Singing and Dancing Our Way Through the Critics of Postmodern Poetry
Postmodernism has resulted in a radical questioning of western meta-narratological assumptions, revealing at the same time a tendency towards oppositional structures of categorical thinking which establish dubious hierarchies and close down variety and difference. And yet critics of postmodernism in all its forms still indulge in just such modes of oppositional and hierarchical thinking. Brian McHale, for example, in his classic study of postmodern fiction presents a clear differentiation between modernist prose, which he calls epistemological, and postmodern, which he decides is ontological. Modernist writers struggle with how to interpret the world around them, the postmoderns revel in the creation of new worlds. This neat, dialectical approach has been attempted in relation to postmodern literature and theory by other critics, most famously Ihab Hassan, and you can see this modernist and humanist tendency towards structured thinking in both Perloff and Altieri. Modernism is naturalised, postmodernism artificial; moderrnism makes things, postmodernism creates an awareness of the processes of this construction. Clearly critics are tempted by the implications of the term postmodern and have read post to mean counter or opposite to. However, apart from the fact that literary movements are rarely reducible to one single value, certainly one philosophical term however broad, the dialectical model is not only too reductive but it also perpetuates a modernist dialectical schema within a literature that openly rejects such schema, a point Paul Bové has made about Altieri’s work. As I have already said, a great value must be placed on the groundbreaking work of these critics but the basic difficulty of Perloff and Altieri’s relative positions is a refusal to see postmodern poetry as something singular within literary history whose difference matches the cultural difference postmodernism initiates. Postmodern poets must always be, therefore, out of step with their postmodern times, yet for those of us who have studied this poetry, we know this simply is not true.
Postmodern poetry is one of the central components of postmodern culture. It precedes all forms of postmodern culture, it is the most effective in stressing how metaphysical truth claims are constructions of language, it is the most in touch with the previous positions of modernism because modernism chose poetry through which to express itself in essence, it has always been a simultaneous absorption of and critique of postmodern culture, and even its lack of visibility has forced it to find alternative means of production and reception making it a technologically advanced, performance-based visualised art well in advance of it’s great rival narrative prose.
Perloff and Altieri’s work must, therefore, be supplemented by the critical work of others who believe that what they are writing about actually exists as fresh, contemporary movement. Multu Konuk Blasing is one a number of critics who make a case of postmodern poetic difference and specificity—note here how we avoid that very modernistic term novelty. The core assumption of modernism, according to Blasing, is the need for the suppression of the rhetoric of its forms. Postmodernism emphasises that all means of expression are essentially rhetorical constructs. They are basically lies in that rhetoric cannot be a truth claim, it can only help argue such a claim:
No truth can lead to an ethical, political, or aesthetic imperative without a rhetorical translation...Postmodern poetry highlights this moment of rhetorical intervention and, focusing on representation and the persuasive goals of figuration, breaks with Romantic and modernist organicisms alike, which have ceased to be convincing.
This is an essential development from Perloff’s point about artifice. While postmodern poetry can resemble modernism, Romanticism, indeed any –ism that takes its fancy, what differentiates the postmodern from all that came before is a revelation of the rhetorical basis of all truth claims. Thus, poetry in the postmodern age sees its essence as an understanding of the rhetorical mediation of truth and a self-conscious revelation of this not only in terms of past poetic traditions’ claims for truth, but all claims for truth. Blasing, therefore, locates postmodern poetry at the centre of postmodernism’s turn to language as the inescapable mediation of truth, experience, reality and knowledge. This is what Paul Naylor calls “contemporary investigative poetry…the way Wittgenstein investigates our uses of words as they move in and out of various language-games.”
James Logenbach agrees with Blasing that postmodernism is definitely a poetic period all its own, taking the term to mean any poetry that comes after modernism and knows that it does and shows that it knows. In this he is joined by Jerome Mazzaro who, in his book Postmodern American Poetry, reveals that the term was first used in relation to American poetry by Randell Jarrell in his 1946 review of Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle of all things! He goes on to note that:
in conceiving of language as a fall from unity, modernism seeks to restore the original state often by proposing silence or the destruction of language; postmodernism accepts the division and uses language and self-definition…as a basis of identity.
The division in question is, of course, that between the word and the world whose separation was seen as abyssal and abysmal by modernism but is taken for granted by postmodernism, which has since moved on. Placing Blasing, Logenbach, Mazzaro and Naylor together we can say that postmodernism must be aware that it is not modernism, it must occur within a specific time frame called postmodernism upon which it reflects, from the nineteen sixties to now (although the first postmodern poems were being written in the early fifties), and it is not upset that the truth of the world is not expressible through language because it can only be known through the mediation of language, which immediately renders it rhetorical and therefore untrue in an essential way.
What is interesting about these definitions is the kind of poets they allow under the umbrella-term postmodern. They are not, on the whole, postmodern at all. To be postmodern you have to be writing in the period called postmodernism, reflecting on that period, and allowing the implications of the period to transform your poetic practice. Just applying one or two of these criteria to a poet is not enough. Mazzaro is particularly guilty of this. His study covers the work of Auden, Jarrell, Roethke, Ignatow, Berryman, Plath and Bishop, none of whom will be looked at in this study because a case for their postmodernity cannot easily be made. Even Blasing’s study makes room for Bishop and Merrill, but does not address any number of poets who fulfil his definition of postmodernism almost perfectly, in particular those associated with what we call Language poetry.
