Reassessing Contemporary Poetry

Introduction: Aims of these Essays

With even Postmodernism wearing thin, it seems sensible to look again at the origins of contemporary art and literature. {1-2} What was baffling has become accepted, promoted by the mainstream media, covered by school syllabuses, and made the foundations of contemporary literature. It comes with something of a shock to realize that Modernism is now a century old, with many of its questionable assumptions accepted more than examined by the academic mill. {3-5}

Modernism, for example, often supposed that: {6}

Form was imprisoning
Immediacy of composition spoke for honesty
Image and myth took precedence over prose sense
Everyday language was to be preferred, and
Open forms reflected contemporary life.

So much so, indeed, that, while older styles are still being written, they are the preserve of amateurs and magazines of limited prestige, where the poems often have a faded, jocular and apologetic air, as though real poetry was being written somewhere else. If only it were! By developing a 'modern sensibilty' and outlawing its previous techniques — i.e. continually moving the goalposts — much of today's work has become poetry in name only. What it has won in status it has lost in popularity, becoming a specialist, fragmented and coterie-bound affair. How and why this happened is the theme of these pages. 


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 I have tried to ask the hard questions, and put my conclusions as simply and trenchantly as possible. Rather, therefore, than weave a carefully annotated net of significance and reference in work accepted by the literary canon  — the common and necessary practice of academia  — I have looked to see if those standings are in fact genuinely and independently merited.

The approach is that of close reading, particularly of verse technique. That means, to switch media, I shall talk more like a painter going round a local art exhibition than a curator justifying her latest acquisition. Art is a good deal more than technique, but technique is the essential foundation, what is needed to give conceptions their successful form. Accordingly, it is technique that concerns painters, and only they who know, more or less, how a painting has been approached, what skill sets deployed and how well various challenges have been met. Most academics 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 practitioners's insight. Acknowledged or unacknowledged, they also have allegiances 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. In terms of verse craft, a good deal of contemporary poetry is fairly negligible, but few {7-8} probably wish to say so and leave a community that looks after its own.

No doubt in these days of crisis in the humanities, where steady, peer-reviewed publication is vital to keeping a job at all, it makes sense to run with the herd, but student and reader are nonetheless doing themselves a disservice. Contemporary poetry is suffering from what economists would call inflation, where supply vastly exceeds demand. Some styles may even be approaching hyper-inflation, where the currency becomes practically worthless.  The relentless self-promotion of Modernism has drowned out common sense, and today's poetry — trivial, over-clever and/or dutifully experimental — doesn't measure up to what poetry once was. Whether the situation is a result of flaws inherent in Modernism, or socio-economic matters, or very possibly both, is a moot point, but the evidence can hardly be questioned, even in the search-engine rankings, where popularity equates with excellence. The socio-economic factors I list below. The flaws in Modernism, the thin soils on which it grew up, are examined in webpages devoted to the founders of Modernism.

Much of what seemed so revolutionary at the time now looks rather tame and contrived. Why did it receive such attention? Because academia constantly needs fresh content, themes and theory? New styles dutifully appear in the leading poetry magazines, are reviewed, made the subject of literary articles, books, MA theses and school texts, enjoy their preeminence for a decade or two, and then sink back to become worthy specialist interests. Some were over-promoted from the first — and this includes some very big names — because the literary world works that way and indeed has to. Human beings form hierarchical societies, and in literature, no less than in the arts of war and governance, there is a need for accepted leaders and a clear chain of command. The structure saves time, gives a sense of stability, and is generally required for teaching purposes. It's simply how we function:

'A relatively small number of people make the overwhelming majority of significant cultural and economic decisions. Wars are fought, populations shift, the rules of commerce change, all without reference to what the bulk of the population thinks or wants. It isn’t strange, it’s the story of all human history. Very few civilizations have operated in any other way. People naturally sort themselves into hierarchies. People who have power defend it from people who don’t.' {9}

 Yet it is those hierarchies I'm questioning in attempting these essays, which are written for the independent traveller, and emphatically not for the toiling masses of students hoping to improve their grades, who should quote what everybody else quotes if they want untroubled advancement in their careers.

I wouldn't want to claim too much these essays, moreover, which are brief exercises in close reading, though they do reach disturbing conclusions. I remember, fifty years ago, hearing students of English literature confide privately that the papers they had to read on Shakespeare and other luminaries were a bit unbelievable — was Shakespeare really capable of such thoughts? —  and that excess of cleverness has now extended to Modernists. Does the literary canon need to be so over-defended? Work by many of the big names can be unnecessarily obscure (Eliot), affected (Yeats), banal (Williams), pretentious (Pound), vacuous (Stevens), over-clever (Auden) or incoherent (Hill). By no means has all their work these problems, of course, they are more prevalent than we might expect. The verse craft can also be rather perfunctory, elementary or inept. Occasionally I have rewritten lines, and this 'correction' should not in fact be possible. Great poetry is written to unassailable standards, and, too often, this work seems not to be.

Regarding the unliterary style, I should explain that I worked for many years 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. But also relevant, I would hope, are the many translations here from European and non-European languages — each needing sensibility, balance and wide reading. In short, I have tried to be as clear as possible, bound only by the usual rules of fairness, courtesy and recognition that we are all creatures of individual taste and experience.

Can Poetry Matter?

Has much changed since Dana Gioia wrote his provocative essay in 1991? {10} 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, serious poetry hardly exists, let alone assumes importance. To outsiders, and no doubt to the great mass 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' {11} seems more of the same: something typically American, inspired by Whitman, Crane and Ashbery. Who would today claim for example: {12}

'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. In 1992, some 17% of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the year, but that figure had shrunk to 6.7% twenty years later. Poetry is less popular than dance, jazz or knitting. {13}

If modern poetry is a religion that outlaws all but preaching to the converting, it is also a failing one. Intellectually, it's approaching a vast ponzi scheme where those who cashed out early did well in status and readership, but where those who came after, our contemporaries, are left paying into an increasingly dubious investment. Academics, already under tenure pressure, may have good reason not to question what underlies their careers, but the common reader has larger commitments. All movements need their sacred cows and high priests, doubtless, but they also need to continually adapt and serve their communities better. We need now to think, really think, and not take on trust what officials in public and academic life continually say to us: repetition is not argument.

Current Difficulties

The circumstances in which poetry is written have a bearing on styles, themes and quality. In the main, poets now have a poor public image, and make very little money. The problems are their self-centred attitudes, suspect reviewing, commercialization of the book trade, timidity in academia, the barbarism of literary theory, and their own ceaseless production of very indifferent work.

An astonishing number of people do write poetry. Setting aside the products of creative writing classes in schools, prisons, universities and adult education centres, and the unoriginal rhymes that no doubt everyone pens in adolescent love, some hundreds of thousands of poems are sent each year to the small poetry presses. It is difficult to know how many poets are represented: ten to fifty thousand perhaps. {14} Inevitably, much is unexciting — ill-constructed, cliché-ridden, trite, self-indulgent and trivial — but even the good poems have perhaps only a one in fifty chance of being accepted. The rest are sent to more tolerant poetry ezines, or are periodically aired in poetry groups before being finally abandoned.

The reasons lie close to home. Poets are blinkered by narrow understandings and ambitions, and do not glory in each other's work. Most poetry collections are bought by family and friends of the poets concerned, by rival poets looking for slant, style and ideas, by would-be poets and by educationalists. {15} Poetry magazines are lucky to have circulations exceeding 1000, and many new ventures do not see the year out. Even the larger and long-established magazines are often displayed on bookshelves more for prestige than enthusiastic reading. Decent sales across the spectrum are essential for editors and contributors, as for the general health of poetry in the country, but contributors are often reluctant to subscribe unless subscription is clearly made a precondition of acceptance — which still doesn't ensure that the publications are actually read and enjoyed.

Why should this be? The arts are notoriously competitive, and supply of poetry ludicrously exceeds demand. But some artists do very much support each other — not in the performing arts, admittedly, but those in the less personality-based ones of painting, illustration, pottery, etc. Here the artists genuinely admire the work they purchase, and learn from the skills displayed. Is that the answer: poetry is not widely purchased by poets because they see nothing special in it, nothing they couldn't do themselves? In the absence of rules, standards or common assumptions, and without a public to woo, poets have made sincerity their raison d'être, and to simple feelings everyone has an equal entitlement.

Money Matters

Professional poets earn far more from reviewing, adjudicating competitions, giving talks, running workshops, and/or appearing on radio than from royalties on their publications. {16} But if poetry doesn't pay, nor very handsomely do other forms of literature. In Britain, around 70,000 new books are published every year, of which 6,000 are novels. Of these only some 20% have any claim to literary respectability. {17} Returns are generally poor, and often in inverse proportion to the time and effort expended. Of course there are big-earners, multimillionaires even, but in 1988 only some 300 full-time novelists made in excess of £8,000 p.a., with another 300 supplementing income from journalism, and another 900 supplementing income from some other literary activity. Figures from other countries are equally depressing (e.g. 1250, 750 and 1750 respectively for the States), {18} and will not have improved recently. Any large UK publisher will receive 2000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year, and publish 20. The average serious first novel receives half a dozen reviews and perhaps sells 1000 copies over two years. With royalties around 10% at best, writers must learn to mechanically turn out a commercial product or starve. Seventy-five percent of serious writers in the States earn no money at all from their work, ever.

Much more dismal are the proceeds from poetry publishing. A few specialist publishers (e.g. Anvil, Carcanet, Bloodaxe) do turn in respectable figures, but in general poetry is not handled at all (the great majority, e.g. Corgi, HarperCollins, Hodder and Stoughton), is subsidized by sales elsewhere (e.g. Faber and Faber, Peter Owen, OUP) or supported by regional grants (e.g. Peterloo). {19} On the whole, writers do not have outgoing personalities, and special efforts are needed to market them, Betjeman being a notable exception. Many poets, dodging between welfare and dead-end jobs, cultivate a hand-me-down appearance that establishes street cred but does nothing to inspire confidence in the larger world. Moreover, as poetry is the most severely literary of the arts, it does not translate readily to films, TV programmes or mini-series, so that even this last hope of the struggling writer is closed to poets. Amateur practitioners generally self-publish, laying out some £400-£1000 for 200-500 copies of their collection, and getting back perhaps some £200 after a great deal of effort.

Poetry Competitions

One well-respected means of advancement is the poetry competition, which brings work to the attention of a wider public, most notably that of the larger publishers. Many reputations have begun this way, and submissions to competitions now run to tens if not hundreds of thousands annually in Britain. But the results are often perplexing. It is very difficult to see why certain entries were chosen, entries which are not so much incompetent as hardly poetry at all, and depressing if the winners are any measure of poetic standards.

Possibly the difficulties arise from the nature of the exercise. No one can really sit down and read hundreds of poems a day for weeks on end, and many adjudicators make no attempt to: submissions are filtered well before the big names make their selections. Poems which are conventional, unoriginal, cliché-ridden, marred by poeticisms, which do not address the subject or respect the form prescribed are automatically rejected. Sensibly, no doubt, but there appears to creep in a rather proselytizing view of what poetry should be. Anything remotely resembling the currently unfashionable is damned, so that this timidity may leave only some very odd submissions available for selection.

In literary festivals much depends on the intentions and the competence of the organizing committee, and these are not sufficiently spelt out. Literary ability is essential, of course, but critical skills are a different matter. Adjudicators must naturally have some professional standing, and it is then difficult to escape the small circle of publishers, critics and established poets — many of whom read from the same Modernist script, if not always with understanding.

There is also the financial aspect. Small magazines are always perilously short of funds, and the annual competition has become an ideal way of replenishing the kitty. A good deal of the £2-5 per submission goes into the prize money, of course, but the process may be purely circular: money is taken from many poets and given to an arbitrary few.

