poststructuralist literary criticism

Postmodernist poems have moved on from their Modernist forebears. They are wholly immersed in language, and make no reference to a world beyond. Crafting and evaluation is accordingly very different. Five aspects are touched on here: 1. estrangement, or the defamiliarization of the everyday, 2. arbitrary choice of words, teased out by deconstructive techniques, 3. absence of a final interpretation, i.e. avoidance of closure and artistic autonomy, 4. repressions implicit in language, whether sexist, social or political, and 5. a wider subject matter, beyond the ennobling virtues championed by Humanism.


Poststructuralist theories come in many embodiments, but share a preoccupation with language. Reality is not mediated by what we read or write, but is entirely constituted by those actions. We don't therefore look at the world through a poem, and ask how whether the representation is true or adequate or appropriate, but focus on the devices and strategies within the text itself. New Criticism urged us to overlook the irrelevancies of author's intention, historical conventions and social context to assess the aesthetic unity of the poem. Post-structuralist criticism discounts any such unity, and urges us to accept a looser view of art, one that accords more with everyday realities and shows how language suppresses alternative views, particularly those of the socially or politically disadvantaged.

Tenets of Poststructuralism

Derrida's attack is on the overblown claims of traditional philosophy and what he sees as its logocentrism. His deconstruction is therefore only a means to an end, to show that even the most stringently argued philosophy is composed of words which subtly undermine their surface meanings. There is no final interpretation, and philosophy does not produce understanding but only more words. Words, in short, depends on other words: on an endless chain of signifiers, pointing to nothing beyond themselves, resting on no fundamental ground of logic, science or society. But though signifiers continually defer to each other (différance), they may leave a trace of their deferments, discernible through Derrida's deconstruction, where the author of the text in question has suppressed meaning by choosing one word in preference to another. Whence comes the author's authority to make this choice? Not from any conception of "what he meant" as this has no existence outside words. Nor from any unvoiced, inner intention, as this is again nothing without words, an endless web of them, all with repeated suppressions of other meanings. The double bind is complete. There is no end to interpretation, and no escaping it, says Derrida. All we can do is point to its workings. {1}

All texts are grist to Derrida's mill, but Poststructuralist schools of literary criticism are commonly concerned with five matters. {2} The first is the concept of literature. What is literature, and how can it be distinguished from other forms of writing? Literature, say the traditionalists is fiction rather than fact, employs metaphoric rather than literal language, and is not accurate in the way expected of history or philosophy. Radical critics attack such a view, arguing that even the most factual writing has elements of performance and persuasion, and employs literary devices through and through, even if very crude ones. Literature is not a fundamentally distinct entity, nor one privileged, but simply something with different strategies and emphases. Philosophers think they are writing the plain truth only because they are unaware of the conventions they employ. And the same is true of historians, scientists and journalists.

Correct? Certainly there are playful elements in all good writing: words and phrases given their head to create new thoughts, opportunities, entertainments. Continually this ludic tendency jostles against the conventions in writing, just as our desires dispute the social proprieties. But that such ground rules exist, and are followed, does not imprison us in language, but simply tells us how to use the text to find whatever we are looking for: facts, insight, aesthetic pleasure. Words are not the end of things, not even in poetry, as even here we expect the refashioning of language to give us a better view of the verbal landscape, and so a better view of the world itself. Moreover, though facts must be largely reported in language, facts are not wholly encompassed by words. The "world out there exists", or we should not find broad agreement between the descriptions of different viewers, even by speakers of isolated and very different tongues. Literary devices can subtly influence us — well known to advertisers and politicians — but we still make our own judgements. Language may not rest simply on one-to-one relationships of words to sense perceptions as the Logical Positivists once imagined, but then the great importance of language is its social dimension, the very fact that words always refer us to a larger community of beliefs and activities. There are many ways to "truth", and poetry, philosophy and perhaps academia itself needs to have a wider appreciation of adjoining territories.

