Postmodern Poetry

1. Modernism.

1.1. What We Won’t Talk About

In discussions of Postmodernism, three aspects in particular keep turning up which are of no or only of passing interest to the present text. One of these aspects is the one pursued in Jameson’s approach to the problem of the postmodern. Jameson claims that a purely literary approach to the postmodern cannot possibly work, as all the characteristics of postmodern literature were already present in certain modernist tendencies. The salient feature for a periodization is contained in the “gesellschaftliche Standort” (Jameson 48) of these branches of Post-/Modernism, which means that in order to distinguish the Postmodernism of two authors with similar styles we have to take into account the position of these within their respective society. Differences arise from changes and shifts within the society, in other words, the meaning of these styles changes.

Jameson’s theory is not useful for this text, because the break in Delmore Schwartz’s poetry took place when WW II as still ongoing and major changes in society had not yet taken place. It’s true that Schwartz lived and wrote for about twenty years in post-war America, but judging from the few published books of verse, there is no textual evidence for a break in his work after WW II which might be due to a Jamesonian phenomenon. There are breaks, as we will see, but they are due to other, personal rather than public, events.

The second aspect involves the postmodern as conceived of by McLuhan and the dawning of the “electric age” (Brown 7; cf. Brown 2ff.), it is unusable on account of Schwartz’s total disinterest in the new media. The third aspect distinguishes between various ‘waves’ of Postmodernism “auf einer historisch beschreibenden Ebene” (Huyssen 17), classifying different sorts of Postmodernisms as they emerged one by one. This approach is of no interest to us because Schwartz’s poetry belongs to a time when Postmodernism had not yet gone through more than one phase, when it was still Post-modernism (cf. n.3).

Moreover, there are certain aspects of Modernism which have been highlighted by late varieties of postmodern theory, such as queer (cf. Nelson 86) or gender studies (cf. 84), or studies concerned with race (cf. 87ff.). These are issues that would invite close readings of Schwartz’s texts and distract from the main issue in the present paper, which revolves around the problem of periodization.

This is not to say that we can entirely dispense with postmodernist readings of Modernism, as we should not forget that an approach to that period is not possible except through the -possibly distorted- lens of Postmodernism, as the former is inextricably “bound up with postmodernist wrangling” (Goldman 8, see also Pütz 56).

1.2. “The Poem of the Mind”

In order not to get too caught up in this ‘wrangling’, it might be helpful to consult some of the early post-war criticism: one of the most famous texts, The Continuity of American Poetry, posits the existence of “a series of basic poetic styles” (Pearce 12) and of a continuous “twin impulse” (6) in American poetry, torn between freedom and community (cf. 5f.). What, then, might the ‘basic poetic style’ of Modernism be? Even a cursory overview of the period will provide an idea of the difficulties posed by this question.

Not only are as disparate a group of poets as Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Yeats considered modernist poets, lately, emphasis has been put on the “short-lived […] avant-garde phase of Modernism” (Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 3). These groups are stylistically diverse and hard to combine under the banners of ‘freedom’and ‘community’[i]. Yet the basic styles are “given to a poet to […] accommodate to his sense of the possibilities […] for living life fully in his culture” (Pearce 13). We will see that there truly is a twin impulse in modernistic Amercan poetry, yet the two opposites have been accommodated to the culture of Modernism.

The present paper will take as its starting point the “preoccupation with ‘external reality'” (Dembo 1), the “awareness that stable patterning is absent from the external world” (Keller 10) which took different forms within Modernism. I will start out with Wallace Stevens and his quest for “The magnificent cause of being / The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world” (Stevens 25). Even though Stevens wrote his share of long poems, his way to deal with the “exterior boundary between the world of the poem and reality” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 26) only rarely extended to “structural organization [as] a way of knowing” (Bloom, American Poetry, 7), which makes him stand out in the company of his fellow modernists Pound, Stein or Eliot[ii].

Instead he resorted to a highly poetological poetry[iii], and endeavored to describe the difference between “things as they are” (Stevens 165) and what happens to them in the hands of the poet: “Things as they are are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” (165) The important idea here is the distinction between reality and the imagination, and the difficulty of distinguishing the two, the imagination being “the one reality / In this imagined world” (25). If it is to cope with these difficulties, the modern poem has to be a “poem of the mind” (239), or, as Auden put it, a “painstaking adaption [from] Life to Art” (Auden 181). Poetry became “a cognitive tool” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 24) for understanding reality.

Consequently, concepts arose of a ‘purification’ of reality, which could be achieved through the act of transcending subjectivity (cf. Dembo 3). The Objectivists in particular wanted “all associational or sentimental value [to] be dropped from verse” (Ruland and Bradbury 241). This, however, is not a concept that applies to all of Modernist poetry or even to most of it. Not only did Auden, one of the leading High Modernists, write lines such as “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong” (Auden 141) but also within bulwarks of Modernism such as The Waste Land there are passages that are moving precisely because they seem to be intensely personal such as: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot 39, l. 430)[iv].

1.3. Fragments of Modernism

1.3.1. The Difficulties of Fragments

This is not, however, the only instance of Modernism presenting a very disparate image at one and the same time. The “brokenness of modernist poetry” (Keller 258) seems to extend to the period as a whole, one might call it symptomatic. In the present paragraph we will examine another major disagreement within the modernist canon, which is the attitude towards tradition and technique. Auden attacked the Sonnett and “viewed Romanticism as leading to fascism” (Perkins 9) and, at the same time, he wrote the “Sonnets from China” (cf. Auden 183-195). Pound “constantly advocated renewal of language” and at the same time he “returned frequently to […] forms [of the Past]” (both: Strand and Boland 41).

