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An Alternative Term for "Post-Modern" Poetry

Previously published in the Cortland Review


I don't like the "Post-Modern" label borrowed by Charles Olson to describe American poetry in the second half of this century, though it has become standard. (There is even a Norton Anthology of Post-Modern Poetry). We don't call Victorians "Post-Romantic," Romantics "Post-Neoclassical," Neoclassicists "Post-Metaphysical" nor Metaphysical poets "Post-Elizabethan." Post-Modern seems too broad and generic a term to describe a half-century of innovative poetry, however disparate. The term begs the question, calling what has been produced simply "what came after that other thing." It provides no thread of connection for a historical audience, as if poetry had become so heteregeneous in our time it could no longer be classified by trends, only techniques and splinter schools.

It can be argued that the last two hundred years are all a product of the Romantic Movement — because as philosophical heirs of Nietszche, Marx and Freud, we have worshipped the god of human potentiality above the God of our fathers. In this it is clear we are much more like Blake and Byron than Pope and Dryden. But if we include "Romantic" in our new term as an even larger umbrella, it would cause us to abandon "Victorian" and "Modern" as designations, which I think are historically useful. And there are differences as well as similarities. The early Romantics celebrated the potentiality of the individual and man at large (in an age of superheroes every bit as extreme as Saturday morning cartoons, typified by Napoleon), whereas the poets of our time have celebrated superheroes of the psyche: Burroughs, Kerouac, Plath, Sexton, those who can peel away layers of personality to some more fundamental, irrational core.

We really must look at the Modern era for clues to what makes our own distinctive. I consider Auden the last Modern because his verse was in line with the New Criticism Pound and Eliot unwittingly spawned (and here, I reach beyond my small expertise in American poetry, already wanting, because some figures are truly transatlantic). Still, he is essentially an evolutionary dead end, the culmination of a trend that became too scholastic (and many complain the elitism that fed it still lingers at our universities). This is not to say Auden is without influence; he was the dominant poet in English for the mid-century. Both Ginsberg and Plath tried to imitate him in their early attempts; nearly everyone did.

As an interesting parallel between the two eras, I think "Howl" is to Post-Modern poetry what "The Waste Land" was to Modern. The latter tries to make sense of a broken civilization, the former, sense of a broken spirit, which is the spirit of our age. The post-war boom of the fifties and sixties in America somewhat restored our faith in technology and the economy, but not ourselves. If artists are miners' canaries, then the fifties were a time of paranoia and moral ambiguity, when film noir graced our cinema at the same time the Beats and the Black Mountain group were forming. The Beats sought an answer through personal honesty, the Black Mountain group through objectivity, but whether looking outward or inward both shared a flight from the conventional persona of subject-object, speaker-audience dualism which most of the Moderns embraced without thinking, even if Eliot sought relief from personality with his term "persona," asking us to consider the poem a meeting place for author and reader rather than a message from author to reader. This reminds me of Eliot's famous quote: "Only those with personality know what it is to want to escape from it."

Though the objectivists, led by Olson and later joined by Creely and Duncan, sought opacity, and the confessionalists, transparency, neither made peace with the ego, driven by its will to meaning, power, sexual aggression or spiritual connectedness, depending on the psychoanalyst. But is it not strange that the more poets sought clarity through either obliteration of the ego or its merciless exploration, much of what they wrote became, for the most part, even more obscure than that of the allusion-laden Moderns?

The confessionalist / objectivist poles of the early Post-Moderns (say through the seventies) lead to other interesting developments. In an effort to make their confessions more real, at the height of the confessional trend it was difficult to find a poem without a body part, particularly bones. (I avoid bones in my own verse to this day for that very reason.) In order to incarnate the inner journey, confessional poets were forced to use something more concrete, namely the human body, as a homunculus. Their attempt to describe inner experience made them grasp for external images, particularly anatomical ones. Conversely, many (though not all) of the poets who practiced objectivism needed some spiritual underpinning to make it work, as in Gary Snyder's Zen practices. (I consider Snyder objectivist largely by technique, not intent). And you can't read Olson's theories without envisioning some great common spirit that unites us all and makes poetry as self-explanatory as creation. So those who journeyed inward needed outer markers, and those who journeyed outward needed inner myth to support them. It is no surprise that whatever we seek in this dualistic world summons its opposite, one insight of deconstructionism (though not confined to it) that is useful.

