Aesthetics of Modernist Poetry

Introduction

Today's 'serious poetry' is broadly Modernist, if we include Postmodernism and experimental poetry. Such is the poetry written in schools and poetry workshops, published by hundreds of small presses, and reviewed by serious newspapers and literary journals — a highbrow, coterie poetry that isn't popular and doesn't profess to be. To its devotees, Modernist styles are the only way of dealing with contemporary matters, and they do not see them as a specialized development of traditional poetry, small elements being pushed in unusual directions, and sometimes extended beyond the limits of ready comprehension.

The 'difficulties' of Modernism I look at in the work of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, J.H. Prynne, John Ashbery and Geoffrey Hill. But rather than accept these as shortcomings of the poetry itself, what, in fact, prevents the poem working properly — i.e. the obscurity, plain prose styles and the cleverness that doesn't quite deliver sense —  contemporaries have championed these as distinctive and necessary features of poetry today. To be authentic, a poem must be Modernist, and only with such characteristics can a poem find a quality publisher. The negative becomes a positive, and we find serious poetry exhibiting these features:

1. Experimentation

Belief that previous writing was stereotyped and inadequate
Ceaseless technical innovation, sometimes for its own sake
Originality: deviation from the norm, or from usual reader expectations
Ruthless rejection of the past, even iconoclasm

2. Anti-realism

Sacralisation of art, which must represent itself, not something beyond
Preference for allusion (often private) rather than description
World seen through the artist's inner feelings and mental states
Themes and vantage points chosen to question the conventional view
Use of myth and unconscious forces rather than motivations of conventional plot

3. Individualism

Promotion of the artist's viewpoint, at the expense of the communal
Cultivation of an individual consciousness, which alone is the final arbiter
Estrangement from religion, nature, science, economy or social mechanisms
Maintenance of a wary intellectual independence
Artists and not society should judge the arts: extreme self-consciousness
Search for the primary image, devoid of comment: stream of consciousness
Exclusiveness, an aristocracy of the avant-garde

4. Intellectualism

Writing more cerebral than emotional
Work is tentative, analytical and fragmentary, more posing questions more than answering them
Cool observation: viewpoints and characters detached and depersonalized
Open-ended work, not finished, nor aiming at formal perfection
Involuted: the subject is often act of writing itself and not the ostensible referent

Aesthetics


Definitions of Art

How sound are these aims from the long view of aesthetics, the philosophy of art? And what indeed is art? What (to adopt the philosopher's approach) are its necessary and sufficient conditions?

Here is a brief overview, which may be skipped by the busy reader, but shows how little the serious poetry article generally understands of the larger dimensions of art. (The material has been quarried from my free ebook Background to Critical Theory, which is extensively annotated.)

Many have been proposed — countless, stretching back to ancient Greece — but one of the most complete is that of Tatarkiewicz. His six conditions are: beauty, form, representation, reproduction of reality, artistic expression and innovation. Will that do? Unfortunately, it is difficult to pin these terms down sufficiently, to incorporate them into necessary and sufficient conditions —  do they all have to be present? — and to cover the aspect of quality. Even in the most hackneyed piece of commercial art we shall find these conditions satisfied to some extent. How do we specify the sufficient extent? By common agreement, a consensus of public taste? {1}

Take a less time-bound view and consider art down the ages? Then we have problems of shifting boundaries and expectations. The Greeks did not distinguish between art and craft, but used the one word, techné, and judged achievement on goodness of use. In fact not until 1746 did Charles Batteux separate the fine arts from the mechanical arts, and only in the last hundred years has such stress been laid on originality and personal expression. Must we then abandon the search for definitions, and look closer at social agreements and expectations? That would be a defeat for rationality, philosophers might feel, it being their role to arrive at clear, abstract statements that are true regardless of place or speaker. But perhaps (as Strawson and others have remarked) art may be one of those fundamental categories which cannot be analysed further, cannot be broken into more basic terms. And there is always Wittgenstein's scepticism about definitions —  that terms commonly have a plexus of overlapping applications, meaning lying in the ways words are used, and not in any fiat of God or philosophers.  {1}

Aesthetic Qualities

Suppose, to take Wittgenstein's scepticism further, we dropped the search for definitions but looked to the characteristics of art, the effects and properties that were needed in large measure for something to establish itself as ‘art’. What would they be? One would be beauty, surely —  i.e. proportion, symmetry, order in variety that pleases. Beauty therefore comes down to feelings — not individual and transient feelings necessarily, but matters that ultimately cannot be rationalized? Yes, said David Hume and George Santayana. But then, said Wittgenstein, we should have to deny that aesthetic descriptions had any objectivity at all, which is surely untrue. We may not know whether to call some writing ‘plodding’ or simply ‘slow-moving’, but we don't call it ‘energetic’. {1}

Very well, do we need to enquire further into beauty? Probably, since it is a term useful and universal. But contemporary philosophers have great difficulties in analysing the term properly — i.e. into abstract, freestanding propositions that are eternally true. Art certainly speaks to us down the ages, and we should like to think it was through a common notion of beauty. But look at examples. We revere the sculpture of fourth century Athens, but the Middle Ages did not. We prefer those marbles in their current white purity whereas in fact the Greeks painted them as garishly as fairground models. We cannot, it appears, ignore the context of art, and indeed have to show how the context contributes. Clearly, beauty is not made to a recipe, and if individual artworks have beauty, they do not exemplify some abstract notion of it. {1}

 Dangers of Aesthetics

Artists have therefore been somewhat chary of aesthetics, feeling that art is too various and protean to conform to rules. Theory should not lead practice, they feel, but follow at a respectful distance. Put the cart before the horse and theory will more restrict than inform or inspire. Moreover professionals — those who live by words, and correspondingly have to make words live for them — are unimpressed by the cumbersome and opaque style of academia. Any directive couched in such language seems very dubious. For surely literature is not made according to rules, but the rules are deduced from literature —  rationalized from good works of art to understand better what they have in common. And if theorists (philosophers, sociologists, linguists, etc.) do not have a strongly-developed aesthetic sense — which, alas, they often demonstrate — then their theories are simply beside the point. {1}

But theory need not be that way. Rather than prescribe it may clarify. No doubt, as Russell once wryly observed, philosophy starts by questioning what no one would seriously doubt, and ends in asserting what no one can believe, but creative literature is not without its own shortcomings. Much could be learnt by informed debate between the disciplines, and a willingness of parties to look through each other's spectacles. Obtuse and abstract as it may be, philosophy does push doggedly on, arriving at viewpoints which illuminate some aspects of art. {1}

Art as Representation

What is the first task of art? To represent. Yes, there is abstract painting, and music represents nothing unless it be feelings in symbolic form, but literature has always possessed an element of mimesis, copying, representation. Attempts are periodically made to purge literature of this matter-of-fact, utilitarian end — Persian mysticism, haiku evocation, poésie pure, etc. — but representation always returns. {1}

How is the representation achieved? No one supposes it is a simple matter, or that codes, complex social transactions, understandings between speakers, genre requirements etc. do not play a large if somewhat unfathomed part. Our understanding is always shaping our experiences, and there is no direct apperception of chair, table, apple in the simple-minded way that the Logical Positivists sometimes asserted. Words likewise do not stand in one-to-one relationships to objects, but belong to a community of relationships — are part, very often, of a dialogue that writing carries on with other writings. Even when we point and say ‘that is a chair’, a wealth of understandings underlies this simple action — most obviously in the grammar and behavioural expectations. The analytical schools have investigated truth and meaning to an extent unimaginable to the philosophically untutored. They have tried to remove the figurative, and to represent matters in propositional language that verges on logic. Very technical procedures have been adopted to sidestep paradoxes, and a universal grammar has been proposed to explain and to some extent replace the ad hoc manner in which language is made and used. Thousands of man-lives have gone into these attempts, which aim essentially to fashion an ordered, logically transparent language that will clarify and possibly resolve the questions philosophers feel impelled to ask.  {1}

Much has been learnt, and it would be uncharitable to call the enterprise a failure. Yet language has largely evaded capture in this way, and few philosophers now think the objectives are attainable. Even had the goals been gained, there would still have remained the task of mapping our figurative, everyday use of language onto this logically pure language. And of justifying the logic of that language, which is not a self-evident matter. There are many forms of logic, each with its strengths and limitations, and even mathematics, that most intellectually secure of human creations, suffers from lacunae, areas of overlap and uncertainties. But that is not a cause for despair. Or for embracing the irrationalism of the Poststructuralists who assert that language is a closed system — an endless web of word — associations, each interpretation no more justified than the next. But it does remind us that language becomes available to us through the medium in which it is formulated. And that literature of all types — written, spoken, colloquial, formal — incorporates reality, but also partly reconstitutes it according to its own rules. {1}

Art as Emotional Expression

Suppose we return to simpler matters. Art is emotionally alive. We are delighted, elated, suffused with a bitter sweetness of sorrow, etc., rejecting as sterile anything which fails to move us. But are these the actual emotions that the artist has felt and sought to convey? It is difficult to know. Clearly we can't see into the minds of artists — not in the case of dead artists who have left no explanatory notes, and not generally in contemporary cases where artists find their feelings emerge in the making of the artwork. Then, secondly, we wouldn't measure the greatness of art by the intensity of emotion — unless we accept that a football match is a greater work of art than a Shakespeare play. And thirdly there is the inconvenient but well-known fact that artists work on ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ episodes simultaneously. They feel and shape the emotion generated by their work, but are not faithfully expressing some pre-existing emotion. {1}

Some theorists have in fact seen art more as an escape from feeling. Neurotic artists find their work therapeutic, and hope the disturbance and healing will also work its power on the audience. And if Aristotle famously spoke of the catharsis of tragedy, did he mean arousing emotions or releasing them — i.e. do artists express their own emotions or evoke something appropriate from the audience? Most would say the latter since raw, truthful, sincere emotion is often very uncomfortable, as in the brute sex act or the TV appeal by distraught parents. Whatever the case, art is clearly a good deal more than emotional expression, and at least requires other features: full and sensitive representation, pleasing and appropriate form, significance and depth of content. {1}

Form and Beauty:  Autonomy of Art

And so we come to form. Beauty we have glanced at, but if we drop that term, so troublesome and unfashionable today, there remains organization: internal consistency, coherence, a selection and shaping of elements to please us. And please us the art object must — genuinely, immediately, irrationally — by the very way it presents itself. How exactly? Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Croce, and dozens of contemporary philosophers have all made important contributions, but the variety of art makes generalization difficult, and explanations are naturally couched in the philosophic concerns of the time. {1}

But something can be said. Art presents itself as an autonomous, self-enclosing entity. The stage, picture frame, etc. give an aesthetic distance, tell us that what is shown or enacted serves no practical end, and is not to be judged so. We are drawn in — engrossed, enraptured — but we are also free to step back and admire the crafting, to exercise our imagination, and to enjoy disinterestedly what can be more complete and vivid than real life. Is this autonomy necessary? Until the last century most artists and commentators said yes. They believed that harmony in variety, detachment, balance, luminous wholeness, organic coherence, interacting inevitability and a host of other aspects were important, perhaps essential. Many contemporary artists do not. They seek to confront, engage in non-aesthetic ways with their public, to bring art out into the streets. Successfully, or so the trendier critics would persuade us, though the public remains sceptical. Modernism is taught in state schools, but Postmodernist has yet to win acceptance. {1}

Art as  Purposeful Activity

Art, says the tax-paying citizen, is surely not entertainment, or not wholly so. Artists aim at some altruistic and larger purpose, or we should not fete them in the media and in academic publications. We don't want to be preached at, but artists reflect their times, which means that their productions give us the opportunity to see our surroundings more clearly, comprehensively and affectionately. And not only to see, say Marxist and politically-orientated commentators, but to change. Art has very real responsibilities, perhaps even to fight male chauvinism, ethnic prejudice, third-world exploitation, believe the politically correct. {1}

