Thursday, December 2, 2010

Approaches to Contemporary American Poetry


The Approaches section is the most tentative on the site, but asks: Why are Modernism and its derivatives still being promoted as the only way forward?

My suggestion is that we recognize seven developments or traits:

1. Reductionism, an attempt to find simple answers to complex issues. We find a similar element in the business world and politics, but less so now in the sciences, philosophy and mathematics.

2. Intellectualization of the irrational: often presented as truth-to-the-author, but better seen as an extended strand of Romanticism.

3. Specialization, inevitable in the modern world. Poetry and literary theory have become free-standing creations, nominally self-supporting but in fact fairly distinct, though with a tendency in both to enclose narrow and self-serving notions.

4. Image-building, again widespread, that builds imposing structures, which we may very well need in our social lives, but which tend to dissolve on investigation.

5. A fall-off in quality: both in richness of themes treated and writing skill.

6. Dogmatism and diminished diversity of views.

7. Retreat into a self-made world of language, which alone becomes the hallmark of true poetry.


I give examples of these traits, and sometimes reasons for them, but am not supposing that these simple introductions say anything that hasn't been said before, or that the traits are necessarily reprehensible in themselves. They are simply part of the world in which we live. My concern is to understand what may be happening, to make the introductions and to take a long view generally.

To those who question such a politicized approach, I would say this. Consider equally contentious and divisive issues: the 1980s privatization of the railways in the UK, Allende's Marxist takeover in Chile, or the American invasion of Iraq. Why did millions of intelligent and well-meaning people read the facts so differently? Practically all the information was in the public domain, or could be acquired by talking to recognized experts, but this was overlooked or downplayed, allowing the protagonists to believe what they wished to believe.

These were struggles for the hearts and minds of large sections of the community, and can't be adequately treated in partisan articles or small press reviews. Surveys are needed, to understand 1. the views of the various communities, and how those views shifted in response to various events, 2. accounts of those who shaped the political process, what they offered and what they probably sought, and 3. balance sheets of improvements and failures, who won and who lost. All this is commonplace in political analysis: why not in poetry?

Studies do exist, of course, but are somewhat simplistic, arguing for the 'refreshing authenticity of Modernism in its fight against effete Victorianism', and the like. Would many leading poets and editors, if sat down to a snap examination in the Postmodernist claims, achieve a pass? Could they show how work benefits from theory? I don't know, and doubt if anyone else does, currently. What this section offers is very far short of what is needed, but may raise issues worth thinking about.

Many years of work would be entailed, but I hope the reader will see that the field is more diverse and interesting than sometimes appears in the pamphleteering of its various cliques. Of course we can say that good poetry is not being written today because the requisite talent is unaccountably missing, but then we have to explain why an immeasurably greater number of poets — financially better rewarded, and far more expensively educated than their Elizabethans or Mughal counterparts — are completely unable to match the earlier achievements. If something is inhibiting good poetry, the answer may not lie in 'the modern age', but in working practices. Poets lack the skills and beliefs that inspired the work of the past, and to that past we have to return to see what went wrong.

What is Poetry?

Poems could be classified as being Traditional, Modernist or Postmodernist. The distinctions were not clear cut, and it was not at all easy to defend the underlying assumptions, or not without extended reading. But, for what they were worth:


Traditional poetry had the greater store of principles. Such things as: Poetry is language organized for aesthetic purposes. Poetry must not only describe but bear witness. A poem is distinguished by the feeling that dictates it and that which it communicates, by the economy and resonance of its language, and by the imaginative power that integrates, intensifies and enhances experience. Unlike discourse, which proceeds by logical steps, poetry is intuited whole as a presentiment of thought and/or feeling. Art is a way of knowing, and is valuable in proportion to the justice with which it evaluates that knowledge.


The key elements of Modernist poems were experimentation, anti-realism, individualism and a stress on the cerebral rather than emotive aspects. Previous writing was stereotyped, and called for ceaseless experimentation and rejection of old forms. Poetry should represent itself, or the writer's inner nature, more than hold up a mirror to nature. Indeed the poet's vision was all-important, however much it cut him off from society or the scientific concerns of the day. Poets belonged to an aristocracy of the avant garde, and cool observation, detachment and avoidance of simple formulations were essential.


Poststructuralist theories come in many embodiments, but shared 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. Modernist theory urged us to overlook the irrelevancies of author's intention, historical conventions and social context to assess the aesthetic unity of the poem. Poststructuralist criticism discounted any such unity, and urged 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.


The threefold classification may still be useful, but it regiments poetry in simplistic, static and unexplained ways. Where do we place Yeats or the later Eliot? What are the forces shaping the classification, and where do they lead?

To digress a moment, the traits listed below may also explain the contemporary art scene. Direct painting was a nineteenth-century innovation, made possible by new technology and imposed by a shrinking market for labor-intensive commodities. Paint could be stored in metal tubes, and by working out of doors, or on contemporary subjects, the artist could escape the stifling Academy system. At the same time, because the emerging middle classes had not the money for elitist manufactures, nor perhaps the leisure to acquire a connoisseurship to appreciate them, there naturally grew up a class of art critics to create theoretical justifications for these friendly and more modest achievements. Originality of conception, authenticity of expression, boldness of approach — these were what captured the imagination of intelligent critics, and could be related to larger themes. Concept and not traditional skill became important, and this approach now controls grants, newspaper coverage and gallery space.

I suggest that something similar is happening in poetry. Downgrading of skill is an inevitable feature of contemporary writing. Poetry was always a product of leisure, and, with affluence providing better ways of spending our time, the older styles of poetry have been crowded out. More poetry than ever is being produced, but it's a different article: less finished, less demanding, and less ambitious. How does that square with work appearing in small presses and prestigious magazines, which is anything but accessible? That poetry resembles contemporary painting, not difficult to understand when we know what to look for.

If this model is anything like correct then poetry is becoming another animal. Or many such animals, each with different standards and objectives. A more complex scene, but with advantages. We don't have to pronounce on the essential nature of poetry, sit in judgement on the contending parties, or lose ourselves in abstruse argument. We can simply describe, watch and analyze.

But what exactly are the traits noted above, and are they real? Well, they are abstractions, simplifications we make by selecting certain bits of evidence and assembling them in models that are reasonably comprehensive and explain things better than before. Reasonably comprehensive, but not definitive. There is always room for other models, and a case could be made for any of the seven listed. I have chosen to develop the 'failed state' model as other models do not need a separate treatment — follow the links below — and the 'failed' state model explains, or attempts to explain, the present poor quality of poetry, or why perhaps quality is no longer felt to be important.

Different Models

Other models are certainly possible, as they are in science, which uses them to understand itself. If contemporary poetry was a liberating influence, for example, or a deeply educational experience, models would be constructed along different lines, perhaps as below, with material from this site and elsewhere.

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