Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Change of plans

I'm in a crisis. Originally I had planned to read English, American and a smattering of French poetry from 1870 straight through to 1970: basically the series that begins in Baudelaire and ends in John Ashbery, which we might reductively call French Poetry Coming In and Fucking With the English Tradition (or FPCIFWET for short). Piece of cake, right? In doing so, I'd hoped to avoid making a clear Modernism/Postmodernism break, basically relying on Ashbery's and the other New York Schoolers' productive re-readings of Modernism to help me tie it all up into a single revisionist Santa Claus narrative.

But now I think I need to stop at the 50s. It's just too hard to link it all together. Even by the beginning of the 40s the series is losing its internal coherence, everything is changing, you can feel it, the major Modernists are hardening into caricatures who can be toppled by the merest breeze of common-sense, England is a different England and America a different America and France is like the dozenth of a succession of different Frances, although not everybody in all of them seem to have realized it yet.

I'm reading Randall Jarrell's "The Obscurity of the Poet" today and the tone is so despairing and reactionary compared to earlier essays on Modernism and its social reception. The thing about this "early postmodern" period (let's say roughly 1940-1950) is that it can be easily overlooked because poetry doesn't actually change all that much: the work of Jarrell, Lowell, Berryman and Bishop seem pretty much like a natural outgrowth, maybe even a watering-down, of the expected Modernists like Yeats, Eliot and Auden, with Pound becoming ascendant in some of the more marginal quarters. But the self-justifications, and the climate in which such justifications seem necessary, are qualitatively different. The trajectory from Graves and Riding in 1927 (stubborn, brilliant resistance of Modernist dogma) to Burke and Wilson in 1931 (gentle skepticism about some of Modernism's larger claims combined with a firm laissez-faire attitude toward culture in general) to Jarrell in 1951 (hurt and freaked out that not just Modernism, but all poetry of all periods, is in danger of being permanently scrapped by the bourgeois democratic public) speaks volumes about the situation that eventually births full-fledged Postmodernism, in its heyday of 1960-1980, the simultaneous sprint into the arms of theory on the one hand and systematic dismantlement of Modernist prejudice and sense of superiority on the other.

Consider these representative excerpts from Jarrell's essay: "it is not just modern poetry, but poetry, that is today obscure" (3); "the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry" (4); "Any American poet under a certain age, a fairly advanced age — the age, one is tempted to say, of Bernard Shaw — has inherited a situation in which no one looks at him and in which, consequently, everyone complains that he is invisible" (10); "today, many of the readers a poet would value most have hardly learned to read any poetry; and many of those who regularly read his poems have values so different from his that he is troubled by their praise, and vexed but reassured by their blame" (15); "the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast" (18); and finally, lazily, late-fortiesishly pinning it all on popular culture: "Boys who have read only a few books in their lives, but a great many comic books, will tell one, so vividly that it is easy to sympathize: 'I don't like books because they don't really show you things; they're too slow; you have to do all the work yourself.' When, in a few years, one talks to boys who have read only a few comic books, but have looked at a great many television programs — what will they say?" (19).

What these statements, en masse, add up to is an idea that Modernism, in its public character as a project of popular re-education, has utterly failed, not because of any lack of persuasiveness on its own terms but because the bottom fell out: there's no public worth convincing any more. As Jarrell himself admits, he can only be sure of this failure because he once passionately believed in such a project. (A quick perusal of his essays on Moore and Williams confirms this: he's drunk the Kool-Aid, all right.) As he puts it, "these are conclusions which I have come to slowly and reluctantly, as the world forced them on me. Would that I were one of those happy reactionaries, born with a Greek vocabulary as other children are born with birthmarks and incomes … But I had a scientific education and a radical youth; am old-fashioned enough to believe, like Goethe, in Progress — the progress I see and the progress I wish for and do not see. So I say what I have said about the poet, the public, and their world angrily and unwillingly." Even more discouraging is Jarrell's proposal for responding to this failure: "If my hearers say, 'But what should we do?' what else can I answer but 'Nothing'? There is nothing to do different from what we already do: if poets write poems and readers read them, each as best they can — if they try to live not as soldiers or voters or intellectuals or economic men, but as human beings — they are doing all that can be done" (21). In other words, the public apparatuses of Modernism are no longer worth wielding against a public that is more disinterested than it is hostile. Therefore, no more manifestoes, no more false claims to importance: the postmodern, for a while anyway, will take the path of least resistance. This is giving the argument up for dead, the argument for Modernism or for literature and art in general, not because art isn't something that can or should be argued about (Graves' and Riding's position, as I understand it) or because the argument is incorrectly framed (Burke's and Wilson's position), but because the argument is unwinnable. Which is a very different thing.

So: Postmodernism, for my purposes (for now), starts around about 1950, when all the arguments for and against Modernism (if not Modernism itself) are exhausted and familiar. There is an interregnum of a decade or so before there are theoretical issues to get worked up over again — namely, whether we ought not to do something to, and with, contemporary poetry after all — though this time they will be fought out almost entirely inside the academy, and be more markedly metaphysical than social in character.

And I need to stop here. I'm fascinated by this shift, I love some of the poetry that results from it, I want to know everything about it, but, for God's sake, you have to stop somewhere — sometimes. Plus we have World War II to worry about.

Next week I'm gonna read a lot of Hugh Kenner and try to make sense of my life.