The Terrible Twos, Marjorie Perloff and Charles Altieri and the Dangers of Dialectical Thinking
One of the central critics of postmodern poetry, Marjorie Perloff, treats postmodernism in her various books as an exploitation of the formal potentialities of avant-garde experimentation, collage, automatism, non-referentiality and the like, in a way that much poetic modernism was unable or unwilling to do. This type of poetics she calls “radical artifice,” (borrowing a phrase from Lanham), or a foregrounding of the made nature of the poem at the expense of myths of organicism and naturalism. As she emphasises, the postmodern poem turns against the “natural look” of the modernist poem with its ideas of a thing in nature dealt with directly using an ordinary syntax and placed in a free-verse form that was somehow seen as less artificial. Instead, it is clearly an artificial construct: “Artifice, in this sense, is less a matter of ingenuity or manner, or of elaboration and elegant subterfuge, than of a recognition that a poem or painting or performance text is a made thing contrived, constructed, chosen…”[i]
If Perloff sees postmodern poetry as carrying on and innovating the avant-garde tradition through the application of a self-conscious artificiality, other critics go further back than this beginning their analysis with Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Instead of poet as thing-maker they consider the poet as soul-maker and postmodern poetry as soul critique. Soul critique involves, like the attack on the modernist artefact, a denaturalising of the subject, in fact of being in its entirety. The subject, like the material processes of its expression, is foregrounded as a constructed thing, most probably under construction all the time, especially through the material process of expression which in poetic terms means language and image.
In contrast to Perloff’s sense of postmodernism as being avant-garde modernism operating at its fullest potential, therefore, the other premier critic of the field, Charles Altieri, sees postmodern poetry as being a process for the poet’s mind to find revelatory relationships with the particular. In the face of a wildly divergent, democratised and digitalised hurricane of details within postmodern culture, rather than look for structures to impose upon the vagaries of experience’s sublime magnitude and particularity, Altieri argues that postmodernism strives towards the discovery of relationships within the mind with such experience.[ii] He suggests there are two types of poets, symbolist and immanentist, tracing both types back to Romantic poetry. Coleridge is symbolist. He looks to transform nature into lasting and satisfying human structures called poems. Wordsworth is immanentist. He tries to transform the self through relationships with the vast variety of potential encounters with nature. This is tiring and useful work so every now and again Wordsworth pauses to rest, take stock, and maybe disseminate what he has learned in something also called a poem.
It would seem that there are two Romantic traditions; the ideology is bifurcated. Both struggle with nature’s vastness and endless dynamic of change much in the same way that modernists struggled with everyday life’s multiplicity and transience. One poet seeks to select what is important and freeze dry it in prosodic form, the other to lose themselves in nature and take poetry holidays from the process so as to reflect on that process. The symbolist poet sees the poem as artefact, he is also typical of a particular type of modernism. The immanentist poet sees the poem and poet as part of the process. He is typical of another type of modernism which we call postmodernism, or at least that is Altieri’s argument.
Perloff and Altieri have both made significant interventions on postmodern culture through their analyses of American postmodern poetry and their work will inform much of what I attempt to go on and do here. From this brief overview of their work we can already see that postmodern poetry has a critical relationship with the past where the mode of criticism and the object of the critique is under contestation, and where the dating of the past, in any case always very difficult, remains obscure. Does poetic modernism begin in the late 18th century in England with Romanticism, the mid-nineteenth century in America with Transcendentalism, the late nineteenth century in France with symbolism, all over Europe at the beginning of the 20th century with avant-gardism, all over Europe and American in the early twentieth century with modernism, or has any of this really passed us yet? Both also, by definition, do not believe in a postmodern poetry per se. Perloff sees contemporary innovative poetics as an innovation of avant-garde modernism, Altieri as a continuation of one strand of Romanticism.
Aside from their scepticism towards the term postmodern poetry we can put together a simple picture of postmodernism’s rejection of modernism, taking modernism to mean poetry in the period of our modernity. First, we can identify what is rejected, the naturalism of form essential to modernism but also to Romanticism of course, and the naturalism of being broached by Romanticism and left pretty much untouched by modernism. Second, we can describe how these two naturalised poetic meta-narratives are rejected in both instances by a revelation of the constructed nature of language and being. Finally, we can say that in both instances the reason for this revelation of construction is not to show the poet’s artfulness and skill, but to force the reader to question perhaps the most centrally important assumption of the modern age, that we are autonomous beings able to express ourselves significantly through language and be understood in full by other similar beings in doing so confirm common values. Remove this assumption and issues of politics, history, science and technology also begin to collapse. Postmodern poetry, therefore, must be located at the centre of contemporary culture even if its audience is relatively tiny.
[i] Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1991) 28.
[ii] See Charles Altieri, Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960’s (Lewisburg Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1979) where he first broaches this theory, and Postmodernisms Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts (Pennsylvania: Penn. State University Press, 1998) where he restates and further develops it in relation to more recent poetry.