Secondly, Postmodernism also questions an important feature of art, at least as traditionally conceived, that of autonomy. Since words endlessly call on other words, a poem cannot effect "closure", i.e. cannot become a self-sufficient entity, an organic whole where the parts are firmly interrelated within the verbal skeleton.

Perhaps so, but only New Criticism supposed that the poems were things in themselves, independent of any authorial or social context . Words may indeed take their meaning from the poem as a whole, which leads to paradoxes of self-reference {3} or meta-languages. But that is their strength, that they employ in life-enhancing exactness what language does generally in a more confused and stereotyped fashion. Poems do not aim at plain philosophic truth and, were they misguided enough to do so, then the logics of Tarski and Davidson could be adopted to prevent unlimited self-reference.

Whereas traditional criticism examined the preponderant themes in a literary piece, deconstructive critics, thirdly, seize on something oblique or minimal, using this as a wedge into very different understandings. The criticisms expand into a sexist or political analysis of the social setting, or into disclosure of the warring forces than can be teased out of the text. From here the search moves to meanings suppressed — the traces — the author must leave in arbitrarily promoting one view to another, whether these be complicities with ruling authority or small acts of individual defiance. Whatever the strategy, deconstructive criticism is likely to be against the grain, and pride itself on unusual outcomes.

Fourthly comes what Barthes called the "death of the author", the notion that how a text — poem, novel, historical treatise — is interpreted depends not on the author's intentions, but on the readers' actions, and ultimately on the properties of language itself. New Critics downplayed intentions. We couldn't generally know the intentions to begin with; the writing often wandered far from any original plan; all that mattered was the final, finished piece of work. The Postmodernists go much further. The author is not in control of his writing, and the work is never finished. There is no idea, however vague, that is then clothed with words, since that idea has no existence outside words. Writing, moreover, is a very different activity altogether. We are all entangled in the web of language, and we merely build some local habitation from portions of this web, as is convenient, as we know how. Writers have a wider reach, and should be more aware of what they're doing. If they follow everyone else and ignore the social issues, inequalities and political repressions inherent in language, then they are literary hacks, toadying to their paymasters. If they overlook the sources of language, the babble of individual voices that give a tongue its life and currency, then their work is also inauthentic. Better to avoid such temptations and markedly emphasize these aspects of writing. Bring out the polyphony of individual accents, iterate the limited powers of the author, emphasize how arbitrary the selection must be by foregrounding, estrangement and by jolting the reader out of easy expectations.

There is much to consider in Postmodernism. Professional writers know very well that writing and thought come together, that they sit down at their desks and watch the words spill out onto their VDU screens — endless streams of them which must direct, curb and shape. They understand their audience, and balance what they'd like to write against what is acceptable. They are familiar not only the etymologies of words, their associations and past employments, but the voices, outlooks and intentions of those utterances. Nonetheless, they are not the passive servants of language. They do know roughly what to say, and they very much resent rewriting a piece that was not sufficiently planned in advance. True, poems may sometimes be produced in a trance-like state, but then there is the labour afterwards of pruning the lines, fitting the pieces together, polishing the final product. Many writers would no doubt be surprised, if not appalled, at the clever things said about their work by later critics, but the piece satisfied them at the time and answered many pressing matters, both private and social. As usual, Postmodernism is being provocative, following its own teachings, but the case is overstated.

Finally, there is Humanism, that man is the centre of his world, and understands it through his own creations. Postmodernism disagrees. Indeed, it finds the very notion repellent, and cannot understand how literature that espouses love, nobility, honesty, loyalty, etc. continues blithely on in a world so bleakly devoid of them. If man has become all powerful and replaced God — aided by a science once hailed as the liberator of mankind — how can he have presided over a century of tyrannies and blood-soaked wars, over the despoliation of the Third World, and even now encourages the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in the very people he passes each day in the streets? Such optimism cannot be shallow thinking, or an inadvertent hypocrisy, but a deliberate, wholesale imposition of falsities. Man is not as Humanism supposes, and these beguiling masks should be removed.

