The Modern Literary Sensibility: A Brief History

Nonplussed at the contemporary scene in their popular survey of English poetry, Grierson and Smith declared they were not conscious of possessing that “modern sensibility” which the young poets arrogate to themselves and demand of their critics. {1}

What is the 'Modern Sensibility' in Poetry?

What that sensibility was, they did not profess to know, and that perplexity has persisted since. To some, 'modern sensibility', with reference to modern poetry, is what helps us the most to understand the true picture of the twentieth-century world we live in.’ {2} Others stressed the many strands, literary, scientific and mythic, that make up contemporary outlooks, but point to the importance of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and the fragmented, dispiriting reality it depicted. {3} Perhaps the answer indeed lies in Eliot’s own words: {4}

‘I think that from Baudelaire I learned first, a precedent for the poetical possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of fusion between the sordid realistic and phantasmagoric, the possibility of the juxtaposition of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic. From him, as from Laforgue, I learned that the sort of material that I had, the sort of experience that an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in America, could be the material for poetry; and that the source of new poetry might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic. That, in fact, the business of the poet was to make poetry out of the unexplored resources of the unpoetical; that the poet, in fact, was committed by his profession to turn the unpoetical into poetry.’

A Definition

Because novelty, the experimental and the unsentimental become more prominent in later poets, I will suggest that the ‘modern sensibility’ is a sustained attempt to widen poetry’s remit — i.e. treat as suitable for poetry what was not so considered before, and — equally important — to outlaw themes and responses that were once considered appropriately ‘poetic’. Avoidance can reach heroic levels. Peter Scupham’s Outing for the Handicapped Children, comfortably mainstream, and now fifty years old, concludes with this stanza:

They manage, patient; share with buns and fruit
A shaming kindness. Tamed, drowsy, separate,
We offer them our slow, unnatural smiles;
Tremble with intimations of their pains.
Now, as the day we gave, or stole, edges away,
The cool depths pull their faces from the light.

As is usual with English poetry of the period, the piece avoids stating the obvious, of making emotional capital out of the circumstances. It’s restrained, cool and effective. But it’s also rather insubstantial, eluding the ‘who, what, why, when, where and how’ that journalism covers. Suppose, as a cub reporter, we submitted its equivalent in prose to our local newspaper editor. The last paragraph might run:
They are patient, and manage to share their buns and fruit with an almost shaming kindness. Each seems tamed and drowsy, separate beings, to whom the caring staff offer their best smiles, as though complicit with their disabilities. Gradually, as the light went, we saw their faces fade into the cool depths of the water.

Back would come the piece, I suspect, with something like: ‘Please develop into the usual human interest angle.’ Yes, the larger context is missing. An older colleague might suggest:

It’s an annual event, and one the children remember months afterwards. As the light faded, and they were readied for the coach journey back, one noticed them staring at the water, intent on their reflections, as though not understanding why they were so isolated, not like other normal children. ‘Means a lot to them,’ said Margery Stevens, the organizer, ‘and to anyone with a drop of humanity in them.'

The Insubstantial Setting

It’s this insubstantial setting that I’d like to explore first. Prose displaced verse as the preferred literary medium in the nineteenth century, and novels today are far more popular than poetry of any stripe — understandably, given the novel’s greater resources in plot, characterization, setting and social issues. But how has poetry reacted? Curiously, by turning away from these developments, sometimes to the extent of leaving us groping after any social setting or significance at all. The novelist will generally put readers in the picture within the first paragraph — ‘So the Lord has given us a second Richard to rule this fractious realm, thought William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, as he bent a knee in the shadowed abbey at Westminster. . .’ Or: ‘The Pacific War was finally over, and back to our small Oklahoma farm came my dear, loving and impossible husband . . .’ Equally clear would be opening sentences like: ‘The revolver felt heavy, but the trigger was well oiled. . . Whatever else could be said of him, Hubert Dreaver was a responsible man. . . When I think of Aunt Jayne's house, across the foothills of memory, and go up the unpainted steps. . . Bernstein was my best friend. . . Open Day is not a favourite on any Head Teacher's calendar . . .’

We know where we are immediately, and what to expect. But the Peter Scupham piece quoted earlier needs the title to tell us what’s going on. Even the last line is a little baffling: ‘The cool depths pull their faces from the light.’ Just the light fading? Suicidal? Being locked away again from public awareness?

