* Throughout December, I am reposting some of the more ‘popular’ poems and articles that have appeared on my blog over the past year. This article reflects on the demise of the avant-garde in contemporary English poetry.*
Recent reflection on the 50th anniversary of the death of T.S. Eliot and the award of the T.S. Eliot Prize to yet another academic reminds us of the extent to which English-language poetry is still for the most part a deeply conservative minor art-form appreciated only by a tiny privileged élite.
The contrast with the visual arts could not be greater. While contemporary art has expanded on the modernist initiatives of the early 20th century and reached out for new media and to new audiences and embraced a much broader range of subject matter, contemporary poetry is a by-word for backward-looking academicism and celebration of the values of a shrinking and gated haute-bourgeoisie.
Much of the vibrancy of contemporary art comes from the need both to react to and embrace new technologies. Instead of simply trying to imitate its rival media or quietly die out, painting reacted to photography and film by radically reinventing itself and raising a wealth of social and philosophical issues in the process.
Poetry could have done the same. In the 1910s and 20s, Dadaism was as much a literary as an art movement. Tristan Tzara was as important a figure as Marcel Duchamp. But while Duchamp’s radical break with both modernism and traditionalism would later engender the likes of Beuys and Warhol, Basquiat and Banksy, Dada and Surrealism in poetry drifted gradually back to a twee late 19th century sensibility or off onto the largely fallow ground of the collectivized diktats of socialist realism.
The seeds of poetry’s persistently conservative bent can already be found in Tzara’s own work. As I have pointed out in poetry workshops I have conducted based on Tzara’s ideas, Tzara’s hallmark How to Write a Dadaist Poem is not, in fact, itself a Dadaist poem. Its use of language is witty and gritty, but largely conservative in terms of the relation between words and meaning or between content and support. Tzara, of course, probably intended this ironic contrast. That was part of the anarchic joke.
More damning, is the fact that, while whole industries of art installations and exhibitions have grown out of Marcel Duchamp’s cheeky yet thought-provoking inclusion of a urinal in an art gallery, no mainstream anthology of modern and contemporary poetry contains a poem produced in anything like the way Tzara suggested in his manifesto poem. Dadaist poetry was always more about thinking than doing.
Can we make excuses for poetry? A sort of evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest approach to art history might suggest that visual artists had to deal with much sterner competition than poets did and were thus spurred to evolve at a faster pace. The advance of photography and cinema pushed artists out of the field so far as traditional representational art was concerned and they were forced to find new ground. Poets did not enjoy this negative incentive.
This argument, however, breaks down on both sides. First, photography and film, in their initial phases were no match for painting. A Titian is clearly infinitely superior to a Daguerrotype; a Hogarth series more vivid than any early moving picture. The visual arts did not ‘run scared’ of new media, but rather took them on board. The best artists of the time were interested in both painting and photography.
Neither is it true that traditional representational art has completely died out, even today. The rich and famous still prefer a traditional or semi-traditional oil on canvas portrait to a selfie, installation, strip cartoon or piece of graffiti art, and many artists still make a decent living producing such work.
On the other hand, it is equally untrue to argue that poetry did not have to deal with such an onslaught from new media. At the same time as painting was grappling with the challenges posed by photography and moving images, poetry was faced with Tin Pan Alley, tabloid journalism, television and the advertising industry. However, rather than embracing these new developments, as art did, poetry largely turned its nose up at them and retreated to its roots.
Poetry takes modernism up to a certain point, but then always seems to lose heart and back off from more radical departures. A good example of this is e. e. cummings whose eccentric use of punctuation provides a modernist/contemporary-looking veneer for otherwise fairly unremarkable traditional romantic verse. This is a much more cheaply and easily accomplished trick than the genuine hard-won revolution in form achieved by a Picasso or a Braque.
Another argument commonly presented to account for the demise of poetry is that poets have been replaced by singer-songwriters who write lyrics for musical accompaniment.
