Sunday, August 22, 2010

Modern Trends in 20th Century Poetry


Though poets don’t write for the convenience of theorists, and groupings are often discerned later, analysis can still disclose themes that were powerful because so buried, i.e. not recognized or questioned at the time. One such is the negative aspect of European poetry: what it leaves out. The result has been a local thickening as one aspect or another is taken up, but also an overall impoverishment of theme and language, with poetry dividing into coterie groups that each claim to have the essential truth.
Death of Truth
Pride in country and community, a wish to explore, develop and identify with the aspirations of one’s fellow citizens, an abiding interest in the larger political and social issues of the day and a commitment to the moral and religious qualities that distinguish man from brute animals are all aspects of modern democratic life, but they find scant expression in its poetry. Wordsworth’s broodings on the ineffable are preferred to his patriotic odes, and Swinburne’s urgent rhetoric is no more read today than William Watson’s high-minded effusions. Even the Georgians with their innocent depictions of country life were decried by the Moderns, though what was substituted was a good deal less real and relevant to the book-buying public. The New Criticism ushered in by Pound and Eliot, finding in the admired poetry of the past so much that was no longer true, declared that truth was not to be looked for in poetry. All that mattered were the words on the page, and the ingenious skill with which they deployed. The experience of historians was set aside, as was indeed that of readers of historical romances, both of whom can remain happily suspended between the past and present. What the New Critics wanted were the unchanging laws of science, and they adopted a language of tensions and psychology without understanding the issues involved.

Poet as Social Outcast

Few of the accomplished poets of the nineteenth century worked with the political and social concerns of the day, and their influence waned as the public turned to those who did: journalists, social commentators and reformers. Rather than accept that poetry had a duty to more fully and significantly represent what is most human in us, and so return to the public arena, the later nineteenth-century poets contended that poetry was not language used to its fullest extent, but an altogether different way of using language. Private study was their solution, and publication in small journals that attracted little attention at the time but have since served to canonize their authors: Leopardi, Nerval, Mallarm√©, etc. Eloquence and oratory were things to despise, shams that obscured the truth, as the realities of the First World War were soon to show. Poetry could no longer be written in high-minded diction, or perhaps at all after the horrors of the Second World War. In fact it was the cold efficiency of state organization that had so vastly increased, but poets did not read history, or perhaps much philosophy, as some hazardous simplifications were made in identifying man’s true nature with his most elementary.

Refuge in the Irrational

Naturally, as they turned from the public to the private sphere, poets encountered the inner doubts and confusions known to writers from antiquity, but which had recently been organized into theories by Sigmund Freud. If standing and influence in the outside world was denied them, poets could explore and colonize the vast realms of the unconscious, founding empires to which every reader had access. They did not wish to know how bogus, trivializing and ineffective was psychoanalysis in practice, but only that it opened doors to vivid expression. Everything was permitted if words were cover for unedifying desires, and a profusion of sects and movements sprang up: Imagism, Crane’s symbolism, Pound’s ideograms, Surrealism and the Deep Image School, Dadaism, Thomas’s Welsh rhetoric, Romantic revivals in America and England, confessional poetry and poetry that spoke to ethnic and socially disadvantaged groups. Barely keeping up with it came theory: Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and others. In vain were the difficulties of such views set out to them, as they knew that language was an inherently deceptive but yielding, and could therefore be made to say anything they pleased.

Rejection of the Past

No doubt the new approaches challenged what poetry had once been, but the new practitioners rewrote history. Poetry had always been contemporary, they argued, which now meant being direct, personal and American. Great poetry had in fact been more than that, but the proponents of popular Modernism—William Carlos Williams, the Black Mountain School, Beat Poets and the San Franciscans—had answers ready. Poetry must be unmediated if sincere, and the techniques of verse were a handicap to expression. They remembered Pound’s “make it new”, and asserted that a more democratic age must have a more democratic poetry. And lest anyone think their work trivial, they wrapped matters up in a complex phraseology, redefining the elements of verse in startling ways. Theoretical scaffolding became a necessary part of contemporary poetry, the more so as the floodgates were soon to be opened in schools and writing classes throughout the country. Excellence lay in what authorities could be quoted, and the theoretical considerations accessible in a poem.

Poetry As Special Use of Language

But if poetry had now focused on speculative elements of language, it was also necessary to stress the devious if not altogether treacherous aspects of this medium, how much it was subject to outmoded historical precedent, to unseen political manoeuverings by special interest groups, and to hapless realism from the masses. Poetry therefore splintered further, retreating to coteries with their own perspectives. Geoffrey Hill agonizes over the complicity of words with man’s savagery in the historical record. John Ashbery creates extended jokes on and with language. Postmodernists of the Prynne school keep to narrow descriptions of physical sensation and avoid portentous statement. And the Language school poets send up the whole process of writing anything significant beyond the sheer pleasure of being alive, though pretending otherwise.

Concluding Thoughts

So arose the present scene, a vast medley of communities, all sharing some beliefs and working practices, and uniting round common problems, but still competing for attention, status and economic livelihood. Perhaps that is only natural, and anthropologists often picture communities as successive waves of invaders interbreeding with earlier peoples but also dispersing them to more difficult terrain, where their gene-drift gradually makes them more distinctive but also less productive.

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