As to compositional technique: some Modernists tried to mirror the fragmentation of the world in a poetry of fragments (cf. Keller 258), but the same poets, Pound being one of them, turned to music for “a model for […] a non-material harmony and coherence” (Bucknell 1) and attempted to create “controlling patterns” (Keller 10), for example the structure of The Cantos or the structure of The Waste Land; or a mythical superstructure, suggesting “a mythic timelessness” (Bell 15), an instance of which might be Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (cf. Yeats 163f.).

Similarities, on the other hand, can be found in the modernist tendency of a “reification of poetic techniques” (Blasing 3), which means the belief of the correspondence between free verse and a free spirit or, conversely, a ‘reactionary’ form and a reactionary attitude. Even if modernist vers libre-writers take recurse to more traditional forms, these texts draw attention to them precisely because they are a rarity in these poets’ oeuvres. This heavy-handed attitude towards tradition seems to me a very characteristic attitude of Early and High Modernism[v].

Another similarity devolves from something that might be seen as another major disagreement within Modernism and concerns one of the two ontological dimensions of the poetic text, as outlined by McHale. He claims that “[p]oetry […] has a dual ontology, […] a two-world ontological organization” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 22; his italics) one concerning the exterior boundary of the poem, between the poem and the world. The other one concerns the interior boundary, to which we will turn now, which runs between the opposing pair of textual surface and the “ideational structure of the text, its ‘meaning'” (22).

According to Perloff, avant-garde writers such as Gertrude Stein emphasize composition over representation (cf. Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 54) and thus “impel the reader to participate” (25f.), a poetics Perloff calls “literalism”. A closer look reveals, though, that Stein actually explicitly repudiates the concept of literalism (cf. Keller 8f.) and that literalism, as described by Perloff, can also be found in the conceptions of New Criticism, specifically in the concept of the “heresy of paraphrase” (Keller 9). This leads to what the modernists all have in common, that is the shelving of the question of interior ontology in favor of the epistemological function of poetry, which concerns the exterior boundary (cf. the discussion of Stevens earlier).

1.3.2. Resolving the Difficulties

One might end here and state the difficulties of describing the “basic poetic style” (Pearce 12) of Modernism, as Modernism and modernist poets seem to be so divided over so many issues, with similarities turning up only rarely. Yet the major disagreements, between personalism and impersonalism and between tradition and the urge to Make It New, can be resolved without having to resort to some higher dominion such as ‘society’.

The question of tradition has been resolved to some extent by Harold Bloom[vi] by pointing out the problem of influence in the creative act, and the “desperate insistence” (13), ultimately futile, of the creative mind to be free of influence, which results in an anxiety. This tension perfectly describes the tension in modernist poetry. On the one hand, there is no denying the heavy influence of romantic poets such as Swinburne and Browning on the early poetry of Pound and Eliot (cf. Ruland and Bradbury 215), even less the massive influence of Whitman[vii] on vast parts of modernist poetry (cf. Trachtenberg 195). On the other hand, there is in early modernist poetry, equally undeniable, an impulse towards a new kind of writing, free from tradition. Taking our lead from Bloom, we can see that the urge towards the new, the “questing for fire” (Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 79) is eclipsed by the flood of tradition, which, in the end, is inescapable and accordingly turns up in the poetry of Modernism, too. This explains the long poems which amass references and quotations from the realm of tradition: they are an attempt to coerce the inevitable into new forms, an attempt at containing history, that which “they found in the post-bag” (Pound 41), in complicated structures such as The Cantos or The Waste Land, and thus overcoming influence[viii].

As to the question of subjectivity and impersonality, this time the solution devolves from the very principles employed by the modernist poets: it is true that much of Modernist poetry tends towards impersonality and towards “a certain neutrality of description” (Nelson 68). It is incontestable, too, that personal lines slip regularly in between the poetry. These two facts do not have to be incompatible, though, as both tendencies overlap in the area of the individual mind. The main thrust of Modernist poetry, as we saw, proposes a “poem of the mind” (239), which imposes order on a world without order. The focaliser for this process, in other words, is the individual mind, but for modern poetry, the individual mind is fraught with weaknesses, the poetry is “a tune beyond us as we are” (Stevens 167), therefore there exists an urge towards some higher ordering principle[ix], whether it be myth or the idea of an ‘impersonal subject’[x].

Thus, when writing ‘impersonally’, the modernist poets have not left the sphere of the individual mind yet, but split it into an objective, impersonal part, the ‘mind’, and a subjective part, which they declared superfluous. Yet the writing of poetry cannot be divorced from this subjective part, as it is us, who “choose to play / The imagined pine, the imagined jay” (184). Hence, the modern poem projects both aspects of the writing subject, yet it cannot own up to the coexistence of these two aspects. This results in a tension, a tension at least as intense as the tension between tradition and the new.

All these tensions practically ‘produced’ the poetry of Modernism, as every major development of that period can be seen as a way to cultivate a style capable of overcoming these difficulties. The major development was the ideology of the mot juste, of “the potential exactitude of words or metaphors” (Keller 255), the view of the “poetic language as incarnational” (Blasing 9). If language is exact, the question of how to separate the objective part of the mind from the subjective or tradition from the genuinely new basically become a question of penmanship. You only have to write it right in order to succeed. The major developments of modernist poetry follow logically from this approach, the structures being merely a special way of arranging words. The huge amount of innovative modernist poetry is due to the tensions, which made modernist writing so difficult on the writers.