Again, we can present a two-pronged assault on this argument. On the one hand, it is doubtful to say the least whether the work of even the best of contemporary singer-songwriters (Dylan, Cohen, Morrissey) can stand alone without the music. In fact, all of these figures tend to be failed poets who found their voice with the aid of a band and accomplished musicians and producers. It is simply nonsense to suggest, as the Tony Wilson character does in 24 hour Party People, that the drug-fuelled lead-singer of the Happy Mondays was a poet on a par with W.B. Yeats. In fact, it is a deeply unfair comparison, for both of the individuals concerned.
On the other hand, poetry has always had to contend with popular music and the wise-cracks of the orator, jester/stand-up comedian, preacher and popular dramatist and it owes its existence and identity to being something different if ultimately derived from song and these other primarily oral media. A silent form of music made of words; a quiet private source of humor and joy.
As poets, we should ask ourselves why, given that writing is a relatively late development, poetry ever detached itself from song? On the one hand, there is the need for the preservation of tradition over time, especially when the chain of oral transmission begins to break down. This break, in and of itself, necessarily injects writerly elements into the aesthetics of a previously oral tradition. Writing can also inject a degree of cynical hindsight into tub-thumping enthusiasm and encourage people not only to think (always a double-edged sword) but (crucially) to think again and again. The principal difference between a written and an oral support is that, while the latter fixes content in time and place, the former both preserves it and subjects it to reflection and the passage of historical time. Poetry was, therefore, a kind of early form of the photograph, film or recorded disc.
But there is another spiritual dimension to this.
At various points in human history, music, dance, performance and visual representation have been regarded as distasteful, immoral or ungodly and subsequently discouraged or banned. During such puritanical phases, writing becomes both a more morally upstanding corrective to these lustier forms of expression and a refuge for those who wish secretly to continue the prohibited tradition.
It is perhaps no coincidence that alphabetic writing first flourished in Semitic cultures in which visual representation was taboo. Likewise, modern bourgeois poetry emerged in a post-Puritan climate, in which theatrical performances, dancing and any form of gaiety were still regarded with suspicion, especially when women were involved. We forget the extent that the values now espoused by so-called Islamic extremists were not so long ago our own.
Even when this repressed desire for vivacious self-expression found an outlet in reading or writing verse, it was often deemed a lesser vice, best kept private and not over-indulged. Young ladies in the 19th century would hide a book of poetry from their governesses and intended fiancés.
The extraordinary example of this Emily Dickinson, the unusual form of whose secretly-produced work is driven by a duty to contain emotion combined with an overwhelming desire to give it full vent. In the history of American poetry, Whitman also fits into this pattern in a more swashbuckling way. There is always an unresolved tension in poetry between repression and liberty of expression, which these great 19th century North American poets exemplify better than their European contemporaries.
Modernism provided poetry with a peculiar conundrum in this regard. There was at the same time nothing to be contained and nothing hidden to be expressed. Hence a growing tendency towards obscurity.
The first modernist poets confronted this dilemma by inverting the formula. Baudelaire achieved this by containing then taboo subject matter in meticulously precise if innovative forms of verse. Rimbaud went the other way: care-free so far as form is concerned to the point of producing prose, yet not especially radical in terms of content. Other French poets of the time used fairly traditional forms to present content derived from modern urban life.
Modernism, in general, was about including technology and a broader social perspective into the traditional repertoire. It varied greatly in terms of the extent to which it applied this to content and form, but, as a result, managed to detach the two forever.
T.S. Eliot published The Wasteland in 1922. Nothing like it had been written in the English language before and, more tellingly, nothing like it has ever been written since. Eliot follows various modernist and proto-modernist modes and prefigures some post-modern ones in this truly unique—yet ultimately flawed—poetic tour de force. He incorporates vernacular content—as he had experimented with in earlier work—and produces a collage that mixes contemporary slang, Middle English, vaudeville, traditional folk ditties, Oxford erudition, Greek mythology, bald realism, Sanskrit mysticism, and a semi-mocking undercurrent of modern scientific and literary-critical meta-discourse. The result is still stunning and still bewildering.
