Turning Point: 1945-57

Avant-Garde Resurgences in 1950’s Europe

Department of Artistic Research (Comparative Literature) University of Helsinki, Spring 2006

Isidore Isou, Paris 1951
Isidore Isou, Paris 1951

After Auschwitz, Theodor Adorno famously commented, to write poetry would be barbaric. Traditional poetry, and other aspects of culture-as-normal were interrupted by the war, and left with crippling crises of conscience after it. The literary history of this period shows a fascinating divide. On the one hand prominent mainstream writers were urging formal restraint and thematic sobriety. On the other, more marginal groups were resurrecting a spirit of avant-garde provocation and experiment largely dormant since the 20’s (and largely ignored until recently), in the process conducting perhaps the most fundamental rethinking of the nature and aims of poetry to date. In this course we explore this period through a few of its key moments.

Holland House, London 1940
Holland House, London 1940

In the German context, we consider Adorno’s comments relative to Paul Celan’s anguished effort to start again anyway, and the Gruppe 47‘s search for fresh starts. In the English context, we look at the “Movement” poets (Donald Davie, et al.), and the eventual rejection of their rationalist, anti-symbolist principles by Ted Hughes. Then, in France, where Existentialism was conducting a parallel moral inquiry (Sartre), we consider a batch of radical movements busy reinventing poetry in unrecognizable forms. This includes the College of ’Pataphysics, as well as the very strange story of Lettrisme, considered both as an important renewal of visual and sound poetry practices, and as a revival of Dada interventionism leading ultimately to the Situationist International, and their rejection of all poetry and art in favor of radical “poetic” urbanism and social revolt.

A survey of this period supplies us an important connective between our understanding of early literary modernism and our knowledge of the dispersed field of experimental practices that has flourished since the 1960’s. Also, it provides a valuable comparison between “mainstream” and “avant-garde” responses to the moral crisis of world war, and to the resumption of modernism as a cultural project.


1.  Introduction

Review topic; Literary developments 1945-1957 in Germany, England and France – Pose core problematic: 1945 as radical break in history; moral, formal and political challenges of going on with literature: “poetry after Auschwitz”.

Rilke: “The Ninth Elegy” from The Duino Elegies and sonnet IV from Sonnets to Orpheus Part I (Both 1922). – Celan: Michael Hamburger’s “Introduction” to The Collected Poems (1987). – Selections from Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952); “Sprich auch du” from Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (1955); “Engführung” from …. (1964).  [Felstiner and/or Joris translations].

2. Germany, 1945: Nullpunkt of Poetry

Overview of cultural mood; comments from Thomas Mann on humiliation and opportunity; generalized trauma (PTSD); Jasper’s “Die Schuldfrage”. – Overview of literary scene; break-down by role in relation to Nazi action: fascists (e.g. Ernt Jünger), “inner immigrants”, resisters or/and martyrs (e.g. Nelly Sachs), exiles (Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht).

Key problem: continuity or tabula rasa? – Groups/Movements: Junge Generation (Andersch and aussichstlose “Third Way”); Gruppe 47 and the draining of political aspirations

3. Celan, Adorno and Sartre: Committed Literature

Celan:  “Death Fugue” and “Engführung” – Adorno: closing paragraph of “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1949), and “Commitment” (Radio Bremen talk, 1962). – Sartre: pp. 304-315 of “The Situation of the Writer in 1947” from What is Literature?.

4. The Movement and the Generational Reaction

English Poetry Since 1940 by Neil Corcoran: “Introduction” to Part III “From the 50’s”. – Donald Davie: “Creon’s Mouse”, “Remembering the ‘Thirties”, “Hawkshead and Dachau in a Christmas Glass”, “Eight Years After” all from Brides of Reason (1955); passages from The Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) [[pp.16-17; 96-101]]. – Ted Hughes: “Lineage”, “Examination at the Womb-Door”, “A Kill”, “Crow’s First Lesson”, “That Moment”, “Crow’s Account of the Battle”, “The Black Beast”, “A Disaster”, “In Laughter”, “Crow Blacker than Ever”, “Revenge Fable”

5. Paris 1945: Lettrism and Isou’s Impossible Restart

Greil Marcus: from Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century – Isidore Isou: Introduction à une nouvelle poésie, et une nouvelle musique

6. The Lettrist International

Lettrist International: writings in LI, Potlatch and Les Lèvres Nus – Greil Marcus: from Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century – Ivain Chtcheglov: “Formulary for a New Urbanism” – Guy Debord: “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography”, “Theory of the Dérive”

7. The Situationist International

Situationist International:  “Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation” – “Definitions”,   “All the King’s Men”,  “Detournement as Negation and Prelude” – Debord and Gil J. Wolman:  “A User’s Guide to Détournement” – Attila Kotányi, Raoul Vaneigem: “Elementary Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism” – Guy Debord:  The Society of the Spectacle, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle


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