To put the Modern/Post-Modern eras in perspective, I want to classify the last five hundred years of poetry in English according to the prevailing concept of self in relation to God and others, a useful oversimplification:

1500-1699 The Age of Theism
1550-1650: Elizabethan
1650-1700 Metaphysical
1700-1799 The Age of Deism
Neoclassical or "The Age of Reason"
1800-1899 The Age of Weism
1850-1849 Romantic
1850-1899 Victorian
1900-1999 The Age of Meism
1900- 1949 Modern
1950- 1999 Existential ("Post-Modern")

Though simple, I find this classification instructive, as it broadly illustrates the social and cosmological changes literature, as a reflection of society, has undergone in a relatively short time. Much of the power of Elizabethan verse derives from their cosmology, a belief in a divine hierarchy. It is when order breaks down that Shakespeare becomes most eloquent, as in Lear and Hamlet and Julius Caesar. In Shakespeare's works God (or "the gods") personally orders the universe (Theism). For a king to resign, as Lear did, can only bode ill because he violated God's law for kings: they must serve until death.

Contrast this with the distant, deistic god that pervades the literature of the eighteenth century. Coming on the heels of Newton, it is easy to see how the idea of "God the Watchmaker" was comforting, since it dispensed with any threat of the supernatural, as miracles (or punishments) would require God to interfere in his own cosmic machine, thereby violating the very laws he revealed to man's reason. The literature of this time reflects this view. Here are two telling couplets from Pope's "Essay on Man:" "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man." And, "Say first, of God above or man below, / What can we reason but from what we know?" Although these snippets are not entirely representative of his work, they do hint at a fundamental shift. "Presume not God to scan" can be interpreted as, "don't waste your reason on the inscrutable," making theology less than a science, when it was once "The Queen of the Sciences." Even more succinct is, "What can we reason but from what we know?" God's cosmic laws, summarized by Newton in his Principia Mathematica (which everyone refers to but no one reads, including myself), make it possible for man to improve himself— but not necessarily with any need for divine aid. Overall, the literature of this deistic period, where man's relationship with God is at a predictable distance, strikes me as rather dry, analytical, and a bit smug, though the wit is nonpareil (devotion to wit is a natural outgrowth of the cultivation of reason). Then who wouldn't be smug if they truly believed one of their countryman had solved the mysteries of the cosmos? This scientific success led to an increase of rationalism in poetry and philosophy, with an attendant lack of passion and emotional honesty, which the Romantic rebellion redressed.

The Romantic movement, as Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Shelley's Queen Mab and other early works show, first concerned itself with the democratic hope spawned by the French Revolution, urging through pamphlets and verse for the English to free themselves from the yoke of oppressors. Eventually these sentiments led to the largely bloodless revolutions of 1848-1850, where significant rights were extended to the masses. But my point is this: practically every Romantic from Goethe to Whitman sought a democratic inclusion, or revolution, for the masses. Byron died with the Greek freedom fighters (though not in battle); early on Coleridge and Wordsworth subscribed to a utopian experiment they hoped to establish in the States, called "Pantisocracy" — an idealistic view of fraternite' if there ever was one. From the outset, the minds of the Romantics as a group sought betterment of their fellows. Even Blake tried to raise man's spiritual consciousness, though his influence was small. If we except Keats, born too late for these revolutionary urges, and the unavoidable introspection of all poets, the minds of the Romantics were not directed inward per se but outward into the world of men, hoping they might influence it for the better. That is why I label their century "Weism." A brotherhood was sought that materially differs from the Modern/Post-Modern era of individual isolation (despite the heroics of some who fought in the Spanish Civil War). Preoccupation with self as a personal Weltanschauung rather than a Descartian experiment doesn't really surface until late in the nineteenth century, through an obscure philosopher and theologian of a melancholy temperament named Kierkegaard. But it is the hallmark of our age.

