For a while now, I have railed against postmodernism in literature, particularly in poetry: the folly of Robert Bly, the drivel of Charles Bernstein, and the gloom-filled posturing of Adrienne Rich have driven my scorn for that literary movement.
But lately, I have had a change of heart—but with a certain caveat to be explained later. It is not the fault of an entire movement that a few charlatans have managed to sully the canon with hot air and dishonesty. For example, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl stands at the beginning of postmodernism in America; this work has stood the test of time as a game changer in literature. Ginsberg's long poem, loosely based on the style of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, offers a view of American life that informs that portion of society that would never consider taking the trips of a Ginsberg or a Kerouac.
Information can be useful, whether one agrees with it or not, nay, even if the work is nonsensical or brushed through with immorality, nihilism, and naïveté. And while poetry's first function is not to impart empirical information, it does rely on empirical information to empower its focus on the human experience in feeling and emotion.
The Basics of Postmodernism
Postmodernism, in general, decries tight structure, received moral imperatives, and many traditional attitudes toward subjects such as beauty, love, truth, patriotism, familial bonding, and legal structures. This stance includes viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism.
While in the political sphere many of those issues must be revisited with the changing of society (for example, the institution of slavery, women's right to vote, and same-sex experience), care must always be taken not to judge harshly the good just because it is not perfect. Perfection on this mud ball of a planet is not possible, something every school child learns or should learn by the sixth grade.
In their pursuit of the "perfect," too many postmods have too often indulged in a melancholy nihilism that goes something like this: "if I am unhappy, it is because the system has failed me; therefore, all systems are evil and should be abolished." Such thinking leads only to more melancholy and ultimately to a chaotic anarchy through which no civilized society can exist. Often the works produced through this fog of nihilism result in a bridgeless, disjoined imagery which never coalesces around meaning.
In poetry, many postmods have succumbed to the notion that they can spew anything forth in broken lines and have it accepted as "poetry." Often even without a system of thought which the basics of postmodernism would supply, these postmods perpetrated a fraud upon the reading public. If a poet does not attempt to write something that makes sense even to her, she should not expect her works to be admired by others. Unfortunately, too many so-called poets have succumbed to that method. Yet others have simply accepted revisionist versions of history and fallen into the victimhood pool of weepers.
Nevertheless, the basics of postmodernism, even when including informed skepticism, can result in useful works. However, because too much of postmodern thought has resulted in fake and fraudulent works, readers must be continually vigilant while experiencing contemporary poetry. Separating out the chaff from the wheat is necessary to avoid falling prey to literary charlatans as well as political hacks.
Letting Images Bridge Themselves
A major complaint about postmodernism—not only by me but by other critics and scholars in the field—has been its disjointedness that often drips with vagueness, purposelessness, and airy nothingness. A stellar example of this disjointed nothingness is Robert Bly’s “The Cat in the Kitchen.” But disjointedness in itself is not to blame for Bly’s clumsy use of it.
Disjointedness can be the simple act of letting the images bridge themselves. Only to the untutored in literary studies does disjointedness present a problem. To the unliterary mind, a disjointed set of images can result in the opposite meaning of the piece.
The following poem excerpt provides an example of how a misunderstanding of the use of disjointedness can result in misreading the poem. The following lines from that poem fail to provide that bridge that prose readers may likely need:
each eye-socket a window
To her own soul — $ bills with moneypots.
Cavorting like colorful clowns poking out
Their tongues, flapping symbolic signs —
Hammers, sickles, swastikas —
O, to believe, yes! she can.
The poem focuses on an insecure woman’s nightmares. In this scene from one of those nightmares, she sees dollar bills jollying up like clowns, poking out their tongues and flapping signs that contain the insignia of statist/totalitarian governmental groups. Those totalitarian symbols are jeering at her. The uninitiated reader might conclude that the woman's political leanings are toward statism because she is dreaming of statist symbols. Even the line, “O, to believe, yes! she can,” feeds into the misconception when misunderstanding the significance of those statist symbols. But that line is an obvious extension of the jeering of those symbols. Thus the opposite characterization of the woman's political ideology has to be the correct conclusion: the poem suggests that she does not favor totalitarian statism but likely, if she follows politics closely, classical liberalism.
Why is the conclusion that the woman’s ideology is likely classical liberal an inaccurate one? Remember, this is a nightmare. If those symbols were comforting her during her nightmare, it would make sense, but they are jeering, mocking, and upsetting at her: they are jumping up and down and dancing around like clowns, and they are poking out their tongues at her. Would her beloved political symbols do that to her in a nightmare? Would they not be there to offer her succor?
If this lack of a bridge or disjointedness causes confusion resulting in the opposite from what the poems says, then why not just add the bridge like this:
Each eye-socket a big statist government
Window to cause her pain: she is
Losing her $ bills
To those totalitarian minnows
Gliding in with stealth and clipboards
And then out of those windows.
On the slippery bank up, up, up go
Taxes, gasoline prices, and the price
Of beans and rice—
All skyrocketing beyond the sky blue of blues.
The added bridging is omitted from the first disjointed version because that first version makes for the better poem: more colorful, less overtly political, more showing than telling, and it achieves those better ends with four fewer lines and twenty-seven fewer words! When images coalesce around true meaning, the use of a prosaic bridge is not necessary.
Postmod with a Caveat
If poets allow possible misreadings of their poems to affect how they write, they are allowing themselves to be censored. And any form of censorship cannot be condoned—even those poets whose works one doe not admire like Bly, Bernstein, and Rich must be allowed to follow their own inner promptings. Honest claptrap is better than timorous apple-polishing.
The main reason then for my rethinking postmodernism is that I have been writing in the vain but without admitting it. Now I have turned over a new leaf and heartily accept the movement that I had so long disdained. Of course, I do so with a hefty caveat: I still vehemently disdain utterly senseless bilge, blather, and poppycock with its nihilistic whining and pointing blame at others for one's victimhood.
As for omitting those useful prose-like bridges: The untutored readers will have to fend for themselves; they do not spend much time with poetry anyway.
A Brief Overview of "Postmodernism"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes