Reassessing Contemporary Poetry

Introduction: Aims of these Essays

Modernism is long past, and with even Postmodernism wearing thin, there have appeared many reassessments of modern art and literature that attempt to see these early years in a more detached and critical light. {1-2} What was baffling has become accepted, part of popular culture, explored in TV programmes, covered by school syllabuses, and made the foundations of contemporary literature: what we all start from. It comes with something of a shock to realize that the books that introduced the modern poets {3-5} are now half a century old, though still providing an excellent entry point for the general reader, often into fields that have become exceptionally specialized without their inherent assumptions being seriously questioned. Modernism, for example, often supposed that: {6}

Form was imprisoning
Immediacy of composition spoke for honesty
Everyday language was to be preferred, and
Open forms reflected contemporary life.

So much so, indeed, that, while work in older styles is still being written, it is the preserve of amateurs and magazines of limited prestige, where the poems have a faded, jocular and apologetic air, as though real poetry was being written somewhere else.


I have every admiration for nuanced literary essays, which set our thoughts on pleasant ramblings, but they are not my purpose here. In these reviews have tried to ask the hard questions, and put my conclusions as simply and trenchantly as possible. Rather, therefore, than find reasons for the current standing of Modernist poets and their creations — reasons that grow with reading and sophistication as authors move from semester student to full professor, and are needed as bearings as we navigate the great flood of contemporary writing — I have looked to see if those standings are genuinely merited

Most commentators are not so happily placed. They do not write verse, or verse in the traditional, demanding sense that Modernism displaced, or claimed to have displaced, and do not therefore have the practioners's ear for quality. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, they also have alligiances to maintain — an accepted reputation in the inbred, closely refereed and somewhat hypersensitive world of academia, or membership of the contemporary poetry club, whose accepted practices must be observed if publishing doors are to be kept open. Much, perhaps most, of contemporary poetry is fairly negligible, but woe betide the rash spirit that goes on the record saying so. Few {7-8} wish to break ranks and leave a community that looks after its own.

It also helps to have worked in the borderlands of scientific research, industry and commerce, where complex technical matters have to be summarized succinctly for busy executives: challenging areas where errors cost good money and are not forgiven. Also relevant, I would hope, are the many translations here from European and non-European languages, and some diversity of styles — all giving detachment, balance and independence. In short, I am not beholden to anything or anyone in pursuing my own enquiries, and can put the findings plainly, bound only by the usual rules of fairness, courtesy and recognition that we are all prisoners of our tastes and experience.

Can Poetry Matter

Has much changed since Dana Gioia wrote his provocative essay in 1991? {9} Poetry is even more a subculture centred on colleges and universities, which preach to the converted. Serious poets talk to other serious poets, who have all been schooled in similar poetic sensibilities. Beyond that world, now under threat as cutbacks continue in the humanities, contemporary poetry hardly exists, let alone assumes importance. To outsiders, and no doubt to the large ranks of amateurs, the poetry seems inbred, homogenized and flat, exploring matters interesting only to fellow poets. Even Angus Fletcher's prescription in 'A New Theory for American Poetry' {10} seems more of the same: something typically American, inspired by Whitman, Crane and Ashbery. Who would today claim: {11}

'Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge ; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life.'

And it's not just contemporary poetry. Some 17% of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in 1992, but that figure had shrunk to 6.7% twenty years later. Poetry is less popular than dance, jazz or knitting. {12}

Quality in Poetry

In receipt of a $200 million bequest, {13} The Poetry Foundation has put an enormous quantity of poetry on line, but, {14} while it's heart-warming to see its thoughtful articles, and so many figures rescued from neglect, the bulk of the work has a depressing effect. So much seems only clever, humdrum and maladroit. Perhaps poetry really is difficult to write. Britain's Poetry Library, among its attractive articles, news and events, also puts on line representative samples from its extensive records of British poetry magazines, {15} but good poems are also hard to find. {16} Perhaps the selections were made by junior staff. But when we look at leading poetry translation sites, {17-18} where topic and inspiration have already been found, and it's the task is simply one of craft, conveying something excellent into excellent English, the same deadening uniformity appears. What has happened to the verve, variety and beauty of the original?

The Way Back

Earlier books and articles on the founders of Modernism explained what was puzzling and different about the new poetries. In doing so they provided a sterling service to readers, opening realms of opportunity barely glimpsed before. Not to be neglected as well are the many books and articles of interest that continue to pour off the academic and small presses: essential reading for anyone who wants to know where serious poetry is headed, and why. But these works do not start at square one: they accept the tacit assumptions of today's poetry, and do not necessarily question what needs to be questioned.

The need, as I see it is firstly to examine the roots of Modernism and Postmodernism in some depth, from proper philosophic bases, and see what survives that scrutiny — which is what I have tried to do with my 'Background to Critical Theory' and sections of 'Writing Verse': both free ebooks, down-loadable from Ocaso Press. {19-20} The second need is to re-examine the work of leading Modernist and Postmodernist poets, critically, using some the material provided by the two ebooks. The first was theoretical and general; the second is detailed and practical. What assumptions have been made in writing the poetry? How do the assumptions stand in the larger context of the humanities? What have been the immediate consequences, and do any failures or shortcomings result from theory or that great imponderable, poetic talent? That second approach is the aim of the 'reassessments' material here.


1. Gay, Peter. (2010) Modernism: The Lure Of Heresy. W.W. Norton.
2. Armstrong, Tim. (2005) Modernism: A Cultural History. Polity.
3. Ellmann, Richard.(1948) Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Macmillan.
4. Kenner, Hugh. (1951) The Poetry of Ezra Pound. New Directions.
5. Perkins, David. (1987) A History of Modern Poetry. 2 Vols. Harvard Univ. Press.
6. Holcombe, C.J. (2015) Writing Verse: A Practical Guide. Ocaso Press. 333-7.
7. Childress, William. (2012) Is Free Verse Killing Poetry? Retrieved December 26, 2017 from
8. Logan, William (2005) The Undiscovered Country. Columbia Univ. Press.
9. Gioia, Dana (1991) Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Graywolf Press.
10. Fletcher, Angus (2009) A New Theory for American Poetry. Harvard Univ. Press.
11. Shelly, Percy Blysshe (1840) Essay, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments. Volume 1. Edward Moxon.
12. Ingraham, Christopher (2015)Poetry is going extinct, government data show. Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
13. Goodyear, Dana {2007} The Money Muse: What can two hundred million dollars do for poetry? Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
14. Poetry Foundation staff. The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
15. Poetry Library staff. The Poetry Library. Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
16. Holcombe, C.J. TextEtc Blog. Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
17. Poetry Translation Center staff. Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
18. Kline, A.S. Poetry in Translation. Retrieved December 29, 2017 from
19. Holcombe, C.J. (2016) A Background to Critical Theory. Ocaso Press. Available from theory-background.html
20. Holcombe, C.J. (2015) Writing Verse: A Practical Guide. Ocaso Press. Available from