|Perry Lindstrom||POSTCARD FROM THE AESTHETIC DIMENSION|
It would be instructive to take a step back from the postmodern and try to delineate where the modern began and ended.
Ultimately, poetry is the work of an individual alone with his or her thoughts and fears, obsessions and dreams. The theory comes later. Any conscious attempt to write to a particular school, unless downright parody, is usually doomed to failure. Good poetry has a flavor of the times: great poetry a flavor out of time.
The two competing theories of the postmodern are that (1) postmodern poetry is the rejection of the Pound/Eliot/Williams paradigm and the 19th century Romanticism that came before it, or (2) that it is more accurately an extension of Romanticism/Modernism rather than its negation.
The Beats were the neo-Romantics, the Black Mountaineers were the neo-Classicists.
Language poetry has surrendered meaning to a new aesthetic imperative rejecting closure and favoring instead an open and continuous form. Yet, at the same time it is as approachable to the average reader of literature (even relatively sophisticated readers) as the mathematics of quantum physics is approachable to the average checkbook balancer.
Copyright © 1995 by Perry Lindstrom
Who Drove the Post Through Modern Poetry?
But, as is often the case with difficult to define terms, Hoover offers categories in lieu of a more elaborate definition. There are four dominant schools of (non-academic) poetry since WWII. Charles Olson is the largest figure (literally and figuratively) of the "Black Mountain School." Olson's own treatise on poetry, "Projective Verse," is also included in the anthology.
The next school discussed is the so-called "New York" School. Its most famous member was Frank O'Hara, while John Ashbery is its pre-eminent living practitioner and Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler round out its top ranks. O'Hara's tongue in cheek "Personism: A Manifesto" also appears in the volume, although it tells us more about Frank O'Hara than about the theoretical state of postmodern poetry and in fact it was written as a spoof of Olson's grand theories.
The other two schools are more or less historically and spiritually linked: the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance. The most important historical event for both was the 1955 reading at Six Gallery premiering Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," which made him, as Kenneth Rexroth had predicted: "Famous from bridge to bridge," and beyond. Indeed, it is these latter two schools that, more than just influencing poetry, changed an entire generation. One could say of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind," that it was more a generational creed than a mere title. We shall here consider these two schools as one.
But what about these varied schools, loosely defined, that put an end to modernism -- if in fact they did? It would be instructive to take a step back from the postmodern and try to delineate where the modern began and ended.
The "experts" tell us that modern poetry began with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, much of the correspondence between Charles Olson and Robert Creeley that included the first reference to the postmodern was a discussion of a strategy to go beyond the poetry of Pound and Williams. The influence of the French symbolists such as Baudelaire and Mallarme on both Eliot and Pound is well documented. However, let us take it on faith that, while modern poetry may truly begin with French symbolism, at least where writers of English are concerned, Pound/Eliot/Williams (P/E/W) represent if not the beginning (arguably Whitman/Dickinson), the quintessential modern poets.
In an early statement of Pound's he posits that: "The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment." In this way the "modern" to Pound represented a lack of allegory, of common metaphor. Which is to say that the reader must fill in the blanks and make of the poem what he will; the reader must be an active participant. For Pound's symbols are personal and complex and although he borrows from antiquity to serve his own particular dialogue, they are symbols whose meaning often only Pound understood.
Williams, on the other hand, is modern because he is approachable. His symbols are our symbols -- they are the vernacular in words and the mundane in things. They cease being symbols and return to their original state as the objects themselves. Williams delivered what Pound aspired to yet never quite achieved -- luminous detail, lack of comment. Common things become uncommon, sacred: "so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/ glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens." This is a particularly modern experience that the poet has given us, a refocusing of our senses on those things that had become to us invisible by the very persistence of their image.
The two competing theories of the postmodern are that (1) postmodern poetry is the rejection of P/E/W paradigm and the 19th century Romanticism that came before it, or (2) that it is more accurately an extension of Romanticism/Modernism rather than its negation.
Hoover appears ready to accept both possibilities when he states that, "this anthology does not view postmodernism as a single style with its departure in Pound's Cantos and its arrival in language poetry; postmodernism is, rather, an ongoing process of resistance to mainstream ideology."
