Post-Dating the Postmodern
Another cause of complexity comes from the fact that when considering poetic postmodernism, modernism, the thing we are supposed to be post-, must suffer to have its boundaries extended backwards upwards of a hundred years before the avant-garde explosions of the late nineteenth century to include Romanticism. Just as one can argue that postmodern novels are more apparently an attack on nineteenth century realism than modernistic stream of consciousness or multiple perspectives, much of postmodern poetry is a direct rejection of what has come to be known as the Romantic Ideology. Put simply, postmodernism is always at the same time post-Romanticism, indeed may be much more post-Romanticism and part-Modernism.
The Romantic ideology typified by Wordsworth and Coleridge and deconstructed by McGann, Hartman and Bloom,[i] sees the poet as a visionary and singular being slightly alienated from society due to the demands of genius, gifted with the synthesising power of imagination or of being able to “see into the life of things.”[ii] Their poetry should be a spontaneous event triggered by a real encounter whose meaning should pertain to authentic emotionality, deep insight and difficult but universal truths. It should be pedagogic, teaching you how to learn from nature like the poet does. It should also be formally loose yet seem natural, organic even. It is not something anyone can do, and while its initiation is spontaneous, its execution is accomplished and auspicious. Once finished you realise that yes, it could not have been done any other way. You can learn from the poet and the poem, but this does not mean you too can become a poet and write a poem. This is the role of only a few special people of imagination, mostly male, preferably European, aspiring increasingly towards middle class values.
Take a look around. Check out the kind of verse that appears in weekly newspapers, the books that are winning poetry prizes, especially the Nobel prize, the poets who are becoming laureates. They are mainly Romantic. Talk to literature students, especially those involved in creative writing courses. Stop people in the street. Ask them what a poem should be and you will find that, as Harold Bloom argues, we are all still Romantics.[iii]
Indeed, it could be argued that the lasting legacy of Romantic and Transcendental, late eighteenth/early nineteenth century traditions in English language poetry reveals that late nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century poetic modernism either failed totally or still has a lot to do. It was, after all, a self-declared enemy of Romanticism and when it rejected the past what it meant was the recent past. Isn’t that, after all, what we all mean by the past since modernism? In this vein, many of the poets I will here describe as postmodernist would see themselves as late modernists, poetry makers committed to the Enlightenment project of political emancipation and the positive role of the art work within this historical process. In this conviction they would be joined by critics such as Neil Corcoran, Andrew Crozier, Robert Hampson, Peter Barry, and Marjorie Perloff.[iv] They would look around in disgust at the predominance of the Romantic Ideology in the field and declare that modernism is as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago. They might point out that if Olson or Stein were alive today they would not be able to get a publisher proving that modernism is still a vital and necessary form of subversive activity.
In a very basic way these poets cannot be said to be postmodernist in the simplistic before and after logic that has been forced upon this culturally vital, yet misunderstood term. While they work against the Romantic/Transcendentalist tradition typified by a poet like Seamus Heaney, they are more than willing to identify their work as a continuation of the project of modernism. They are not post-modernists at all, in other words, but post-Romantic late-modernists. It is central then that we accept that these many poets have different conclusions as regards their great predecessor. Some wish to continue to be modernists by re-occupying their forms and renovating them within a contemporary context. This is actually a very postmodern thing to do. Others want to reveal modernism’s pernicious influence over the writing of poetry and reject it altogether. Which is actually a rather avant-garde and modernist thing to do. I think you get the message, there is no simple answer to this issue which is why it is so singular, various and open-ended; all good postmodern words. Perhaps one simply has to be facetious and say that we call these writers postmodernist because it is easier that post-Romantic late-modernists, or perhaps because, within poetry, that’s kind of what postmodernism means. However, by modernism such writers are more likely to mean the European avant-garde or American objectivist and Projectivist traditions, than T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats, which takes us to the final part of my definition, the addition of an ‘s’ to the term modernism. Postmodernism yes, but post which modernism?
Recent work by Peter Nicholls and Rachel Blau DuPlessis,[v] and a general reappraisal of the marginalised and forgotten voices of modernism often the result of the work of postmodern poets,[vi] leads us to an appreciation that in contradistinction to high or international modernism, there is a much more fascinating long and wide modernism. Postmodern poetry is partly responsible for this extension of modernism. One is tempted to say with enemies like these who needs friends as postmodernism seems to have resulted in the enrichment of the modernist tradition, not its collapse. As critics like Harvey, Perry Anderson, Steven Connor and Linda Hutcheon prove, postmodernism is, in any case, the best way at looking at modernism,[vii] and postmodern poetry allows us a view of modernism that is revelatory and exiting in identifying it as varied, politicised, extensive, self-critical, radical and liberating.
[i] In particular look at the lively debate conducted in the field between …
[ii] Ref. Tintern Abbey
[iii] See Harold Bloom,
[iv] I will consider late and neo modernisms towards the end of the book but it is worth noting here that Corcoran defines neo-modernist as different from postmodern due to a turning against the humanist and empiricist tradition, an acknowledged debt to Pound and Olson and a readiness for formal experimentation. (Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940 London: Longman, 1993) 164. He is taking his lead here from Andrew Crozier’s essay “Thrills and Spills…”, but he is also backed up by Hampson and Barry’s definition of a British late modernism defined as being a poetry of juxtaposition rather than discursiveness, of statement, and of verbal sparseness. (Hampson and Barry 3). As I will go on to show these can just as easily be techniques of postmodernism as the specific nature of the rhetoric of postmodern poetry is less relevant than the poet’s self-conscious attitude towards rhetoric. Still, the voices ranged against postmodernism’s cultural and periodic specificity are significant and ought not to be discounted out of hand.
[vii] A new formulation of modernist studies has, to my mind, come about because of the work of these critics. Rather than looking at modernism in relative isolation from that which proceeded from it, as you might find in studies such as Mattei Calinescu’s The Five Faces of Modernity or Stephen Kearn’s The Culture of Space and Time, postmodern criticism has actually come upon a clearer sense of modernism due to the fact of postmodernism being, essentially, a modernist critique. For more on this see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity (London: Verso, 1998), Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1997) and Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism. (London: Routledge, 1989). This is in accord with the postmodern temporal category of future anteriority which is to be found in Jean-François Lyotard’s essay “XXXX”. Future anteriority suggests that postmodernism is the pre-condition of modernism but that we needed modernism to occur before we could see postmodernism as being such. Postmodernity, in Lyotard’s definition, is the sublimity of the event, or the radical irreducibility of things that happen. Postmodern art testifies to this irreducibility whereas modern art tries to tame its inexpressible singularity within artefacts of expression. This is a highly contentious definition of postmodernity, although accurate in relation to modernity, and I will take up this discussion later on the book.