Who would not sympathize? The given facts of existence are neither facts nor given. Economics seems not a growing if still blundering science, but more the special pleadings of class interest. Science has not been used solely to better man's lot, but to extend the control of one society over another. People are born with different needs and capabilities, but it cannot be beyond our abilities to fashion a society that more fairly accommodated both. However much influenced by Hegel, and wrong in his prophecies, Marx was correct to see that man's outlook is a product of his conditions, that what he does largely determines his nature.

Why then not paint man as he really is: a biological mechanism, a product of socio-economic forces, a treacherous, grasping animal whose few acts of altruism are only devised to ensure species survival? Why not shift man from the centre of things and replace appeals to human affections by a broader, truer picture of the world? Why not leave man out altogether, and create an art that dealt with other things in this fascinating planet — with brute nature, wild animals, natural processes, the findings of philosophy, history and social studies? The opportunities are immense, and academic humanism has rightly felt threatened.

But the counter argument is just as strong. Economics is not ethically neutral, but asks how resources shall be optimally deployed, questions which eventually ask for moral judgements. Science is conducted by human beings and in even the most sterile environment there are codes of practice: not to plagiarize, bear false witness, concoct false experiments or observations. To overlook the human element altogether is to create work with unrecognizable perspectives, mere collations of fact, and therefore not art at all. Yes, contemporary writing may well be in a bad way. In the great mass of fiction published — poetry as well as novels and biographies — the readers are not seeking to widen their minds and sympathies, but to be confirmed in their shallow and self-satisfying prejudices. But art was not so different in the past, and present writers should not throw in the towel and simply make a feature of what cannot be changed. Lies eventually have their consequences. The voodoo economics of the Reagan years not only impoverished the Third World but brought bankruptcies at home and middle class stagnation. The cynical, all-knowing, refuse-to-be-kidded attitude that Postmodernism sometimes wears is no more salutary than the empty hypocrisies it seeks to replace. Humanism is not wrong, but incomplete. The human animal is much more feral, various and fascinating than academics sometimes wish to allow, and the arts should reflect that.

Published Examples

Ian Gregson's Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism (1996).

David Kennedy's New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-94 (1996).

Jeremy Hooker's (Ed.) The Presence of the Past: Essays on Modern British Poetry (1987).


Looked at clearly, the world is a strange place, and Postmodernist poems often jolt the reader beyond stereotypes of response by enlarging that strangeness. In this poem, the attack starts immediately. The buildings are personified, and made alive with the memories of their constituent parts:

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seem to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing —
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.

Indeed the estrangements continue throughout the poem:

the cliffs ...
More burdensome, underwritten ...
... with past days

days ...
... part of the
Silicate of tough lives

lives... intricate
As the whirring bureaucrats

a neuralgia
Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to

some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing

Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass

The disorientation is not achieved by the poem's structure — the diction is normal, and the syntax unexceptional, if somewhat tortuous — but by the boldness of the images and their lack of connecting explanation. The baffled reader is simply shunted from one image to another, emerging as a disconsolate prisoner of modernist architecture. A jibe at Modernism? A plea for the environment, whales included? Some attempt at hyper-realism, opening us up to the heartbeats of inanimate matter? The poem doesn't say.

Silence on deeper matters is not unusual for Postmodernist work, which aims to unsettle and provoke enquiry, but has no message beyond its effects. But perhaps there is a message to hide: if the poem has no reference beyond itself then why should we care about its content, or even feel confused? Why not luxuriate in the playfulness of language, and applaud its audacities? But we do not take a mental holiday in this case: the urgency and melancholy suggest some experience or thought beyond the words.


Are we to see such difficulties as just another of the self-refutations that run through Postmodernism, or is there something more, perhaps words and phrases which prove, on close analysis, to undermine their ostensible meanings? Are there places where the natural playfulness of words has been constrained to displace other words, equally plausible in the context and equally unjustified?

Consider the following:

... as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings...

It is not the buildings which are impatient, surely, but the sea — to devour the land again and wipe out man's puny constructions?