Artist-Centred Philosophies

With the advent of psychology, and the means of examining the physiological processes of the human animal, one focus of attention has become the artist himself. Indeed, Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood felt that the work of art was created in the artist's mind, the transposing of it to paper or music or canvas being subsidiary and unimportant. But the transposing is for most artists the very nature of their art, and few conceive work completely and exactly beforehand. John Dewey stressed that knowledge was acquired through doing, and that the artist's intentions were both modified and inspired by the medium concerned. For Suzanne Langer the artist's feelings emerged with the forms of expression — which were not feelings expressed but ideas of feeling: part of a vast stock which the artist draws on, combines and modifies. Of course there is always something inexplicable, even magical, about good writing. It just came to me, says the writer: the words wrote themselves. That and the intertextuality of writing — that writing calls on and borrows from other pieces of writing, establishing itself within a community of understandings and conventions — led Roland Barthes to assert that the writer does not exist, that writing writes itself. {1}

Certainly writing is inextricably part of thinking, and we do not have something in our minds that we later clothe in words. But most writing needs shaping, reconsidering, rewriting, so that the author is not some passive, spiritualist medium. Moreover, though we judge the finished work, and not the writer's intentions (supposing we could ever know them exactly) it is common knowledge that writers often have a small stock of themes which they constantly extract and rework: themes which are present in their earliest efforts and which do indeed reflect or draw substance from their experiences. Biography, social history, psychology do tell us something about artistic creations. {1}

Viewer-Centred Philosophies

Given that artists find themselves through their work, and do not know until afterwards what they had in mind, it may be wiser to look a art from the outside, from the viewer's perspective. We expect literature, for example, to hold something in the mind with particular sensitivity and exactness, and to hold it there by attention to the language in which it is formulated. Special criteria can apply. We feel terror and pity in the theatre, but are distanced, understanding that we don't need to call the police. We obey the requirements of genre and social expectations, making a speech on a public platform being very different from what we say casually to friends. We look for certain formal qualities in art — exactness, balance, vivid evocation, etc. — and expect these qualities to grow naturally from inside rather than be imposed from without. We realize that art produces a pleasure different from intellectual or sensuous one — unreflective enjoyment, but one also pregnant with important matters. Change one feature and we know instinctively that something is wrong. {1}

How? Perhaps as we instinctively detect a lapse in grammar, by referring to tacit rules or codes. Nelson Goodman argued that art was essentially a system of denotation, a set of symbols, even a code that we unravel, the code arbitrary but made powerful by repeated practice. Edwin Panofsky suggested that symbols could be studied on three levels — iconic (the dog resembles a dog), iconographic (the dog stands for loyalty) or iconological (the dog represents some metaphysical claim about the reality of the physical world). Hence the importance of a wide understanding of the artist and his times. And why no appeals to good intentions, or to morally uplifting content, will reason us into liking something that does not really appeal.   {1}

Art as Social Objects

But can we suppose that content doesn't matter? Not in the end. Art of the Third Reich and of communist Russia is often technically good, but we don't take it to our hearts. Marxist philosophers argue that art is the product of social conditions, and John Berger, for example, regarded oil paintings as commodities enshrining the values of a consumerist society. Hermeneutists argue that the art produced by societies allows them to understand themselves — so that we have devastating judgements skulking in the wartime portraits of Hitler, and in scenes of a toiling but grateful Russian proletariat. They are untrue in a way obvious to everyone. {1}

