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SOME OBSERVATIONS ON POSTMODERN POETRY


One likes – perhaps it would be more accurate to say I like – to think that achievement is marked off from its opposite by remembrance and attribution. Yet, as we know, much of the Greek achievement has been (and all might have been) lost. Spengler predicted that Mozart’s music would one day cease to be heard, not for want of means but of ears. Just so, I strongly suspect that the sensibility that labeled ‘Lycidas’ the greatest short poem in the English language is hardly to be found among those who label poems today. Well, each generation contends with its own Ananke. But, since that’s the case, how seriously is one to take the apotheoses and perditions proclaimed by any one of them? Are aesthetic values ever absolute, and if merely relative, to what? What qualities in lines or passages enable their recall in a given age to release from the confines of the self its moments of imposed or relieved tension? By and large, I think these qualities tend to be constants for the lifetime of a culture. Whatever they may be for the present age, tell me, if you can, which lines or passages in all those of the poetic corpus called ‘postmodern’ you find eligible to perform such a function.

For all partisans of postmodern poetry the foregoing insinuation relegates whatever I think might follow from it to irrelevance, since the very notion of ‘the memorable’ is anathema to their ideology and its aesthetic. It implies, that notion, elitism and thus all the other exclusionary aesthetic, social, political, and geopolitical notions to which postmodern poetry, that least mass-accessible (read elitist) of aesthetic phenomena, is categorically opposed. Nevertheless, irrelevant as it may be in their regard, it is not so to the question they have in various ways claimed to answer: what ought we to demand of poetry? That is, the question I asked poses the further question: is the poetry of today better or worse than, more or less than, or precisely what, we have a right to expect it to be?

And clearly enough we will answer, if we do answer, according to our predilections. It seems worthwhile, however, to point out in this connection a certain relationship: in the beginning is the word, so to speak, and only a considerable while later, the theory; then, rather more quickly, several theories, followed almost immediately (relatively speaking) by a seemingly uncorkable geyser of theories, each more narrowly focused than the one before. Indeed it seems (if I myself might theorize) as if the greater the weight of tradition the poet must simultaneously absorb and distinguish himself from – the more, that is, that his/her aesthetic identity is in danger of being overwhelmed, confused, or dictated – the more desperate his need of a theoretical pillbox within which he can feel himself to be formidable, and consequently the more such redoubts proliferate, the more intellectually bristly they become, and the more militantly they are defended.

Now if we take this to be a historically determined, i.e., necessarily governing, relationship, then postmodern poetry or something like it is exactly what we deserve. True, there are highly honored contemporary poets (Heaney, Walcott, Brodsky, Simic, and so on) who do not march to the postmodern drummer, but they don’t count: their history is not our history: they’re not American, English, or West European.

Very well then, let’s say that we deserve this poetry and that it is not, in the terms I mentioned, memorable. Is it at least valid on its own terms? For if it is theoretically defensible, then any perceived shortcomings in the poetry itself is either a failure of execution or of reading, more likely the latter, given the number and volume, respectively, of postmodern poets and verse. [In the discussion that follows, all citations are from essays, or selections from essays, by their respective authors, as published in the anthology Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover (W.W. Norton & Co., 1994).]

The relationship we suggested above – between the weight of tradition and the poet’s need for theory – Robert Creeley stands on its head: ‘A tradition becomes inept when it blocks the necessary conclusion [italics added]; it says we have felt nothing, it implies others have felt more’. This is an even more radical stance than we surmised. This is not tradition threatening to guide the poet’s hand but to paralyze it. This is the jettisoning of tradition altogether.

Nevertheless, the theoretical standpoint of Charles Olson, who is credited with being among the first to enunciate the aesthetic basis in which postmodernism had its beginnings, does not, at least as manifested in his poetry, appear to serve altogether unfamiliar impulses or ideas. Rather the departure is in the violence of the disjunctions through which they are typically presented – the logical result, one supposes, of Olson’s subtraction from the aesthetic equation of the poet’s ego as an organizing source (Olson’s ‘field’ I take, nevertheless, to be his ego, or some part of it, in disguise). In this connection it seems to me interesting to point out what happens when a poem comes to the poet from a deep place – a poem, that is, that itself determines how it will be written, quite without regard to aesthetic fashion. This, I take it, describes Olson’s poem ‘Cole’s Island’, beginning ‘I met Death – he was a sportsman – on Cole’s/Island’. Here is none of that alienated angularity, those violent disjunctions that have become the trademark of postmodern verse. Something important happened inside the psyche, the ego, if you will, of this poet and he needed to say what it was, ‘field’ and ‘projection’ be damned. The voice in this poem might be Robert Frost’s minus the down home veneer. (So, okay, there is a memorable poem, but is it postmodern?)

