“That is not it at all; that is not what I meant at all.”
– T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
My husband and I have a recurring conversation about poetry. About where it’s been and where it’s going. We keep asking, “is the 21st century experiencing a unique, poetic moment–or–are we still defining and re-defining modernism? (If you’re a little unclear about what modernism was/is about, please check out the excellent description by the smart people over at the Poetry Foundation in the link!). Certainly, poets and literary magazines keep trying to push the envelope, keep trying–and appropriately so–to innovate. If you ask my husband, it’s impossible to move beyond modernist poetry. If you ask me? Well, I’m still trying to figure it out.
Below: a few ways poetry is trying to break out of–or at least renovate– the room occupied by modernist firebrand poets like Pound, Stevens, Cummings, etc.
- Post-modernism: Post-modernism affirms modernism’s distaste for “the sublime” (see link above) but is much less romantic about the natural, human condition. This movement is characterized by a sense of irony and some cynicism.
- Meta-modernism: Meta-modernism or remodernism is an affirmation of modernism on one hand, and a commitment to move it in a radical, “forward” direction on the other. In poetry, this means (to me) that we are committed to keeping the messy human condition at the center of our writing, but are attempting to move it toward a cerebral sort of spirituality, instead of irony and/or cynicism.
- New Sincerity: New Sincerity is a very hybrid poetic movement. Still obstinately uncynical, but no longer rebelliously so. Where risks were taken by post and meta-modernists in producing ironic, interrogative, spiritually “forward” poems, New Sincerity poets now “risk” being the anti-rebels, occupied with the ultra-mundane, the simplistic, the quaint, and the naive. David Foster Wallace, said it much better than I can in his 1993 essay “E. Unibus Plurum:”
“The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.'”
From the examples above, I have to acknowledge my hubby’s point; we’re not “past” modernism. However, I think it’s fair to state that we’re adding to the the modernist framework, in ways 19th and 20th century poets never dreamed of. So are we in a unique poetic moment? Yes. Are we still defining and redefining modernism? Yes. Because no matter what we’re risking, no matter what we’re mourning, no matter what natural tendencies we’re hoping to transcend, we’re embracing human nature. Human need, desire, success, failure, spirituality, banality, etcetera, etcetera. When we stop doing these things in our poems, I think we’ll stop being modernists. I the meantime? We’re exploring hybridity, the experimental, and a thousand ways to “make it new.”
Tell me your thoughts! What makes contemporary poets similar or different from the older generation of writers? What do you love about contemporary poetry? What do you dislike?