But if society ultimately makes the judgements, who in society decides which artistic expressions it will commission and support? Not everyone. Appreciation requires experience and training, in making quality judgements, and in deciding the criteria. Some criteria can be variable (subject matter), some are standard (music is not painting) and some are decided by the history of the art or genre in question (paintings are static and two-dimensional). But additionally there are questions of authority and status. Institutionalists like George Dickie say simply that an object becomes art when approved sections of society confer that status on it.  But that only shifts the question: how can we be sure such sections are not furthering their careers in the cosy world of money, media and hype? Ted Cohen could not really find such rituals of conferral, and Richard Wollheim wanted the reasons for such conferral: what were they exactly?  Arthur Danto introduced the term ‘artworld’ , but emphasize that successful candidates had to conform to current theories of art. Individual or arbitrary fiats were not persuasive. {1}

But are there not more important considerations? However portrayed in the popular press, artists lead hard lives, for the most part solitary, unrecognised and ill-rewarded. What drives them on? Vanity in part, and deep personal problems — plus, it may be, a wish to overcome feelings of inadequacy deriving from youth or the home background. But artists are not always more febrile or bohemian than others, or at least the evidence of them being so is open to question. When asked, artists usually speak of some desire to make sense of themselves and their surroundings. They feel a little apart from life, and do not understand why the public can skim over the surface, never troubling itself with the deep questions that cause elation, anguish and wonder. Literature, say writers, brings them experiences saturated with meaning, in which they perceive the fittingness of the world and their own place within it. The concepts of their own vision are inescapable theirs, and they can only hope these concepts are also important to the society from which they draw their support and inspiration.’ {1}
 

Evolution of Modernism


Modernism evolved by various routes. From Symbolism it took allusiveness in style and an interest in rarefied mental states. From Realism it borrowed an urban setting, and a willingness to break taboos. And from Romanticism came an artist-centred view, and retreat into irrationalism and hallucinations.
No one would willingly lose the best that has been written in the last hundred years, but the present state of poetry suggests earlier doubts are coming home to roost.

Modernism's ruthless self-promotion has created intellectual castes that cut themselves off from the hopes and joys of everyday life. Its poetry can be built on the flimsiest of foundations: Freudian psychiatry, verbal cleverness, individualism run riot, anti-realism, over-emphasis on the irrational. The concepts themselves are doubtful, and the supporting myths too small and self-admiring to show man in his fullest nature. Sales of early Modernist works were laughably small, indeed, and it was largely after the Second World War, when the disciples of Modernism rose to positions of influence in the academic and publishing worlds, that Modernism came the lingua franca of the educated classes. The older generation of readers gradually died out. Literature for them was connoisseurship, a lifetime of deepening familiarity with authors who couldn't be analysed in critical theory, or packed into three-year undergraduate courses.

In Conclusion


One feature above all is striking in Modernism: experimentation, change for the sake of change, a need to be constantly at the cutting edge in technique and thought. {2} Perhaps this was understandable in a society itself changing rapidly. The First World War shattered many beliefs — in peaceful progress, international cooperation, the superiority of the European civilizations. It also outlawed a high-minded and heroic vocabulary: "gallant, manly, vanquish, fate", etc. could afterwards only be used in an ironic or jocular way. {3} But more fundamental was the nineteenth century growth in city life, in industrial employment, in universal literacy, in the power of mass patronage and the vote. Science and society could evolve and innovate, so why not art?

But in its desire to retain intellectual ascendancy, art overlooked one crucial distinction. Science tests, improves and builds, but does not wantonly tear down. Extensive modification of established conceptions is difficult, and starting afresh in the manner of the modernist artist would be unthinkable. There is simply too much to know and master, and the scientific community insists on certain apprenticeships and procedures. Originality is not prized in the way commonly supposed.

And must art represent its time? Not in any simple way. Very different artworks may originate in the same society at the same time — those of Hals and Rembrandt, for example. Art history naturally wishes to draw everything into its study but neither the appearance of great artists nor the direction of artistic trends seems predictable, any more than history is, and for similar reasons. Everything depends on the starting assumptions: what counts as important, and how that is assessed. Much the same can be said of economic theory. {4} The necessary are not the sufficient causes: certain factors may need to be present but they are not themselves sufficient to effect change.