... the aggregate
They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days

What has aggregate to do with days, but to smuggle in some reference to the passing of time, the brevity of human existence?

... part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate
As the whirring bureaucrats ...

In what way are lives distant or intricate? The metaphor is far-fetched and serves to avoid saying more about the materials making up the building — evading illustration or justification to eventually link from materials to bureaucrats to architects immured in their own creations. An intriguing thought it may be, even pleasing, but why are we hurried to this strange conception?

a phone
... they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do...
.... what we talk about,

In this abrupt transition between they (presumably bureaucrats) and we (the speakers, possibly architects) the mindless industry of the inhabitants of the buildings is passed to their creators. But then the inheritors become not so much mindless as attuned to the plight of the buildings, ending as prisoners of a distress they do not fully understand. Is this the real content of the poem, that its very confusions and opacities mimic those of the architects, a criticism being made of Modernism by its natural successor, Postmodernism? Possibly so, but then the poem, by a further twist of irony, is not Postmodernist but Traditional, having something important to say.

Lack of Closure

While Traditional and Modernist poems exhibit an autonomy, completeness and organic unity, Postmodernist work delights in breaking these rules, deferring reference and meaning until summary is impossible. The strategies are most entertainingly exhibited by Derrida's essays, but are seen — more exasperatingly and tiresomely to traditional academics — in work issuing from the newer universities, which are largely the home of Postmodernist poetry. Where does this poem lie?

Betwixt and between might be the answer. There is nothing difficult about the language per se — none of the usual non sequiturs, opacities, extended puns and irreverences. Indeed the tone is not at all playful, but rather solemn and introverted. Nonetheless, it is unclear what the poem is really about. A narrative can be constructed, certainly, but the loosely related images seem to imply a good deal more, to float off and embrace matters that give the poem its tone but not a message. Many of the images are very fissile:

as you'd expect

past days overcast and glinting

lives distant and intricate

vacuumed afternoons

a neuralgia calling at random

friends pleading and flailing

us in deep hinterlands

The meaning of poems is always larger than the prose meaning of their words, but even from Modernists works we expect an explanation of the individual phrases to emerge from the interrelation of words and images within the poem. But no such interrelation holds here: one image follows another as in a dream sequence, and the order seems arbitrary, perhaps as lightheaded as the office workers themselves in the poem. Is that the essence of the piece? It is recursive, calling on itself not to generate explanations but more computer code of a similar, free-floating nature. If so, then the poem certainly is Postmodernist, but of a rather unusual sort.


Challenging, the poem may be, but does it expose the complicities of language with the status quo? There is a reference to whales, and the suggestion that the architects themselves are the prisoners of their changing environment, but no one could make social or political capital from such vagaries. Buildings may be sad about their condition, but how that sadness arises is not stated, nor what could be done about it.

Indeed the poem seems not only agnostic to such matters, but wholly indifferent to them. The tone is somewhat elevated, the syntax sinuously academic, and the diction even mandarin. The poem is certainly not urging action, but is rather quiet and essay-like, more the private reflections of a priestly class. Postmodernists are also an exclusive club, but they mix populist images with abstruse theory, which is very different from these musings. If anything, these are the reflections of an elevated social class of the establishment, and therefore not at all Postmodernist.

Anti-Humanism Stance

Is there what journalists call a "human interest angle" in this poem? Does it call on feelings evoked by the verities of human existence? The subject matter seems removed from everyday concerns — buildings, sea, concrete — but does gradually invoke the human element: bureaucrats, frail relations, architects. What is the purpose in this progression? Are the human elements there to serve as reflections on inanimate objects — when the poem is Postmodernist, after a fashion — or are the animate objects provided to induce profound reflections on the human condition — when the poem will be traditional? Or are we to look through the poem to a wider world and to demand that view be made convincing by the architecture of the poem: the Modernist view? Or perhaps it is none of these, but is making some extended play on the ability of architecture to question the traditional, Modernist, Postmodernist terminology? It is very difficult to know. Poets and editors are themselves ambivalent about the terms, if not wholly confused about the differences on occasion, but a poem that positions itself between schools is in danger of being rejected by all.

