The Postmodern Condition in Contemporary Poetry

[Note: I have edited this post, after a breakfast-time meeting with Charles Bernstein, today, and have therefore updated the date of the post. He and I discussed the fascinating work that Redell Olsen is doing, as in her work researching women poets. We also discussed the various ways in which American popular culture can be usefully reworked and considered, within an innovative practice. He also reminded me of the more severe strain of poetics that leans to Adorno, with Adorno's dislike of Jazz. We also discussed how comedy has long been "broken" into innovative North American poetic practice, as shown by works by Christian Bok, or, for instance, Deer Head Nation.]

According to Redell Olsen, in her thought-provoking, engaged chapter "Postmodern poetry in Britain" (from The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry), there has been, and remains, an "important and decisive split in post-war poetry in Britain".

This split, I believe, still festers, while in America, there are moves to think beyond 20th century quarrels and divisions. As Lisa Sewell writes, in her Introduction to American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, the poetry wars, in America, may be somewhat over, as: "the line between innovation and tradition, between experiment and expression, is no longer clear or easy to draw." She then goes on to observe that, "Innovative, materialistic practices have been absorbed by both the lyric mainstream and the multicultural poetries of identity politics: writers on either side of the ostenisble divide employ interruption, parataxis, fragmentation and disjunction."

Ostensible divide. This is a key issue, especially for "late modernist" British poets, to consider. Since at least the 1960s, the "British Poetry Revival" drew partial sustenance, and positive guidance, from American poets like Dorn and Olson, and from anthologies like Donald Allen's classic 1960 The New American Poetry. It is therefore intriguing, and even perplexing, to note that, while American poetics is beginning to accept that the demarcations between innovation and use of the lyric are ambiguous, even problematic, many of the late modernist writers currently at work in the UK seem to want to hold on to a simpler, more schematic model of poetic antagonism. In otherwords, how ostenible, for Olsen, is the divide?

At the heart of this divisive project is arguably a radical misinterpretation of what British postmodern poetry is, and who is a postmodern poet, in Britain. In America, "postmodern" poets might be those drawn from the Allen canon: Olson, O'Hara, Ginsberg - all hugely (and paradoxically) influential on the sort of poetics that Olsen valorises. Yet, instead, she chooses to typify "postmodern" as a label as safe and embedded in late capitalism and other conservative values: "the Movement poets of the 1950s are the postmodernists of twentieth-century poetry". Well, not quite. The "postmodern" linguistic turn might begin with Stevens, or Olson, or the Beats, or even the Objectivists. It seems unfair to brand postmodernism with Larkinesque qualities. It also, of course, draws a line between the American, and English, way of reading the 20th century and Modernist poetics.

One of the misreadings here is the one that simply equates "the Movement" with the "mainstream" (Olsen calls them "the Movement and its successors") - as if this monolith singlehandedly opposed innovation in poetry. As Olsen puts it: "the 1950s produced innovative hostilities to Modernism". This is true, to a degree, but what she fails to mention (by displacing the emphasis onto a decade, or a school of poetry, rather than individual poets and critics) is that, at least in Britain, there was always hostility to Modernism, even during the height of its success, and critics such as Leavis, and major journals such as Horizon, were always ambiguous, at best, with regards to how they read and evaluated the Modernist project (which was, of course, several projects, as Marjorie Perloff and Peter Nicholls have recently shown).

It is inaccurate to suggest that Larkin and his pals had all the fun knocking down Modernism in British poetry; indeed, Empson was a hero to the Movement, and Empson can hardly be said to have avoided avant-garde Modernist elements in his own poetry of the 30s (no other Modernist poet, arguably, is more difficult). Almost the entire critical apparatus (including that erected by Eliot and the New Critics) of the period contributed to opposing modernism's later stages.

Olsen's reading of postmodernism / late modernism is in danger of becoming just as culturally dismissive as the New Critics, who infamously ruled mass culture out of their realm. As Mark Jancovich writes in his recent essay, "The Southern New Critics", in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume VII: Modernism and the New Criticism, "the New Critics were attempting to establish the superiority of the pure gaze over other modes of cultural appropriation" and, a la Bourdieu, trying to claim that their definition of poetry was an essence, not a norm. For Bourdieu, as Jancovich points out, "the pure gaze is directly related to the economic situation of dominant social groups."

The serious definition of poetry (worth reading and writing) offered by Olsen as her alternative to the "monolinear" utterances of the so-called mainstream, is no less limited (perhaps mandarin) than that of the Fugitive New Critics of the 1930s and 40s - though of course different in kind. However, both she, and they, seem to be drawing an inside/outside for poetic texts of interest or significance, with those engaged with "postmodern" (or mass culture/pop cultural) texts being more out than in.

The main thing the argument disdains is mass, or popular culture, infected as it is with capitalist ideology (and I share this mistrust of capitalist entertainment product, but not the means of resistance). She quotes Drew Milne as bemoaning the "hot air balloon debates of postmodernism" in which "Madonna and Public Enemy fight it out for critical attention."

