postmodernist poets

For poetry in America, the immediate clarion call was Donald Allen's New American Poetry of 1960, an introduction to forty-four poets who had come to prominence in radical American poetry between 1945 and 1960. The poets went on to develop in various ways, but already there were groupings that illustrated important features of the new styles. In the Back Mountain School were Olson, Creeley, and Dorn, poets who believed that lines should be constructed on the pattern of taking breath rather than by syllable or metre. The San Francisco Renaissance poets were performance-orientated, known through poetry readings in the Bay Area. Then there were the Beat Poets — Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, etc. — who had turned their back on American consumerism. A fourth group comprised the New York poets with links to abstract expressionism — Ashbery, Koch and O'Hara. A fifth group included younger poets like MacClure, Perkoff and Meltzer. The first edition of New American Poetry was modest in its claims, but a second edition, which appeared in the late seventies, struck out for higher ground. Theirs was the true descent from Emerson, Whitman, Pound and William Carlos Williams. Not merely an alternative poetry, but the only poetry worth worth the name: anti-establishment, boldly experimental, keen to embrace spontaneity in choice of subject and technique. No doubt the truth was something else, and indeed the protagonists had already begun their own drift towards academia. Poets made tidy sums by selling manuscripts to university archives. Robert Creeley took the Chair of Poetry at the University of New York, and was succeeded by Charles Bernstein, who had earlier created the influential L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. {3}

Fluid subject matter, open (free verse) forms, inward-centered themes, a mistrust of official language: the ensuing poetry was never going to overturn the state, or lead to a general burning of books. The average American remained cheerfully indifferent to it (indeed ignorant of its very existence) and its theorists were constantly driven to redefine themselves and boost their avant garde status. In due course, the erstwhile firebrands had their work brought out by the big publishing houses, Norton and Harvard among them, and some were included in anthologies intended for school use.

The reasons for the betrayal, if betrayal it was, lies elsewhere, but for the present we return to a purer Postmodernism. Whatever is understood by the term — and many contemporary poets would be hard put to define Postmodernism, or even explain its working in their own productions — a good deal of contemporary poetry is not what the general reader has hitherto regarded as poetry. Some is doubtless window dressing, and some may be hapless incompetence, but there is nonetheless poetry that attempts to be stridently new and to sever all connection with the past. To the uninitiated, the new poetry looks pedestrian, aimless and fragmentary. Indeed, it is often difficult to know what a poem is about, or how its insights matter. And perhaps the poem doesn't even profess to have content or insights.

Still evolving, Postmodernism is not a coherent movement. Its literary expression tends to the experimental (a leftover from Modernism) but its exponents have certainly not signed up en masse to any unifying concepts like iconoclasm, groundlessness, formlessness and populism. Partially, these elements can be found in all Postmodern work, but not exclusively, which makes the assessment difficult — i.e. poems can succeed despite rather than because of their Postmodernist elements. A case in point is J.H. Prynne's work. Many of the poems in The White Stones were enigmatic but rather beautiful, their extraordinary poise and rhythmic deftness winning an appreciative if limited audience. Thereafter the style changed, and later work made no concessions whatever to older conceptions of art. A very uncompromising strand of Postmodernism was being pursued, and clearly deliberately so.

J.H. Prynne

J. H. Prynne is a private figure, publishing quietly until recently in the more out-of-the-way small presses. {5} Born in 1936, the poet pursued an academic career, becoming a lecturer at Cambridge University, and then librarian at Gonville and Caius College. He is still apt to be passed over in surveys of English poetry, though his is one of the few names respected on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of England's more thoughtful poets acknowledge their debt to his scrupulous Postmodernism, and Peter Ackroyd recently described him {5} as "without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today."

Jeremy Prynne's poems were initially conventional. Routledge published his first collection, Force of Circumstance, in 1962, but these poems were quickly superseded by Prynne's avant garde's concerns, and have not been republished. Three collections appeared in 1968, followed by White Stones in 1969. Collections were brought out every few years thereafter by various small publishers, the bulky (and excellent value) 440 page Poems {6} being published by Bloodaxe in 1999. A few reviews, scattered Introductions, and a short book {7} by Reeve and Kerridge is almost the sum total of the Prynne bibliography. Why the interest?