1.3.3. The End

These tensions surely belong among the ” basic poetic styles” (Pierce 12) of Modernism. They are the “twin impulse[s]” (6) of modernist poetry and an impulse always implies a direction. Where postmodern poetry will have a multitude of impulses, which propel it in many directions at once, Modernism has two kinds of twin impulses, but they do not combine. Between the two opposites modernist poetry had to escape in the only direction possible: forward. It had to, in order to not get caught between Scylla and Charybdis. When one of the most perceptive readers of his period, Randall Jarrell, declared the end of Modernism, he wrote that Modernism had already “exhausted” its means (cf. Jarrell 259), an exhaustion the tensions and that curious dynamic obviously played a major role in.

Modernism yielded to its tensions, “all [the] romantic tendencies [were] exploited to their limits” (Jarrell 259). There came a point when this system of tensions which produced so many great poems did not produce more, because “Modernism is a limit” (259). A limit comprised by the two-dimensionality of its approach, which translated into a dynamic movement in one direction only, trying to be ‘more’: “more violent, more disorganized, more obscure, more -supply your own adjective-” (259). Until there was no ‘more’ to be had, and Modernism ended. Yet 1942, the year Jarrell wrote his essay, the New Criticism was fully under way.

1.4. The New Criticism

1.4.1. Making it Better

The New Criticism[xi], finally, is the last stage of Modernism. The New Critical poets strove to Make It Better, writing in a “densely structured [style], crammed with learned allusions, witty metaphors [and] verbal ambiguities” (Breslin 17). They were mainly influenced by Eliot, not by his style, but by his “set of attitudes and values” (15), his “wrestling to find the mot juste” (Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism, 159), which, as we saw earlier, had in some way been present throughout the whole of Modernism. In New Criticism, this notion resulted in the “well-wrought poem” (Keller 260).

Remembering the conclusions of the previous part, one might wonder how the New Criticism fits with the basic styles of Modernism, even whether it should be considered a modernist phase at all. After all, the theory of the New Criticism reigned over academic discourse on poetry until well into the 1970s, but most accounts of Modernism end at 1940 at the latest (cf. Goldman 21). However, it is hard to seriously indicate when the inception of Modernism takes place (cf. Riha 19), so why should it be different at the other end of the period[xii]?

If New Critical poetry ist to be modern in this paper’s reading of Modernism, it must display the same tensions as high-modernist poetry did, but the abovementioned allusions seem to be indicative of a freer relationship to tradition, as influence and predecessors become an integral part of poetry. New Critical poetry existed “[t]hroughout its whole career in an intellectual symbiosis with a school of critics” (Perkins 76). Through books on the ‘right’ way to read a poem, the New Critics both told the readers where and how to look for the allusions and imposed the allusions upon the writers. In this fashion, “a narrow orthodoxy had evolved” (Keller 260), a system far more closed than High Modernism.

This system, however, turns out to be just one more way to deal with the modernist tensions, as there is no freedom in the relation to tradition to be had: there is one proscribed way to deal with it and there are no alternatives allowed. Whereas the modernist ideal was a self-proscribed one, this one is imposed, more often than not, by an elite group of theoreticians on the large body of American poets, by usurping the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Furthermore, the New Critical ideology comes with a whole system of rewards and punishments: inclusion into the American Canon or total exclusion from the academia.

1.4.2. Canonizing Modernism

The New Critics were the first to provide a cogent definition of poetry in the “institutional history of English departments” (Golding 71), so even though the dawn of New Criticism broke slowly, in the end it conquered academia, as it had nearly no serious theoretical competition on university grounds all around the country (cf. Perkins 6). This meant that they were also the first to really establish a canon of American poetry accepted throughout the United States. In light of the fact that “criticism creates or preserves canons” (Golding 75), the New Criticism was well equipped to carve its canon out of the bulk of American poetry, and in doing so created the parameters that decide which future texts can be included and which cannot be (wertungskanon?), it also revised the past, that is tradition, by emphasizing those lines of influence that they deemed good and healthy.

This canon, revolving around the idea of the good, that is, well-crafted poem, has of course changed, since what we today see as the Canon (with a capital ‘c’) includes much that was not included by the New Critics, i.e. Pound and Sandburg. These were re-introduced by later generations, who revised the Canon by re-defining ‘well-crafted’ and in this way included several other strands of tradition. Either poets that were completely revived after the war, such as Pound, or alternative canons, which developed in little magazines, such as Olson’s “Origin” and were later canonized (cf. Golding 114), or the alternative canons of women’s writing as well as African-American literature. These inclusions, though, represent exceptions to the rule rather than a change of rule (cf. Matthews 13).

2. Postmodernism

2.1. “Many Things At Once”

In the 1960’s, Postmodernism was suddenly there, unmistakably different from what was known as Modernism and it was “practically from the start, many things at once” (Bertens 4). As I have indicated at the beginning of the chapter on Modernism, it is not very helpful to talk about postmodern culture, as the results of such a discussion would not be readily applicable to Delmore Schwartz’s poetry. Instead, I will pursue certain lines of tradition and influence that show what Postmodernism was, which forms it took. In other words I will be talking about the actual poetry.

Following up the idea that “Postmodernism follows from Modernism […] more than it follows after Modernism” (McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 5; italics are his) we can see that whatever forms post-modern poetry took in the 1950’s, it was nearly always a reaction to Modernism in its last incarnation, New Criticism. This style was dominating the idea of ‘literariness’ in poetry to such an extent that, in order to be able to work free from New Critical pressure, one of these new poets, Ginsberg had to deny his own literariness[xiii] on the one hand (cf. Breslin 55) and his immediate predecessors in poetry; he did the latter by constructing his heritage from prose modernists as Dos Passos and the ubiquitous Whitman[xiv] (cf. Ruland and Bradbury 327). Yet as many faces as Modernism had, Postmodernism has a similar amount of those. So many, in fact, that it is still uncertain which poet of the 1950’s is post-modern and which is merely late late modernist.