The Victorian era, like the Neoclassical, was again smug about science and man's potential with scarcely a nod to the divine, except as religion was part of tradition — and Victorians sought to be traditional, though we now know (as Freud discovered) this camouflaged some surprising eccentricities. But for the most part, Pax Britannica reigned during the Victorian period and technical progress filled men with hope — if you ignore the dark underbelly of industrial servitude and robber barons. Rudyard Kipling, the most vigorous voice of the British Empire, had no qualms in lauding patriotism, colonialism, and the paternalism. Despite a strain of melancholy in Tennyson and Arnold, the Victorian period was largely a time for optimism, as typified by Browning. All of this was brought to a shocking end in when Kaiser Wilhelm began World War I, finding an excuse in the Archduke's assassination. The resulting horrible, protracted, senseless war of trenches and poison gas ended the widely held hope of the Romantics and Victorians that men, working together, could accomplish nearly anything. The god of progress was dealt a philosophical death blow. The Bolshevik revolution that followed toppled another ancient monarchy, further lending an impression of global dissolution and later threatening the survival of western democracies.

After the war, two major trends developed: escape, as typified by Weimar Berlin or the Roaring Twenties—"Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die," and its twin, disillusionment, of which "The Waste Land" is the most famous example. Notice neither of these trends embrace a revolutionary goal for transforming man and his consciousness. Instead, one seeks to distract and the other to understand, perhaps mourn. But neither is empowered by a cultural consensus to do anything.

It is not surprising that Eliot composed "The Waste Land" in a mental hospital (sanitorium), since he tried to piece the fragments of culture back together as well as his own shattered emotions from overwork and a problematic marriage. But he more succeeded in exposing them—a much better diagnosis than cure. The example of his lifelong literary mentor, Dante, whose work defined a unified culture, would always be beyond him. D.H. Lawrence provides a convenient contrast to Eliot, and illustrates the opposite strategy, escape through spontaneous hedonism. Both of these trends signal the dawn of "Meism" in the twentieth century, fifty years after Kierkegaard. The artist's quest now becomes unquestionably individual. Traditional Western Civilization had fallen, with its institutions and monarchies and beliefs. And those that had not fallen were now viewed as largely irrelevant, like the church. It was every man for himself—in religion, in relationships, in art. The voices that arise from this post-war era are the voices of strong personalities and individual stylists: Moore, Frost, Williams, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Jeffers— each an iconoclast in their own right, more concerned with their art than any movement or program, though Pound and Eliot had an early allegiance to "Imagism," really an adaptation of French Symbolism to English.

The resulting emphasis on the individual resulted in, or paralleled, the two dominant philosophies of this century: psychoanalysis and existentialism. (I ignore Marxism because it was mainly eastern and very little resembled Marx's actual ideas.) The effect of these philosophies on Post-Modern literature was profound. The Moderns, for the most part, spoke of themselves in relation to things, even if it is only the world of imagination (Stevens). Pound and Eliot spoke in relationship to all of literary history. Frost spoke in relationship to his chosen environment of New England. Williams tried to invoke immediate experience as accurately and vividly as possible, an unflinching realist. Moore is kind of an odd duck, but her verse is filled with encyclopedic references to outside things and the work of others (not just poets). She probably quotes other sources in the fabric of her poems more than anyone before or since. Jeffers tried to make sense of a world without a conventionally benevolent god and wrestled personally with faith in view of nature's, and above all man's, cruelties, like a disillusioned prophet seeking the lowest watermark of faith.

Now pan forward to Ginsberg reciting "Howl" in 1955. It is not a call to arms, a call to change, or even an attempt to unite society. It is a howl of personal grief. Sure, he speaks for a generation, as Eliot did in "The Waste Land," but he is more concerned with personal alienation: his grief, his experience. His poetry is self-centered beyond anything the Romantics or Moderns dreamed. Those that surface prominently after this initial eruption in 1955 — like Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman — likewise seem preoccupied with the bounds of their personal psyches. Charles Olson suggested an alternative, an escape from the merely personal through objectivism, where the poem becomes an "open field" of shared objects for the reader and the writer. Much of Gary Snyders's work happens to fit this category, though unintended as such. But I digress.