Prynne's work is often seen as exemplifying key aspects of Postmodernism. The poems are not personal expressions in the conventional sense, but an areas of discourse, cleared by the implied narrator, where items of observation, contextual thought and quotation briefly appear. They do not "close" — i.e. lead to any conclusion — but seem carefully phrased if rather casual jottings, arbitrary at first. The poems employ an exceptionally wide vocabulary, some of it technical, occasionally geological. Such a range of reference is to be applauded, but it cannot be said that the vocabulary is always illuminating or even correctly used. Postmodernism often features an overabundance of information, but Prynne's is much more limited, though unfocused on conventional subjects. Some of Julia Kristeva's observations can be applied to Prynne's work, but Kristeva's work is rooted in the dubious ground of Freudian and Lacanian psychology. Some of Lyotard and Habermas's concepts also apply — notably their views of pluralist and fragmented societies, and the public space of lifeworlds — but we must also remember the Marxist foundations of such concepts: they are self-supporting myths with predictions that have consistently failed to materialize. In Prynne's work, the heteroglossia of Bakhtin can also be extended to poetry — against its author's intentions — but the value of the concept lies in the illumination it supplies to a work in question, and Prynne's poetry works differently.

Prynne looks dispassionately on the visceral human being and the way it responds to stimuli. That seems a very technical attitude to poetry, but Prynne is not concerned with metanarratives. The grand themes of life do not interest him, or at least not their truth as such. He evokes the inconsequentiality of existence: the thoughts, observations and associations that pass across the space created by the individual poem. The result may be disorientating and ungrounded — there are no unbiassed observations, no pure sense- impressions of the type supposed by philosophers of the British analytical tradition — but the process is intriguing, as though one were watching an alien world through a microscope. Very different elements are juxtaposed without any sense of incongruity:

Pretty sleep lips; the carrots need thinning,
pork chops are up again. We sail and play
as clouds go on the day trip...
(High Pink on Chrome: 1975)

Opacities appear, and odd trains of thought, but the best poems provide a strange sense of completeness, which resists summary. Often baffling, not always successful, not satisfying to the general reader of poetry, the poems nonetheless convey a quiet sense of authority:

The children rise and fall as they
watch, they burn in the sun's coronal
( Acquisition of Love in The White Stones 1969)

After feints the heart steadies,
pointwise invariant, by the drown'd
light of her fire
... (Into the Day: 1972)

Now these hurt visitors submit,
learning in the brilliant retinue
to be helpless by refusal
... (Lend a Hand in Bands Around the Throat: 1987)

Prynne was closely associated with Edward Dorn, and in fact accompanied the Dorns on their 1965 journey over from the States to Ed's teaching job in East Anglia. {7} Dorn was a co-founder of the Black Mountain School of Poetry, which held that the breath rhythm is continuous with the deep organic nature of man. But whatever the truth of that (and it certainly allowed its exponents to develop a very exact phrasing in their free verse forms) Prynne and Dorn were both interested in the actual process of poetic composition. Olson and Dorn advocated open forms — not only the line endings appearing where the reader naturally took breath but care being taken to ensure that the disparate elements of the poem (its "field") were not forced into a linear consistency or predictability. Estrangement, an oblique choice of words, avoidance of a fixed or final interpretation, puns, and a wider subject matter: these are the elements from which Prynne's poetry is built.

John Ashbery

The contrast with Prynne could hardly be more striking. John Ashbery is an international celebrity for whom large claims are made, familiar through countless references to a public that generally takes very little interest in contemporary writing. Ashbery does not write about experiences, real or imagined, but portrays inner trains of thought. {8} The mental excursions have no particular reference to the exterior world, though they do employ its language in various ways, sometimes playfully, sometimes with a deadpan solemnity. Complex patterns of mimicry, observation and rumination appear and disappear across a space created by the poet for no particular reason. Why read them? Because the poems can be extraordinarily entertaining. At their best, the lines have astonishing charm and freshness — seem exactly what a very gifted poet would begin his creations with. But the inventions are not pursued. Abruptly as they appear they are deflated, evaded, developed in unexpected ways:

The thieves are not breaking in, the castle was not being stormed.
It was the holiness of the day that fed our notions
And released them, sly breath of Eros.
(Sunrise in Suburbia in The Double Dream of Spring: 1970)

Many poets would give their eye teeth to have written that second line, which is then happily tossed away. The meaning is problematic, and even more so in the poem's concluding lines that immediately follow:

Anniversary on the woven city lament, that assures our arriving
In the hours, second, breath, watching our salary
In the morning holocaust become one vast furnace, engaging all tears.

