"The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry"
by Albert Gelpi

from The Southern Review, Summer 1990,
pp. 517-541


Despite the fact that terms embracing large cultural ideologies-- Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism--change their protean shape and color in different hands and perspectives, they are necessary in defining and comparing successive periods of cultural history. In fact, the very imprecision of such epithets--the fact that they enfold inconsistencies and rest in contradictions and paradoxes--allows us to identify and trace the volatile play and counterplay of issues and values as a given period defines itself in relation to is antecedents and sets the terms for what will develop from it.

The first part of this essay will take a long historical view to understand the relation of Postmodernism to Modernism. As I have argued in A Coherent Splendor, the Modernist period, bracketed by the two world wars, bore a complicated and ambivalent relation to Romanticism, the dominant aesthetic and cultural ideology of the nineteenth century. And Romanticism, in its turn, evolved out of and against Enlightenment rationalism, which had deepened the skepticism, growing in the West since the Renaissance, about theological or philosophical absolutes capable of sustaining a reliable relation between subject and object, mind and matter, physics and metaphysics. The Romantic's response to this epistemological and religious crisis was to ground certitude not in reason or institutional systems of belief but in the felt experience of the individual: not in powers of induction and deduction but in the personal intuition of the universal in the particulars of experience, of the absolute in the passing contingencies of time and space. These moments of intuitive insight constituted acts of genuine signification and proceeded from the highest human faculty of cognition, which philosophers called transcendental Reason and artists called Imagination.

Romantic epistemology, psychology, and aesthetics proposed an intrinsic, organic triad of correspondence or continuity between the perceiving subject, the perceived world, and the medium of expression in the subtending activity of Spirit. The most influential theoretician of the Romantic Imagination in England was of course Coleridge, and in America Emerson; its most influential exemplars were Wordsworth and Whitman. But visionary insight is difficult to attain, much less to maintain, and Romanticism put such stress on the individual's momentary experience that the Romantic synthesis of subject and object through the agency of the Imagination began to deconstruct almost as soon as it was ventured. The literature of the nineteenth century records the interplay between Romantic ecstasy and, increasingly, Romantic irony: from Blake's visions and Wordsworth's early nature mysticism to the decadence of the Romantic ideology at the fin de siecle in art for art's sake.

In the opening years of the new century, leading to the war which seemed to many besides Spengler symptomatic of the "decline of the West," Modernism aggressively advanced a counterideology to an exhausted Romanticism, explicitly rejecting its epistemological and metaphysical idealism, its aggrandizement of the individual ego, its organic model for the instantiation of seer and seen, word, and meaning. The Modernist work of art proceeded not out of a conviction of organic continuity or even correlation with nature but instead out of a conviction of the discontinuity between subject and object, and the consequent fragmentation of self and experience required the tight construction of the art object from the fragments. The Modernist artwork stood as an often desperate insistence on coherence, heroic considering the odds, amidst and against the ravages of time: the instability of nature, the unreliability of perception, and the tragedy of human history.

Modernism, then, began as the intensification of Romantic irony to the point of rupture. The critical discussion of Modernism has concentrated on the shattering of formal conventions as an expression of the disintegration of traditional values, and this is the aspect of Modernism that anticipated Postmodernism. Marjorie Perloff has dubbed the Modernist aesthetic, in the title of her recent book, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, and in The Futurist Moment she showed how writers learned experimental techniques for verbal bricolage from collage. Organic form came to mean not a discovered correspondence with nature, as the Romantics wanted to take it, but almost the opposite: dislocation or abstraction of elements from nature into an invented and--Eliot's adjective--autotelic artifact. The fixing of bits and pieces in an arrested arrangement compelled a dramatic shift from the temporal aesthetic of the Romantics to a poetics of space; in painting three dimensional space hammered into a surface design, in poetry sequentiality fractured and its splinters reassembled in simultaneous juxtaposition, in music the elimination of melody for chordal juxtaposition. Thus Picasso's Cubism, Kandinsky's abstract designs, Pound's ideogrammic method, Schoenberg's jarring atonalities.