No less than other practices, art begets art, with sometimes only a nodding acquaintance with the larger world it purports to represent or serve. Much writing and painting from the early nineteenth-century days of Romanticism was frankly escapist, preferring the solitude of nature or the inner world of contemplation to the mundane business of socializing and earning a living. No doubt the shallow optimism, humbug and economic exploitation of the industrial revolution was very unattractive, but so then was rural poverty. Excepting the Georgians and some of the Auden generation, few poets of the last hundred years had first hand experience of the social issues of the day, and there are large areas of contemporary life even now that are not squarely treated: the world of work, public service, cultural differences, sexual experience. Either the literary prototypes do not exist, or writers would have to give up an individualist viewpoint and "dig out the facts" — i.e. write something closer to journalism. {5}

But the burning issues of the day pass and are soon forgotten. Art prides itself on its more fundamental qualities. If they did not have the time, training or intellectual powers to understand the contemporary world, artists would look for some shorter path to their subject matter. Hence the championing of the artist's viewpoint, on a vision unmediated by social understanding. Hence the appeal to (if not the understanding of ) psychiatry, mythology and linguistics to assert that artistic creations do not represent reality but in some sense embody reality. Poems should not express anything but themselves. They should simply be. {6}

Many techniques were used to distance language from its common uses, and assert its primary, self-validating status. And since proficiency in science and business requires a long, practical training, literature also insisted on study courses. Art is not for the profane majority, and its boundaries are carefully patrolled. Art may employ populist material or techniques, but it cannot be populist itself. Art is outspokenly useless.

Modernist poets and critics do not regard the narrowly individual outlook a shortcoming, quite the opposite. Nineteenth-century realism was tainted with commerce and the circulating libraries. Twentieth-century realism all too blatantly takes the form of TV soaps and blockbuster novels. Only Marxists would advocate solidarity with the working classes, that poets  should experience the hard world as it is for most of its inhabitants, that they should live everybody else.

The intellect has its demands and pleasures, but the learning of Modernists tends to be fragmentary, with ideas serving ulterior purposes, one of which is social distinction. There is a persistent strain of elitism in Modernism — sometimes breaking out in racism and contempt for the masses, sometimes retreating to arcane philosophy: idealism, existentialism, Poststructuralism. {7} Modernists are an aristocracy of the intellect. The cerebral is preferred. Modern dramatists and novelists may appeal to mythology, but their understanding is intellectualized: work is not crafted to evoke the primal forces unleashed in plays by Euripides or or Racine, but shaped by concepts that serve for plot and structure.

And so on. Much more can be found in the Ocaso Press guides. As they stand, as simple introductions, I hope the essays on this site encourage readers to look beyond the current standards, to wonder whether the leading poets of the last century have not painted themselves into a corner by elevating dubious concepts over craft skills.

References


1. Extracted (minus references) from Holcombe, C.J. (2016) A Background to Critical Theory. Vol. 1, Chapter 4.  Also relevant are: Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-39. (1987), Chapter 1 of Douwe Fokkem and Elrud Ibsch's Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature 1910-1940 (1987), Vicki Mahaffey's Modernist Theory and Criticism entry in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994), Harry Levin's What Was Modernism? in Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature (1966). Alistair Davies's An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Modernism (1982),  John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1930 (1992), Barry Appleyard's The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-war Britain. (1989), David Lodge's Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel (1966), D.J. Taylor's A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980's (1989), Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990), Dana Gioa's Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992), and Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning (1996).
2. Poggioli, R. (1968) The Theory of the Avant-Garde. (1968)
3. Fussel, P. (1975)  The Great War and Modern History.
4. Himmelfarb, G. (1987)  The New History and the Old (1987), Routh, G. (1977) The Origin of Economic Ideas and Keen, S. (2011) Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned.
5. Tolley, A.T. (1985) The Poetry of the Forties. Chapters 1 and 2.
6. M.H. Abrams, M.H. (1974)  Poetry, Theories of: entry in Preminger, A. (Ed.) The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms.
7. Carey 1992, and Johnson, P. (1988) Intellectuals.