Some association of ideas is apparent — sunrise: furnace: holocaust: lament — but Ashbery seems more often content to win approval by literary wizardry:

...this moment of hope
In all its mature, matronly form

... innocent and monstrous
As the ocean's bright display of teeth

Is this Zen Buddhism, Surrealism, a playful Dadaism? There are many such influences. Nor are the phrases always empty of content:

the loveliest feelings must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them

The winter does what it can for children

John Ashbery was born in 1927, studied at Harvard and Columbia, went as a Fulbright scholar to France in 1955 and stayed ten years, supplying art criticism to the Herald Tribune and Art News. Continually writing poetry, he returned to the US on the death of his father, and in his 1970 volume The Double Dream of Spring developed his disarmingly fluent and discursive style. Always there was experimentation, however, and every few years saw a new departure. The Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) was straightforward reflection, but the As We Know of 1979 began with 70 pages of lines set out out double columns, which readers were invited to combine as they pleased, no "correct reading" being possible.

Like Wallace Stevens, whose work he admires, Ashbery accepts that we cannot know reality at first hand. But whereas Stevens was content with interpretations of reality that were credible for their time — "fictions" he called them — Ashbery has speeded up the process. Imagination destroys its fictions as quickly as it creates them. Yet if reality is incoherent or unknowable, a work of art nonetheless requires some form: how do we avoid making that form inauthentic? Ashbery's solution is to create a continual expectation of form that is then frustrated or dissolved away. Life can only be flux, multiplicity and contradictions. Why should we despair at that? Perhaps we are emotionally or morally adrift, but life can be interesting all the same, indeed intellectually exhilarating. All that's required is to be honest to the fundamental human condition.

Such is Ashbery's view, which his work continually expresses. But his ways of deploying that insight are very varied. He muddles up syntax and grammar. He reverses expectations in mid sentence. He constructs collages of contemporary conversation and journalism, not to parody their limitations but to remind us of the multiplicities of "reality." His metaphors turn into something else as we read. The long poems wind towards a climax, and abruptly turn into flatter ground. While the pyrotechnics continue we are charmed and satisfied, and it comes as a shock, almost a churlish reflection, to realize that such a willful misreading of everyday expectations would not survive a moment's operation in the larger world outside.  

Some Observations

Why all the fuss? Why not let Postmodernists pursue their games while the general reader gets back to more rewarding stuff? Yes, but what stuff? Postmodernism is now the style winning the reviews, the commissions and appointments. Between its costive excellences and the cliché-ridden banalities of amateur work — say the material that appears so copiously on or — there is a gap filled by work that too often seems merely workmanlike. Postmodernist work is astute and restricted; amateur work is unlettered, heartfelt and popular. Neither appeals to the other side very much, and literary scholars generally stay clear of both.

Hence many features of the poetry scene. One is the warfare between the poetry schools, with their continual rewriting of the apostolic succession from Modernism's founding fathers. Another is the striking absence of proper argument and reference in literary theory: these studies are written as Postmodernist poems, intentionally fragmentary and hermetic. Older critics are missing the point to complain of specious scholarship, and perhaps are even deluding themselves. Postmodernists appreciate what the critics ignore: that language is treacherous, self-referencing and arbitrary. And that is true whether the language is of public utterances, science or of everyday affairs.

What does a nonpartisan make of this? English Literature classes have lost much of their kudos, and it is not from long-suffering taxpayers but intelligent professionals that exasperation is making itself felt. Postmodernists do not read widely enough. Their ignorance of history, mathematics, science, linguistics and philosophy, where the insoluble conundrums of Postmodernist language have been known for generations — not solved entirely, but understood, accommodated, worked with — is truly astonishing, as is their misapplication of scientific terminology in poetry. And can their stance be genuine? Postmodernists expect medical treatment like anyone else, with their medical records correctly filled in. They do not countenance deconstructive sleights of hand applied to their terms of appointment or salary cheques, or indeed in their students' essays.

But poets are not in the business of turning out excellent human beings, merely of writing poems. If deprived of a proper role in contemporary society, that does not mean they should forego the benefits of that society, to which they contribute as best they can. Poetry is arguably an apprenticeship in awareness, and it's inevitable that frank speaking will be unpopular. These and a dozen other arguments can be advanced for the arts to continue the policy of biting the hand that feeds them, but the situation is certainly curious. How did it arise?