2.2. Against Form, Against Sense

2.2.1. Experimental Postmodernism or…

One group of poets that was nearly immediately recognized as postmodernist, once the theorization of Postmodernism was under way, were the experimental poets, Ashbery, O’Hara, the Black Mountain poets and others. Critics recognized that the new poetry “cho[se] to live on the frontiers of language” (Stepanchev 1), that it was “anti-symbolist” (207) and “presenting unmediated experience” (Breslin 55). Poets such as Ashbery “ha[ve] little of the modernists’ faith in the […] exactitude of words” (Keller 255), something that becomes clear when we compare Ashbery’s long, sometimes rambling poems with the tense exactitude of The Waste Land, or O’Hara’s detailed impressions that are not “exemplary and stable” (Keller 256) as are the details in modernist poetry. This new poetry celebrates “a world governed by randomness” (256): “arbitrariness is foregrounded” (McHale, “Postmodernis Lyric”, 29). Some strains of postmodernist poetry invents devices in order not to fall for the same tensions as modernist poetry, “textual machines” (26) for instance, which eliminate the subjective part of the mind completely and transfer the objective part to a machine-like device. They lead a “rebellion against form” (Bawer 127) and do not submit to “the commands of sense” (Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 164). This list could go on for pages.

The equation of postmodern poetry with experimental poetry has been so persistent that a book such as the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry features only experimental poets. Granted, it has to omit many poets due to the limits imposed by the criterion of size, but the omission of a whole branch of poetry is apparent: there is no poem at all included by Merrill, Lowell, Bishop, Berryman or Plath, all of whom are important American poets, all of whom are most certainly not avant-garde or experimental writers. Hoover, the editor of this book, admits his bias freely: “[a]s used here, ‘postmodern’ […] suggests an experimental approach to composition […]. Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time” (Hoover xxv). He strikes out against tradition, especially against british influence (cf. xxvii) and traces its inheritance to the modernist avant-garde (cf. xxxix). Postmodern American poetry, according to him, needs “a home-grown idiom”[xv] (xxvii).

2.2.2. …late late Modernism?

This last paragraph states a poetics that should sound oddly familiar to us, as it restates in slightly modified form several of Modernism’s claims. The basic ingredient is there, pronounced as clear as possible: renouncement of tradition and the urge to Make It New. Hoover polemicises against other anthologies which represent a different sort of canon, one which is “more traditional, formal and refined” (Hoover xxvii). If we project, as I suggest we can, Hoover’s position as the opposite to this canon, a picture of a poetry emerges that wants to be “more violent, more disorganized, more obscure” (Jarrell 259).

More modernist than the modernists, this experimentalist view of Postmodernism buys totally into “a modernist aesthetic ideology” (Blasing 2) and the “modernist reification of poetic techniques” (3) we mentioned earlier. With Hoover’s simplistic view of postmodern poetry, it becomes hard to distinguish one clearly from the other, so that to some critics, quite understandably “the modern/postmodern divide has emerged as more apparent than real” (Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 164). The very existence of postmodern poetry suddenly becomes doubtful[xvi]. If we want a clear picture of Postmodernism to surface, we need to extend our approach beyond avant-garde poetry.

2.3. Open Forms, Open Minds

2.3.1. The Middle Generation and others

The Middle Generation “consist[s] of Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman and Lowell” (Bawer 3), sometimes Elizabeth Bishop is included whereas Schwartz is omitted (cf. Travisano). This group of poets are joined not for their formal similarities, but for their overall aesthetic approach, which can be described as a deviation from modernism. A deviation, however, not only from New Critical orthodoxy, but from the “basic poetic style” (Pearce 12) of the whole period. All of them started out as a very modernist breed of poets: “every line of poetry that they wrote during their early years was […] shaped by Eliot’s doctrines.” (Bawer 60) With Bishop and Jarrell this became not so obvious as both of them did not start to publish poetry until late in their careers when they had already crossed the line. The others, however, each published at least one modernist book of verse, until their poetry changed: Lowell published even two, Land of Unlikeliness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), Berryman published The Dispossessed (1948) and Schwartz In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938). Lowells second book as well as Berryman’s debut were not pitch-perfect modernist books, each carried the seed of Postmodernism within it. It was Lord Weary’s Castle which prompted Jarrell to exclaim that “Mr. Lowell’s poetry is a unique fusion of modernist and traditional poetry […]. [I]t is essentially a post- or anti-modernist poetry.” (Jarrell 213). And there, in a nutshell, are the characteristics of these early postmodernists.

Others, most notably James Merrill, have also written highly formalized poetry, leaning strongly on tradition, eschewing avant-garde aesthetics in favor of a free play with tradition and of the new aesthetic of the personal, as established by the Middle Generation (see below). They took part in the “movement from constriction to liberation” (Jarrell 211), they were able to take up different styles without having to gravely place themselves in a tradition (cf. Pordzik 28). Together with the Middle Generation poets they developed an openness that is all the clearer because they seem to be writing in closed forms. “Because [these poets] are not avant-garde writers, it is their participation in these trends that argues most persuasively for […] a genuine shift in attitudes” (Keller 14).