Modern Poetry

Perhaps all three. Poetry’s ability to say more than is immediately evident is one reason for reading it, and a more generalizing and/or transcendental quality was certainly an expected feature of earlier poetry, before the ‘modern sensibility’ took hold. Now poems are much more ‘restricted’, limited to a mundane event or series of observations. Yet Eliot’s ‘fusion between the sordid realistic and phantasmagoric’ has created a strange animal. Certainly a conclusion or moral can be drawn, but it’s usually more to round off the piece than serve as the animating reason for the poem’s existence. Observations are made in a fresh, sharp and engaging manner; a few reflections are woven in; a generalizing comment pulls the piece together.

Most of the 83 poems featuring in Thwaite and Mole’s survey of (British) Poetry 1945 to 1980 {6} adopt this approach, and some 67 need their titles to make their modest and sometimes inconsequential sense. Verse craft is restrained. Most lines are halfway to prose, in fact, and don’t call attention to themselves.

That inconsequential nature grows more obvious in later poetry, and little in Hulse, Kennedy and Morley’s collection of 1993 would count as poetry to a pre-war generation. {7} Most poems are prose, a rather unadventurous and badly-written prose, moreover, though the Introduction claims otherwise.

We believe the poetry collected here confirms what William Scammell has described as “a flourishing contemporary poetic culture with something of the brio and ambition once thought lost to the novel and to more exciting poets abroad.” The new poetry emphasizes accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirms the art’s significance as public utterances. The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness — its constituent parts “talk” to one another readily, eloquently, and freely while preserving their unique identities. Thirty years ago, A. Alvarez published his pioneering anthology The New Poetry. We make no apology for using his title for an anthology of poetry that is fresh in its attitudes, risk-taking in its address and plural in its forms and voices.

Readers will have to make their own minds about this mission statement, but to me only a few poems by Eavan Boland, Paul Durcan, Michael Donaghy, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Hulse, Fred D’Aguiar, Sebastian Barry, Frank Kuppner and Simon Armitage, make the grade, i.e. only in 9 of the 55 British poets featured. {8} I look briefly at three poems.

Carole Ann Duffy's Adultery evokes the radiance and guilt of an illicit affair. {8} Stanza 2/3 is conventional enough with its portrayal of increased desire and vulnerability:

you are naked under your clothes all day,

But then comes the withering:

Slim with deceit.

Why is this so effective? Perhaps it is the several levels of meaning: a. The speaker, now a desirable woman again, imagines the figure she possessed before her marriage became so humdrum. b. Just as the relationship is based on deceit, so is the image the speaker holds of herself. She is not slim, and the body, vibrant beneath the clothes, is flagrantly other than it appears. c. Slim applies to the affair — being only for sex, the relationship lacks the acceptance and fullness of a proper liaison. d. With deceit hints at the social cost of the deception, that the subterfuge demeans her, and reduces the sexual enjoyment. e. Slim suggests concentration, that the sexual organs are ravenous, focused on their own appetites. f. The phrase — with its overtones of trim, brief, concealment, seat, etc. — creates a visual embodiment of the pudenda. After the sexual largess of naked under your clothes all day the verse tapers down into neat, wry impression of what is only flimsily hidden from view. In short, a compressed imagery, which releases its meaning slowly.

Michael Hulse's The Country of Pain and Redemption ends with:

He learns to say yes, say yes, and goes
home to a lighted house, a dazzle of
horror, security, darkness and love.

What could be more complete? But this is not the usual reaction to an accepted proposal of marriage. The young man is dying, the victim of a car crash or terrorist bomb. The proposal is being made to him by his lover, who is now cradling his head and extracting some keepsake from these wrecked hopes. The lighted house is heaven or hell or the end of things. Note how wonderfully apt is dazzle — the sharpness of the image, its purely sensory nature, the bewilderment of things dark and light. The extended image gathers force as the poem comes strikingly to an end.

Crinkle, near Birr is a dangerous poem. Paul Durcan starts with

Daddy and I were lovers,

and ends with

I lay on my back in the waters of his silence,
The silence of a diffident, chivalrous bridegroom,
And he carried me in his two hands home to bed.

