Serious Postmodernism: The Poetry of Prynne and Ashbery

J.H. Prynne

J. H. Prynne is a private figure, publishing quietly until recently in the more out-of-the-way small presses. Born in 1936, Prynne pursued an academic career, becoming a lecturer at Cambridge University, and then librarian at Gonville and Caius College. He is still apt to be passed over in surveys of English poetry, though his is one of the few names respected on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of England's more thoughtful poets acknowledge their debt to his scrupulous Postmodernism, and Peter Ackroyd recently described him as ‘without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today.’ {1}

Jeremy Prynne's poems were initially conventional. Routledge published his first collection, Force of Circumstance, in 1962, but these poems were quickly superseded by Prynne's avant garde concerns, and have not been republished. Three collections appeared in 1968, followed by The White Stones in 1969, probably the best known and acclaimed of his works. Collections were brought out every few years thereafter by various small publishers, the bulky Poems {2} being published by Bloodaxe in 1999. A few reviews, scattered Introductions, and books by Reeve and Kerridge {3} and by Josh Stanley are almost the sum total of the Prynne bibliography. Why the interest?

Because Prynne's work is often seen as exemplifying key aspects of Postmodernism. The poems are not personal expressions in the conventional sense, but areas of discourse, cleared by the implied narrator, where items of observation, contextual thought and quotation briefly appear. They do not ‘close’ — i.e. lead to any conclusion — but seem carefully phrased if rather casual jottings, arbitrary at first. The poems employ an exceptionally wide vocabulary, some of it technical, occasionally geological. Postmodernism often features an overabundance of information, but Prynne's is much more limited, though unfocused on conventional subjects. Some of Julia Kristeva's observations can be applied to Prynne's work, but Kristeva's work is rooted in the dubious ground of Freudian and Lacanian psychology. Some of Lyotard and Habermas's concepts also apply — notably their views of pluralist and fragmented societies, and the public space of lifeworlds. In Prynne's work, the heteroglossia of Bakhtin can also be extended to poetry — against its author's intentions — but the value of the concept lies in the illumination it supplies to a work in question, and Prynne's poetry works differently.

On the Matter of Thermal Packing

Because On the Matter of Thermal Packing is one of the few Prynne poems available on the Internet, and so readily accessible, I will attempt a brief analysis here.

Prynne supplies the scientific references that could help us understand his The White Stones, but I do not know what the ‘thermal packing’ refers to, unless it be the self-reinforcing heat losses and climatic changes that controlled the repeated spread and retreat of ice sheets over Britain during the Pleistocene period, events which profoundly affected the British landscape, and thus the lives and languages of its inhabitants.  Prynne’s poems have received their scholarly explications, but these are sometimes as baffling as the original poetry, reading a good deal more into the words than seems justified. {1-4}

A rough synopsis of the poem from The White Stones {5} would be this: We are looking back, imagining (in the days of time now) the Pleistocene period (the meltwater constantly round my feet), how magnificent the ice sheets looked (the ice is glory to the past and the eloquence) which the world has suffered to occur (the gentility of the world's being). We know this through scientific study (competence) but the glare would have been overwhelming (the start is buried in light). Even usual things like grass and shrubs would have been bound into the last advance of the ice (last war). That ice was like a skating rink we remember (a low drywall, formal steps) and skating indeed became a passion in New England. This last was still a genteel world, however, and those thin sheets of ice (so fragile, so beautifully shallow in the past) were not unlike the frost-stiffened moral rectitude of the English (strictly English localism of moral candour). Let us imagine them skating (borne over the top, skimming) though we don’t have names (I too never knew who had lived there). Let me think back to a difficult period in the last war (we were out of the bombs) and there was widespread interruption of school studies (the Golden Fleece) and transport (bus time-table). But we got by ("It is difficult to say precisely what constitutes a habitable country") and now we have the nuclear threat, which permeates our skull, much as the ice encased (so ice-encased like resin) that world, which was normal, but more various than we might imagine, cloudy at times. 