For postmodern poetry the real break, excising from the poetic ‘field’ (read poet’s ego) not only the ego’s presence as self but also its traditional world (read language), comes with the advent of ‘language’ poetry. There seem to be two varieties of language poetry theorists, those for whom the poetry serves a psycho-social-(radical) political agenda and those for whom it serves a merely psycho-aesthetic agenda. Both stand, as far as I can tell, on the same theoretical ground. Bruce Andrews appears to be one of the former; Charles Bernstein, the latter. What, according to its theorists, is language poetry? Bernstein says:

Maybe what’s to get beyond in Olson’s field theory is just the idea of a single web, a unified field, one matrix, with its implicit idea of ‘perception’ onto a given world rather than, as well, onto the language through which the world is constituted.

The point, it develops, is that, whereas the elements of language as traditionally assembled project a single meaning or set of meanings (i.e., the established vision of the socio-political world), certain elements, ‘liberated’ from the structured environment of status quo usage, radiate meanings as it were multidimensionally (and hence the possibility of alternative world visions). Therefore:

1.  Traditional linguistic usage is restrictive and socially and psychologically determinative, and

2.  The presentation of linguistic elements in deconstructed (in terms of tradition) combinations releases the full meaning potential of each in relation to the others and in so doing enables the reader to recognize and escape the bondage of the, linguistically determined, status quo.

The first thing to note is that language poetry seems not to aim at reintegrating language into any given projection of a revolutionized world but rather at liberating us from the one we’ve got. Bernstein: 

Not ‘death’ of the referent – rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has…(fills   vats   ago   lodges   spire)… ‘ig   ok   aberflappi’…All of which are ways of releasing the energy inherent in the referential dimension of language…

A problem, as I see it, is that this analysis – and prescription for the use – of language overlooks the, to me, obvious fact that no coherent conduct of life is possible without an established linguistic reference system. (If you tell me that an infinite number of systems is possible, I say, very well, pick one, but pick one you must.)  Hence, if some such system is necessary, how can any conduct of poetry that acts as if it isn’t or as if poetry can subsist without it in some more general sphere of reality, hope to convey even a single coherent thought in this one? The analysis seems caught up in its own circularity. In fact, the situation seems the inverse of that of its analogue (justification? inspiration?) in general literary theory, deconstruction, which uses language to prove objectively that nothing objective corresponds to language (including, logically, the point of its own text). For if the ‘liberation’ of language amounts to a sort of democratization of meanings in which all are privileged, then none is. But meaning, being singular, cannot emerge without privileging one among many possibilities. Hence language poetry is correlative to no object, including its own notion that linguistic signifiers are multiply meaningful. How then can it claim to serve any purpose?  But in any case, since the notion of ‘liberated’ meanings can only be grasped, stated, discussed, and acted on communally in traditionally organized language, language poetry, even if it did what it’s supposed to do, could at most take us back where we started. Perhaps, given these comments, that’s what it’s doing.

But there is something else to say about the idea of ‘multivalent referential vectors’ and the ‘referential dimension of language’. Of course we all use language referentially, by which language poetry theorists seem to mean not denotative reference but two other kinds. The first derives from the fact that words may have multiple meanings and/or homonyms (the basis of punning, among other things); the second, from the fact that we may start from one word (for example) and by association arrive at others. It is the exclusive use of these aspects of language as the structural basis for writing poetry that, these theorists seem to be saying, releases, by means of some unspecified mechanism, ‘the energy inherent in language’. Or so I take it

Well, we already know that, when restricted to a context, such ‘references’ release the energy inherent in jokes and in a great deal of traditional poetry. What seems to me undemonstrated is that it does the same outside of a context (i.e., in language poetry); whether, that is, it creates its own context. The theorists say it does. But how do they go about proving it?  In two ways. First, they couch their theory in arcane and impenetrable verbiage, as if that attests to its depth, its superiority to earlier theories, and the need for those of us who can’t quite grasp it to take it on faith. And second, they do what critics have always done, they quote: ‘ig    ok    aberflappi.’ Well, I’m going to risk whatever credit I may have left and confess that in this instance I’m no better off than I was before. Either I’m a hopeless specimen, or… I think it comes to this: language poetry and its theory, together, are a kind of Loch Ness monster of poetics. You believe in it or you don’t, but you can’t scoop it up out of the deep, plop it on the table, and crow, ‘You didn’t believe? Look!

