analyzing the postmodernist poemIntroduction

What to look for (and what not) in a Postmodernist poem.

The Poem As Light

Postmodernism is such a varied movement, so often characterized by negatives, that we should first review its features, which essentially mark a distrust of 'grand narratives', an objective reality or what is now seen as elitist views.

Here is the first stanza of John Riley's The Poem as Light: {1}


The Poem As Light

In imagination a building, moving with the seasons,
Moving on its axis, and in the courtyard a tree,
Revolving with the motion of the planets
And answering each heartbeat in token of the time
When time, with sun and moon, stands still.

And by the courtyard crystal fountains, peonies and Mexicans
And music
echoing the spheres of silence
Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery;
Upon the harp with a solemn sound.

Rain will fall and not fall : the dream
Of Byzantium interpreted and re-interpreted :
Eternity will swallow time and art

Become what is. Art is the building, moved in, breathed in,
All creatures move in this, and praise the motive, re-inhabiting.

From The Poem As Light by John Riley: Collected Poems 1995

The lines are pleasing, exact and meditative, but there is much to puzzle over:

Revolving with the motion of the planets    How do trees revolve with planets: a Ptolemaic conceit?
And answering . . . stands still.    Whose heartbeat, and how does it sound if time stands still?
crystal fountains, peonies and Mexicans    Where do Mexicans come into this meditation on Byzantium?
Eternity will swallow . . . what is.    What's here, beyond that the truism that the present contains the past?
Art is the building . . . re-inhabiting. Interesting, but left undeveloped.

The second stanza is no clearer, {2} but seems also a dream sequence, with striking but enigmatic lines:

Countryside almost as white as green:    Real scene or tapestry/imagination?
Spirit of river, of tree, tell me, tell me:    Tell me what?
Immortal spirits of river and tree,    Pantheism? In Greek orthodox religion?
Hurt as we, can rise no higher.    How do immortal spirits hurt?
Golden throne lowered through the ceiling    Where are we now?
It was written over nineteen hundred years ago    Gospels? Clearly not in Byzantium.

Like J.H. Prynne, John Riley belongs to the Cambridge school of Postmodernist poets, but is also deeply involved in the Greek Orthodox faith. These may be private thoughts, but we should take them seriously, and not write them off as pretension or posturing. What is being said?

I am not sure, but perhaps something like this: Art, religion and all that we see around us are creations of our imagination, and are real to the extent we interpret and inhabit those interpretations. Byzantium understood this better than we do, and identified a spirit, which resided in things of the world, but came also from God the Father. That is how we must see their art and religious ceremonies, which seem ethereal but also timeless, still relevant to us.

Does the poem compel that reading? Not entirely: the lines trail off into silence, into things that cannot be said without misrepresentation.

in token of the time / When time, with sun and moon, stands still.
Become what is
and praise the motive, re-inhabiting.

Since these would not be out of place in a devotional piece, in what sense is the poem Postmodernist? Possibly in its enigmatic nature, which continually exemplifies what Postmodernists believe — that there is no reality beyond words, and no final meaning, for all that we settle into comforting interpretations of existence.

Small Towns

Suppose we take a different theme of place, and jot down lines as they come.

We all know places we cannot live in,
That we return to, punctually, because of family,
Because of something not accomplished
Which we relive these melancholy autumn days,
The purl, knit plain of things that were so ordinary
As to be unnoticed. We think of maiden aunts,
Revise our Christmas greetings, think of where
We've gone, but haven't, being as it were returned
Continually to this particular, small town way.

If we wanted a traditional poem, we'd probably extend and work these into something like:

We all know them: towns we do not live in,
Unvariegated, being not so much
Indifferent to us, but foreign, composited
Of small lives, sidetracks and of litter bins.
The streets seem as they were, the station tidier
Perhaps and the punctually unpunctual bus
Still wheezing up the hill past the café where
In youth we sat for hours and bought one coffee
Has been replaced: new fascia, new prices:
Small things we note, but don't know us.

And even the melancholy autumn days
Are not so here, but draw in the plain
And purl and plain: things knitted in as needed.
Not smart, not even comfortable.
A crushed essence of something sharp
And intolerable as from unmentioned sexual parts
In some young man, usually on his own,
Or a girl cleverer and prettier than the rest
Who'll write her Christmas letters home to maiden aunts
And hardly be acknowledged except that days,

Months, years later on some cleaning bout
Out of the brittle tissue paper will come
That expensive, off-the-shoulder dress they walked
Their room all night with once, and never wore.