One essayist has divided Post-Modern poetry into eight groups. I think the commonality of this era far greater than that. All of the major poetry in America and I daresay most English literature since 1950 points to one spiritual and philosophic concern: the problem of self. This reveals itself as a quest for identity in ethnic and feminist poetry, as self-revelation in confessional poetry, as a spiritual search in mystic primitivism and deep image poetry, as a divorce of personal meaning from words in deconstructionism, and a quest to use words more arbitrarily in the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, whom I admit I do not really understand. The lyrical surrealism of Mark Strand's early work is intensely concerned with this problem, particularly the self as an identity. "Keeping Things Whole" and "My Life by Somebody Else" are two poems by him that beautifully illustrate this dilemma. Often his persona, in the earlier work, seems so displaced as to be ghostly. Note this pronouncement from "Keeping Things Whole:" "In a field / I am the absence / of field." It is easier for Strand to describe what he is not than what he is, suggesting an inscrutably negative identity like the Buddhist definition of nirvana. Here is the problem of self in one of its myriad forms: the modern sense of vacancy, even unbeing, in the face of a tenuous identity. Psychologists label this "depersonalization" — another defense against the trauma of the personal which the confessionalists, conversely, exploited.

I think it is the very preoccupation with self that distinguishes the literature of our century from previous ones. Further, what chiefly distinguishes "Post-Moderns" from Moderns is the degree of self-preoccupation. An education in the classics and English Literature, though prized by the Moderns, is sometimes disdained by Post-Moderns as too constricting. Some have even employed methods to maximize randomness in composition, as John Cage's treatment of Pound's Cantos demonstrates, where for pages he picks out letters in the middle of lines ("semiostics") that help spell "E-Z-R-A P-O-U-N-D." Whatever meanings result are purely accidental. This is the ultimate escape from the personal, beyond mere objectivism into pure randomness, like throwing darts at Shakespeare or divining the Bible by which page falls open.

In view of this analysis (its inaccuracies no doubt exaggerated by its brevity), what term do I propose to replace Post-Modern? I think we have two choices: either "Psychoanalytic" or "Existential." Since psychoanalysis is much less consistent and more individualized than the notion of existentialism, I think "Existential" is to be preferred. The term does not provide as large an umbrella as "Post-Modern," but it does tag the era with something more substantive than "what comes after that other thing." The hallmark of Existential poetry is a preoccupation with self, a feeling of isolation, and an attempt to lift oneself from this quagmire through art, or at least give vent to the plight. Largely divorced from any religious or cultural tradition, it is a poetry where the burden of meaning presses down on the author with a weight no previous generation of poets knew. This pressure, I think, is one reason so many schools and techniques have flourished. Since what is meaningful, much less what is good, can no longer be agreed upon, truth becomes the captive of the moment, or else the propaganda of some special interest group — whether ethnic, gay, academic, feminist, performance-oriented, realist, objectivist, confessionalist, surrealist, magically realistic, of the deep image school, allied to L-A-N- G-U-A-G E poetry, deconstructionist, journalistic, historical, or whatever the reader might wish to add. Instead of Elizabethan cosmic order, Neoclassical confidence in reason, Romantic hope of betterment through revolution, Victorian optimism, or some Moderns' attempt to revitalize the literature of the present by exploring the literature of the past, American poets of the last half-century (and most poets in English) have been driven by the problem of the self — its isolation, its limitations, its delusions, and its exhaustion into despair. And since no current creed, philosophy, or affiliation promises to assuage this despair, the Existential artist has been driven to extremes of creative exorcism: escape into the self, escape from the self, trivialization of the medium (as illustrated by Cage above), and sadly, a higher prevalence of suicide than ever before. When there is no God, our idea of man suffers terribly. There is so little hope or optimism in the era of Existential poetry that the moderns, like Williams and Pound, seem almost cheerful by comparison, while the faith of a Whitman or a Browning seems absolutely shocking.

      — C.E. Chaffin