If one examines, for example, the Beats, it is difficult to see the writing as a negation of Romanticism as much as an updating of Romantic themes in the post-bomb era; with an active inclusion of Eastern mysticism, Romantic here-and-nowism indicated by automatic writing and free association. For what poet could any longer sing songs of innocence after Hiroshima. The poet, like everyone else, was transformed by the events of WWII. The symbols that the Beat writers worked with were very much elements of their time. It is doubtful that any poet would have conjured up the image, no matter how surreal his or her gift, of the "hydrogen juke box" prior to 1945, nor for that matter would it have had much meaning.
If the Beats were neo-Romantics, what then of Olson and his followers? In attempting to go beyond Pound, Olson chose to go back further into antiquity to reinvent the hero as a meta-modern colossus, a Nietzschean superman set to verse. He sought to reintroduce classical allegory, not in black and white but in luminous shades of grey -- complex, emotional, yet a story nonetheless.
Olson's theory of poetics held several axioms: that "form is never more than an extension of content," that "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception," and, "one perception must must must move instanter on another!" He sees projective verse as a very gut level phenomenon, the way a martial arts or meditation master would describe the origins of human energy (chi). He ends his essay by stating that "...a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs." The poet himself is the hero of the allegory, he is the "Maximus," as only the 6'8"+ Olson could be. It is only fitting that his biography is entitled The Allegory of the Poet.
So, while the Beats were the neo-Romantics, the Black Mountaineers were the neo-Classicists. This, of course, is a great oversimplification. There were elements of each in one another and so on and so forth with various members drifting back and forth between them. Robert Duncan, for example, while considered one of the core figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, had strong and important ties to Charles Olson. But having made that simple statement, that leaves one other school and we have run out of "neos."
The New York School was and is the school of sophistication. While Ginsberg howled, O'Hara gave us "Second Avenue" where: "Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours, celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures,/as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea..."
While the Beats got much of their energy from jazz, the New York School, while also at home in the jazz clubs, was first and foremost a mixing of poets and painters, epitomized by the deep friendship between the painter Larry Rivers and Frank O'Hara.
The relationship between poets and painters has a long history going back to Apollinaire, Baudelaire and beyond. But the relationship between the New York school poets and painters is of utmost importance, as it went beyond friendship and became aesthetic principle. What Frank O'Hara was trying to achieve with poems such as "Second Avenue" and "Easter" was the poetic equivalent of abstract expressionism. In this sense the New York school poets pushed poetry to the edge, as did their counterparts in painting, and like the painters, they were not neo anything but were themselves the endpoint of artistic history.
By "the endpoint of artistic history" I mean the continuation of the modern to its inevitable conclusion, which is embodied by the postmodern. For in a linear sense, painting as art "history" ended symbolically with the death of Jackson Pollack in 1956 and poetry with the death of Frank O'Hara ten years later. In this way I am casting my vote with the New York School and its offspring through Ashbery (esp. The Tennis Court Oath) the "Language School" as being the essential postmodern expression of poetry -- not the only expression, but certainly the most likely to carry that banner, a point which Hoover enforces by trying to negate it in his introduction.
Hoover sees language poetry and performance poetry as having become the dominant postmodern modes in recent years. And taken together they illustrate the challenges and contradictions of poetry today. Performance poetry is everywhere today, is essentially democratic and of a broad appeal -- MTV,etc., and as such there is little left about it that is avant-garde. Language poetry, on the other hand is difficult and requires a theoretical background to understand.
The strength of language poetry is its sophistication: its reading of the past and an abundant understanding of all that has preceded it and an appropriation of what it deems interesting or important. Language poetry has surrendered meaning to a new aesthetic imperative rejecting closure and favoring instead an open and continuous form. Yet, at the same time it is as approachable to the average reader of literature (even relatively sophisticated readers) as the mathematics of quantum physics is approachable to the average checkbook balancer.