Aesthetic Barbarism

Publishing is now a cut-throat business where many work sweatshop hours. From an office stashed with manuscripts the executives go back to a home equally awash with other people's writings, suggestions and importunings. They read MSS on the train, in the evening and at weekends, so that there is never a moment free. Before attending meetings they will have discussed trends at book launches and fairs, skimmed through the latest reviews, puzzled over other publishers' lists, summarized market research reports, noted their own sales figures, etc.

There is no alternative. Editors and publishers cannot afford to coast along in a trade increasingly geared to short-term profits. Prestigious small publishers have been taken over by accountants and larger companies, the name retained but not the staff or publishing ethos. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement has sharpened competition, threatened smaller bookshops and promoted the creation of cheap, standardized products for a bulk-buying public. Popularity should not be scoffed at. Many bestsellers are skillfully written, and poets could learn from the deft characterization, economical writing and the techniques used to hold the reader's attention. But the objectives of popular and serious literature are widely different. The first aims to tell a story, hold the reader in suspense, understand the decisions and judgements of ordinary people, and to offer a keen experience of danger, anxiety, love, sorrow etc. without the real world intruding too much. Serious fiction aims to illuminate experience, enlarge perceptions, and investigate our notions of morality without overt moralizing. Where popular fictions deals with crude psychologies and stock responses, serious fiction attempts to be more subtle and intelligent — and is therefore more difficult to write and appreciate. We read popular fiction once and with gusto, but go back repeatedly to serious fiction with delight and admiration, seeing a world more elusive and fascinating than before. {20}

But not all difficulties arise from crass market forces. The publishing business can be laughably amateur. Manuscripts are unacknowledged, lost or returned with inane comments in a manner unthinkable in other walks of life. Anyone who has had a manuscript read by the major publishing houses will know the hilarious range of response. And since all cannot be adequate assessments, the question arises as whether any are. To deepen suspicion, from time to time little jokes are played on the cognoscenti. The manuscript of a book that had been published with acclaim a decade or so earlier is sent round to the big publishers, only to be rejected — universally, with strictures on the style, content, commercial appeal. Does anyone really know what they're about?

Some difficulties derive from management. The first screening is vital, but is commonly left to junior staff. Some of these will have worked their way up from copy typist, which is very much to their credit, but not provided them with larger understanding. And even when readers possess a first degree in English Literature, which is generally the case, they have not always acquired useful skills, having spent their time repeating abstruse theory. Contrary to current wisdom, appreciation comes with time and wide experience of life, so it is the older hands who will be the better judges, but it is these staff who have been promoted away to finance and administration.

But there are deeper reasons. Much in the arts today is openly barbarous. {21} The Left in particular, disappointed of change in British society, has made literature its rallying point, and tends to look at imaginative writing as pamphleteering to achieve its purposes. But poetry in particular eludes ready formulation. It demands concentration, the trained ability to read and a willingness to entertain new forms and materials. {22} It also requires a respect for traditions and the sensibilities of the reader. But if amateur writers cheerfully ignore the first, many Postmodernist poets aggressively deny the second, so that the "if it's not hurting it's not working" formula acquires a further meaning. Truth, meaning and social implications are all aspects important to literature, but to make reductive political programmes the criteria on which to judge poetry is to wildly misunderstand the arts.

Poetry Reviews and Reviewers

Poetry reviewers should be playing a key role, since no one individual can now read through the great mass of work being published, or even know where to find the more interesting material. But reviewers are not playing that role. To put the matter bluntly — with honourable exceptions, and some well-meaning work in the smaller presses — responsible reviewing is almost extinct. Academic criticism continues, but reviewing is a different animal. The academic article is the fruit of long reflection: not riveting reading, but sound and helpful. Reviewing as currently practised aims to entertain: the evaluation is perfunctory, but the writing is very skilled. More than that, the review aims to show the correct credentials. Whose stock is up or down is well known, or can be easily ascertained by phone calls and reading other reviews, so that the reviewer's task is one of giving "the treatment" to the work in question, as knowingly and entertainingly as possible. Statements to this effect attract abuse, but the evidence is overwhelming: hype of very moderate talents, unstinting praise for passages of obvious banality and incompetence in the work of leading names, contempt for sound argument, illustration and proper comparisons. {23}

Articles in the popular press (when they appear at all) are therefore amalgamations of very limited research: consultations with friends and establishment figures, with some personal anecdotes thrown in. Reviews in the small presses often tell us more about the reviewer and magazine than the work itself. Interviews with leading poets are reverential for the same reason. And in the mainstream literary magazines? Some do aptly put their finger on a poet's excellences, but always the recommendations need to be careful assessed in the light of motives and associations of the reviewer. Academics in particular are not going to undermine careers by questioning an author they have made their particular field of study.

