postmodernism in poetry

To repeat a previous simplification: whereas Classicism, Realism and Romanticism all deal with the outside world, contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or free-wheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism).

Postmodernism began in the sixties, when there developed on both sides of the Atlantic a feeling that poetry had become too ossified, backward-looking and restrained. {1} The old avant garde had become respectable, replacing one orthodoxy by another. The poetry commended by the New Criticism — and indeed written by its teachers — was self-contained, coherent and paradoxical. Certainly it was clever, with striking imagery, symbolism and structural economy, but it was also far too predictable. Where were the technical innovations of the early modernists? Where were the alternatives to capitalism and the modern state that feature in Pound's or Lawrence's thought? And if contrary movements existed, they seemed disorganized. The UK might have its neo-Romantics, and a reaction to them. And in Europe were Milosz, Kundera, Ponge and Herbert. But there was no common purpose in these figures, and no common philosophy to give them intellectual standing. Into this vacuum came radical theory, and the generally Leftist theories of literature.

Features of Postmodernism

Most conspicuously in the visual arts, but shown to varying degrees in novels and poetry, Postmodernism has these four features: {2}

1. iconoclasm:

decanonizes cultural standards, previous artworks and authorities
denies authority to the author, discounting his intentions and his claim to act as spokesman for a period
contradicts the expected, often deliberately alienating the reader
subverts its sources by parody, irony and pastiche
denounces ethnic, gender and cultural repression
strips context, reducing content to an austere minimum
broods on the human condition disclosed by radical literary theory

2. groundless:

employs flat, media-like images that have no reference beyond themselves
champions the primary, unmediated but not sensuous
regards both art and life as fictions, sometimes mixing the two in magic realism or multiple endings
argues that meaning is indeterminate, denying a final or preferred interpretation

3. formlessness:

repudiates modernism's preoccupation with harmony and organic form
narrows the aesthetic distance, art being something to enter into or act out rather than simply admire
fragments texts, turning them into collages or montages
avoids the shaping power of metaphor and other literary tropes
mixes genres with pastiche, travesty and cliché
promotes the fluid and socially adaptable

4. populism:

employs material from a wide social spectrum
eschews elitist, literary language
avoids the serious and responsible, promoting the arbitrary and playful
accepts media images as the most accessible contemporary reality, making these the building blocks of art


To many artists, Modernism had sold out. Its creations were no longer the preserve of an exclusive avant-garde but the subject of academic study. Post-Impressionist paintings appeared on Christmas cards, and contemporary music featured in popular concerts. Even the originators themselves turned away from their high ideals. Pound espoused right-wing views. Eliot wrote in tight forms, became an establishment figure and received the Nobel Prize. Carlos William's poems served to show freshmen how little there was to fear in poetry. By the 1960s, university courses were stressing the continuity between traditional poetry and the contemporary scene. None of this was congenial to writers suffering the usual privations of the struggling artist. The education industry seemed a sham. For all its stress on authenticity and originality, everyone knew that the literary canon could be probed but not ultimately questioned.

Of course the contemporary writer could always go one better, adopt and improve on the skills of the literary great, but this required enormous time, talent and dedication, with very doubtful chances of success. The public bought as critics directed; the critics wrote as they remembered their university courses indicating; and the courses repeated what had been written before. Very few with any influence on the livelihood of writers actually wrote poetry themselves and so could be expected to have the practitioner's eye for craft and accomplishment. The safer approach was to reject the past, devise new styles however vacuous or wrong-headed, and then promote them as usual in a market-orientated consumer society.

Most conspicuously was this done in the visual arts, but book prizes and regional festivals played their part in the literary world. And with its stress on fashion, the need to keep up to date, the advertising industry was the model to adopt. What counted was the interest swirling around the exhibition or publication, and this naturally drew on and supported contemporary events, fashions and concerns. The artworks could look somewhat arbitrary, and the public were apt to mutter that they could do as well themselves, but then the general public didn't buy paintings or poetry in any quantity. For those who did, the wealthy industrialists and a cultured intelligentsia, two strategies were employed. The first was a variation of the game of the emperor's new clothes which Modernism had been playing for decades: the priest-like role of cultural arbiter. And the second was an attack on the cultural achievements of the past. Ours was an age of mass literacy and communications, so that the old themes and their master-servant attitudes no longer applied. The old skills were no more than slavish copying: slick, inauthentic, a cultural imperialism.

