commentary Magazine

New Directions 19, edited by J. Laughlin

Literary Vanguard

New Directions 19.
by J. Laughlin.
New Directions. 313 pp. $6.00.

In 1936, James Laughlin published the first New Directions in Prose and Poetry, half magazine, half anthology of avant-garde literary and intellectual trends. For the next decade it appeared “at intervals of roughly a year.” In 1947 came Spearhead, whose “pleasant purpose,” Laughlin wrote in the introduction, “is to commemorate, and celebrate, the first ten years’ activity of New Directions by reprinting some of the best work that was published in the annual volumes.” In 1957, the sixteenth collection was published. In the ten years since then, there have appeared only three more. In the early volumes, many of the writers were young, a great deal of the material printed was original, and there were manifesto-like introductions. In New Directions 19 (published in 1966), more of the living writers are over sixty-five than under thirty-five, nearly everything is reprinted, and there is no introduction. As for the formal innovation which is supposed to characterize the avant-garde, if there is any here, it was performed by Rafael Alberti, a Spaniard, in the late 1920’s (in “Concerning the Angels,” a sequence of poems translated and with a scholarly introduction by Geoffrey Connell, an Englishman). In this collection, the most celebrated of the American writers young enough to have what one can hope will be a substantial future is Denise Levertov: she was born in England, she is one of the heirs of William Carlos Williams (who is also here, posthumously, as co-translator of some classical Chinese poems), and the first two lines of her poem, “A Lamentation,” read:

Grief, have I denied thee?
Grief, I have denied thee.

“The avant-garde” in this country put on the airs of a movement for a while, but now it is just another school, with practiced stances. With New Directions 19, the term itself demonstrably becomes useful only to literary history, like “imagism” or “the proletarian novel.”

This is not to say that the quality of the writing in this collection is lower than it was in the earlier, more belligerent ones. Much of the poetry is excellent, Günther Anders’s reflections on the moral consequences of modern weaponry are superb (and in lucid expository prose), Edward Dahlberg’s prose is as wonderful as it has been for the past thirty or forty years, and the bad stuff is no worse than formerly (how could it be?). Nor is it just that these are good or bad in the same old way. The weariness of this volume comes in large part from stale expectations stalely frustrated. If you read “A Lamentation” just because you feel like reading a poem expressing a universal human emotion honestly and artfully, you may well be pleased. If you read it looking for a new direction, hoping it will “extend the frontiers of literary method and content,” you will certainly be disappointed.

For thirty years James Laughlin has done more for contemporary American writing than any other publisher. He has done this not by publishing more first-rate books by American and foreign writers, though he has done well even in that competition, but by publishing writers who at that time would have had difficulty getting published anywhere else, if at all. How important this has been, and is, to the general literary community can hardly be overestimated. For a long time New Directions has been to commercial and scholarly publishers what little magazines are to commercial and scholarly magazines—an unreliable, crotchety, arrogant, tiresome, cantankerous cause of hope, resource against abandoning the whole project of literature to wolves and moths. There never was much of an avant-garde in America, and there is none now; but a good many valuable writers clustered around that banner because Laughlin raised it (and would publish them). New Directions Books might just as well, at this point, become The Laughlin Publishing Company. Nevertheless, except for literary pornographers, who have Grove Press, Laughlin is needed as much today as he was when he started and for the same fundamental reason—not the avant-gardiste reason he believed in, but in order to put out books and writers that might not get published now, now, when the raw need for recognition, a bare chance even, is hot upon them.



The very fact that the avant-garde has receded into history casts doubt on its validity in the first place, not just here but in Europe as well. For it claimed to be endlessly experimental, revitalizing, new. That it has become one tradition among several makes one ask what merit there was to that grand claim ever. A corollary to this question is to ask what merit there may be in the now-orthodox intellectual judgment that the rebellious avant-garde from Baudelaire and Flaubert to Joyce and Pound is the dominant, the only significant, tradition of the past century and that a writer, if he is to amount to anything, must Make It New; but to reach into this question, which tangles into the whole matter of attitude toward rebellion and society, is too much for this essay. Here, I will confine myself to suggesting two important reasons why the literary avant-garde has died.

The first reason is a change in the attitude of society toward art and artists. For whatever complex of reasons, a significant portion of society now treats the “avant-garde” with an admiration that matches its former hostility. It is hard to be the bristling vanguard of a crusading rebellion against an adversary who greets you with foundation grants in one hand and professorships in the other, or, if you don’t like those, with lecture tours and jobs in the BBC, or, if you are intransigent enough to reject the whole caboodle, with spreads in fashionable magazines about your intransigence. “Advance guard” is a military metaphor: where’s the war? (Even in Russia it is cooling down: Sinyavsky and Daniel were given prison terms, not executed.)

The other reason is that formal experimentation has pretty well exhausted itself. Poetry has been torn apart and put back together again several times in the past half century. After Robbe-Grillet and Burroughs, why bother to tear fiction apart again? After Beckett, what is there to do but admit that the blind-alley situation is well in hand? (The pornographers are still hard at work; someone should tell them that Sade explored and mapped that swamp nearly two centuries ago, definitively.) Originally, avant-garde artists performed their formal “experiments” because they had something to say which they believed could not be said in old forms. Now they do it partly because it is always fun to play with forms and an old form which has lost its vitality needs replacing; but they also do it in part because they accept uninspected the notion that to speak to Our Time they must Make It New, fearing as they do to be called quaint, out of date, “19th-century.” “Experimental” is a scientific metaphor: what’s scientific about art? (Except for cinema, which is currently the most flourishing art: it really is new, its formal possibilities are by no means exhausted, and science and art together brought it into being.)

War against “bourgeois” values (don’t ask too closely what “bourgeois” means here) and formal experimentalism—these are the defining characteristics of the avant-garde. Behind them both, invisible but potent, is a root error, faith in Progress, in the belief that society and art are both capable of limitless and progressive improvement. Science really could and did progress, and so extensive became the faith in the power of science that both the radical artists and the bourgeoisie they despised dreamed the same dream of Progress, but progress in all things, even in social and moral affairs, even, God help us, in art. The dream looks so pretty while you’re in it that you realize it was a deceitful nightmare only when you wake up in a cold sweat—if you’re lucky, that is, and don’t wake up crazy. Since the World Wars, anyone with imagination enough to be a good writer would need such massive shots of some stupefying dope, in order to dream the dream of Progress at all, that his imagination would no longer be available for his art.

Well, nobody won that war the avant-garde was engaged in against the bourgeoisie; the opponents were schismatics of the same false Church of Science and Progress, and the faith has faded. But at least those radical literary “experiments” bequeathed some valuable techniques to writers who accept unrevolutionary and un-progressive limitations—as Mann did, for instance, and Frost and Chekhov, that older and still enduring tradition of those who do not aim to assault and improve society, change you right now and the world before long, but who occupy themselves with delighting an audience and also figuring forth a truth or two for whoever wants his understanding enlarged, with telling tales, counting meters, providing intelligible motives for entrances, for exits.



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