Is this incest, the boy's thoughts only, or a comment on the sexual nature of father-son bonding? There are hints of all three, but the poem is more an extended metaphor of boyhood love, which does not shy away from taboo aspects. An uncomfortable poem (as was Durcan’s boyhood {9-10}), but one with lines of shining accomplishment — we spawned our own selves in our hotel bedroom ... the quality of his silence when he was happy — again achieved by the compelling imagery. No one supposes that these views are edifying, or adequate to the full experience of sex or love. The poems are only partial successes on other grounds, moreover. These examples of imagery in poetry are a powerful means to thinking, and allow literature to explore what pulp fiction serves up as stock responses.

But, even here, much only works partially. Carol Ann Duffy’s opening stanzas are not sufficiently precise and telling:

Wear dark glasses in the rain.
Regard what was unhurt
as though through a bruise. (a)
Guilt. A sick green tint. (b)
New gloves, money tucked in the palms,
the handshake crackles (c) Hands
can do many things. Phone.
Open the wine. Wash themselves. (d)

a. is a mismatch of social registers. b is not saved from cliché by ‘sick’. c. ‘crackle’ is not the right word. d. is not telling us anything important, or adding to the plot. Thereafter, following stanza 3, success is very mixed, with the excellent A telltale clock / wiping the hours from its face / on a white sheet gasping, radiant, yes followed by Pay for it in cash, fiction, cab-fares back/ to the life that crumbles like a wedding cake which is only reportage, staccato observations that don’t engender emotion, or are too clever (wedding cake). Even the distancing feature that ends the poem (That was / the wrong verb. This is only an abstract noun) doesn’t make the self-denial convincing.

Michael Hulse’s poem makes fewer errors but takes seven stanzas to set the scene, starting:

The woman sitting on the glinting barrier
watching a stir of wind relentlessly uplift
    the silver undersides of leaves
is breathing very carefully, as if
afraid that she might be too tender for breathing.
Her hand is resting on the dusty hair of the
   man lying jack-knifed on the grass
between the glittering strips of metal
that run down the center reserve.

Does the central barrier glitter: isn’t it generally finished in a non-reflective material? And to what advantage is glitter emphasized? afraid that she might be too tender for breathing seems to be two statements run together: the woman is breathing with difficulty because horrified by the ‘accident’, and because she’s afraid her breathing might injure the casualty further. jack-knifed is an image of violence, underlined by glittering again, but the inert body is not inherently threatening.
Then comes a digression:

   Again the country
of pain and revelation has a guest.

Which is then inflated to portentous dimensions, but has nothing particular to say:

Again the great light has ground the peaks to powder.
Again in the valleys the shadows have sheltered
   the traveler standing inert
at the rail of the ferry, the trader
Bargaining with the goatherd, and the trapper, still
and meticulous in his secretive sidelight.
   It is the discovered country
from which, returning in wonder as if,

from memories of dreams we thought forgotten
we sunder in awe, wanting.

Paul Durcan’s poem is very much more successful, all through, probably because the narrative bubbles with anecdotes and telling detail:

We went on our honeymoon
To Galway, the City of the Tribes.

When Daddy bowled, I was his wicketkeeper.
He fancied himself as Ray Lindwall
And I fancied myself as Godfrey Evans.

Daddy divided the human race
into those that had fire escapes and spoke Irish
And those who had not got fire escapes and did not speak Irish.

But it’s not simply a narrative, i.e. the poem doesn’t succeed by not attempting too much, but by pushing the narrative into areas resonant with darker or more mysterious matters:

Another night we sat in a kitchen in Furbo
With a schoolteacher hobnobbing in Irish
Exotic as Urdu, all that night and rain at the windowpane. 


When I was twelve I obtained a silent divorce.

Put another way, poetry today draws on a prose heritage rather than on traditional verse, and is most careful not to lose that street-fighting edge by over-shaping with verse techniques. Unthinkable today is the saying of the Indian continent, that prose is the plant but poetry is its flower. More importantly, the poetry deliberately neglects or evades the elements of story-telling taught in elementary creative writing courses because it wishes to strike out on different routes.

