Postmodern Poetry, A Definition
Postmodern poetry is an international phenomena of aesthetic multiplicities as is typical of many postmodern cultural products. It also operates self-consciously, even foundationally, within a philosophical and/or ideological context where categorisation and closed definition are rejected in favour of investigation and free play. A definition, therefore, can only ever be of a general nature and it must always be accepted that such a definition is closer to a strategy or better, as it is poetry of which we speak, a pattern into which the rangy, tireless energy of the poetry has settled for an unspecified but limited period of time. I could, at this point, pass the buck entirely and suggest that postmodern poetry exceeds definition but this would not be true for it operates within an environment still constituted by modernist values of summation and fixity for which definitions are essential. If I do not impose a definition some other agency will perhaps openly hostile to the work, indeed this is already happening. So, feeling like a cad, a bounder, a sell-out, but for the wider good of the cause, here is something approximating a definition.
Postmodern poetry is a material practice based on a complex, critical, self-conscious interaction with and/or rejection of poetic modernisms.
In this way, postmodern poetry reflects on the contemporary world in which we live whose global late monopoly consumer capitalism has resulted in a cultural manifestation called postmodernism. For some, postmodernism is the spokesperson for contemporary material conditions and so is an ideology. For others it is a radical questioning of the ideologies of late capitalism. For postmodern poets it is both. Due to the nature of postmodern culture and the modernist constructs it deconstructs, in conjunction with the specificity of the history of poetic modernism, some central ideas must be radically overhauled in this poetry, in particular, assumptions around the identity of the poet. Within postmodern poetics subjectivity must come under contested consideration. At the same time the materiality of the poem must be extended, exploded, revealed and the ideologies of form questioned. Therefore, for postmodern poets, an assumption that postmodern ideas are not only the result of a change in material conditions but also must have material effects on the work of art specific to that type of art is central. Poetry that investigates postmodernism without formal innovation is not postmodern, nor is poetry that is simply experimental; instead such poetry ought to be seen as a continuation of modern literary assumptions.
Let me explain the careful wording of my definition. Postmodern poetry can take many forms which is why we must call it a practice and not a product. For example it may be an ongoing record of day to day events to which there is no end such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts or the project-based work of Allen Fisher. It could be a decision to write a number of lines a day like John Ashbery’s “Fragment,” or a number of sentences per paragraph as in Ron Silliman’s Tjanting. And, like Silliman’s Tjanting, and Charles Bernstein’s “The Artifice of Absorption,” a lot of postmodern poetry is in prose. A lot is also collaborative. Many postmodern poets are involved in the visual arts and the work of a number could be described as primarily visual such as that of Johanna Drucker and Susan Howe. Performativity is also key with some work being a spontaneous one-off performance such as David Antin’s talk poems or more worked through such as Caroline Bergvall’s work. In conjunction with hypertext and new media the performance of the work could actually occur within the reader, we have for example Loss Pequinos Glazier’s hypertext works stressing the automatic and mechanistic modes of composition important to many postmodern poets. In addition to all of this there are also those poets like J.H Prynne, Frank O’Hara, Tom Raworth, and John Kinsella for whom the poem is simply an open-ended and ongoing process, like life is I suppose. This is the phenomenal richness of postmodern poetic practice.