The Wasteland is modernism stalled. A new-fangled Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang of an automobile-poem driven proudly out of the factory, only to break down a few hundred yards down the road. (cf. Apollinaire’s nouveau nostalgia piece La petite auto http://centenaire.org/fr/texte-1-guillaume-apollinaire-la-petite-auto written a few years earlier plays much more interestingly and overtly with both content and support). Apollinaire’s Calligrammes look forward to modern and contemporary advertising, while Eliot’s modernism, for all its puffing efforts to imitate the factory and city life, ushers in a silver phase in the canon of English literature based on over-complication and the juxtaposition of the vernacular and erudite allusion.
And yet, like every flawed innovation, The Wasteland contains elements that can be learnt from. Ironically, in the contemporary world, the feature that seems most up-to-date is precisely the use of foot-notes, which was mocked at the time and often still is, although a revival of this technique forms the basis of Faber & Faber’s latest attempt to continue to monetize the Eliot legacy through online media.
Contemporary poetry has almost completely failed to incorporate HTML and similar new forms of support for content and text, and yet stuffy old T. S., tapping away at a typewriter, was pushing up against that boundary almost a hundred years ago.
Likewise modern and contemporary poetry alike—apart from the odd spicy expletive or colloquialism, or punk or rap poet paternalistically accepted into the fold—has largely eschewed the use of the vernacular and post-modern cut-and-paste in favor of a return to the romantic illusion of creative self-expression as a soft-focus conventional portrayal of supposedly normal bourgeois life—a format that the benefits of social media have done little or nothing to subvert or dispel.
Few ‘contemporary’ poems are at once as vulgar and vernacular and ironically erudite as Eliot’s Wasteland was. Pound, whom Eliot idolized, now seems unbearably pompous by comparison.
The overriding metaphor of waste land is equally prescient. [Eliot intended the two syllables of his title to be two words given equal stress, rather than a compound noun with the stress on the first syllable, as it has generally come to be pronounced since]. An American convert to British conservatism and fusty Anglo-Catholic mysticism, Eliot was nevertheless a prophet of his time, imagining the rubble left by Nazi bombs and the cardboard cities of the homeless created later by neoliberal economic policy and yet seeing these as somehow connected to a deep-set, long-standing spiritual malaise.
Poetry didn’t go Dada, especially in the English-speaking world, but Eliot’s Wasteland was perhaps the closest it came.
Eliot’s later work is competent and theologically and philosophically profound, but he would never manage to square the circle between the highly radical forms he originally thought it important to employ and the spiritual profundity of content he wished to convey. His last failed grasp for the illusion of a conservative modernity was to attempt to re-invent poetic drama, but it ran aground on its insistence on combining neo-Shakespearian form with the already outdated neo-bourgeois content and mores of Wilde and Coward. The subsequent success of kitchen-sink drama and the minimalist existentialism and absurdism of Beckett and Pinter, simply swept this still-born project away.
I am somewhat reluctant to play the poetry critic, except to praise the perhaps too narrow range of poets I especially admire. I am reluctant because, different from the other subjects I comment on, I am a poet myself and know how criticism can be at once fair and cruel.
Different from other art forms, few poets produce more than one or two truly great pieces of work. Poets are more like master jewelers than composers, novelists, film-makers, artists or architects. It is very difficult to forge filigrees of gold for an entirely new purpose in an entirely new way. Nevertheless, this is something I believe it is extremely important that poets, if they are to be truly creative and remain relevant in the contemporary world, continue to endeavor to achieve.
As a poetry teacher, I suggest the following exercises for poets and students:
- Try writing poetry on different supports: road signs, cycle paths, Mobius strips, formats that can’t be supported by a computer screen;
- Try to apply the principles of what I call “Dogme poetry”. Your writing should contain no combinations of words or phrases that could not naturally occur in real life;
- Work collectively. A truly great modern poem will always be the product of many diverse and divergent voices and hands.
- Mine discourse. Cut and paste phrases that real people have uttered in real-life or online.
- Don’t self-censor. Other people are all too willing to criticize. Let them do it and take their advice, but only if you think it apt.
- Visit people in prison and communicate with them. Many great writers and thinkers have been imprisoned at some point in their lives. And many prison inmates are great potential sources of wisdom and creativity.