Nor does the contemporary poem draw on the cinematic, which generally starts at some exciting point in the story. A spectacular bank heist. A drugs swap in a seedy nightclub. The schoolchild reluctantly going up the stairs to her stepfather's flat. The body being weighted and dropped into the canal. The farewell party at the corporate headquarters. The oily water derelict unloading facilities. And so on, all telling the viewer what needs to be known: the genre, the period, the setting, and the intended audience. {11}

Modern Sensibility in Later Poetry

Later poetry, to judge from The Oxford Book of American Poetry, seems even more fragmentary, and often lacks: {12}

1. Something worth saying.
 2. An overall shaping where each pause, word, phrase and sentence has the right place in the poem, each line leading naturally to the next and developing the theme further.
 3. An ‘inevitability’ of phrasing, with the word combinations appearing unexpected but apt and memorable on reflection.
 4. A close attention to the sound of the words, with those phonetic patternings and half echoes that make a line or phrase pleasing by its auditory qualities alone.

No doubt poetry today, or the serious poetry published in leading magazines, has other aims. As David Caplan remarks: the plurality of alternatives that contemporary poets encounter has destabilized our sense of acceptable options. A circumstance that makes the poets’ formal choices nearly impossible to anticipate. In other words: forget what you know. We’ve been invited to a game held together by a set of rules that are self-devised, unique, complex and subject to instant change. {12}

‘Making the rules up as they go along’ often extends into the writing process itself, where spontaneity is admired and preserved. In recent interview, Billy Collins had this to say: {13} I try to write very fast. I don’t revise very much. I write the poem in one sitting. Just let it rip. It’s usually over in twenty to forty minutes. I’ll go back and tinker with a word or two, change a line for some metrical reason weeks later, but I try to get the whole thing just done. Most of these poems have a kind of rhetorical momentum. If the whole thing doesn’t come out at once, it doesn’t come out at all. I just pitch it. I imagine many poets do something similar, but do they publish everything, even if the result is banal or unambitious? {14} Spontaneous writing was a favourite pastime of surrealist poets, but not much of their work is read today, or was then, very probably, outside their particular coteries.

William Logan, in particular, has been scathing of contemporary poetry {15} and an Amazon reviewer of his Another Country remarked:

Poetry is the only art form in America that I can think of that no longer has a bracing tradition of real criticism. Novels, plays, films, operas . . . we expect critics to note honestly whatever flaws and failures they see in specific works. Critical reviews often hurt box offices and egos, but without them an art atrophies. . . To see if Logan’s reviews are memorable, startling, and true for you, you can sample them at the web site of The New Criterion, but you might as well get this book now and dip into it now and again as a tonic against the hushed reverence that too often greets bland, lazy or meretricious poetry.

Modern Sensibility in Contemporary Poetry

But it’s pointless to judge a work of art on what it doesn’t intend to give, and a few hours spent on The Poetry Foundation site suggests that poems of the last decade: {16}

1. Use rhyme rarely — generally in New Formalist work, or in a loose, jovial way:

To the Metropolitan Police Force, London:
the asylum gates are locked and chained, but undone
by wandering thoughts and the close study of maps.
So from San Francisco, patron city of tramps,

2. Employ very free verse styles. Some work exhibits a keen ear for timing and line break:

All dark morning long the clouds are rising slowly up
beneath us, and we are fast asleep.
The mountains unmove
intensely. And so do we. Meadows
look down.

But more is looser:

The sun is warm, the sky is clear, 
      etc.... Quickly he taps
   a full nib twice to the mouth of
      his japan-ink bowl—harder than
      he had thought, if he had thought—smears  
   the fine spattering with his sleeve,
      and continues, for whom haste is  
   more purity than certainty,
as anarchy is better than despotism— 

Or clearly prose:

My father had a steel comb with which he would comb our hair.
After a bath the cold metal soothing against my scalp, his hand cupping my chin.
My mother had a red pullover with a little yellow duck embroidered
on it and a pendant made from a gold Victoria coronation coin.

3. Pay little or no attention to cadence or patterning by sound and white space. 

4. Pack little of an emotional punch. Most of the better poems today are intriguing, clever and self-knowing.

And the house, the mansion he
grew up in, soon a lawyer will pass
a key across a walnut desk, but even this
lawyer will not be able to tell me where this
mansion is. And my father's masterpieces, his
many novels, mine
now to publish—I don't have to tell anyone
I didn't write them, not a word.

5. Either avoid the great human commonplaces like love, hope, separation, etc. (which are left to amateur poetry) or cover them obliquely, in a detached and/or novel way.

I think I always liked the game
because it sounded like my name
combined with the concept of alone.
(My name really does mean ‘alone’
in Slovenian!) We don’t actually care
if it’s true, but we want to know
the person telling us is telling us
the truth.