In general, reviews do not now select and introduce the better work to the general reading public because that public no longer cares for poetry. The interest has been killed off by contemporary poetry itself, and by the overprotective attitude of reviewers. Since poetry is an endangered species, and its practitioners earn so little from their efforts, it seems unpardonable brutality to lay in with the big stick. Reviewers are often poets themselves, moreover, needing favourable reviews in their turn, so that most will sensibly adopt the magazine's policies and say that the new book is perhaps not quite up to the standard of the previous and of course excellent collection. Why, given that proper reviewing is a delicate, demanding and hazardous occupation, should anyone take on the work at all? {24}

Because they have to. Poets subsist on such things. Even well-known novelists are not living the sybaritic lifestyles fondly imagined by their public, but depend very much on reviewing to make ends meet. Time allows only a cursory reading of the novel or novels placed each week on their desk, and more effort naturally goes into polishing up the review article that represents their shop-front on the world. Such articles may be little more than entertainment and literary chit-chat, but publicity means sales, and fellow novelists who like to bask in "another dazzling performance" and other such appraisals will return the favour.

But there is more to reviewing than mutual back-scratching. To review is to belong to a literary aristocracy, an exclusive club that looks after its own. Some candour is allowed in private, but image is vital to all parties, not least to the public who need their illusions. Reviewers can therefore suggest that a certain work does not quite come off, but they cannot usually be precise without unravelling a whole skein of unwarranted assumptions. Nor are they likely to. Club membership is attained only after such prolonged effort and cultivation of the right people that good breeding is assured. If accidents happen — someone crassly reports an actual conversation, or a journalist elicits an unguarded comment — the matter is denied or played down. Only poets of an earlier century with independent means could afford to speak their minds, and even they were mindful of the harsh laws of libel, which allowed fair comment but not damage to careers or reputation.


Ever since inception as a university discipline, English Literature has had to define and defend itself. {24} Description, interpretation and evaluation of individual literary productions is the usual claim. And being an academic discipline there had to exist a body of knowledge to impart, and certain skills to teach — hence the literary canon, and academic literary criticism. And for a long time, at least on the surface, all went well. Students dutifully applied themselves before going out to earn a solid living with degrees that no one questioned. Equally unmolested by administrators and politicians, scholars pondered and slowly brought out their articles, monographs and books. To the working poet this material was useful, introducing new authors, and suggesting reasons for modifying or extending appreciation. Used honestly, the critical articles widened their taste and sharpened sensibilities.

All has now changed, for still-debated reasons: funding crises, philistine governments, market accountability, sixties permissiveness, radical ideology, and so on. {25} University life is increasingly competitive, and the pressure mounts to turn out quantity rather than quality, to adopt trendy attitudes, and to pull punches when dealing with contemporary idols. Little being produced now is of any practical value to poets, though some could be immensely helpful in getting them to understand what they might really be trying to do.

But criticism and poetry were always very different activities — in approach, finished product, in gifts required. No amount of clever talk on significance can supersede literary sensibility, for knowing instinctively that a particular line is botched, pretentious, too easily obtained. Poets acquire that sense by working at their own lines, and by attempting to emulate and improve on their predecessors. Academics have a style of their own — too cautious and involuted to interest professional writers — and they wisely concentrate on dead authors comfortably part of every university syllabus.