However, Modernism was not all indeterminacy and rupture. Even the bricolage, I would argue, was evidence not just of a sense of indeterminacy but, at least as importantly, a counterdetermination to resist indeterminacy. Fragmentation impelled imaginative creation. Stevens spoke for his Modernist peers when he said that a "blessed rage for order" conferred on the driven artist a heroic nobility in an ignoble time and a function in society, since the work of imagination "helps us to live our lives." Similarly, when Pound charged his contemporaries to "make it new," the fiat of that aesthetic genesis claimed for the artist a godlike power in social and cultural life: the ideogrammic method was a technique for construction.

So I read poetic Modernism differently from many distinguished commentators on the subject, Marjorie Perloff and Hugh Kenner among them, in arguing that the Modernists were aiming not at, or not finally at, a poetics of indeterminacy but rather--as suggested by the Poundian title of my own book on the subject--at achieving a coherent splendor. In fact, despite the manifestos and axiomatic pronouncements against Romanticism, Modernism represents an extension and reconstitution of the salient issues that Romanticism set out to deal with. In the face of the intellectual, psychological, moral, and political turmoil which had propelled the last two centuries into more and more violent crises, Modernism continued to exalt the imagination as the agency of coherence. Not, the Modernists insisted, the Romantic Imagination with its capital I; but an imagination that, though shorn of mystical and idealist claims, was still the supreme human faculty of cognition, empowering the artist (echoing Stevens again) to decreate disordered experience into aesthetic order. Even in their most experimental phases, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Williams, Stevens, all wanted the pieces in their collages to make a picture. Against detractors Pound pressed forward with his life's work in the conviction that he would be able to name his cantos, when the pattern was complete, with a single ideogram which would subsume the thousands of pieces. And Stevens, acknowledging that his fictions were aimed at intimating bit by bit the supreme fiction, wanted at the end of his life to call his collected poems The Whole of Harmonium.

Nor need the coherence possible in an artwork, by being autotelic, be merely aesthetic, as leftist critics of the thirties and contemporary neo- Marxists would dismissively have it. Charles Altieri's monumental book with the Stevensian subtitle Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism (l990) mounts an extended and compelling argument for the moral efficacy of the Modernist aesthetic. Working from abstraction as a hermeneutic of perception in painting, Altieri reads Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stevens to show how in poetry as well as painting the abstracting process of decreation and re-creation, hermetic though it be, requires discriminations of perception, and so of consciousness, which permit, indeed compel, us to understand ourselves and our situation more subtly and precisely, and thereby compel us to define the values and commitments upon which responsible choice and action depend. For Altieri, the Modernist aesthetic comprises an epistemology and an ethics: for many in this century the only valid way of coming to discernment and commitment.

While granting as I do the force of Altieri's argument, I would go further and aver that many of the great Modernist poets came by different paths to realize the psychological and moral limits of the Modernist aesthetic and superseded it. The period of High Modernism was relatively brief--from 1910, say, to 1925--and this difficult act of supersession on the part of the poets served to extend their active careers into old age and made for much of their best work. The often gradual shift in poetic stance can be graphed dramatically in the contrast between The Waste Land and Four Quartets, between Mauberley and A Draft of XXX Cantos on the one hand and The Pisan Cantos and the final Drafts and Fragments on the other, between H.D.'s Imagist Sea Garden and her long sequences Trilogy and Helen in Egypt and Hermetic Definition, between the poems of Harmonium on the one hand and the poems of Transport to Summer and The Rock on the other, between the Williams of Spring and AlI and the Williams of Paterson and the triadic poems of his last decade.

The difference between earlier and later work can be graphed as well through the often marked preference of critical readers for one or the other phase of these poets' work. For Perloff and Altieri, for example, Eliot's masterpiece is The Waste Land; for me it is Four Quartets. His early poems and the essays define the Modernist doctrine of the impersonal poet, the autotelic artwork, and the objective-correlative ache for an experienced conviction of an absolute reality beyond divisions which anaesthetize him from himself, other humans, nature, God. It is a painful but clear way from the glimpsed possibility of deliverance in "What the Thunder Said" at the end of The Waste Land to the epiphany in the chapel at Little Gidding when tragic history is grasped through the mystery of the Incarnation as "a pattern of timeless moments." Out of the confusing polyglossia of The Waste Land Eliot's own voice has emerged and identified itself within a circumambient reality extrinsic to art. Poetry need no longer be autotelic; "the poetry does not matter," "East Coker" tells us, as it has to matter to a Modernist, because it matters in a larger scheme of reference and relevance. That Eliot could say this in what I take to be his best and culminating poem is a measure of the point beyond Modernism which he had reached.