Water is preferentially and asymmetrically bonded together as ice, though it had its own wealth and stability. I loved that frozen world I remember from childhood, which I didn’t entirely understand (the gentle reach of ignorance), just as we don’t understand how the ice structure retains its orientation in the frost heavings left in the topsoil afterwards ("one critical axis of the crystal structure of ice remains dominant after the melt").   Those frozen things in regaining their original form released some elemental (nuclear) thought that there is an inherent rightness in things, which are exposed to the elements (air plays on its crown) but also have religious connotations (the prince of life) and commercial connections (its patent, its price).  I can picture the sunlight gently lying on the snow-laden fields, when the actuality (glitter) of the war is now released, and I can hear the guns for the first time. Or maybe I only think so, but certainly the reality (eloquence) of melt waters is real to me. I could trust the ice to hold, and trust man’s scientific ability (some modest & gentle competence), so that I’d be content to go on living a little more.

I’ve side-stepped a few tangles, but it’s not a difficult poem. Is it interesting? Up to a point. There is a gift for unusual and sometimes exact phrasing, but the associations are somewhat predictable, and I’d much prefer to be reading the geological papers originating the poems. They might bring the period to life in the way Prynne’s poem does not, a period brimming, moreover, with problems of evidence, interpretation, climatic cycles and various technical matters which I won’t go into here. By contrast, Prynne’s poem seems a peg on which to hang various observations, some pleasing, some very neatly expressed, and some perhaps only present through the ingenuity of commentators. But poetry has become a different animal after Wallace Steven’s pioneering approaches. Here an extended exercise in stray thoughts has been given a very poised and accomplished Postmodernist gloss.
Prynne’s Later Work

Prynne later work loses some of its gift for evocative phrasing, and becomes more matter-of-fact and physical. The poems look dispassionately on the visceral human being and the way it responds to stimuli. That seems a very technical attitude to poetry, but Prynne is not concerned with meta-narratives. The grand themes of life do not interest him, or at least not their truth as such. He evokes the inconsequentiality of existence: the thoughts, observations and associations that pass across the space created by the individual poem. The result may be disorientating and ungrounded — there are no unbiased observations, no pure sense-impressions of the type supposed by philosophers of the British analytical tradition — but the process is intriguing, as though one were watching an alien world through a microscope. Very different elements are juxtaposed without any sense of incongruity:

Pretty sleep lips; the carrots need thinning,
pork chops are up again. We sail and play
as clouds go on the day trip... (High Pink on Chrome: 1975)

Opacities appear, and odd trains of thought, but the best poems provide a strange sense of completeness, which resists summary. Often baffling, not always successful, not satisfying to the general reader of poetry, the poems nonetheless convey a quiet sense of authority:

The children rise and fall as they
watch, they burn in the sun's coronal
display... (Acquisition of Love in The White Stones: 1969)

After feints the heart steadies,
pointwise invariant, by the drown'd
light of her fire... (Into the Day: 1972)

Now these hurt visitors submit,
learning in the brilliant retinue
to be helpless by refusal... (Lend a Hand in Bands Around the Throat: 1987)

Prynne was closely associated with Edward Dorn, and in fact accompanied the Dorns on their 1965 journey over from the States to Ed's teaching job in East Anglia. {7} Dorn was a co-founder of the Black Mountain School of Poetry, which held that the breath rhythm is continuous with the deep organic nature of man. But whatever the truth of that (and it certainly allowed its exponents to develop a very exact phrasing in their free verse forms) Prynne and Dorn were both interested in the actual process of poetic composition. Olson and Dorn advocated open forms — not only the line endings appearing where the reader naturally took breath, but care being taken to ensure that the disparate elements of the poem (its ‘field’) were not forced into a linear consistency or predictability. Estrangement, an oblique choice of words, avoidance of a fixed or final interpretation, puns, and a wider subject matter: these are the elements from which Prynne's poetry is built.

Why should this interest us — if indeed it does, and we are not falling into the usual circular argument: (Prynne is a dedicated and formidably intelligent man. Other poets have praised his work. His poems must therefore be good, and — if we can’t always find obvious meanings — must have deep things to say. We are entitled to show it every indulgence in divining depths and shadows of meaning that we would not search for in other poems.) The problems, as I see them, lie in three areas: in the local and sometimes private nature of Prynne’s observations, the substitution of ‘the poetic imagination’ for facts, and in the championing of the poet’s word-play over a practical understanding of how the mind works in organising vision.