Conclusions: Suggested Improvements

Postmodernism does not prize unity, cohesion, surface polish or traditional content, so that what might appear failings to other approaches may here be positive attractions. The poem is currently rather odd, disjointed and hard to follow, but it may also come over as original, intriguing, thought-provoking. What's the verdict?

The poem must decide which school it represents. Postmodernist poetry is very different from Modernist, and Modernist is far removed from the traditional. The aims and excellencies of these schools are not merely academic, and judgements cannot be made within the narrow realms of current literary theory. The value or otherwise of this poem rests on much wider matters, and the reader should consult the Theory section to see what is entailed.

At present the poem seems somewhat ambivalent in its leanings. But if it opts for Postmodernism, then a more populist style is called for. The diction should be made more contemporary, and the syntax less involved — i.e. more broken, direct and immediate. A much stronger sense of a voice speaking would be preferable, and that voice should spring off the page, i.e. read like a good radio script.

If the poem is not Postmodernist, then the suggestions of other critical approaches obviously carry more weight.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.

This and other pages in the Literary Criticism section are now available as a free pdf ebook from Ocaso Press entitled 'Ten Approaches to Literary Criticism'.


1. Christopher Norris's Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. (1982), J. Sturrock's Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Straus to Derrida. (1984), Chapter 8 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English (1990), Chapter 11 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986), J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986), Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy (1996), Raman Seldon's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985), Richard Etlin's In Defense of Humanism: Value in the Arts and Letters (1996) and Lois Tyson's Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (1998).
2. pp. 180-225 in Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (1983).
3. pp. 199-205 in Culler 1983.

Internet Resources

1. Postmodernism. Lengthy entry with in-text links.
2. Postmodernism. Mary Klages. Apr. 2003. Characteristics and key figures.
3. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample . Jun. 2003. Essential listings.
4. The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry. Albert Gelpi. 1990. Postmodernism as a final exorcism of Romantic aspirations.
5. Sociopolitical (Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics. Robert Kaufman. Jun 2003. Long article in Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.
6. Postmodernism in Thai Poetry: Saksiri Meesomsueb's Tukta Roi Sai. Soraj Hongladarom. Saksiri Meesomsueb's poetry from a Postmodernist angle.
7. How postmodern is Cohen's poetry? Clint Burnham. analyzing the poetry for Postmodernist characteristics.
8. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. George Hartley. 1989. Extended critique covering work of Ashbery, Bernstein and others.
9. The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Susan M. Schultz. Schultz's Introduction to collection of 12 critical articles.
10. John Ashbery. Author homepage, with selected links.
11. John Ashbery. Academy of American Poets entry: short biography and links.
12. Normalizing John Ashbery. Marjorie Perloff. 1997. Perloff's article for Jacket magazine.
13. J.H.Prynne: On the Matter of Thermal Packing. Online poem from author's The White Stones (1969) collection.
14. An Introduction to the Poetry of J.H.Prynne by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella. Excerpt from Bloodaxe Books catalogue advertising the Collected Poems of J.H.Prynne (1999)
15. Visionary Company. Marjorie Perloff. Criticism of Harold Bloom's anthology Best American Poetry 1996.
16. Speaking About Genre: the Case of Concrete Poetry. Victoria Pineda. Article argues for a more feminist approach.
17. Great Works. Site for innovative writing: modernist, postmodernist and 'archaic'. Good listings.
18. Language and Postlanguage Poetries. Mark Wallace. A view of poetry after the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school.
19. Electronic Poetry Center. Excellent collection of links, grouped by poet and critic.
20. Concrete Poems. Michael P. Garofalo. Mar. 2003. Title index to websites, books, journals, articles, and poems: extensive.
21. UbuWeb Papers. Good collection of articles on contemporary poetry and poetics.
22. The Constant Critic. Tri-weekly poetry reviews.
23. Contemporary Poetry Review. Excellent reviews of poetry both sides of the Atlantic.
24. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.