One popular explanation runs as follows. {9} Poets are charged with providing a deeper insight into our fundamental human needs and realities. Once Kant had shown that reality itself was unknowable by rational thought, poets were obliged to find irrational routes to their spiritual powers. The Romantics drew their inspiration from Nature, which they attempted to harmonize with their mental and emotional intuitions. But as the nineteenth century wore on, and poets became more city-dwellers, that Nature began to show a darker side. Poverty, overcrowding and child exploitation of the new industrial society disclosed the shabby heart of the common man, and any special place in God's creation was undermined by the findings of geology and evolution. Ignored by society, poets began championing the aristocratic virtues of good form, irony and indifference to popular culture. A spiritual birthright had to be self-generated, made the sharper by opposition to the lumpenproletariat around them The great art of the past could still be a yardstick, but it was a yardstick appropriated and interpreted by other rules. Art did not represent reality, but created an independent reality given vitality and authenticity by its internal structure. What couldn't be contained by such devices was not suppressed, but purposely offered as a feature. A bric-a-brac of images, broken syntax and abstruse reveries gave readers a simulacrum of the strangeness of real life.

What Modernism crafted metaphorically in art forms, Surrealism and Dada took realistically. Theirs was an assault on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society and so, indirectly, on the ideals of high Modernism. The new movements realized that the disconnected but undeniably powerful images of the unconscious could be re-invoked in hallucinatory collages of the everyday. And because dreams were beyond the dreamer's control, so these literary collages would escape the limited intentions or even understandings of their authors. World War Two brought an end to such experiments, and the poetry which followed seemed chastened if not spiritually impoverished. What unbridled imagination could achieve was all too evident in Stalin's social engineering, Nazi concentration camps and the widespread atrocities of war. Convention returned, and the New Criticism favoured Eliot and Yeats over Pound, Stevens and Williams.

But the ferment of the interwar years had not been forgotten, and many of its approaches and ideas spoke to a generation that felt stifled or marginalized by an academic art scene. Onto the clean, flat canvases of abstract expressionism were thrown an amazing variety of social comment, parody and technical experiments. Radical American poetry upturned the structural economy and self-enobling ideals of Modernism and built a platform on which anything could be performed. Confessions, demotic rant, cracker-barrel wisdom — the new poetry gloried in its freedom from good taste and social responsibility. After the Vietnam War, when the arts again realigned themselves with traditional cultural values, poetry dug deeper to find an intellectual framework for its opposition to officialdom. It espoused the teachings of the New Left, and took Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard as its champions. The demanding, often elitist poetry of Modernism was superseded by a Postmodernist parody, not now to serve a deeper vision but to show that deeper visions were impossible. The gates to proper appreciation were still guarded by an intellectual aristocracy, but this was now an intelligentsia of reviewers, editors and lecturers in the younger universities. Audacious originality and not skill became the hallmark of art.

But Postmodernism was not simply escaping the restraints of Modernism; it was pursuing its own logic. Artists could no longer claim an heroic independence as their very materials — words, images, content — were complicit with a capitalist world. That was obviously the case for the work to be understood and accepted. After a century of effort, philosophers had not found a logically transparent language, and Derrida repeatedly demonstrated the mutual interdependence of words. Baudrillard analyzed the information basis of our modern economies, and Lyotard stressed that the artist cannot by genius reveal hidden universals, as such universals do not exist. The media was our world, and with its terms and materials any art had now to be built.

Postmodernism came as breath of fresh air. It had many strengths — a protean and egalitarian nature, appeal to the young and disadvantaged, opportunities for columnists and academics. The difficulties arise when the arguments are examined in detail.

Whatever theory might suppose, language does not wholly constrain our thought. A complicit language could not sustain the astonishingly wide range of scholarship today, in and outside academia. Nor could scientists debate rival theories. Or commerce and industry survive where figures and strategies need continually to be evaluated. The basic postulate of Postmodernism is false because truth does not lie with narrow argument from propositions, but with what people in a pluralist society actually say and do. Postmodernism's besetting sin is hubris. Like medieval scholasticism, it has convinced itself through argument from supposed authorities that certain things cannot be true, and will not go out into the world to see. Often the generalizations do not hold water, but are continually and retrospectively rewritten. Artists at any time are commonly unconscious of belonging to any movement, which makes any guiding influence somewhat invisible and perhaps suspect. Perhaps science could be blamed for a loss in spiritual faith in the nineteenth century, but the attack came on theology, not religion. Poets do not generally meddle in theology, and few may have been religious in any orthodox sense. What were Shakespeare's views on religion? We don't know. What religions do the great Chinese poets espouse? None: spiritual teachings in China do not coalesce on a God as such.

And so on. Postmodernism is a diverse phenomenon, and its many heads cannot be defeated by brief analysis. Nor should anyone want them to be. Some of its issues are central to our thinking, and to any society where we'd wish to live. They cry out for debate, examination, field studies in their practical consequences. It is at least ironic that science, the great bogeyman of the arts, is developing the very techniques and outlook that poetry could now benefit from. Brain functioning, cell metabolism, complexity and self-organization — in these areas science has left reductionism far behind, and indeed offers vistas as awesome as anything confronting Dante six centuries ago.