These separate worlds have now come together. With no wider public to speak of, and standing among fellow practitioners hardly to be counted on, inclusion in the academic canon is now the dream of many professional poets. If that cannot be attained by academic assessment — the matter is too uncertain and time-consuming — then tutors will place friends' work on reading lists for return support. Not very different from business and the professions, perhaps. But if academia has its own skills and forms of creativity, they are not generally those of novelists, poets and playwrights, and there are dangers in academics playing adjudicator. Nevertheless, inbred academia continues to create the unattractive attitudes of many graduates who go out to obtain influential jobs in publishing, newspapers and television. Most grow out of their arrogance and patronizing views, but there are still too many newspaper pundits who take on trust what they have learnt but not questioned twenty years before.

Subjugation to Theory

Though originating in academic literary criticism — or in the fusion of criticism with continental philosophy, left-wing politics, psychology and linguistics — literary theory has become its own creature. Literary theory is a philosophy of texts, i.e. of all communications, from the conversational aside to novels, academic treatises and philosophical works. The work is very technical, and its practitioners are almost exclusively academics with a first and often a second degree in some aspect of the subject. Although disseminated through being part of every English Literature student's course, the subject has not found acceptance outside the academic circle of the humanities: criticism, publishing and the art galleries. Nonetheless, since literary criticism tends to adopt its garb, and many poetry reputations are founded and maintained in academia, literary theory can have a stunting influence on the poetry scene.

It is important, indeed essential, that poets understand their purposes. There is, after all, no money or social standing to act as a court of wider approbation. But a danger comes from two directions: the partisan nature of literary theory, and the tendency to confine and legislate for literature.

Critical theory is now a hopeless muddle. Much of it resembles medieval theology, with authorities quoted but not read or understood in context. Many of its supposed authorities are not authorities at all, but figures marginal to or now superseded in their professions. Evidence, worked examples and close argument are thin on the ground, and theorists seem unaware of more plausible philosophical positions. Very often the disquisitions are too muddled and jejune for professional philosophers to want to waste time and reputations sorting out, so that literary theorists write for a small circle of admirers while the rest of the world does something else.

But a good deal of contemporary work is entwined about these speculative concepts. Poets are ranked as to how they conform to theoretical notions, and the notions themselves are illustrated by poetry: an entirely circular process, unsustainable in the everyday world and therefore defended vehemently. The radicals fought complacency and snobbery to get into academia, and have now retaliated by throwing out the yardsticks by which literature was once valued. On the advice of linguists and educationalists, whose work largely repeats unexamined dogma, many secondary schoolteachers no longer teach standard English, let alone the elements of grammar and versification. {26} Sensible precepts that have stood the test of time have not so much been attacked (which is healthy and productive) but derided and suppressed. References in course material — for university degrees, adult appreciation classes, practical workshops — are very selective, and many poets have little idea of what exists to help, sustain or inspire.

Classes, Workshops and Literary Groups

Writing is often a lonely activity, and editors haven't the time to write critiques or even reasons for rejecting submissions. What could be more sensible than classes, workshops and writing groups where participants can learn from each other and gain some confidence and sense of solidarity? Many do indeed fulfill these roles, and are happy social gatherings, an evening away from the distractions of the office and home life.

And sometimes that is the trouble. Many attending are part-timers, writing only sufficient — in odd moments or coming up on the train — to maintain their membership. But that does not mean they will cede authority on that account. Far from it. Quality that they have not the time, inclination nor talent to produce themselves they tend to disparage in others, finding such kinship with better literary society an unacceptable affectation. Moreover, not having read widely in poetry or literary criticism, and so quite unable to distinguish the good from the indifferent among published contemporaries, they indulge in all that a conscientious writer should avoid, sensing abstentions as an attack on their own talents. Around them gather like-minded individuals, and better writers go elsewhere.

In general, moreover, established poets prefer the company of equals, and in their absence the newcomer may be met with a dogmatism that establishes pecking order in the group but is entirely useless as guidance or encouragement. Criticism needs to be sane, constructive, generous and tactful, but participants can lack the reading and social skills to achieve that, and many recipients will recall, decades later, some particularly wounding or asinine remark.