It was Eliot's particular Christian perspective--a Calvinist version of Catholicism--that impelled him to conclude that the poetry as poetry does not matter. For all Pound's disputes with his old friend about religion, he came to a not dissimilar position through a pantheism synthesized from the Greek mysteries and the Chinese tao. That holistic pantheism is the heart of The Cantos, even of its economics and politics, and in The Pisans and the last Drafts and Fragments--the most openly autobiographical and moving segments of the poem--Modernist aestheticism is explicitly repudiated: "Le Paradis n'est pas artificial" --not a function of aesthetics, as Baudelaire had said--but "terrestre" in the eternal round of nature. In the climactic Canto 81, the goddess' eyes attend Pound in his prison tent and reveal a vision in which the chastened ego consents to "learn of the green world what can be thy place/ In scaled invention and true artistry." By Canto 116, when Pound has to acknowledge that he will never complete and name his life's work, he can nonetheless give his incomplete poems an unexpected affirmation by concluding prosaically: "i.e. it coheres all right/ even if my notes do not cohere." The failure is--only--in his art; coherence lies in the ongoing tao. Meaning surpasses Modernist means.

Neither Stevens nor H. D. nor Williams would ever question the integrity of the poem in so fundamental a way as Pound or Eliot, but the late work of all three adumbrated a point of reference and relevance outside their poetry. With H.D., myths and mystery cults and occult mysticism inform the long autobiographical sequences through which she wrote her "Hermetic Definition." Even Williams found, by the time of Paterson V and the triadic poems in Pictures from Brueghel, that his resolutely antimetaphysical humanism had deepened to the point that it had to express itself in mythic and even, occasionally, religious terms. As for Stevens, the lengthening meditations turn and turn on archetypes --father, mother, anima, ephebe--constellated around the image of achieved self as giant, hero, major man; the fictive presences seem to resonate with reality, "like rubies reddened by rubies, reddening," and the resonance imbues the reader with the shimmer of that translucence.

In their longer, later poems all these poets temper their early Modernist stance by opening the visualized, spatialized lyric moment into sequences in which time dictates the form and the theme. Canto 30 stipulated the Modernist dread of time: "Time is the evil. Evil." Even long poems dealing with history like The Cantos and The Waste Land had to be mosaics of embedded ideograms. But as the cantos proliferated, they could not be held in a single simultaneity of apprehension and revealed themselves instead as a life-poem which delineated its protagonist's convicted course through history and his own time and in which music increasingly alternated with painting as the analogue for poetic form. Eliot wrote the essay on "The Music of Poetry" as he was finishing Four Quartets to underscore the musicality of its verse forms and the fuguelike counterpoint of his meditation on time and history. Just at the point when younger poets like Oppen and Zukofsky were imitating objectivism, Williams was himself complaining of its static constraints. Deliberately turning his attention from spatial arrangement to prosodic measure, he released himself into the composition of Paterson; and, for the more narrative, autobiographical poems of his last years, he devised the notion of the variable foot, based on the melodic line of the musical bar and stepped in tercets down the page like a score. Stevens smoothed out the jagged angularities of "Domination of Black" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and pulled his iambics into the endless silken skein of his later meditations--"Transport to Summer," "The Auroras of Autumn"--which evoked the turn, and return, of the seasons.

In my view, then, the key to Modernism resides in its attempt, in the wake of declining faith and debunked reason and decadent Romanticism, to affirm the imagination as the supreme human faculty of cognition for (and against) a secular, skeptical age. The affirmation took place in two phases which indicate the dialectic with Romanticism at the heart of Modernism. First, the High Modernism of the teens and twenties concentrating the claims of the decreative/re-creative imagination in the cognitive authority of the quasi-absolute, autotelic art object; then, through acquiescence in temporal and historical process, a period of expansion, recovering sources of cognition beyond the aesthetic: in the case of Eliot, by a renewal of faith in the Incarnation; in the case of the others--Stevens, Pound, Williams, H.D.--by an exploration of the powers insight that had been the latent legacy of Romanticism in Modernism all along.


