Postmodern Poetry An Introduction
The past fifty years have been busy ones; we invented postmodernism. The economic circumstances of technologically advanced nation clusters like the Americas, Europe, Australasia and parts of the far east were such that a perfectly good narrative of struggle and emancipation concocted by the European Enlightenment tradition suddenly did not seem so convincing. Traditional fault lines along which conflict, repression and resolution were enacted, zones wherein we were certain we could get a good fight and be able, there, to fight the good fight, were all but forgotten about. Poverty and oppression still existed in these nation clusters, but attention turned increasingly to the poverty and disempowerment of the peoples of developing nations whose level of suffering was of an order of magnitude greater than our own. The different classes no longer looked for solidarity as class was replaced by marginality as the main focus of political rebellion. Modernism was most definitely over.
It was not just the economy, stupid, that brought us into the postmodern age. Epistemological certainties under development since the 18th century came to predominate in what one might call the total ubiquity of science as knowing. In this way scientific discourse was seen as the new, quasi-religious, totalising narrative of origins and destinations only, unlike religion, few of us actually took it as seriously as all that. We asked of science that our software worked properly, our phones retained good reception and the spectre of cancer be eventually removed from our lives. God, it may be noted, had a much tougher time from his subjects. At the same time in terms of political narratives, size, coherence, dialectical conflict and a single, central history of progress gave way to singularity, diversity, negotiated strategies and marginal narratologies. The left spoke increasingly of marginalised people and developing nations, still clinging desperately to Enlightenment values of universal centres of consensus and history as progressive. Developing towards what and in which direction? We tried not to think about that.
The oppressed became diversified and no longer tangible as a single mass. They were still extremely poor but the objective realities of poverty, so important to the Enlightenment as the base experience of material necessity, mattered less than a feeling of disempowerment. Science was both the perpetrator of a globally scandalous inequality of resources, skills and access, and the resource, skill base and point of entry for our rebellion against it. Oh, and suddenly you could get an okay cup of coffee anywhere you wanted in the world, but always the same cup of coffee and you had to drink a pint of it. Disgruntled, we sat in these homogeneous and ubiquitous coffee houses and plotted how we could get out of them.
If science turned out to be a tedious and repetitive storyteller of the future, and history a preaching, donnish character who would come up with the same endings irrespective of the different characters and situations involved, philosophy turned out to be the real new religion. Critical theory and continental philosophy mounted a counter-Enlightenment tradition founded on pretty much the same canonical texts, but applying philosophical logic to undermine the idea of humanism. Interestingly, it was the so-called humanities that really took up this anti-humanist fight. The idea of communally held values of freedom, justice and progress, under negotiation certainly, but relying on those values and their foundation as the ground from which all dissent could be heard, suddenly seemed, not comforting but appalling. The voices that urged us to be human spoke with the same rhetoric and intonation as those voices which had de-humanised so many over the past two hundred years or so. Disgusted, we stopped listening to them. If they did not speak for all of us in our singularity then they did not speak to any of us, and they couldn’t, because singularity could not square with the universality of values needed for their legitimation. We all became postmoderns.
At this point in the summation of a significant zietgeist we traditionally point out that the arts reflected this change or, to be more postmodern about it, participated in the various, discursively mixed speech communities which brought this change about. As postmodernism was a turn to rhetoric, a demonstration of the rhetorical base of truth claims which meant that humanity was mediated through language and representation, the arts suddenly became central. And of course, because language was the key to the deconstruction of Enlightenment values, and because our job became a sensitivity to the materiality of the mediating medium through which ideas were broached, transmitted and contested, and because poetry is the art form of linguistic materiality and self-conscious rhetoric, postmodern poetry became the most vital and important of all the arts.
All of the above is true except the last sentence.
Annoyingly, because postmodernism as a term was first used to describe a certain new way of writing poetry was first finessed by writers on the poetry in the journal boundary2, but perhaps not surprisingly, because modernism was typified by a turn to the poetic, while postmodern theory has swept across nation clusters, re-shaped cities, given birth to new forms, rebirth to old forms, and so on, postmodern poetry has been almost totally ignored. At the same time postmodern poetry, poetics, poetic practice, production, and reception have enjoyed one the most sustained periods of innovation and re-invention poetry in English has ever known. Here is the story of postmodernism and poetry so far: they met, there were fireworks, nobody took any notice. In this book I am going to take notice and hopefully get you to as well. The party is over, you probably missed it, but if you listen carefully to me you will learn enough to pretend that you were there. And that’s all that matters in the end: a sense that you were there and it was fabulous. Italians call fireworks artificial fires, this is a pretty good description of the past fifty years of innovative poetic practice in America, Canada, Britain, Ireland and Australia which I am going to call postmodern.