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Rethinking Postmodernism

Updated on April 4, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Postmodern Art

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Re-Evaluation of a Literary Style

Through a recent change of heart, I have decided that although a few charlatans have sullied the literary canon with hot air and dishonesty, the basics of Postmodernism, indeed, have a place in genuine literature.

For a while now, I have railed against postmodernism in literature, particularly 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. 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, Howl, 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.

Letting Images Bridge Themselves

A major complaint about postmodernism 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 segment of a poem focusing on nightmares provides an example of how a misunderstanding of the use of disjointedness can result in misreading the poem. The following are lines of the poem that fail to provide that bridge that prose readers may be likely to miss:

Each eye-socket a window
To her own soul — $ bills
With little jackpots on them
Jump up and dance like clowns
Joking out their tongues,
Flapping campaign signs
With hammers, sickles, swastikas —
She believes yes she can.

The poem focuses on an insecure woman’s nightmares. In this scene from one of those nightmares, she sees dollar bills jumping up and down, poking out their tongues and flapping campaign signs that contain the insignia of left-wing political groups. Left-wing symbols are jeering at her.

The uninitiated reader might conclude, well, the woman is a left-winger because she’s dreaming of left-wing symbols. Even the line, “She believes yes she can,” feeds into the misconception when misunderstanding the significance of those lefty 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's a right-winger not a left-winger.

Why is the conclusion that the woman’s ideology is left-wing 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 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 government
Window to her pain: losing her $ bills
To statist minnows gliding in
And out of those windows.
On the slippery bank
Taxes, gasoline, and the price
Of beans and rice
Rocket beyond the blue of blues.

Because the first disjointed version makes for the better poem: more colorful, less overtly political, more showing than telling, and it achieves those better ends in five fewer words.

Better to Produce Claptrap Than Timorous Apple-Polishing

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. 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

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