I would like to propose a test, a sort of scientific double-blind experiment. I would like a randomly selected body of volunteers, sophisticated poetry-consuming volunteers, each unknown to the others and each separately administered the same specimen or specimens of language poetry, to identify in writing the ‘multivalent referential vectors’ contained (or released) therein. If there is anything to the theory, the results will yield something approaching a consensus. If they do not, then the poetry does not ‘communicate’ and the reader does not ‘understand’, he projects. Then, in fact, language poetry acts, not as its theorists say it does, but as a kind of linguistic Rorschach test. This may be appropriate to diagnostics, but – you complete the sentence

Here is Andrews on, I take it, the way in which language poetry operates on (subverts) the status quo:

Explanation embeds itself in the writing itself – locating work in relation to its social materials…  It reads the outside, it doesn’t just read itself. It doesn’t try to be self-explanatory in a formalist, process-oriented way…  It is itself an interpretation. It is a response, a production that takes place within a larger context of reproduction [italics in original].

I take this to mean that all successful language poems drive home Points 1 and 2 above. In addition – I am perhaps paranoid – I hear in such ‘language’ a faint echo of the commissars grimly doling out ‘history’s’ lesson to ‘reactionary elements’ as summarily (and ideologically) as language poetics would dole it out to what some of us are still pleased to call ‘sense’.

Andrews also suggests: ‘A notion of an allegory of method would offer a way to think about radical poetry’s work on this positive, metaphoric front [italics in original]’. Perhaps, but then the method stands as vehicle – to what tenor?  Mr Andrews would perhaps say freedom. Not, I would say, to freedom properly understood, but to chaos.

I would like to return to Charles Bernstein’s statement about getting beyond field theory ‘with its implicit “perception” onto a given world rather than…onto the language of which the world is constituted’, because it seems to me that everything turns on the view that imputes history (i.e., the way in which we address the world) to the language we use (are given) to define it. Whatever truth one may see in that insight, is it not, for the purpose of escaping the identity so conferred, hopelessly simplistic?  As if we ourselves, as if that very analysis, were not the product of a thousand years of history, which, thinking to throw off, we drag further. And by that I am not suggesting that we give up all effort to change. Willy nilly, we change. I mean that, change how we will, we cannot replace our essence. It will always be a case of plus ça change.

There is also a question of logic here. The statement distinguishes between a ‘given’ world and ‘the language through which the world is constituted’. But if language constitutes the world, they are one and the same. There is no distinction. More to the point, it must also be the case that ‘language’ cannot be arbitrarily broken down into its elements and remain language. It consists of all its elements and the relations between them at once. But, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that, set in some convention-free dispensation, certain language elements ‘resonate’ meanings. There is, even in that case it seems to me, far better reason to find the ultimate source of their resonance not in their ‘freedom’ but in their history. In any case, it is not meanings alone that language poetry seeks to arouse but, through them, emotion too in the reader. But the way to it, according to l-p theorists, seems to be first through awakening in the reader an insight as to the nature of the language at hand (an intellectual operation), which then draws some sort of personally or politically reoriented emotion in its train. And the implication seems to be that once this point has been reached, the poem never again has anything to give the reader. For it is not the meanings (which, having been repressed, are not, strictly speaking, new) but their ‘liberation’ by the poem that releases the emotion. In short, language poetry can only, and only undertakes to, ‘liberate’ what is already there. That is to say, seeking to ‘liberate’ the meaning system, language poetry assumes a closed one. Hence, however many meanings it releases, by definition it cannot, nor does it seek to, create a single new one. One senses in all this the impulse we have become familiar with of late, the impulse to declare the end of history. In any case, it ought by now to be clear that, owing to its goals and methods, language poetry is more restrictive than the system it would subvert, the system that created all the meanings there are, and out of which alone new meanings (read history) will arise.

On this analysis, language poetry is a dead end.



          © John Greene 2002