The strategies worked, though at a cost. English departments, together with the humanities generally, gradually lost their prestige and then their students. {3}. Indeed, if as hermeneutists assert, art is one way in which a society understands itself, poetry must inevitably reflect contemporary attitudes and concerns. But hermeneutists also stress the importance of tradition. Past cultural achievements represent something significant and universal about human nature, indeed must do or we should not respond to them now that their superficial attractions have been stripped away. And against the claims of Postmodernism, the lives and personalities of artists do colour their work. Indeed their lives are so hard, and success so fleeting, that serious artists very much have to believe in the importance of their individual efforts. But then the promoters of Modernism are not generally artists but academics and media salesmen — as indeed most students become — so that any difference between theory and reality is yet another aspect of Postmodernism in which "anything goes".


Art, politics, public service, life in the great institutions — in none of these could be found any bedrock of unassailable probity. Serious shortcomings could be found in science, mathematics, linguistics, sociology, philosophy — in whatever purported to be true knowledge. All involved assumptions, cultural understandings, agreements as to what counted as important, and how that importance should be assessed. Even our language was imprecise, communal and secondhand. Where did reality stop and interpretation begin? In truth there was no essential difference between art and life: both were fictions. Was psychoanalysis a myth? Very well, so then were science and the humanities. All were self-supporting and self-referencing variably coherent systems with truths that were not transportable.

No doubt history has some ticklish problems of interpretation, but few suppose that the holocaust never happened. Even admirers of Paul de Mann were suddenly aroused from their solipsist musings when damaging evidence was found for their hero's earlier support of Nazi ideas. No one can see how the exterior world can be unmediated by our senses and understandings, but the philosophic problems of asserting that reality is entirely created by language and intellectual concepts are formidable indeed. Science has its procedures and limitations, but its supposed "myths " work in ways other myths do not. All disciplines have their own view of the world, but they are not equivalent or equally acceptable. Postmodernism largely overlooks how reality constrains actions, language and art.


Whence comes this desire for autonomy, for circumscribing form, for aesthetic shape? Look clearly at art and the dissonances will appear just as prominently. The New Criticism and traditional aesthetics simply left them out of account. Deviation from the expected, foregrounding, departures from the conventional are the essence of art, as Ramon Jacobson and the Russian formalists demonstrated. Art will be much stronger for being shapeless, indefinite, even incoherent. Nor need we stick rigidly to genres, or refrain from pastiche and parody. Art is the whole world, and the more that can be included the richer the artwork.

But of course no such essence of art was ever demonstrated. No doubt the New Critics did speak too glibly of aesthetic harmonies and tension resolution, and poems could always be read that way, given sufficient ingenuity. Yet there are limits. The differences between a competent and an outstanding work of art may be difficult to prove to a first-year student, but everyone attests to the increasing discrimination that comes with love of the subject and prolonged study. It is a common observation that art begins in selection, and that an etching or black and white photograph may possess powers in proportion to what they exclude. If that is denied — and it is denied by Postmodernist — then many contemporary artworks will have no appeal to the more traditionally-minded, which is indeed the case.


Postmodernism is very appealing. It is avowedly populist, and employs what is well-known and easily accessible in vivid montages. It welcomes diversity, and seeks to engage an audience directly, without levels of book learning interceding. It encourages audience participation. It mixes genres, and so makes interesting what otherwise would be overlooked. It can illustrate social causes, but does not insist on an underlying seriousness, all matters being equally relative.

But if Postmodernism espouses populism, its work do not generally have mass appeal. Response is via theories which are incomprehensible, and purposely incomprehensible, to all but a well-read elite. We may enjoy something a fourteenth century Flemish painting without understanding the religious iconography, but that is not the case with Postmodernist works. Fail to grasp the theory and there is nothing there — which explains the bewilderment and distrust of the general public. The work seems fragmentary, arbitrary, lacking in skill and overall purpose, which it unashamedly is, from broader perspectives.

What of larger ambitions? Are its artworks at bottom a criticism of life? No, and are not intended to be. Do they sharpen our sensibilities, make us see deeper and more clearly, make us more alive to the beauty of the world and indignant at its injustices? Certainly not. They make us more open to experience and less censorious. Postmodernism is not traditional, is indeed an anti-art in many ways, impatient of grandiose claims and intending no more than entertainment of an easily bored society. Artwork that does more is spurious, and therefore to be excluded from "serious" consideration.