Much depends on the organizer. Some groups rotate the chair, which allows everyone to get into difficulties. Some have invited conveners, young and impoverished generally, who do their honest best but can offer no more than politeness to work of unfavoured style and content. Most groups have a resident chairperson, which provides continuity but also a predictability in responses and suggestions.

Something also seems inhibitory about workshops. Poems which are perfectly clear in retrospect, and which would have been discussed sensibly over a cup of coffee with a fellow poet, tend in group discussion to become the focus of amazingly obtuse and unhelpful observations. No one knows why this is so, but few cannot but have memories of their own transgressions. Even to have had the work circulated beforehand, so that contributors can assess and prepare their suggestions carefully, which is obligatory in many groups, seems not a sufficient precaution. Multiple discussion becomes theatre, and perhaps needs clear rules if the performance is work effectively. And poems, often the better poems, which communicate reader to reader, silently, with depth and subtle nuance, are disadvantaged by the whole approach.

Quality in Poetry

In receipt of a $200 million bequest, {27} The Poetry Foundation has put an enormous quantity of poetry on line, but, {28} while it's heart-warming to see its detailed and thoughtful articles, with so many figures rescued from neglect, the bulk of the work has a depressing effect. So much seems only cleverly different. 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, {29} but good poems are also hard to find. {30} Perhaps the selections were made by junior staff. But when we look at leading poetry translation sites, {31-32} where the task is simply one of craft, of conveying something excellent in one language into excellence in another, the same deadening uniformity appears. What happened to the verve, variety and beauty of the original?

The avant-garde prized originality above all things, and zealously guarded their work from acceptance by the profane majority. {33} Modernism was highbrow, and though it presupposed familiarity with the great works of the past, it consciously set out to overturn traditional values. Art was not to serve society, but the self-admiration of small and prestigious cliques. Modernist literature fractured syntax, and replaced plot and character by myth and psychoanalysis. As a logical extension of ‘art for art's sake’, Modernism clearly drew on itself, seeking an existence outside time and context, with no clear boundary between the public and private worlds. Genre boundaries were shifted, and autonomy secured by fragmentation and montage. {34}

How did it succeed? Through the pertinacity and astonishing self confidence of its founders. Much of the financial support came from wealthy patrons, particularly women, and afterwards from small magazines that had a name to make. But the establishment was hostile for decades, until iconoclasm combined with the interests of the young escaping from the restrictions and hypocrisies of their elders. {35} Thereafter, in the thirties and forties, proselytising was carried out by the educational establishments, notably Oxbridge and Ivy League universities, where it still holds sway.

Being avant-garde, Modernism had always to move on. Already absolved from any responsibility to tell the truth, or even to represent the outside world, art looked into the tortuous paths of its own thought processes, coming finally to question its own status. {36} Art was not representation, but a reflecting mirror of codes that had to be deciphered. And not only had each art-form its characteristic codes, but each artist played them slightly differently: Cezanne's language was not Matisse's. {37} But the Poststructuralists went much further.  Words refer only to themselves, said Derrida, and there is no final interpretation, only an endless chain of deferring. The artist does not exist, declared Barthes, and the meaning of texts are simply what their readers choose to read into them. {38}

What's to be made of this? Firstly there are the counter-arguments of the embattled literary establishment, who attacked the self-admiring rhetoric of these audacious theorists, showing that many did not understand the authorities quoted. {39} Then there is the work of the Anglo-American schools of philosophy — Quine, Searle, Davidson {6, 40} — who acknowledge the difficulties in pinning down truth and meaning, but don't find that an argument for junking all reasoning. {41} And then there are the Marxist writers who see a sick society reflected in a sick literature: in fragmentation, alienation, disenchantment. With common purpose removed, man has struggled to find reasons for existence. The meaning of life has seeped from politics and public life, taking a niggardly refuge in the private world of abstruse thought and material consumption. {42}

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 generally 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. {6, 40} I have also added some webpages here on the founding fathers of Modernism, assessing their work in a way academia is not inclined to do.

The second need is to re-examine work in alternative traditions, employing 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 larger aim of the 'reassessments' material, one I hope to encompass as time permits: it's a big task.

References and Resources

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