It is in this arena that I part ways with Hoover in his interpretation of language poetry. As he writes of Ron Silliman's prose poem "Tjanting," that "the sprawl of such work is designed to communicate the democratic principle of inclusiveness." While it may demonstrate the democratic nature of words, it is not an inclusiveness on the part of the reader, but rather an intellectual shibboleth, a badge of courage which separates the initiated from the Other. It allows the reader to participate, but only a certain type of reader -- one that can match Silliman's sophistication, not to mention sheer endurance. And it is this aspect, among all of those attributes of avant- garde poetry since the end of World War II, which makes it essentially in tune with the zeitgeist -- which is to say: non- inclusive, highly specialized, and containing a certain arrogance towards those who are not of its own making.
Certainly, one can chose of any number of experiences in today's world and find the same to be true; computer experts don't talk to lawyers, who don't talk to economists, who don't talk to..on and on ad infinitum. Perhaps the greatest challenge of any poet writing today is: to write with sophistication, and by this I mean an understanding of what has come before, while at the same time maintaining some link, some tendril of recognition held out for the random reader -- the friend who might pick up your work. For Robert Frost is what the general reader thinks of as poetry and it is a difficult leap from "Stopping By Woods" to: "This is a filtering/of nobody's noise of the planet/a give-up word in this filmed-over time/a picture of plaster priests on a wall of fruit/the person who thought of it all had/smartly gone home/to the subsidy school and fire on the mantel/while my friends are still on earth they are gone/nobody wants to see/to burn the malarkey and stand out in/the carbon finish".
But despite his attempts to do so, the author of the above, Clark Coolidge, has been forced to admit later on in the same poem that, "Is true that nothing further in speech will surprise us?" The reaction of most people to the above would not be so much surprise as: "That ain't poetry!" And there's the rub. So much in postmodern poetry has gone beyond the word as a symbol machine. In William Carlos Williams we found things as words -- in the postmodern we find words as things, as post-symbolic, takers-up of space. They occupy a moment in space-time, but it is ephemeral and fleeting. Perhaps that is the most appropriate definition of poetry in the postmodern period: it is a poetry whose core project is the refusal to surrender to the mandate of function which drives our information age. In so doing what is created is an anti-information symmetry -- a mental balancing act which negates the linear thought centering so much of today's reality. So while one may reject it as a poetry not of his aesthetic liking, it is better understood, not in terms of poetics, but in terms of information technology -- as anti-bits and bytes, as anarchy of information, as a ghost in the machine of modern logical achievement.
Poetry has different functions in different periods of history and those functions are not lost to us. The love poems of the Romantic Age will always be ours to draw upon. The correspondences between words and nature that were so important to the Symbolists will not cease to be important because we can now put them into an historical context -- they can in fact grow with our understanding and reinterpretation of them. But what is created today as the poetic avant-garde is by necessity none of the things that has gone before it -- and all of them.
Ultimately, poetry is the work of an individual alone with his or her thoughts and fears, obsessions and dreams. The theory comes later. Any conscious attempt to write to a particular school, unless downright parody, is usually doomed to failure. Good poetry has a flavor of the times: great poetry a flavor out of time. Take for example an experimental poem, such as the following, which makes use of blanks or gaps:
>From Blank to Blank---
When we realize that this poem was written by Emily Dickinson in about 1863, the out of time quality is almost unsettling. Were it not for the "'Twas," this poem could have been written yesterday or tomorrow.
Whatever the course of history, poetic or otherwise, there will be those who continue to write because that is their need. And just because most of us now confront a blank computer screen rather than a page, there is little reason to believe, and even less reason to desire, that the fundamental forces that move us to write are any different from those of Dickinson's or others before her. For a hundred, or a thousand years from now, theoreticians will theorize and writers, when confronted with their own journey "From Blank to Blank---" will continue writing -- will continue to grope for those indefinites disclosed, for however brief those disclosures might be, they are, when achieved, of an infinite sweetness -- a flavor out of time.
Perry M. Lindstrom is a government economist by day and a poet and essayist when the spirit moves him. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife, the literary agent Kristin Lindstrom; a Pekingese; a Boston Terrier; and an Amazon parrot. He believes in the importance of ideas as they are transmitted from one mind to the next through art and other forms of transcendent discourse.