Milne seems to be expressing exasperation with how famous entertainment figures have received more critical attention, recently, from academics, interested in reading film, TV, and music product as "textuality", while seemingly marginalising, even ignoring, the rather austere "late modernist" poets of the UK and Ireland, like J.H. Prynne. This complaint is somewhat paradoxical, since Prynne, as Olsen openly indicates, represents a turn away from capitalist modes of artistic production (entertainment) in the first instance - so critics wishing to study popular culture (Madonna/Public Enemy) can hardly be blamed for selecting those "artists" who practice in such fields - i.e. pop stars.

However, something else is at issue here - a something of signal importance for how 21st century British poetry criticism will or will not falter - and the issue is not elitism, but cultural arrogance. Frankly, most people I know "enjoy" TV and radio, iPods and film. Public Enemy, for example, are extremely significant cultural figures in American music, for sociopolitical reasons that, to a degree, reflect concern with capitalism (even if they at times seem to validate as much as question it); and, Madonna, for all her many faults, is the supreme example of one sort of capitalist-feminist hybrid ("Material Girl") and can hardly be swatted away with a sneer. America, and American popular culture exists, to an extent dominates the landscape - and has done so, since 1945.

The category error is in thinking that a pure poetics of resistance is best or even possible - when, in fact, the American postmodern course was to adopt an impure gaze, that engaged with, and interogated this postmodern media minefield, often using rebarbative tactics. This impure move derives from William Carlos Williams, of course, who wanted to work with the American grain, with all its impure, unEnglish, non-canonical diction.

What is at stake is high. Olsen's essay implies that any poet who might lay claim to being postmodern now would be allied to "delusions of cultural capital and a culture industry which is intent on commodifying intellectual labour". It seems hard to know where to place Paul Hoover's Norton anthology of Postmodern poetry, in this landscape. As such, they would be generating a poetry that demands little of the reader but "passive acceptance". This is a misreading of even the most soporific forms of current mainstream entertainment, let alone lyric poetry.

Olsen's essay resists some of the more perplexing ambiguities circulating around current questions of entertainment, and digital media (including piracy), in the global arena: that is, people no longer interact with even capitalist-created cultural product passively. They mash-up and mix music - they alter it - engaged, as readers, with the text. Some of these activities (copyleft and further) can hardly be categorised as anything but anti-capitalist. It might be hard for a British linguistically innovative poet to say so, but elements of popular culture are fun, can be ironically and politically transformed by engagegement with their discourse(s) - and the use of shifting registers in innovative American poetics often relies on a knowledge of "Madonna and Public Enemy" as it were - or Spielberg and King.

In this way, a genuinely radical postmodern poetics can be located. But not easily, in the UK. For, even as a Cambridge school of austere poetics continues, one admirably, if narrowly, resistant to postmodern techno-cultural engagement (which would include a serious, intelligent response to the new digital multimedia platforms emerging, from YouTube to Google to Facebook and beyond), the so-called mainstream lyric poets of Britain, too, tend to shy away from all things popular. Peter Porter recently told me he despised all forms of pop culture, including most films and TV - and he was the head judge of this year's TS Eliot Prize! There is a near-total anxiety, in British poetry, about who owns the label "postmodern" - but worse, this complex, rich, and poetically-sustainable zone, with a deep poetic canon since the 40s (Ginsberg, O'Hara, Trinidad) - is barely engaged with now, in British poetry.

True, Armitage and Lumsden, for instance, dip their toes in. But American Postmodernism is radical, does interrogate, and offers resistance-as-fun - as with the Flarf group ("fun" perhaps in the radical, creative and stylistic sense that Welles means it in Citizen Kane). Fun (another form of play that rises in the 40s, related to often-American pop culture) for too-often serious readers of poetry in Britain, may be the last taboo. Bourdieu would, I suspect, have a field day considering how this says more about the bourgoise cultural needs of the critic, than the essential failure of fun as a category.

I would like to propose that a new attempt to engage with the tricky, ambiguous histories of British poetic modernisms be essayed, one that does not shy away from popular culture, clownishness, humour, the silly, and radical, sometimes rhetorical shifts in register (indeed tone, form, and genre too) - from high to low, from silly to serious, from sincere to artificial, from syntactically modern to lucid - indeed, that foregrounds debates about what is postmodern, in the period where, indeed, the question actually emerges: the fractured decades (sic) of 1940-1950 - with its "iron curtain" slash of 1945.

In this decade can be located a route to British postmodernism (early W.S. Graham, Lynette Roberts, Moore, George Barker) that was more or less neglected by all sides of the so-called "divide" that Olsen identifies. In fact, I would argue, it is not the 1950s that are postmodern, but the 1940s, in Britain. It isn't the period 1950-2000 only, that saw the poetry wars erupt in the UK. Indeed, it was during the war years, and just after, they came to a head.

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