6. Sometimes use vibrant or surreal images:

The sun is an indistinct moon. Frail sticks
of grass poke her ankles,
and a wet froth of spiders touches her legs
like wet fingers. The musk and smell
of air are as hot as the savory
terrible exhales from a tired horse. 

7. Are rarely written from a committed political stance, probably because dissident views can hurt careers.

Free Verse Orthodoxy

Free verse no doubt became the preferred medium of poets in or supported by academia — most serious poets  today — because free verse could be written regularly and generate suitable material for critical study. Hank Lazer’s recent survey of the current American poetry scene  {17} is prefaced by a quote from Jed Rasula: The fact is that virtually all poetry is now under some kind of institutional supervision. The poetry referred to is serious poetry, of course, the more demanding literary productions supported by grants, university study, literary magazines and the more discerning newspapers.

Support for Poetry in USA and UK

But there is no shortage of support for what’s become a minority interest. Poets & Writers lists more than 9,100 certified authors, and claims that each issue reaches 80,000 writers. Workshops are growing in popularity and, according to AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), now number 852. The AWP itself offers services to over 34,000 writers, 500 member colleges and universities and 100 writers’ conferences and centres. Many such courses are held in attractive, holiday-like locations and boast celebrity poets as instructors.

Equally diverse and numerous are the products of the literary institutions.  Representing the period 1990 to 2006, Poetry House has shelved over 20,000 non-vanity press volumes of poetry. Bowker reports 37,450 poetry and drama titles between 1993 and 2006. Amazon was listing 1,971 new titles under the category of poetry in 2009. A typical print run for a small press poetry book is 200 to 1000 copies. Less than 0.5% sell more than a thousand copies or go into a second printing. The boundaries between vanity presses, self-publication, online publication, print-on-demand and refereed publication have become blurred, and some small presses are reciprocal arrangements to publish the work of friends.
United States sees funding from state, federal and local agencies, plus foundations, prizes, literary retreats, and tenure in universities as writers in residence. Tens of thousands of poetry readings are held each year, and more poets publish in books, magazines and websites than ever before. There are 200 odd graduate creative writing courses, and many more undergraduate courses, so that some 2000 university-accredited poets are turned out yearly (making the academic rat-race, fierce in most disciplines even fiercer here). Twenty-five indeed of the US States have poet laureates. Poets appear as personalities in increasing numbers of biographies, and they feature widely in Nobel Prizes.

That symbiosis of serious poetry, academia and funding institutions is also prevalent in England, and encourages a similar consistency of style. As a registered charity, The Poetry Society advises, helps and promotes poetry at all levels of the UK's academic and cultural life. In comfortable surroundings on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, the National Poetry Library provides a working space, helpful staff and a vast collection of books and magazines — practically all the poetry books produced in English in the twentieth century. The larger publishing houses have their new titles, and publishers like Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Peterloo concentrate on poetry, much of it written by unfamiliar or foreign names. On radio and television every year appears the Annual Poetry Day, and each month there are poetry competitions, either as adjuncts to prestigious arts festivals, or run by the small presses.

Clearly, the prosaic nature of poetry today does not stem from funding difficulties, but possibly because Modernism, which liberated and deepened poetry for half a century, is going the way of most revolutions, hardening into a free verse orthodoxy that alone gives authenticity.

Reading Between the Lines: Critical Input

I have outlined aspects of the ‘modern sensibility’ manifest in poetry over the last century, but there is an equally important aspect. The poetry doesn’t stand on its own feet but is elaborately buttressed and interpenetrated by literary criticism, by other poets’ appreciative articles, and by the wider reaches of critical theory. That is why Modernism so flagrantly flouts journalistic and story-telling conventions, I suggest, because those conventions would restrict input from supporting disciplines, self-referencing and circular arguments though many are. The pattern was indeed set quite early. Lionel Trilling, a widely read and respected literary critic of the post-war period, said of Robert Frost: {18}

So radical a work, I need scarcely say, is not carried out by reassurance, nor by the affirmation of old virtues and pieties. It is carried out by the representation of the terrible actualities of life in a new way. I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet… The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe. Read the poem called Design and see if you sleep the better for it. Read Neither out Far nor in Deep, which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived… talk of the disintegration and sloughing off of the old consciousness!