Much is wrong, particularly the phrasing, but from a Postmodernist point of view, the failings are:

  1. control too focused on the frustrations of small town life.

  2. a clear and unambiguous meaning.

  3. centralizing perspective of an implied speaker.

  4. the literary language: melancholy, towns we do not live in, never wore.

The first thing to change would be the tone: we need something neutral and impersonal.

Not composited out of the landscape so much
as accumulating at slowdowns, where railway tracks
branched to new lines, or at the terminus, or where the road
petered out into shacks, homesteads, water towers, impedimenta
of beginnings that were entertained, showily in their way,
talked about for weeks with barber-shop bravado but
rusted away quietly into small town desultoriness, endlessly
set out and promptly and repeating the mayor's
sayings and marriages, what someone wore,
the local boy made good who takes his stroll astonished
that so much is the same, which he remembers, but which
is not concerned with him or where he's been.

Where even the autumn, which he recalls now with
a peculiarly aching vividness, as though each tree
spoke to him of something stunted, rooted in an
imponderable ordinariness that dulled the spirit
which he could see flare on the hills at sunset or in
the sullen glow of streetlights, the neon winking sign
of the trucker's eating place half out of town which said
that the wheels rolled outward to somewhere else,
which he should go to, where talk was thicker,
or the women prettier, and there would not be
timetables to keep to, pocket money chores or

even that maiden aunt found sobbing in the shrubbery
one winter's night, inconsolably, who couldn't say
for why but was packed away, poor soul, or sat
for long months after, staring at the fire, saying something
about never having thought her life would come to this.

Ordinary to the point of banality. What next? Perhaps we could echo the unreality of the Riley poem.

An endlessly repeated dream: things falling
as in slow motion into their own place, particularly
and everywhere in their shacks, homesteads, water towers,
impedimenta of a stick scratched on the ground that bruised
into trees, a dank canal, abandoned industrial works.

Improbably they all wait, upside down in memory.
The buffers marking the small town terminus, or that
glittering thread still branching through to outrageous districts,
the rails rusting but incorrigibly present, remembered
with their scattered litter, old sleepers, blaze of weeds.

And autumn particularly with exhaust smoke massed in trees,
the soft litany of buses with their bright destinations,
the concrete rolled defenselessly past stores and old estates
and something achingly bitter in the air that will not winter here
though much it hangs about in parks or at the lakeside walk.

Occasions impregnated with something that will speak with us
confidentially beyond the sullen glow of streetlights, the neon
sign winking at the trucker's eating and pull-up place,
where wheels rolled outward on to somewhere else,
with girls prettier, their slim legs dangling from love nests.

Where even that maiden aunt found sobbing in the shrubbery
one winter's night, inconsolably, who couldn't say
for what but was packed away, poor soul, or sat for months
staring at the fire, saying that there was life she'd heard,
everlasting, on trains or buses always headed out.

For a more evocative piece, we'd work on the adjectives in the manner of Thyrsis, but these avenues are closed to us in Postmodernism: too limiting, calculated, rhetorical. We have to abandon ourselves to what the lines suggest, however bizarre or inconsequential:

Small Towns

An endlessly subverted dream: things falling
as in slow motion into their own place, particularly
and everywhere in bungalows and flowered apartments,
beyond where the roads ran round scratching a living
or the farmlands ended at the industrial park.

Improbably they are all hung upside down in memory.
The buffers rise slowly into the small town terminus,
the rails rusting but incorrigibly present, the glittering
thread distilling to tree-hung bridges or to dank canals
outrageously ablaze with Irish voices.

And autumn particularly with estates massed as smoke,
the buses running past with their brightly-lit destinations
a litany of something defenceless in the lines of posts
and the concrete that runs on implacably into cul de sacs
or the memory we have forgotten of childhood names.

Occasions impregnated with an unbearable longings,
in the crucible of streetlamps, of neon lights winking
above trucker's pull-up places at Christmas, thoughts
of girls as ever, pretty, with legs dangling from love nests
in old boulevards along the sidestreets awash with evening.

When even that maiden aunt found sobbing in the shrubbery
one winter's night, inconsolably, who couldn't say
what happened, but only sit and stare for months
at the fire, babbling that life bloomed everlastingly
she'd heard in trucks or buses headed somewhere out.


How this poem mutated into something different, indeed a whole sequence of poems, you can see in the free ebook available from Ocaso Press.

  A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

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