We look for some generality in a poem, or in any work of art. We expect that what applies to the author also applies to other sentient beings, but is expressed more cogently, memorably or beautifully than in the raw experience, or as expressed by non-artists. Prynne contests this view, and makes novelty his deciding factor, even denying the term of poet to Donald Davie. {6} The Postmodernist approach is therefore a rather ingenious one of evasion. Instead of finding the telling or illuminating word or phrase, which entails some skill and effort, the Postmodernist can simply have repeated runs at the matter, using the near misses as hopping-off points for yet more tangential remarks or observations. The poems then verge on those academic papers that exist to parade the erudition and originality of their authors rather than convey something deeply felt and worth imparting. Prynne’s language is much more deft and pleasing, of course, and open up unusual flights of imagination or conjecture, but we are still coerced into privileging one person’s intellectual odyssey.

The second difficulty is as I’ve mentioned above: what would make a engrossing article in National Geographic and the like becomes a solipsist, incomplete and somewhat arbitrary layman’s account. The poem doesn’t lead us into another and more fascinating world, or heighten that world with emotive and significant detail, but takes tangential pop-shots at the mental, religious and/or  philosophical aspects involved.

In fact, neither Prynne nor Postmodernists in general seem to have any interest in how the eye actually obtains its visual sense impressions. Nor in how the mind organizes those impressions. Unfortunately, that makes even the mundane Wikipedia-type article {7-9} far more interesting than the private musings of language specialists. The scientific method has its own in-built assumptions, of course, {21} but not having much to say cannot be made good by extended name-dropping. {4}

If that sounds too cavalier a dismissal, readers should note that Keery’s treatment of The White Stones, in the opening introduction to one of seven poems considered (In the Stone a New Name Written), enlists Revelation 2:17, Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens, Corinthians 2:3-4, Hölderlin, Hebrew, Psalm 105, Wordsworth, Marlowe, Shakespeare, W.S. Graham, Blake, Yeats, Tennyson, Auden, and de Kooning without quite pinning the matter down, i.e. deciding what the ‘white’ refers to (just as Prynne’s poetry doesn’t exhibit closure, i.e. pin matters down). This first section ends with: ‘In a later section of this study, I shall consider both “the qualified Freudian optimism”, in its  original psychological and philosophical contexts, and Jung’s conception of psychic individuation, to which Bloom’s is indebted.’

Isn't this a little overdone? Such excesses, which mimic the poetry itself in putting erudition above explanation, have only helped to undermine the standing of English Literature departments. Criticism gradually killed its host. Additionally, as we have noted with the founders of Modernism, and will with John Ashbery below, Prynne’s later poetry has seen a falling off in quality. The genuine poetic impulse, that continually practised innocence with which all poetry has to be written, was no doubt stifled by the usual burdens of academic life, but also perhaps by the need to be always moving on. The later poetry became more indoctrinated with theories that had no basis in rationality, but were perhaps the more firmly grasped for that reason, because they promised greater riches on unvisited and yet more nebulous shores.

The difficulties of Prynne's approach, and particularly with the later work that resists full explication, is not news.  {22} Critical articles became self-standing structures only loosely anchored to the poem or poems in question, and also exhibited many of the features of Postmodernist poems themselves: extreme foregrounding, tenuous linkages, and opacities of meaning. The essays are often astutely argued, calling on wide gifts and sympathetic reading, but cannot be easily summarized. Or put another way: their meaning is the semantic journey or journeys readers must take in coming to terms with these articles: it is not detachable. {23}

John Ashbery

The contrast with Prynne could hardly be more striking. John Ashbery is an international celebrity for whom large claims are made, familiar through countless references to a public that generally takes little interest in contemporary writing. Ashbery does not write about experiences, real or imagined, but portrays inner trains of thought. {10-13} The mental excursions have no particular reference to the exterior world, though they do employ its language in various ways, sometimes playfully, sometimes with a deadpan solemnity. Complex patterns of mimicry, observation and rumination appear and disappear across a space created by the poet for no particular reason. Why read them? Because the poems can be extraordinarily entertaining. At their best, the lines have astonishing charm and freshness — seem exactly what a very gifted poet would begin his creations with. But the inventions are not pursued. Abruptly as they appear they are deflated, evaded, developed in unexpected ways:

The thieves are not breaking in, the castle was not being stormed.
It was the holiness of the day that fed our notions
And released them, sly breath of Eros.
(Sunrise in Suburbia in The Double Dream of Spring: 1970)

Many poets would give their eye-teeth to have written that second line, which is then happily tossed away. The meaning is problematic, and even more so in the poem's concluding lines that immediately follow:

Anniversary on the woven city lament, that assures our arriving
In the hours, second, breath, watching our salary
In the morning holocaust become one vast furnace, engaging all tears.

Some association of ideas is apparent — sunrise: furnace: holocaust: lament — but Ashbery seems more often content to win approval by literary wizardry:

...this moment of hope
In all its mature, matronly form ... innocent and monstrous
As the ocean's bright display of teeth

Is this Zen Buddhism, Surrealism, a playful Dadaism? There are many such influences. Nor are the phrases always empty of content:

the loveliest feelings must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them The winter does what it can for children

John Ashbery was born in 1927, studied at Harvard and Columbia, went as a Fulbright scholar to France in 1955 and stayed ten years, supplying art criticism to the Herald Tribune and Art News. Continually writing poetry, he returned to the US on the death of his father, and in his 1970 volume The Double Dream of Spring developed his disarmingly fluent and discursive style. Always there was experimentation, however, and every few years saw a new departure. The Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) was straightforward reflection, but the As We Know of 1979 began with 70 pages of lines set out with double columns, which readers were invited to combine as they pleased, no ‘correct reading’ being possible. Like Wallace Stevens, whose work he admires, Ashbery accepts that we cannot know reality at first hand. But whereas Stevens was content with interpretations of reality that were credible for their time — ‘fictions’ he called them — Ashbery has speeded up the process. Imagination destroys its fictions as quickly as it creates them. Yet if reality is incoherent or unknowable, a work of art nonetheless requires some form: how do we avoid making that form inauthentic?

Ashbery's solution is to create a continual expectation of form that is then frustrated or dissolved away. Life can only be flux, multiplicity and contradictions. Why should we despair at that? Perhaps we are emotionally or morally adrift, but life can be interesting all the same, indeed intellectually exhilarating. All that's required is to be honest to the fundamental human condition. Such is Ashbery's view, which his work continually expresses. But his ways of deploying that insight are very varied. He muddles up syntax and grammar. He reverses expectations in mid sentence. He constructs collages of contemporary conversation and journalism, not to parody their limitations but to remind us of the multiplicities of ‘reality’. His metaphors turn into something else as we read. The long poems wind towards a climax, and abruptly turn into flatter ground. While the pyrotechnics continue we are charmed and satisfied, and it comes almost as a churlish reflection to realize that such a wilful misreading of everyday expectations would not survive a moment's operation in the larger world outside.  

Why all the fuss? Why not let Postmodernists pursue their games while the general reader gets back to more rewarding stuff? Yes, but what stuff? Postmodernism is now the style winning the reviews, the commissions and appointments. Between its costive excellences and the cliché-ridden banalities of amateur work (say the material that appears so copiously on www.poetry.com or www.netpoetry.com) there is a gap filled by poems that too often seems merely workmanlike. Postmodernist work is astute and restricted; amateur work is unlettered, heartfelt and popular. Neither appeals to the other side very much, and literary scholars often stay clear of both.

So arise many features of the poetry scene. One is the warfare between the poetry schools, with their continual rewriting of the apostolic succession from Modernism's founding fathers. Another is the striking absence of proper argument and reference in literary theory: these studies are written as Postmodernist poems, intentionally fragmentary and hermetic. Older critics are missing the point to complain of specious scholarship, and perhaps are even deluding themselves. Postmodernists appreciate what the critics ignore: that language is treacherous, self-referencing and arbitrary. And that is true whether the language is of public utterance, science or of everyday affairs.