2.3.2. A Postmodern Aesthetic

In the following two sections we will examine this shift in attitudes. The poets discussed in the preceding two sections created “one of the earliest and most persistent […] aesthetics” (Travisano 9) of post-modernism, an aesthetics that consisted, simply put, of an openness of content (cf. 9). Whereas modernist poetry had been a “cognitive tool” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 24), and thus could not do without a determinate meaning, postmodernist poetry “undermines every sort of certitude” (Axelrod 265). Not only is there a “tolerance of uncertainty” (Keller 252), but also a whole process of active undermining of epistemological certainty is taking place in the postmodern text, clustered around two key strategies.

The first one could be called the attention/intention divide, stressing not the intention of the author but “the ‘attention’ that produced it” (Ashton 18). This development of “mak[ing] meaning a matter of someone’s experience […] rather than of someone’s intention” (13) is often traced to Ashbery (cf. 13ff.), yet I find that principle much clearer expressed in Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), where the protagonist of the poems[xvii] conveys line after line of experienced facts of his surroundings: “Screens as black-grained as drifting coal / Tockytock, tockytock / Clumped our Alpine, Edwardian cuckoo clock” (Lowell 163; italics his)[xviii]. There is none of that meticulous system of quotations as in The Waste Land, these are quotations, if you will, from life. Clearly, the world is something to be observed, but there is no longer a sharp demarcation between the world and the poem. The relationship of the two is no longer a central concern in this poetry. When in “To Delmore Schwartz” (cf. Lowell 157f.) Lowell misquotes Schwartz misquoting Coleridge (cf. Bawer 147), a strong unconcern with truth becomes obvious. He gives up, at least tentatively, his “personal control over the production of meaning” (Ashton 25).

This production of meaning is undercut as well by the strategy of erasure, as sketched out by McHale. Of the different levels this strategy can operate on, we will only pick one, “erasure at the level of language(McHale, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, 252; italics his). This kind of erasure involves “self-cancellation […] whereby poems ‘unmake’ themselves as they go along” (252). This implies a system of self-contradictions that extends the simple New Critical method of paradox. This erasure “is not in the service of some higher truth” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 42), quite the reverse, it leaves “a bitter impression of absence” (41)[xix]. This unmotivated erasure can be found particularly often in the poetry of Berryman. Meaning becomes hard to grasp in lines such as: ” […] where I am / we don’t know. It was dark and then / it isn’t.” (Berryman 32).

Apart from the question of indeterminacy, there are two other accomplishments of the postmodern aesthetic in the first two decades after WWII, the first of which touches the question of the personal/impersonal tension in Modernism. Postmodern poetry, as it is represented by the Middle Generation, “record[s] […] the soul under stress” (Gustavsson 123). One might argue that the brokenness of modernist poetry has exactly the same effect, but this would only mask the difference: the new poetry is more concerned with “individual psychology” (Keller 258). “[A]utobiographical energies play an increasing role” (117), something which hasALREADY been already implied in our discussion of the attention/intention divide, because it is not about the truth-value implicit in ‘true’ autobiography, it is more about the gesture of autobiography, the idea of ‘seen this, done that’. Through this leaning on the emotional part of the individual person, the modernist bias in favor of rationality has been dispensed with. This time it is about a “nonrational way of knowing” (Keller 115)[xx].

Postmodern poetry seems to be chiefly interested in feeling, yet the mind still has its uses in the new poetry. For instance when the question of tradition arises. The Middle Generation poets, as well as the other postmodern writers, recognized that it is impossible “to stand free of conventions” (Keller 12), they felt free to make use of tradition as they pleased because they were under no illusions concerning their capabilities of Making It New, so they appropriated whatever they deemed interesting and shed those parts of it that they considered boring. Against all expectations, however, this approach, as far as it related to past and contemporary styles, did not lead to the same kind of arbitrariness in form that dominated content (cf. McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 29). Form became the major concern of postmodern poetry, as “the epistemological function [lost] its priority [and] the ontology was foregrounded” (26), interior ontology, that is.

2.3.3. Postmodern Form

The question is not any longer how best to describe reality, it has rather become a question on how to make a poem, which words, forms, sound to employ. This explains why, although the content of the poetry of Postmodernism seemed to be a whole lot more liberated from constraints than previous poetry was, the poetry itself was remarkably complex and finely crafted. This has lead some critics to claim “a return to artifice” (Perloff, Radical Artifice, 27). This artifice does not necessarily imply a highly formalized poetry in the cenventional sense of the term ‘form’. According to Jonathan Holden “postmodern poetic form is predominantly analogical” (Holden 8)[xxi]. He seems to be making a point similar to Jameson’s discussion of the pastiche (cf. Jameson 62f.), but Holden’s point is more subtle. He concurs with Perloff in that artifice involves a “recognition that a poem […] is a made thing” (Perloff, Radical Artifice, 28; italics hers), but he extends the notion of formal categories beyond those traditional forms that everyone includes, such as the villanelle or the sestina, to a different type of formal categories (cf. Holden 7f.). One of his categories would be the “‘conversation’ poem” (9) or the lyric (cf. 10f.).

Conventional styles are “mentioned rather than used” (McHale, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, 11)[xxii] in postmodern poetry, this implies that the making of the postmodern poem involves new categories. Holden’s taxonomy, sketchy though it may be, matches our approach to postmodernist content brilliantly. He orders the formal categories “along a scale […] of their degree of ‘personalization'”, which makes perfect sense in a poetry that is to such an extent dominated by the idea of the personal[xxiii].