Frost does not depict the outward events and scenery of urban life, but the central facts of twentieth century experience, the uncertainty and painful sense of loss, are there and seem, if nothing more bleakly apparent in that their social and economic manifestations have been stripped away. Frost may not depict the scenery of modern life — its chimneys and factories, its railways, and automobiles, but he certainly deals with the basic problems and the basic facts of modern life. The ache of modernism finds its fullest expression in his poetry. The modern note of frustration, loneliness, isolation and disillusionment is often struck.

But when we turn to Neither Out Far Nor In Deep {19} we find a rather obvious content, a sing-song rhythm and unadventurous rhyming:

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be —
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Poets and editors have their off-days, but Trilling was a leading and influential critic. Yes, of course, we can read deep meaning into this banality if we wish: {20}

As the final stanzas make dramatically clear, they [i.e. people, observers] are wasting away their lives in meaningless quest; for whatever it is and wherever it might be, “the truth” is surely not here. In short, they can look “Neither Far Out Nor In Deep”. There is an implicit allegory expressing Frost’s anger against the poets and philosophers who have wasted life in all times and places in futile searches of the ultimate reality.

But do we have to? Is that last statement true, and does this not make poetry a somewhat pointless enterprise? {21} What has happened to that Augustan aim of poetry, of producing ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ And wasn’t the poet was expected to say, by means varying with the period and its schools of poetry, what ordinary prose couldn’t?

Not today. Modern poetry is not written for the common reader, but for critics and fellow poets. It is purposely made fragmental, difficult and non-sequential, avoiding the crafts of journalism and story-telling in favour of speculative literary theory. Other articles of this site have suggested how limited and aberrant can be truth, meaning and aesthetics of that theory, {22} and here I will simply review one poem characteristic of many. A section of Christopher Middleton’s poem  Reflections on a Viking Prow in Bolshevism in Art and other expository writings (Carcanet Press, 1978) runs:

The regard resting on the object . . . the key to
self-affirmation: a self reclaims itself from nonentity and, as the
object reveals itself in a certain light, that self can gaze into its
own depths as an agent of interiority . . . Between 'I am' and
'This is' there can be strange ligatures — a magico-grammatical
tissue links first and third persons singular.

And Neil Corcoran’s explication runs:  Middleton's own ligature 'magico-gramatical' may imply that there is a kind of nostalgia in him, despite his explicit disclaimers, for a lost divinity. The vanished god leaves sacramental traces in the world to be reclaimed by the text in a kind of late Platonic semiotics; the god may be brought down or back by a calling-forth of disregarded but still immanent spirits. Officially, however, this new relation is turned not towards theology but towards a ludic politics. The poem effects a revision of attitudes by subverting cliché and stereotype; it 'infuriates the world into showing its hand'. For Middleton, poetry is a 'limit to enslavement' and thereby 'exigent': 'I decipher the dreams of the victims who have no chance to speak'. {23}

Corcoran places Christopher Middleton's work in its broader setting, classifying it as a variety of Neo-Modernism. Much in the five pages devoted to the artist is exactly stated, though perhaps couched in more radical terminology than needed: the poem is straightforward, and we don't know whether the late Platonic refers to our world or the tail-end of the classical world that the Viking invasions helped to destroy. But my interest is in what is being read into the poem, which seems more than its text supports. The intention cannot be to clarify — it doesn't — but to thicken the poem's significance and contemporary relevance. The commentary has echoes of Heidegger (showing its hand), Structuralism (semiotics) and Barthes (subverting), which the poetry does not.

Concluding Thoughts

I have suggested that the modern sensibility entails two elements. The first is a move to both widen poetry’s remit to include the ‘non-poetical’ and narrow it to exclude what has hitherto been poetry, both in subject and treatment, i.e. to continually shift the goal-posts of what’s acceptable. The second is to make poetry deliberately difficult, fragmented and allusive, so that its explication by critics, poets and theorists becomes part of the subject matter.

Both are extraordinary positions to adopt. It is as though contemporary mathematics, having made great strides in topology and number theory, should now be banned from these fields. Or that ready application, i.e. its simple use by engineers, earns a black mark. Popularity smacks of the second rate, and while anyone who knows the English Home Countries might grin at: {24}

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament — you against me!

the congnoscenti should know better. Simply deplorable were the wide sales of John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, dismissed as ‘Victorian’ by the poetry establishment of the time, which went on to exceed two million copies.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Modernism articles.