Critique of Theory

What does a non-partisan make of this? English Literature classes have lost much of their kudos, and it is not from long-suffering taxpayers but other academics that exasperation is making itself felt. Postmodernists do not read widely enough. Their ignorance of history, mathematics, science, linguistics and philosophy, where the insoluble conundrums of Postmodernist language have been known for generations — not solved entirely, but understood, accommodated, worked with — is truly astonishing, as is their misapplication of scientific terminology in their poems. Can their stance be genuine? Postmodernists expect medical treatment like anyone else, with their medical records correctly filled in. They do not countenance deconstructive sleights of hand applied to their terms of appointment or salary cheques, or indeed in their students' essays. But poets are not in the business of turning out excellent human beings, merely of writing poems. If deprived of a proper role in contemporary society, that does not mean they should forego the benefits of that society, to which they contribute as best they can. Poetry is arguably an apprenticeship in awareness, and it's inevitable that frank speaking will be unpopular. These and a dozen other arguments can be advanced for the arts to continue the policy of biting the hand that feeds them, but the situation is certainly curious. 

One popular explanation runs as follows. Poets are charged with providing a deeper insight into our fundamental human needs and realities. Once Kant had shown that reality itself was unknowable by rational thought, poets were obliged to find irrational routes to their spiritual powers. The Romantics drew their inspiration from Nature, which they attempted to harmonize with their mental and emotional intuitions. But as the nineteenth century wore on, and poets became more city-dwellers, that Nature began to show a darker side. Poverty, overcrowding and  child exploitation by the new industrial society disclosed the shabby heart of the common man, and any special place in God's creation was undermined by the findings of geology and evolution. Ignored by society, poets began championing the aristocratic virtues of good form, irony and indifference to popular culture. A spiritual birthright had to be self-generated, made the sharper by opposition to the lumpenproletariat around them. The great art of the past could still be a yardstick, but it was a yardstick appropriated and interpreted by other rules. Art did not represent reality, but created an independent reality given vitality and authenticity by its internal structure.

What couldn't be contained by such devices was not suppressed, but purposely offered as a feature. A bric-a-brac of images, broken syntax and abstruse reveries gave readers a simulacrum of the strangeness of real life. What Modernism crafted metaphorically in art forms, Surrealism and Dada took realistically. Theirs was an assault on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society and so, indirectly, on the ideals of high Modernism. The new movements realized that the disconnected but undeniably powerful images of the unconscious could be re-invoked in hallucinatory collages of the everyday. And because dreams were beyond the dreamer's control, so these literary collages would escape the limited intentions or even understandings of their authors. World War Two brought an end to such experiments, and the poetry that followed seemed chastened if not spiritually impoverished. What unbridled imagination could achieve was all too evident in Stalin's social engineering, Nazi concentration camps and the widespread atrocities of war. Convention returned, and the New Criticism favoured Eliot and Yeats over Pound, Stevens and Williams.

But the ferment of the interwar years had not been forgotten, and many of its approaches and ideas spoke to a generation that  felt stifled or marginalized by an academic art scene. Onto the clean, flat canvases of abstract expressionism were thrown an amazing variety of social comment, parody and technical experiments. Radical American poetry upturned the structural economy and self-ennobling ideals of Modernism and built a platform on which anything could be performed. Confessions, demotic rant, cracker-barrel wisdom — the new poetry gloried in its freedom from good taste and social responsibility. After the Vietnam War, when the arts again realigned themselves with traditional cultural values, poetry dug deeper to find an intellectual framework for its opposition to officialdom. It espoused the teachings of the New Left, and took Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard as its champions.

The demanding, often elitist poetry of Modernism was superseded by a Postmodernist parody, not now to serve a deeper vision but to show that deeper visions were impossible. The gates to proper appreciation were still guarded by an intellectual aristocracy, but this was now an intelligentsia of reviewers, editors and lecturers in the younger universities. Audacious originality and not skill became the hallmark of art. But the movement was not simply escaping the restraints of Modernism; it was pursuing its own logic. Artists could no longer claim an heroic independence as their very materials — words, images and content were complicit with a capitalist world. That was obviously the case for the work to be understood and accepted. After a century of effort, philosophers had not found a logically transparent language, and Derrida repeatedly demonstrated the mutual interdependence of words. Baudrillard analysed the information basis of our modern economies, and Lyotard stressed that the artist cannot by genius reveal hidden universals, as such universals do not exist. The media was our world, and with its terms and materials any art had now to be built.