The epithet "Modernism" came into currency not from the artists themselves (they thought of themselves as modern but not Modernist), but from critics in the sixties and seventies retroactively and reflexively commenting on a cultural period now past. In fact, the currency of the term marked the end of the period, and critics soon coined the term Postmodernism to distinguish subsequent developments. The Postmodernist break with Modernism, in poetry at least, took place over two generations of poets. Those who began to publish after World War II found themselves awed and overshadowed by the enormous achievements of their legendary predecessors, most of them still alive and writing. Lynn Keller's Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition (1987) focuses on the continuities and discontinuities between Modernist and Postmodernist poetics through four exemplary pairings: Stevens and John Ashbery, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, Williams and Robert Creeley, Auden and James Merrill. But other pairings also spring to mind: Pound and Charles Olson or Robert Duncan, Williams and Denise Levertov, Robinson Jeffers and William Everson, Yeats or Auden and John Berryman, Frost or Stevens and Adrienne Rich. The vitality and variety of American poetry into the sixties come from the postwar poets' efforts to define their voices out of and against their long-lived and larger-than-life predecessors.

The poetry of the Cold War period set out the defining features of Postmodernism before critics introduced the term: a deepening sense of the mind's alienation from nature and of the wold's alienation from reality; an intensified experience of material randomness and temporal flux, of moral relativity anal psychological alienation, of epistemological confusion and metaphysical doubt; a drastic scaling down of expectations and aspirations; a questioning of language as a medium of perception and communication; a shift from hypostasizing poetry as a completed work to investigating it as an inconclusive process of provisional improvisation. The first concerted challenges to the New Criticism's academic codification of Modernism came in the fifties from the Beat writers and from the open-form poetics of Olson, Duncan, and Levertov. Lowell, in many ways the weathervane figure of the postwar decades, illustrated the shift dramatically as he moved from the high-pressured closure of the poems in Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle, written during and just after the war under the influence of Tate's New Criticism, to the fragmented fourteen-liners that kept proliferating and revising themselves into version after version of Notebook in the late sixties and early seventies.

However, the wobble in the form and substance of Lowell's poetry is only one signal that his generation remained ambivalent and transitional in its aesthetic allegiances. The Whitmanesque Romanticism of Beat poets like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Everson defined itself against the formalism of Tate and Wilbur. Even the strong influence of the so-called "Black Mountain School" offered no clear direction; Olson obviously represented an extension of Pound's aesthetic and Levertov that of Williams, while Duncan and Creeley represented the fracturing of Pound's and of Williams' aesthetic, respectively, in ways that point to Postmodernism. In fact, the immediately postwar generation was still so imbued with Modernist values and with a residual Romanticism inherent in those values that many of them exhibit, as I shall say again later, a Neoromanticism which offers an alternative pole to Postmodernism in the contemporary period.

The self-conscious and deliberate break with the Modernism of the first half of the century came, in fact, only with the seventies and eighties when a number of deconstructionist and Marxist critics, along with a number of younger poets, mounted an attack in the name of a distinctly Poststructuralist, Postmodernist sensibility. Much as Poetry (Chicago) and Blast and the Dial had campaigned for Modernists half a century before and the Kenyon Review and The Southern Review rallied for the New Criticism as the institutionalization of certain Modernist values during the forties and fifties, so now the Postmodernist poet-critics, based principally in New York and the Bay Area, grouped themselves under the mastheads of such journals as L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, Sulfur, edited by Clayton Eschelman, Acts, edited by David Levi Strauss, and Poetics Journal, edited by Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian. Bernstein's The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Book (1984) and Michael Palmer's Code of Signals: Recent Writings on Poetics (1983) collected manifestoes and position papers from poets styling themselves as, in various ways, language-oriented poets. When New Directions, the publisher of Pound and Williams and H.D., Olson and Creeley and Levertov, brought out Douglas Messerli's anthology "Language" Poetries (1987), poets available previously only from small ingroup presses found entry into the mainstream.

On the aesthetic level, then, the Postmodernist position formulated itself as a critique of the paradoxes inherent in Modernism. According to Nick Piombillo's "Writing As Reverie," the centripetal Modernist effort to unify pieces into a coherent collage gives way to what is unapologetically "an esthetics of fragmentation and discontinuity." To the disillusioned Postmodernist the vaunted claims of Modernism were spurious and dangerous. The Modernist master merely put the mask of impersonality on the Romantic ego-genius, and any such exaggerated individualism led to an elitist pose of disdain for politics that itself masked the equally elitist sympathy for totalitarianism which helped make Fascism and Nazism and Stanlinism possible. In this view what was left of Modernism was immolated in the war it in part brought about.