Poets belonging to Postmodernism in its various phases and manifestations include:

John Ashbery: e.g. The Burden of the Park {4}
Frank O'Hara: e.g. Khrushchev is coming on the right day! {5}
Barbara Guest" e.g. Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights {6}
Charles Bernstein: e.g. Thinking I Think I Think {7}
Andrew Levy: e.g. tom hanks is a homosexual {8}
Jim Rosenberg: e.g. Completing the Square {9}
Tom Raworth: e.g. All Fours {10}
J.H. Prynne: e.g. On the Matter of Thermal Packing {11}
David Antin: e.g. War {12}
Jackson MacLow: e.g. Very Pleasant Soiling {13}
Michael Basinski: e.g. The Atmosphere of Venus {14}
Susan Howe: e.g. Eikon Basilike {15}
Kenneth Goldsmith: e.g. Fidget {16}
Robert Grenier: e.g. Greeting {17}
George Hartly: e.g. Envy Pride Glutonny {18}


1. Marjorie Perloff's Whose New American Poetry?: Anthologizing in the Nineties. NNA. April 2001.
2. Ihab Hassan's The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987), Richard Harland's Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1987), Alex Callinicos's Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (1989), and Chapters 14 and 15 in Alastair Fowler's A History of English Literature (1987).
3. Crisis in the Humanities. Marjorie Perloff.
4. John Ashbery. Ashbery's importance and analysis of a poem.
5. Frank O'Hara. Khrushchev is coming on the right day!. NNA. Several O'Hara poems on site.
6. Barbara Guest . Online articles, prose and poems.
7. Charles Bernstein. EPC page with excellent links.
8. Andrew Levy. Poems, articles and several detailed analyses
9. Jim Rosenberg. Poems in real audio format.
10. Tom Raworth. Visual and non-visual poems.
11. J.H. Prynne: On the Matter of Thermal Packing. Online poem from author's The White Stones (1969) collection.
12. David Antin. Poems in real audio and mp3 format.
13. Jackson MacLow. Writings, sound files and articles.
14. Michael Basinski. Visual and semi-visual poems.
15. Susan Howe. Collage poems.
16. Kenneth Goldsmith. Multimedia poem.
17. Robert Grenier. Multimedia poem.
18. George Hartly. NNA. Electronic poetry.

Internet Resources

1. Postmodernism. Lengthy entry with in-text links.
2. Postmodernism. Mary Klages. Apr. 2003. Characteristics and key figures.
3. Postmodernism and its Critics. Shannon Weiss and Karla Wesley. An anthropological perspective: extended article, references and links.
4. Postmodern Literature. Teaching Postmodernist poems and novels: approaches and examples.
5. Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel. Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin and Robin Parmar. 2000. Short article but useful list of authors.
6. Paul Auster's Postmodernist Fiction: Deconstructing Aristotle's "Poetics". Dragana Nikolic. MA thesis but readable.
7. The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry. Albert Gelpi. 1990. Postmodernism as a final exorcism of Romantic aspirations.
8. Sociopolitical (Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics. Robert Kaufman. Jun 2003. Long article in Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.
9. Dueling Paradigms: Modernist v. Postmodernist Thought. Dragan Milovanovic. 1997. NNA. A legal view of the debate.
10. Postmodernism in Thai Poetry: Saksiri Meesomsueb's 'Tukta Roi Sai'. Soraj Hongladarom. Saksiri Meesomsueb's poetry from a Postmodernist angle.
11. How postmodern is Cohen's poetry? Clint Burnham. analyzing the poetry for Postmodernist characteristics.
12. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. George Hartley. 1989. Extended critique covering work of Ashbery, Bernstein and others.
13. The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Susan M. Schultz. Schultz's Introduction to collection of 12 critical articles.
14. John Ashbery. Author homepage, with selected links.
15. John Ashbery. NNA Academy of American Poets entry: short biography and links.
16. Normalizing John Ashbery. Marjorie Perloff. 1997. Perloff's article for Jacket magazine.
17. J.H. Prynne: On the Matter of Thermal Packing. Online poem from author's The White Stones (1969) collection.
18. An Introduction to the Poetry of J.H.Prynne by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella. Excerpt from Bloodaxe Books catalogue advertising the Collected Poems of J.H.Prynne (1999)
19.Visionary Company. Marjorie Perloff. Criticism of Harold Bloom's anthology Best American Poetry 1996.
20. Speaking About Genre: the Case of Concrete Poetry. Victoria Pineda. Article argues for a more feminist approach.
21. Great Works. Site for innovative writing: modernist, postmodernist and 'archaic'. Good listings.
22. Language and Postlanguage Poetries. Mark Wallace. A view of poetry after the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school.
23.Electronic Poetry Center. Excellent collection of links, grouped by poet and critic.
24. Concrete Poems. Michael P. Garofalo. Mar. 2003. Title index to websites, books, journals, articles, and poems: extensive.
25. UbuWeb Papers. Good collection of articles on contemporary poetry and poetics.
26. The Constant Critic. Tri-weekly poetry reviews.
27. Contemporary Poetry Review. Excellent reviews of poetry both sides of the Atlantic.
28. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.
29. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample . Jun. 2003. Essential listings.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.