Returning to the lack of arbitrariness in form in postmodern poetry, we need to recognize that one of the centerpieces of postmodern poetics is the playfulness of its forms (cf. Perloff, The Dance of the Intellect, 176). By relying upon assonances, rhymes and traditional forms on the one hand, and Holden’s new categories on the other hand, the language of the poem is favoured over its content. The textual movements, as they concern “the coercive power of a rhyme-scheme or other sound patterns” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 28) , become “operations of some sort of machine” (29), the formal aspect of the poem being this machine . Of course, this does not necessarily make the form determinate, but it further undercuts the determinacy of meaning on the level of content. Thus, postmodern poetry becomes a poetry of the personal without ever succumbing to a poetics of intentionality because of the multitude of textual strategies undermining the truth-value of the poetry.


[i] Although, interestingly, you might contrast Eliot and Pound along the lines of community and freedom, respectively. This, however, is not the subject of the present paper.

[ii] Stevens found his mode of writing early, settled into it quickly and changed little over the years, as Jarrell perceived correctly, talking of “his later mold in which he cast himself” (Jarrell 120).

[iii] “[S]o-called ‘intellectual poetry'” (Gregory and Zaturenska, 328) PUNKT?

[iv] Compare that to the impersonalized reprise in The Cantos: “These fragments you have shelved (shored)” (Pound 28).

[v] The idea of a American tradition of a new writing which results from a re-reading of tradition, as “creative reading” (Herd 34), has been examined as a possible modernist strain but it has proven to be unhelpful to any useful categorization of poety, as the great modernists are very divided on this issue (cf. Herd 35). On differences between Eliot and Pound in respect to tradition, see Rabaté 214ff. He shows that both have a strained relationship to tradition and it shows how they cope with it. In Eliot’s concept of tradition, which strongly smells of Jungian psychology, the other modernist tension, too, is implicated via the “individual talent” (cf. Rabaté 215f.).

[vi] I do not, however, concur with the whole of his theory, especially not with his psychologically tinged emphasis on the mind of the individual, biographical author. His theory is of some use inasmuch as it clarifies some general structures of influence and the violence of the new (cf. Vendler).

[vii] The fact that Whitman’s influence was not blocked as the influence from Romanticism was, can be explained by considering the modernist textual strategy of the reification of poetic techniques, as outlined earlier. The Whitman they appropriated was not the whole Whitman, but only the idea of an American tradition, new and free. It suited their other ideas well. The whole Whitman was not revived until the advent of the Beat Poets (cf. Trachtenberg).

[viii] Little did they recognize that the very idea of the new long poem was itself part of their romantic heritage.

[ix] I concede that it may be not so felicitous to quote Stevens in this context, who never succumbed to the “rage for order” (Stevens 169); yet the question of the poet’s mind has in modernist American poetry

never been expressed in a better way than in the poetry of Stevens. Similar expressions can be found in Eliot’s or Pound’s essays yet I am reluctant to use both essays and poetry by the same poet, without accounting for the differences that are bound to arise. This, however, is far beyond the scope of this paper.

[x] Basically, this is a Kantian approach: Kant talks of man as a “sinnlich affiziertes Vernunftwesen” and wants to separate the “sinnlich affiziert” part from the “Vernunftwesen”.

[xi] The principles of style in this period are virtually indistiguishable from the principles of criticism at that time (cf. Perkins 75f.), that is why I will adopt the term “New Criticism” for both phenomena.

[xii] Especially if, as I will suggest, modernist poetry was still written in the 1970s and possibly still is.

[xiii] Note the postmodern tendency towards a non-literary culture described by Renner (cf. Renner 13).

[xiv] Whitman’s influence seems to have increased even more (cf. Garrett 232: “Everybody claims him”) in the early decades of Postmodernism.

[xv] It is interesting how selective his view of tradition and influence is, especially British influence. Compare Diggory’s account of the way that some influential British poets immersed themselves in the American tradition of Emerson and Whitman and how this influence seeped into American poetry later on (cf. Diggory 11-31 and elsewhere).

[xvi] Notice that I do not call into question the validity of the term postmodern, but ‘postmodern’ means something else for each cultural subcategory. Brown in particular has argued that postmodern poetry treads on paths that modernist prose has long been using (cf. 8).

[xvii] These are supposedly autobiographical poems and the dates and names match Lowell’s biographyKOMMA yet I am uneasy with this designation. Nevertheless, the poems in Part 4 of Life Studies are clearly narrated by the same character, which in my view amply warrants calling him the “protagonist” of these poems.

[xviii] Certainly, in Ashton’s understanding, the experience is not communicated so plainly to the reader (cf. Ashton 24), but compared to the impersonal modernist poem, these are major developments; what’s more, Lowell’s progress is made in his poetry whereas Ashbery’s ideas are communicated in lectures and essays, in other words: outside of his poetry. The validity of poetological statements made in respect to one’s own works should be -and has been- severely questioned.

[xix] This, of course, does represent some higher truth as well. McHale tends to overlook these kinds of implications. Yet basically, his idea is sound. The point is, that the paradox, if that is the form the self-erasure takes, is not constructed so that it will yield some truth by being understood, as was the case with New Critical poetry which took its hints from the metaphysical poets such as John Donne (cf. Perkins 38). The postmodern paradox leaves the reader with a feeling about the world, but not with knowledge or even a semblance of such knowledge.

[xx] Compare Kristeva’s remarks on the ascendancy of a literature that partakes of “the asymbolicity peculiar to psychosis” (Kristeva 139). This stress on the value accorded to a major weakness of the mind fits well with our discussion.