Some commentators cast the postwar crisis primarily in psychological terms, some in terms of physics, others in political terms, and others still in linguistic terms; but these different emphases overlaid and enforced one another. Einstein's theory of relativity was followed by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Lacan elaborated the dislocations of Freudian theory into a no-exit maze. In poetry the perceiving "I" of the lyric or narrative or dramatic mode disappeared into the anonymous, decentered ego echoing the polyglossia of popular culture. Marxist theory from the U.S.S.R, Frankfurt, and Paris supplied the political explanation of the psychological dilemma, propounding a historical-materialist critique of late capitalism in which individuals functioned as the creatures and creation of political institutions and economic systems and in which devalued art and letters functioned to commodify the hegemonic values of a consumer society. Language serves in such a scheme of chance and determination, of relative values and closed systems, as the material base or medium within and through which subjectivity constructs social reality and social reality constructs subjectivity (no longer self or identity). Since consciousness does not exist "prior to--aside from--language," Charles Bernstein tells us, consciousness is "itself a syntacticalization--a syntaxophony." Kathy Acker describes the osmosis of language and social reality through the membrane of consciousness so that the first person pronoun recedes into the passive voice:

I write with words which are given me.... I am given meaning and I give meaning back to the community.... I am always taking part in the constructing of the political, economic, and moral community in which my discourse is taking place. All aspects of language--denotation, sound, style, syntax, grammar, etc.--are politically, economically, and morally coded.

In post-Wittgensteinian theory, language becomes a self-referential, self-complicating "code" of arbitrary signs at once determined in a given social system, yet indeterminate in its signification because of the yawning gap between the word as signifier and as signified. In her essay "The Word As Such: L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Poetry in the Eighties," Perloff cites Blanchot's explanation of the crisis of referentiality and the slippage of meaning in the fact that words are "monsters with two faces, one being reality, physical presence, and the other meaning, ideal absence." Bernstein speaks of "the fact of wordness" and James Sherry of "words regarded as facts, as opposed to words as symbols," but Bernstein goes on to explain that in this context "fact" does not indicate primarily referentiality or representation, does not mean (as it would, he says, to a poet like Olson) "'perception' onto a given world" as "a unified field" but rather "onto the language through which the world is constituted." Bruce Andrews writes in "Code Words": "Author dies, writing begins. . . Subject is deconstructed, lost, . . . deconstituted as writing ranges over the surface." Inevitably loss of subject puts the object in jeopardy. The word does not designate an object but substitutes for its loss; language signals not reference or presence but disjunction and absence. So Ron Silliman openly calls for "a writing that no longer yearns for a unified sign," a "non-referential writing" that emphasizes the word as signifier rather than as signified. Steve McCaffery writes in "Sound Poetry" of "the deformation of poetic form at the level of the signifier": "To align, realign, and misalign within the anarchy of language. . . .Cuttings. Fissures. Decompositions (inventions). Not intention so much as intensions. Plasticizations. Non-functionalities. Shattered sphericities. Marginalities."

At the level of professional literary study, semiotics and deconstruction splintered literary monuments, including Modernist monuments, into slivers of polysemous intertextuality, and poetry followed the academic lead, muffling a defining voice in polyglossia. In Frederic Jameson's trope, language became a prisonhouse: blank walls, echoing enclosures, burrowed tunnels; the more blurred the echoes, the more unbreachable the verbal surface. Theory swallowed all: poetry submerged into criticism and linguistics, words about words; even Marxism exercised itself not in political action but academic analysis.

Indeed, from the Marxist perspective capitalism depends upon and seeks to enforce the referentiality of the signified. In relating words to objects in a market economy the act of signification makes words themselves into commodity-objects which can be manipulated in selling products to a consumer society. In Silliman's words, "the primary impact on language and language arts, of the rise of capitalism has been in the area of reference and is directly related to the phenomena known as the commodity fetish," and by that logic, as McCaffery puts it, "the humanization of the linguistic Sign," its liberation from its capitalist chains comes through the "centering of language within itself," the insistence on words as signifiers--that is, as objects distanced if not detached from referential use.

