Note: this was originally the opening chapter of a book for students on postmodern poetry, the sections below were the last two parts of this intro. referring to what would have followed if I had written the book.
Note that my work on Daffy Duck in Hollywood was to be the first chapter of the book.
Note sure if any of the below is of use but you never know.
So Sue Me or Mistakes I know I am Making
What I will attempt in the following chapters is, I hope, a challenging and theoretically informed introductory overview of postmodern poetry written in English over the past fifty years. Historicist and cultural materialist views of literature as a product of material conditions, while an influence on this study and some of the poets in question, will only be touched upon. I will not progress chronologically, in terms of nationality or groups, but will try to look at central characteristics of postmodern poetry as a whole. While I will deal with the central theorists of postmodernism in the next chapter, the big five of Baudrillard, Habermas, Jameson, Lyotard and Rorty, my analysis will not be restricted to their work. Apart from the fact that it has been over-analysed, at times to the point of parody, if they refer to the arts at all they clearly do not care about innovative poetry. Instead, I want to provide a theorisation of postmodern poetry that avoids generalisation and the endless repetition of the same five, or so, basic ideas: hyperreality and the crisis in representation, legitimation of Enlightenment values, late capitalism, incredulity towards metanarratives and the development of consensus amongst various speech communities. These ideas are important, but postmodern poetry does not always engage with them preferring other elements of postmodern theory by the big five: Jameson’s materialism or Lyotard’s idea of the differend. In addition, postmodern poetry is smart; it is brainy stuff, with numerous poets coming upon the core ideas of postmodernity before any of the major studies were published and often dealing with these ideas with a finesse and subtlety missing from much critical theory. Therefore, when I do bring theoretical concepts into play it will be to address them as much through issues raised by the poets themselves as by cultural theorists and philosophers.
As regards the poets I have selected and the texts I have used, I have tried to keep my definition of postmodernism coherent and detailed without making it too exclusive of voices that err on the side of modernism or on the side of traditionalism. Thus, I have classed all Language poets as postmodern, I have allowed late or neo modern writers like Prynne the status of postmodern because their modernism could only occur within our current postmodern age, and I have included some writers, most notably Muldoon and Carson, who some in the field of innovative poetics regard with contempt. I have been lenient in other words but not lax. All those poets who dabble with postmodern techniques to spice up their prosody are excluded, not due to a Stalinist purity but because they are a result of postmodern poetry, not active participants in the process. Similarly, those poets writing sceptical open field poetry since 1950, the Beats, Black Mountain poets and so on, are not part of this study as they do not match the basic criteria of my definition.[i]
Which brings me to the poets I have chosen to include. In all I will present detailed readings of about twenty poets, American, British, Irish, and Australian. This will exclude some good poets simply because of the richness of postmodern poetry but I will make up for this with general chapters on prosody, new media and gender, which will draw their examples from a wider pool of poets outside of these twenty. I have tried to choose poets I feel are exemplary and important in terms of defining the field but I will not necessarily be reading their most exemplary and important works and I do not hold these up as the most important postmodern poets either. Do not expect a canon of poems by the twenty best poets, although inevitably this is what will occur in some minor way. Instead, I am presenting exemplary features of postmodern poetry and using a limited number of poets, two to three per chapter, to investigate that feature while providing the reader with an introduction to the work of poets they may not know well or at all. Lots of things will go wrong for many people because of this, but in the end I believe this will be the most coherent, comprehensive and challenging overview of postmodern poetry that exists at the present.
Coming Next on Postmodern Poetry…
But enough about me. This book is divided into three parts to give a sense of structure and to aid usage. The introduction and first two chapters constitute a general introduction to postmodern poetry suitable for those encountering this material for the first time, but also for those who have read an amount of postmodern poetry and wish to have a clearer overview of the movement. Chapter one provides a cultural history of postmodern poetry’s development, an outline of the different groups of poets, and a consideration of how postmodern poetry relates to the kind of postmodern theory most of us are now familiar with. Chapter two then reads an archetypal postmodern poem to indicate to the reader what exactly the stakes are in reading and analysing such poetry, and what to expect from the poets under consideration.