Aside from this material diversity, one of the central tenets of postmodern poetry is that it rejects modernism’s valorisation of the poem as a lasting artefact fashioned from the transience of modern life. David Harvey describes modernism’s essential paradox, first broached by Baudelaire in 1863 as a combination of the transient and the immutable, as a problem of procession and precedence. Modernity involves a radical break with the past beyond culture’s control. If culture is to follow suit it too must reject all that came before. Yet, such a process of creative destruction not only launches modernism too far from the historical process it is trying to express and influence, but it also requires a form of art that is self-destructive. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition. Modernism must resemble modern life, but if it is totally successful in this, then art as we know it will be totally destroyed because the processes of day-to-day life are in contradiction to those involved in making art works.[i] Harvey concludes:
If the modernist has to destroy in order to create, then the only way to represent eternal truths is through a process of destruction that is liable, in the end, to be itself destructive of those truths. Yet we are forced, if we strive for the eternal and immutable, to try and put our stamp upon the chaotic, the ephemeral, and the fragmentary…Modernism could speak to the eternal only by freezing time and all its fleeting qualities.[ii]
We might call this the anxiety of historicity and, as well shall see, this is also central to postmodern poetry, but for now let us concentrate on this act of putting your stamp on the chaotic, the basic aim of modern poetics. In postmodern poetics the poem as artefact is replaced by the poem as material process. This, Harvey states, is the very definition of the postmodern:
its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire's conception of modernity…It does not try to transcend it, counteract it, or even to define the 'eternal and immutable' elements that might lie within it. Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is.[iii]
Perhaps that is all there is, but for now let’s carry on with wet metaphors. It would seem that most modernists saw the poem like one of those long wooden barriers you see stretching across beaches in places of strong tide, they are called groynes, literally arresting the process of cultural erosion. Read the beach as culture, and the sea as the phillistinism, cruelty and the alienation of the modern era, and the allegory is complete. The poet wants to be in the process, in the water, but they want to limit its actual damage to the eternal presence of the beach. In contrast, the postmodernist points out that at the same time as the sea erodes the beach it also deposits eroded material to form that beach, possibly material from another, more interesting, beach. Postmodernism then reflects on the inevitability of the process of erosion. The beach is not, in fact, eternal. One day the beach will succumb to the sea, why pretend otherwise? Finally, postmodernism might try to cheer you up by inviting you into the sea, come on in the waters of now are lovely, and by explaining that there are many other beaches to choose from. This beach is not all the beach there is.
As this book progresses there will be a lot these structures of comparison and contrast because postmodern poetry is defined by not being modernism and because of that bothersome prefix post-, especially bothersome as modernism is the art of the now and post-nowism is almost impossible to conceive of. However, the relationship between poetic modernism and postmodernism is not that of a simple before and after or thesis-antithesis. As I began by suggesting, this relationship is complex, critical and self-conscious which could be left simply as that, or be preparation for an aggressive, total rejection of modernism. The first point to be made in reference to this fractious affiliation is that the division between the modern and the postmodern in poetry is not as clear as in other genres. This is because poetic modernism was not the same as prose modernism or architectural modernism. In some ways poetry was in advance of other modernisms, and this meant it has lagged behind certain other postmodernisms, resting on its laurels. In addition, postmodern poetry’s difference from modernism is dependant wholly on its critical response to it. By this I do not mean the over-vaunted concept of the anxiety of influence, but rather that postmodern poetry is in many instances a form of modernism critique. This is reflected in the self-consciousness to be found in postmodern poetry of the fact that, after the massive successes of poetic modernism, it does not really have anywhere to go. Modernism was, by definition, poetic and poetry was too successful as a result.[iv] What we see now is something akin to modernism’s decadent decline.
[i] Ihab Hassan designates the late work of Samuel Beckett as archetypal of what he calls the literature of silence or moments where modernism has pushed its conception of the limits of expression to the point where expression is simply impossible or irrelevant. For more see Ihab Hassan, The Literatures of Silence. Paul Bové, in his introduction to Early Postmodernism, describes how, in the early days of postmodernism, such late modern literatures of silence were what was seen as postmodernist but which now we would designate as the end game of modernism. Paul Bové ed., Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) 1-9.
[ii] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 16-21
[iii] Ibid. 44.
[iv] The point about modernism’s reliance on poetic practice is now something of a common place but contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou takes it one step further. He suggests a meta-narrative schema of western metaphysics consisting of four generic situations: matheme, poem, politics, love and their compossibility or their working all together. Different periods are defined by different and unequal configurations of these four which he calls sutures. The age of the poets, for example, the age we are in now, is the suturing of the poem to a philosophy located between the work of Neitzsche and Heidegger, where the poem was the centre of a “forgetful nihilism.” Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy. Trans. Norman Madarasz. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1999) 43. In talking about archetypal modernist poets such as Celan, Trakl, Rilke and Mandelstam, Badiou states that “In the modern age…a few poets alone have pronounced being…The poetic word of these poets has made holes in the fabric of oblivion. It has detained…the question of Being (ibid. 49-50), before concluding “Thought is today under the poet’s condition” (ibid. 50). Like Giorgio Agamben, another contemporary philosopher intimately concerned with poetry, Badiou’s sense of philosophical periodisation is out of phase with cultural periods such as postmodernism so that when he speaks of today’s though being under the poet’s condition, he refers ostensibly to modernity and modernist poetics. He shows no knowledge, in his work, of postmodern poetry and makes no room for the possibility that postmodernism has somehow moved beyond the “suture” of continental, existential and phenomenological traditions of a hundred or so years ago.