Manifestoes polemicize terms in order to differentiate the avant-garde position, and not all the language-oriented poets subscribe uniformly to all the positions I have been quoting in their most extreme formulation, especially in the matter of referentiality. But Barrett Watten's "Introduction" to Silliman's book-length poem Tjanting (I98l) sums up in three pages the broadly shared disposition of this most explicitly Postmodernist group. "Writing looks at itself first,. . . makes a reality by taking itself apart. . . ." Because the extrinsic "materials" of experience "have no motive force," the imagination has "no option but . . . to turn back on itself," even though it "will generally find itself lacking at that point." Thus the artist is no Modernist "hero"; that Romantic figure has been "concealed," "broken down," "replaced by a chain of objectivized situations and surrounding objects, both animate and inanimate." The "self-consciousness" which fights back against the paralyzing structures of decadent capitalism requires "the recognition of non-identity" rather than of identity as "the first step in the appropriation of one's fate." Because "non-identity is the term common to all," "the deconstructive activity of the text finds the destroyed centers of other lives. Idiosyncrasy is the central term of an assertion of faith in the power of writing to construct." Bruce Andrews says that "subject becomes simply 'the instance writing,' is hollowed out by the operation of the linguistic system." Maxine Chernoff puts the displacement or the artist's ego and the impersonality of the "linguistic event" flatly:

I am not commenting about the nature of one character's reactions to experience. Rather, I am suggesting that a linguistic event has been observed by a witness.... Thus, "character" in many of my prose pieces [and, we can adds the "speaker" in many language-oriented poems, whether written in verse or prose] exists so that language can occur.... The linguistic event "happens" in the sense that anything happens.

Such work, then, stands or falls by the density and intensity of the "linguistic event," by its success in engaging readers in its constructive happening. As an exercise in practical criticism I want to look closely at some representative texts in a sequence that is meant to illustrate the range of language poetry in the quality and character of the "linguistic event" which is the poem. For example, Christopher Dewdney's "Fractal Diffusion" seems just a stunt as he gradually and mechanically replaces the vowels in his flat, manual-like prose with another phoneme: "ave" for "a," "but" for "b," "co" for "c," "dio" for "d," "et" for "e," "far" for "f." "Fractal Diffusion" thus begins: "In this article I am going to reify a progressive syllabic/letter transposition in units of ten. Starting with the letter A and working through the alphabet I will replavece eavech letter with ave syllaveble normavelly starting with the paverticulaver letter in question. The effects will be cumulavetive, the system is avepplied aves it works its wavey through the avelphavebutett." For some reason, perhaps oversight, the second "starting" does not become "staverting," but in the last word the b's begin to be replaced, so that by the time the first six transpositions are in play we reach this point: "Six letttears into thet alvelphavebutett, mavenifaretstavetion petrfaretcotetclio-farlowetr ofar farondiouet-ave faraver/farettcohetdio conclusion." It looks less like Finnegans Wake than like pig Latin punched out by a madly logical computer; that is to say, deliberately deprived of purpose and resonance and even content, it is not at all like Finnegans Wake.

Jackson MacLow's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989) is a deliberate Postmodernist deconstruction of a Modernist masterpiece through his usual device of combining chance and arbitrary rules in the composition of the text. In an "Afterword" MacLow describes the "diastic chance selection method" by which he mined from Pound's text "letter strings" "in which the letters of Pound's first and last names occupy places corresponding to those they fill in the names." Thus, looking for the letter "E" in "Ezra," MacLow takes up Canto l and runs his finger along the text till he hits the first "e" and makes the "letter string" beginning with that "e" and continuing, as will always be the rule, to the end of Pound's word to constitute the initial "string." Line 1 provides "then" as its second word, and so "En" becomes the first element of MacLow's version. Running his finger along, he does not find a "z" (the second letter in "Ezra") till line 32 in "bronze," and since "Z" must be in the second place, "nZe" becomes the second element. Line 33 almost immediately supplies "R" and "A" in the phrase "beaRing yet dreory Arms," which means that for the "R" to be the third letter and "A" the fourth in his series of "letter strings" MacLow hacks "eaRing ory Arms" out of Pound's phrase. Then line 35 provides "Pallor" with "P" in the initial place, and so on with "O," "U," "N," "D," and then back to "E" from E-Z-R-A -- and so on again and again through the letters of the name tirelessly ripping out "letter strings" in a determined but arbitrary sequence from the texts of all 120 cantos. Line endings are determined by "all punctuation marks that follow the selected letter strings in The Cantos, hyphens that are included within those strings, and final letters that end lines in later cantos without punctuation"; breaks between strophes are determined by "end marks (periods, question marks, exclamation points), strophe endings without punctuation, and points of suspension (...)." By the chance of these rules the first two strophes of Words nd Ends from Ez read, or rather look like:

En nZe eaRing ory Arms,
Pallor pOn laUghtered laiN oureD Ent
aZure teR,
tAwny Pping cOme d oUt r wiNg-
preaD Et aZzle.

ool A P "

Pound intended that his ideogrammic construction would constellate into a vision so psychologically and politically powerful that it would integrate the individual and transform society. The reader response he aimed for was: "what//SPLENDOUR//IT ALL COHERES." On the back cover Charles Bernstein solemnly puffs MacLow's book as "an act of homage and a topographical map of features of the work otherwise obscured by its narrative thrusts," which "reveals a purer, inhering paradise within Pound's poem." But Pound would have been as contemptuous of MacLow's subversion of his purpose as of Bernstein's pontificating about it. In any case, how many of the very few who pick up MacLow's book will get any farther into its seventy-seven pages than it takes to unriddle the gimmick?

Jerome McGann's claim that "like Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, MacLow's Words nd Ends from Ez comprises an important re-reading of a seminal American poet" is worth noting because it seeks to fudge precisely the point of difference that helps us to sort out the serious language poets from the tricksters. Howe focuses her fierce and passionate intelligence, drawing upon biography and history, to clarify the language of the poems, whereas MacLow reduces Pound's language to jibberish. Dewdney and MacLow would not warrant attention except that they reduce the Postmodernist emphasis on the materiality of language and the anonymity of the nonspeaker to absurdity. To counter their example, I want to construct and examine a series of language-texts which play out their word games for higher and higher stakes.

Ron Silliman's Tjanting (1981) is a book-length exercise in the poetics of surface. Tjanting starts with "Not this./ What then?/ I started over and over. Not this": a self negation which generates a question which in turn initiates a new start and then a new negation. If not this, then what? There follows the first in a series of steadily lengthening paragraphs articulating a random, staccato proliferation of words, phrases, and short sentences. The succeeding paragraphs (for want of a more accurate word) ring sound-changes on the verbal elements already asserted and get longer by adding new bits for subsequent permutations-- until the last paragraph swells to 85 of the 213 pages of the book. The welter of dissociated, telegraphic, runic-sounding bits and pieces is punctuated by portentous pronunciamentos to underscore the point again and again: "Each sentence accounts for its place," "Each sentence accounts for all the rest," "Each word invents words," "Each mark is a new place," "Each sentence stakes out," "Each word once the invention of another," and so on.

It is impossible to quote here so as to illustrate the effect of the word games because the changes are played out from page to page and paragraph to paragraph. For example, "Last week I wrote 'the muscle at thumb's root so taut from carving that beef I thought it would cramp' " (11, the first page of text), becomes "Last week I can barely grip this pen" (12), "Last week I could barely write 'I grip this pen' " (later on the same page), then "I could barely write 'last week I gripped this pen'" (14), then "Barely I write" (20), and so on through the text spaced out more widely as the new elements crowd the paragraphs. Or another element from the first page, "Hot grease had spilled on the stove top" leads to "Grease on the stove top sizzled & spat" (11), thence to "Grease sizzles & spits on the stove top" (12), "On the stove top grease sizzles & spits" (13), "Grease sizzles, spits on the stove top" (17), and so on.

"I began again and again": necessarily so, since Tjanting does not seek consequence or development, wants no middle or end. Here are the beginnings of just a few chain reactions that run through the text:

"Of about to within which" (11); "Of about to within which what without" (12); "Of about under to within which what without" (13); "Of about under to within which of what without into by" (16).

"Nothing's discrete" (12); "no thingdis crete" (13); "No thingdis creep" (14); "No thid gnis crete" (21).

"Monopoly, polopony" (13); "Polopony, monopoly" (l6); "Poloponius, molo ponies" (26).

"Detestimony" (13); " Detestimonial (17); " Destestimonialist" (26).