Postmodernism came as a breath of fresh air. It had many strengths — a protean and egalitarian nature, appeal to the young and disadvantaged, opportunities for columnists and academics. The difficulties arise when the arguments are examined in detail. Whatever theory might suppose, language does not wholly constrain our thought. A compromised language could not sustain the astonishingly wide range of scholarship today, in and outside academia. Nor could scientists debate rival theories. Or commerce and industry survive where figures and strategies need continually to be evaluated. The basic postulate of Postmodernism is false because truth does not lie with narrow argument from propositions, but with what people in a pluralist society actually say and do. Postmodernism's besetting sin is hubris. Like medieval scholasticism, it has convinced itself through argument from supposed authorities that certain things cannot be true, and will not go out into the world to check. Often the generalizations do not hold water, but are continually and retrospectively rewritten. Artists at any time are commonly unconscious of belonging to any movement, which makes a guiding principle of irrationality difficult to see and perhaps suspect. And no doubt science could be blamed for a loss in spiritual faith in the nineteenth century, though the attack came on theology, not religion.  But perhaps Postmodernists should extend their reading. Brain functioning, cell metabolism, complexity and self-organisation — in these areas science has left reductionism far behind, and indeed offers vistas as awesome as anything confronting Dante seven centuries ago. {14-21}

Contemporary Poetry Characteristics

1. Iconoclasm

To many artists, Modernism had sold out. Its creations were no longer the preserve of an exclusive avant garde but the subject of academic study. Post-Impressionist paintings appeared on Christmas cards, and contemporary music featured in popular concerts. Even the originators themselves turned away from their high ideals. Pound espoused right-wing views. Eliot wrote in tight forms, became an establishment figure and received the Nobel Prize. William Carlos Williams's poems served to show freshmen how little there was to fear in poetry. By the 1960s, university courses were stressing the continuity between traditional poetry and the contemporary scene. None of this was congenial to writers suffering the usual privations of the struggling artist. The education industry seemed a sham. For all its stress on authenticity and originality, everyone knew that the literary canon could be probed but not ultimately questioned.

Of course the contemporary writer could always go one better: adopt and improve on the skills of the literary great, but this required enormous time, talent and dedication, with very doubtful chances of success. The public bought as critics directed; the critics wrote as they remembered their university courses indicating; and the courses repeated what had been written before. Very few with any influence on the livelihood of writers actually wrote poetry themselves and so could be expected to have the practitioner's eye for craft and accomplishment. The safer approach was to reject the past, devise new styles however vacuous or wrong-headed, and then promote them as usual in a market-orientated consumer society. Most conspicuously was this done in the visual arts, but book prizes and regional festivals played their part in the literary  world. And with its stress on fashion, the need to keep up to date, the advertising industry was the model to adopt. What counted was the interest swirling around the exhibition or publication, and this naturally drew on and supported contemporary events, fashions and concerns. The artworks could look somewhat arbitrary, and the public were apt to mutter that they could do as well themselves, but then the general public didn't buy paintings or poetry in any quantity.

For those who did, the wealthy industrialists and a cultured intelligentsia, two strategies were employed. The first was a variation of the game of the emperor's new clothes that Modernism had been playing for decades: the priest-like role of cultural arbiter. And the second was an attack on the cultural achievements of the past. Ours was an age of mass literacy and communications, so that the old themes and their master-servant attitudes no longer applied. The old skills were no more than slavish copying: slick, inauthentic, a cultural imperialism. The strategies worked, though at a cost. English departments, together with the humanities generally, gradually lost their prestige and then their students.  Indeed, if as hermeneutists assert, art is one way in which a society understands itself, poetry must inevitably reflect contemporary attitudes and concerns. But hermeneutists also stress the importance of tradition. Past cultural achievements represent something significant and universal about human nature, indeed must do or we should not respond to them now that their superficial attractions have been stripped away. And against the claims of Postmodernism, the lives and personalities of artists do colour their work. Indeed their lives are so hard, and success so fleeting, that serious artists very much have to believe in the importance of their individual efforts. But then the promoters of Modernism are not generally artists but academics and media salesmen — as indeed most students become — so that any  difference between theory and reality is yet another aspect of Postmodernism in which ‘anything goes’. {21}