While Mazzarro’s definition seems so general that it can totally disregard all major postmodern poets, Jonathan Holden actually criticises it as too reductive and instead applies a Bloomian anxiety of influence model, which proves postmodern poetry is not founded on epistemological anxieties at all but is all to do with poetic convention. He suggests that modernist experimentation led to an uncertainty over what constitutes poetic form, forcing postmodern poets to seek analogical forms such as conversation, dreams, letters, songs, chants, which are non-organic and not traditionally poetic and so have not been problematised by modernism. The most extreme of these are poems, which are spoken by nobody, poems in which our sense even of the author’s presence as a central consciousness all but disappears. These are poems in the so-called ‘postmodernist’ mode…poems which are asserted as objects and whose forms depend entirely upon analogues, in that they passively recapitulate all the possible modes of discourse, literary or otherwise.
This is a useful comment to add onto our definition in that it reminds us of the primacy of what used to be called poetic form; what I will tend to refer to here as semiotic materiality. The postmodern poem, to escape from the ideology of organic form as an authentic expression of the poet’s self, has to use all sorts of materials that are not poetic, and apply them in such a way as you realise there is no organising genius orchestrating this material. This is the difference, for example, between modernist and postmodernist collage and discontinuity that might otherwise seem basically the same.
Returning once more to McHale’s definition we might consider his epistemological/ontological split in relation to poetry if only because it constitutes our western metaphysical tradition. Ian Gregson in his book Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism, for example, sees postmodern poetry as “the relentless deconstruction of the ‘real,’” although by this he means many different things and one could say he is really talking about authenticity of voice. Anyway, this sounds to me like an epistemological urge, concerned as it is with how one can come to know the world around us. Postmodern poetry is, as Mazzaro points out, eminently social showing a fascination with day-to-day reality in its own terms without recourse to what he calls modernism’s mysticism. So expect postmodern poetry to be investigative of “real” things, whatever you might of heard, including real people, historical events, television and computers.
At the same time you have James McCorkle’s much more worked through idea of postmodern poetry as a mode of speculative, ontological questing similar to Naylor’s idea of investigative poetics. This approach is based on a critique of Altieri’s model whose emphasis on postmodern poetry as an expression of subjectivity traceable back to Romanticism, is seen by McCorkle as true to a degree but too heavily tainted by issues of organicism, self-indulgence and expressiveness typical of Romantic poetics. McCorkle, therefore, retains Altieri’s ontological slant, postmodern poetry as essentially an expression of being, but moves away from the term “expression” towards “investigation”:
The most important of recent poetry concentrates on developing its capacity for speculation; the poet is a traveler whose maps are never complete and whose maps are not concluded. Poetry proposes an investigation and criticism of itself and of culture, with the hope that the process of transformation will be initiated…
The guarantee of cultural transformation comes from the emphasis on what McCorckle calls interconnection, “the process of writing and how we move through the written text. By moving into the space of writing (in contrast to the tradition of writing being a mere shadow of speech and reality), relations are reinvented and redefined.” McCorkle reads the world as a rhetorical construct much in the same way as Blasing does, only here the emphasis is on how we make a provisional self for ourselves from the process of rhetorical investigation, not how we reveal the rhetorical base of discursive truth claims. I think it is fair to say that postmodern poetry on the whole can do one or the other or both, but rarely does neither.
To sum up, the definition of postmodern poetry is under contestation as is fitting of a living and vibrant contemporary artistic practice. More general overviews of postmodern literature, such as McHale’s, or Linda Hutcheon’s influential idea of “historiographic metafiction”, do not work especially well, suggesting a nontranslatability of postmodern narratologies onto postmodern poetry. A number of definitions are basically sound until you look at the poets included under the banner of postmodern and then you begin to question them. Certainly, postmodernism is taken as a time period and I will tell the story of postmodern poetry’s development shortly, but it cannot simply be that. I would argue that much published poetry during the postmodern period which began in poetry in America in New York in the fifties and still goes on today, is not at all postmodern. The critical engagement with modernism is also a common thread, but modernists were doing that themselves over their sixty year history so it cannot stand alone. Postmodern poetry is concerned not only with interpreting this world in which we live, but also in investigating who we are, and in this way postmodern poetry is not purely restricted to critiques of modernist poetry, it must also be a response to our contemporary postmodern culture and how we live in it.
Finally, we must not forget Perloff’s belief that postmodernism is an ongoing engagement with avant-garde modernism as this concentrates our attention on the materiality of the poetry we are looking at. A general description of postmodern poetic attitudes often belies a very detailed type of innovative and rhetorically sceptical poetic entity which is simply not written by Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. Do we now need to change my original definition? No I don’t think so. Anyway, it is meant to act merely as a guide. Postmodern poetry is, as I said, typified by diversity and while it regularly comes up against the two poetic traditions of modernity, it would be wrong to think it is more interested in that than the influence of the internet or consumerism. Instead of thinking of these definitions as fixed, let’s take them as signposts for what we will expect to find in postmodern poetry: radically artificial structures, involved with deconstructing ideas of being in the world, very much concerned with the postmodern world around them, but always retaining a critical distance from postmodernism itself. They will undermine modernism, but only because we have come to take so much of it for granted and because modernism was the result of a stage of modernity now seen as over. In general, then, they won’t make a song and dance out of the end of modern history, but if they do it is because postmodern poetry loves to sing and it loves to dance.