[xxi] Holden recognizes the fact that there is an “analogical approach to form implicit in poetry of the High Modernist period” (Holden 16), but he resolves this problem by explaining the taxonomy of the postmodern variation of that approach, as we will see shortly.

[xxii] Cf. Jarrells observation that “‘The Quaker Graveyard’ is a baroque work […] yet all the extase of baroque has disappeared” (Jarrell 211; italics his).

[xxiii] So that even the impersonal becomes a category of potentially personal poetry.

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Just dumb

Well. Yesterday I was poking fun at Nigel Beale’s absurd idea of how to read literature and art. This is from the first post of his on this topic.

Based on what we have here, what I know of Proust’s life , and my experience reading Holmes and Coleridge, Marchand and Byron, Ellmann and Joyce, Steegmuller and Flaubert, for example, I’m with Sainte-Beuve. Knowing about Coleridge’s life struggles, his politics, his relationship with women (and I’m relying on the accuracy of Holmes’ research), knowing Coleridge this way, enriched my experience of his work, influenced the way I understood it, and increased my appreciation and enjoyment of it. The text remains the same. Its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same, what changes is my reception of them. Because of the biographical information additional layers of interpretation open themselves up to me. Because of the new tenderness I feel for the man, my reading is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn’t replace close reading, it augments it.

Well. If you look at yesterday’s post, you’ll notice that actually, in his case, as in most cases, it may open layers of interpretation, but it closes many many more. In my reading experience as a reader of literature and as a reader of literary criticism, inclusion of biographical facts almost always leads to a narrow interpretation.

I hold that the critic is free to consider biographical material for inspiration. But it can never, ever, turn up later as a way of argument. Beale doesn’t understand this crucial division, as is visible in his own abysmally poor remarks, for instance on Picasso. Moreover, such a biographical reading should never be mixed up with a marxist reading, such as Lucien Goldmann’s take on Racine and Pascal in Le Dieu Caché (which is fraught with errors of its own, but that’s a different story). I think I sorted the two out somewhat in this essay.

Biography, in short, doesn’t augment close reading, instead it hampers it. Thousands of essays done this way are ample proof of this, pick up any one of it, I have never read one that wasn’t frustrating, after all was said and done. If you want an example: Gwiazda’s book on Merrill and Auden is exasperatingly bad, not because the author’s such an idiot, but because you can see how the author’s bothered by the weights imposed on him by the biographical details, so much indeed, that the whole book reads like a bizarre experiment in bad literary criticism.

It’s a whole other kettle of fish, of course, when you are reading for fun. I have, personally, read dozens of biographies, I am currently aswim in the wonderful letters of Schwartz and his publisher Laughlin. When literary criticism is not concerned, it’s different. Then, often, it’s also less about the texts as texts, instead, the texts are part of the biography, even as the biography can never be part of the texts.

Nigel Beale, it appears, is a twat.

On Auden

Archbishop Rowan Williams on Auden

If I had to find one word for Auden’s poetry, it might be “satisfying” – not remotely in the sense of comfortable, but full of that sense of creative necessity that poetry conveys when it is most itself: this is how it must be said, this is (borrowing Geoffrey Hill’s language) a poetry of “atonement” where something is at the same time finished and set free in the fabric of the words.

On Delmore Schwartz

Schwartz, “the genius of the old partisan group” (Atlas 378) left his mark on a whole generation of poets and it is sad that this aspect of his is even less recognized than his poetic prowess (He has at least a Bollingen Prize to show for that, which makes it somehow hard to deny altogether). Lowell, whom we pegged earlier as one of the pioneers of Postmodernism, observed in interviews that he had “never met anyone who has somehow as much seeped into me”, Berryman revealed in similar interviews that he thought Schwartz was “the most underrated poet of the twentieth century” (both quotations: Atlas 378). Also, “[m]any of the new writers looked back to Delmore Schwartz [who] was known […] as a writer’s writer” (Ruland and Bradbury 336). Kenneth Koch went to Princeton in order to become a student of Schwartz’s (cf. Atlas 268) and John Ashbery notes that

of all the […] poets who have influenced me […] Schwartz is the one whose work is least known today and therefore the one most in need of elucidating for the benefit of anyone […] who might be interested in my work. (Ashbery 3)

Indeed, many elements of Ashbery’s poetry can surely be found in Schwartz’s work, but the most influential aspect of Schwartz’s poetry might well be his unconcern with dogma, without being downright rebellious in the way that Ginsberg was. Early Ashbery poems such as “Glazunoviana” or “The Grapevine” sound so Schwartzian in their structure and (postmodern) form that its easy to see the correspondence.

The poet who was most influenced by Schwartz was John Berryman, whose Dream Songs are a landmark of postmodern literature. “[T]he gullible Berryman” (Atlas 209) so admired Schwartz that he “became inarticulated in his presence and […] relied on Delmore’s advice in literary matters” (209); Schwartz was probably the first one who saw in Berryman’s early derivative poetry the promise of considerable talent, as he “did everything he could to promote [Berryman’s] reputation” (210). Additionally, the influence of Schwartz on individual poems “crucial to [Berryman’s] development” (Matterson 1) has been demonstrated satisfactorily (cf. Matterson 1ff.).

This takes us to the point where we have to consider the reasons for Delmore Schwartz’s bad standing today. If he was as influential and innovative as I claim, why is he not more famous today? Why do critics claim that “his best poetry was behind him after 1939” (Bauer, “The Figure of the Film Critic as Virile Poet”, 118), when Genesis was unwritten, as was most of the brilliant later poetry? There are several reasons for this. A particularly simple explanation might be that the rejection of Schwartz’s later poetry might be due to a reactionary strain in post-war criticism which had also tried to muffle or outright silence the poetry of the Beat poets (cf. Thurley 210f.); this reactionary strain represents a continuity of New Criticism. But Schwartz was also rejected by his friends and even by his admirers. Even as perceptive a critic as Jarrell denied the worth of Schwartz’s post-1939 poetry (cf. Travisano 20). This cannot be explained away with snobbishness.