2. Groundlessness

Art, politics, public service, life in the great institutions — in none of these could be found any bedrock of unassailable probity. Serious shortcomings could be found in science, mathematics, linguistics, sociology and philosophy — in whatever purported to be true knowledge. All involved assumptions, cultural understandings, agreements as to what counted as important, and how that importance should be assessed. Even our language was imprecise, communal and second-hand. Where did reality stop and interpretation begin? In truth there was no essential difference between art and life: both were fictions. Was psychoanalysis a myth? Very well, so then were science and the humanities. All were self-supporting and self-referencing variably coherent systems with truths that were not transportable.

No doubt history has some ticklish problems of interpretation, but few suppose that the holocaust never happened. Even admirers of Paul de Mann were suddenly aroused from their solipsist musings when damaging evidence was found for their hero's earlier support of Nazi ideas. No one can see how the exterior world can be unmediated by our senses and understandings, but the philosophic problems of asserting that reality is entirely created by language and intellectual concepts are formidable indeed. Science has its procedures and limitations, but its supposed ‘myths’ work in ways other myths do not. All disciplines have their own view of the world, but they are not equivalent or equally acceptable. Postmodernism largely overlooks how reality constrains actions, language and art. {21}

3. Formlessness

Whence comes this desire for autonomy, for circumscribing form, for aesthetic shape? Look clearly at art and the dissonances will appear just as prominently. The New Criticism and traditional aesthetics simply left them out of account. Deviation from the expected, foregrounding, departures from the conventional are the essence of art, as Ramon Jacobson and the Russian formalists demonstrated. Art will be much stronger for being shapeless, indefinite, even incoherent. Nor need we stick rigidly to genres, or refrain from pastiche and parody. Art is the whole world, and the more that can be included the richer the artwork. Indeed no such essence of art was ever demonstrated. No doubt the New Critics did speak too glibly of aesthetic harmonies and tension resolution, and poems could always be read that way, given sufficient ingenuity.

Yet there are limits. The differences between a competent and an outstanding work of art may be difficult to prove to a first-year student, but everyone attests to the increasing discrimination that comes with love of the subject and prolonged study. It is a common observation that art begins in selection, and that an etching or black and white photograph may possess powers in proportion to what they exclude. If that is denied — and it is denied by Postmodernists — then many contemporary artworks will have no appeal to the more traditionally-minded, which is indeed the case. {21}

4. Populism

Postmodernism is very appealing. It is avowedly populist, and employs what is well-known and easily accessible in vivid montages. It welcomes diversity, and seeks to engage an audience directly, without levels of book learning interceding.

It encourages audience participation. It mixes genres, and so makes interesting what otherwise would be overlooked. It can illustrate social causes, but does not insist on an underlying seriousness, all matters being equally relative. But if Postmodernism espouses populism, its works do not generally have mass appeal. Response is via theories that are incomprehensible, and purposely incomprehensible, to all but a well-read elite. We may enjoy something a fifteenth century Flemish painting without understanding the religious iconography, but that is not the case with Postmodernist works. Fail to grasp the theory, and nothing is there — which explains the bewilderment and distrust of the general public. The work seems fragmentary, arbitrary, lacking in skill and overall purpose, which it unashamedly is, from older perspectives. What of the movement’s larger ambitions? Are its artworks at bottom a criticism of life? No, and are not intended to be. Do they sharpen our sensibilities, make us see deeper and more clearly, make us more alive to the beauty of the world and indignant at its injustices? Certainly not. They make us more open to experience and less censorious. Postmodernism is not traditional, is indeed an anti-art in many ways, impatient of grandiose claims and intending no more sometimes than entertainment of an easily bored society. Artwork that does more is spurious, and therefore to be excluded from ‘serious’ consideration. {21}

References and Resources

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