Part two is more advanced and is made up of three chapters dealing in detail with the materiality of the postmodern poem or what used to be called form. Chapter three presents a detailed introduction to postmodern prosodic practices, chapter four describes the mechanistic compositional strategies of Kenneth Koch and Ron Silliman designed to undermine belief in the poet as a gifted, expressive unified subject, and chapter five looks at the issue of the materiality of the signifier, central to the Language poetry of Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. At the end of section two you should have a detailed, even generative, understanding of the semiotics of postmodern poetry which will allow you to read such poetry with ease and even pleasure.
Having dealt with the basic materiality of the postmodern poem, its reliance on language’s mechanisms, and the politicised issue of materiality, part three of this study looks at the role of postmodern poetry in the world at large; what used to be called theme but which I might just term its contemporaneity. Chapter six analyses two central theoretical categories, process and the sociological concept of the everyday, and how they have inform the poetry of Tom Raworth, Frank O’Hara and Allen Fisher. Having considered poetry as a process rather than a product, chapter seven goes one step further than that and looks at poetry off the page. By using recent work on hypertext and performance I will consider those writers, artists and performers all creating artefacts that might be called poetry, but which do not exist in any of the traditional mediums central to print culture.
Chapter eight deals with words and things by reading the work of James Schuyler and John Kinsella and how they manage to write a poetry of nature and things amidst the postmodern crisis of representation. Having dealt with objects, chapter nine, in looking at the poetry of Lyn Hejinian and John Ashbery, returns to the issue of the postmodern subject. Postmodernism has been dominated by a total reappraisal of the ways in which we tell stories and chapter ten attempts to relocate that debate away from prose through a consideration of the narrative poetry of Paul Muldoon and Susan Howe. The ideological implications of postmodernism as the end of history are then further investigated in chapter eleven. Here I look at how contemporary poets such as Bridgett Riley, Ciaran Carson and Barrett Watten openly pursue issues of postmodern politics and ethics. Staying with this theme chapter twelve then considers the issue of gender and marginalisation in avant-gardism and the solutions contemporary, postmodern women poets have found to this perennial problem.
The book will end with two chapters addressing the possibility that postmodernism either never happened, or if it did is now definitely over. In Chapter thirteen I consider the suggestion that many postmodern poets are merely carrying on the work of modernism through readings of the work of Barbara Guest and J.H. Prynne, both of whom work critically within a modernist tradition. After this I will address the charge by critics such as Altieri and Terry Eagleton that, whatever it was, postmodernism is, thank goodness, now at an end. Looking at the work of John Ash and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, I instead argue that postmodernism has only just begun. Having achieved a re-evaluation of poetry, language, and subjectivity, it is now turning to the big themes of life and loss, usually the confines of a humanist, Enlightenment tradition. I argue, by way of a conclusion, that postmodern poetry is perfectly capable of addressing the big issues of contemporary existence and will remain a powerful cultural force well into this new millennium.
But before we get to that here is the news. Postmodern poetry exists, it is fascinating and challenging, and it is a central part of contemporary postmodern culture. Postmodern poets are at the height of their powers on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond! Here is their story.
[i] Two interesting mainstream anthologies come to mind here. The first is Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley eds. The New Poetry (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1993). The emphasis here is on a younger generation of contemporary poets not included in other mainstream anthologies (ibid 27). A number of the British-based poets included here form the basis of Gregson’s study of postmodernism and British Poetry but whether any of them, apart from John Ash, Ciaran Carson and Maggie Hannan, could be called postmodern is highly debatable. Yet, some of the features of postmodern poetry are apparent in the work of, say, Simon Armitage or Carol Ann Duffy. Having said this, the anthology pretends than the British poetry revival and linguistically innovative poetry in the British Isles simply does not exist. Paul Hoover’s Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry is much superior but has almost gone too far in the other direction. The book perhaps could better be called really interesting and innovative poetry in America since the war. Postmodern poetry is well represented here but not all challenging poetry written since the war belongs to the postmodernists and in suggesting Black Mountain poets, the Beats and so on are postmodern reduces the astonishing variety of poetic innovators writing in the U.S. over the past fifty years. Postmodernism is good, but it is not that good. There should be room for other voices as well.