The real problem was twofold. At first, Schwartz’s postmodernism was not a case of slight or subtle variation, it was a full shift. For this shift, however, “the taste and critical vocabulary […] had not yet been invented” (Kirsch 223) when Schwartz initiated the demise of his reputation with Genesis in 1943. The literary system had not changed with him, and the function of his post-modern aestetic was not able to unfold properly (cf. Tynjanov 439ff.), as it would’ve had twenty years later. Elizabeth Bishop could not help but call the late poetry of Schwartz “really bad” (Travisano 19). New Critical ideals even noticeably influenced the negative attitude towards the late poetry by Schwartz’s own biographer, James Atlas (cf. Bawer 147). Certainly, there are poets who made their way despite being marginalized by the literay world. These are those poets who establish alternative canons, such as Olson and the Black Mountain poets or the budding New York School of poets, which stared to form in the 1940’s, whereas Schwartz was not able to detach himself from mainstream criticism.

After the Middle Generation poets on the one hand, and experimental postmodernists on the other hand, had established themselves during the 1970’s in academic discourse, the way for a reevaluation of Schwartz was clear, but it never happened. When his new style finally fitted the literary system, it was too late. The trias of Berryman, Bellow and Atlas had already destroyed the basis for an unbiased evaluation of Schwartz’s poetry. The emerging canon of postmodern literature was partly dominated by confessional poetry (Which was and is easier palatable than Schwartz’s pioneering efforts in the 1940’s, as his poetry of that time is burdened by a grave, complicated language, whereas the easy, flowing lines of the late Lowell or Sexton can be understood easier and faster), and partly by experimental poetry, as we saw earlier. Schwartz’s poetry fits neither category. When, finally, in the 1980’s (cf. Huyssen 17f.) political aspects were becoming important factors for inclusion into the canon, Schwartz’s way into the canon was closed once and for all, on account of his blatant ignorance of all things political.
All of this meant that he had never a chance to be recognized as a poet of Postmodernism.

The themes of Schwartz’s poetry “are chiefly […] awe and abyss” (Ozick 12; italics hers). He writes with an intensity which became rare in modern poetry since Swinburne had lost his spark. ‘Awe’ and ‘abyss’ are fine descriptions of his work, they show why he was exceptional. He was filled with ‘awe’ of his literary forebears. Ford in particular has meticulously shown how indebted Schwartz was to the French modernist poets and Schwartz’s correspondence with the great modernist poets such as Pound, Stevens, Eliot and Auden showcases his deep admiration of their faculties (cf. Atlas 178 and elsewhere). Yet he evinced the abyss, too, in his work, the pessimism, the doubt that what he believed to be true was really right. He was one of the first to explore the possibilities of a poetry that breaks with modernist ideals. His courage to write the kind of revolutionary poetry he wrote, should be admired. But he failed, and the body of verse he left us is contradictory and uneven. It is hard to come to terms with this poet.

There are more problems than simply prevailing critical opinion. There is also the confusion about a definition of Postmodernism, which seems to change every time someone writes a book about it. In postmodernist poetry, the case is even more complicated, as even McHale, the author of one of the clearest and finest definitions of postmodern novels, surrendered to the difficulties of such a definition,. He conceded that he had not “been able to identify any ‘umbrella’-model capable of accomodating the full range of postmodernist features” (McHale, The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole, 251). The best accounts of postmodern poetry similarly shy away of ‘umbrella’-models, such as Lynn Kellers brilliant study. But this retreat into particulars just postpones the problem, in my understanding. However, the seeds of a theory of postmodern poetry have been planted in McHale’s approach to postmodern novels, where he uses a term of Jakobson, the change of dominant (cf. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 6ff.). It seems to me that this is a direction worth pursuing. A fellow Russian Formalist, Jurij Tynjanov, has proposed a theory of literary evolution, where the text, its elements and the literary system surrounding it form a cohesive unit. The question of how to evaluate literary evolution becomes a question of relation between the elements of the literary system.

To explain the changes from one set of relations in the literary system to another, you have to take into account not only stylistic changes, McHale’s échec demonstrated this sufficiently. You have to also take literary evaluations into account, not only criticism, but also the different types of canons and their functions within the system. You will have to be prepared to suspend the kind of schematic chronology inherent in the term ‘tradition’, so you can find changes and influences (See for instance Wilson’s account of the difficult relation between the work of Yeats and Delmore Schwartz, which defies critical wisdom on how tradition worked within Modernism) where you might not have expected them, for instance the autobiographically tinged poem of Schwartz’s in his first collection of poems. In such an approach one might demonstrate how the poetry of Wilbur, Olson or Creeley is, for all intents and porposes, modernist and the poetry of Schwartz postmodernist.

Thus, the gift of Delmore Schwartz to literature is threefold. One aspect are the texts themselves. The second aspect is the influence on many poets of Postmodernism, whereby he might have shaped the literary style we call postmodern. The third and last aspect is the potential gift of clarity: we might arrive at a better understanding of postmodernism and modernism if we try to understand Delmore Schwartz.

Do you hear, do you see? Do you understand me now, and how
The words for what is my heart do not exist? (Schwartz, Summer Knowledge, 228)