1. Postmodernism, pp. 1107-111 in Kleiner and Mamiya's Gardner's Art through the Ages, 11th Edition.(2001).
2. Jim Robinson's A Contemporary Postmodern Poetics. NNA. 3rd April 2001
3. Marjorie Perloff's Whose New American Poetry?: Anthologizing in the Nineties. 3rd. April 2001.
4. Ihab Hassan's The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987), Richard Harland's Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1987), Alex Callinicos's Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (1989), and Chapters 14 and 15 in Alastair Fowler's A History of English Literature (1987).
5. Rod Mengham and John Kinsella's An Introduction to the Poetry of J.H. Prynne. NNA. 2nd April 2001.
6. Poems. J.H. Prynne. Bloodaxe Books. Newcastle upon Tyne. 1999.
7. N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge's Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne. Liverpool English Texts and Studies. Liverpool University Press. 1995.
8. David Perkin's A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Belnap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA. 1987.
9. J.H. Park's Modernism and Postmodernism. NNA. 9th April 2001. (Useful bibliography)

Internet Resources

1. What is Postmodernism? Jackie Craven. 2004. About's introduction to Postmodernist architecture.
2. Reevaluating Postmodernism. Brian Libby. 2002. The latest on the Portland Building.
3. Beyond Postmodernism. Brad McCormick. Dec. 2003. The role of architecture in redeeming humanity.
4. Postmodernism. Lengthy entry with in-text links.
5. Postmodernism. Mary Klages. Apr. 2003. Characteristics and key figures.
6. Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature. John Lye. 1999. NNA. Another introduction.
7. Postmodernism and its Critics. Shannon Weiss and Karla Wesley. An anthropological perspective: extended article, references and links.
8. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample . Jun. 2003. Essential listings.
9. Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel. Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin and Robin Parmar. 2000. Short article but useful list of authors.
10. Paul Auster's Postmodernist Fiction: Deconstructing Aristotle's "Poetics". Dragana Nikolic. MA thesis but readable.
11. The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry. Albert Gelpi. 1990. Postmodernism as a final exorcism of Romantic aspirations.
12. Sociopolitical (Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics. Robert Kaufman. Jun 2003. Long article in Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.
13. Postmodernist Poetry: a Movement or an Indulgence? Robert Jacoby. 2000. NNA. A study of Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
14. Postmodernism in Thai Poetry: Saksiri Meesomsueb's Tukta Roi Sai. Soraj Hongladarom. Saksiri Meesomsueb's poetry from a Postmodernist angle.
15. How postmodern is Cohen's poetry? Clint Burnham. analyzing the poetry for Postmodernist characteristics.
16. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. George Hartley. 1989. Extended critique covering work of Ashbery, Bernstein and others.
17. The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Susan M. Schultz. Schultz's Introduction to collection of 12 critical articles.
18. John Ashbery. Author homepage, with selected links.
19. John Ashbery. NNA Academy of American Poets entry: short biography and links.
20. Normalizing John Ashbery. Marjorie Perloff. 1997. Perloff's article for Jacket magazine.
21. J.H. Prynne. On the Matter of Thermal Packing. Online poem from author's The White Stones (1969) collection.
22. ‘Schönheit Apocalyptica’: An Approach to The White Stones by J.H. Prynne. James Keery. Nov. 2003. A very detailed examination.
23. Poetry Criticism: Poetry and Politics. James Sherry et al. Oct. 2000. Texts of presentations at PSA symposium.
24. Visionary Company. Marjorie Perloff. Criticism of Harold Bloom's anthology Best American Poetry 1996.
25. Speaking About Genre: the Case of Concrete Poetry. Victoria Pineda. Article argues for a more feminist approach.
26. Great Works. Site for innovative writing: modernist, postmodernist and 'archaic'. Good listings.
27. Language and Postlanguage Poetries. Mark Wallace. A view of poetry after the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school.
28. Electronic Poetry Center. Excellent collection of links, grouped by poet and critic.
29. Concrete Poems. Michael P. Garofalo. Mar. 2003. Title index to websites, books, journals, articles, and poems: extensive.
30. UbuWeb Papers. Good collection of articles on contemporary poetry and poetics.
31. The Constant Critic. Tri-weekly poetry reviews.
32. Contemporary Poetry Review. Excellent reviews of poetry both sides of the Atlantic.
33. 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.