Lyn Hejinian remarks on the dust jacket that "the presence (and presentness) of each detail is palpable. The reader recognizes every word. Perhaps, but only in their abstracted materiality. Detached from any experiential base or verbal context, signifiers spawn in a vacuum but can never fill or fulfill the voiding of the signified by the initial phrase "Not this.'

Bernstein's "Dysraphism" has a footnote teasing out etymological connections between this abstruse medical term meaning a kind of birth defect -- literally a "mis-seaming" -- and the prosodic stringing (stitching) of words: "disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech." The textual seaming and mis-seaming (seeming and mis-seeming?) concludes with these lines:

Dominion demands distraction--the circus
ponies of the slaughter home. Braced
by harmony, bludgeoned by decoration
the dream surgeon hobbles three steps over, two
steps beside. "In those days you didn't have to
shout to come off as expressive." One by one
the clay feet are sanded, the sorrows remanded.
A fleet of ferries, forever merry.
Show folks know that what the fighting man wants
is to win the war and come home.

A series of characteristically short, direct, discrete statements, unconnected by conjunctions of subordinate clauses, are stitched together less by discursive sense than by verbal repetition (seaming) and counterpoint (mis-seaming). Repetitions include such customary devices as alliteration (for example, the d's and b's in the first two sentences), assonance ("Show folks know," "ferries, forever merry," "demands"/ "sanded"/ "remanded," "feet"/ "fleet"), verbal associations ("slaughter"/ "fighting"/ "war," "hobbles"/ "clay feet") and use of the same word in different senses ("come off as expressive," "come home"). Instances of verbal counterpoint (mis-seaming) threading the lines include: "braced"/ "bludgeoned"; "three steps,"/"two steps"/"one by one"; "slaughter"/ "surgeon"; "hobbles"/ "fleet"; "circus ponies"/ "fighting man"; "sorrows"/ "merry"; "slaughter home"/ "come home." The terse, flat, rapid shift in syntactical perspectives and verbal elements, including cliche and bits of conversation, renders a decentered poststructuralist sensibility of found and made objects, and there is even a cumulative sense that the engagement with such shifting perspectives, though at first disorienting, is in the end salutary, even fun. However, the verbal play avoids or disguises interpretive comment or constructive patterning because such impositions would suggest a center of perspective, attitude, response -- in short, all that is dismissed as the lyric ego of the Romantic-Modernist poet. The last sentence of the concluding lines quoted above--"Show folks know that what the fighting man wants/ is to win the war and come home"--is not really bent on saying anything about the compassionate insight of entertainers or the attitudes of soldiers but is phrasing a sentimental platitude so as to savor the shape and weight of its monosyllables as verbal "facts." The shapeless poem has no teleology; it gets nowhere, and that is its point. It is six pages long, but it could just as easily have been two or twenty or two hundred.

In "I and the" Bernstein simply lineates a list of words compiled by a researcher in descending order of frequency of usage from a data base consisting of the transcripts of 225 psychoanalytic sessions. But the resulting catalogue amounts to more than MacLow's senseless manipulation. Though it depersonalizes the patients into faceless and voiceless speakers, it tells a lot about the pathology of usage, and Bernstein's grouping of the words in tercets, three lines each of three words, not only serves to aerate the list but also sometimes makes for lively word-play within the line. Here is the opening:

I and the
to that you
it of a

know was uh
in but is
this me about

just don't my
what I'm like
or have so

it's neat think
be with he
well do for

Bernstein lineates only 1386 of the 17,871 words in his data base, but most readers' interest will have flagged long before the end of the twenty-two pages of his listing.

Despite Lyn Hejinian's praise for Tjanting, her book-length My Life represents a different kind of experiment in the poetics of surface through a different use and quality of language from the purposes of Silliman and Bernstein. My Life consists of a block paragraph for each year of Hejinian's age; the 1980 edition was expanded in 1987, and the project could presumably run till the end of her life. The paragraphs seem to exhibit what are by now familiar and defining characteristics of "language" poetry: the absence of speaker and organizing point of view, a surface of fragments, opacity of reference. Hejinian's paragraphs, each with a caption that augurs more than it explains, subvert the conventional assumptions, expectations, and methods of personal autobiography shaped by the speaking "I." Instead, My Life, assuming the constructed character of autobiography, submerges the subject in a linguistic space in which an observing eye and ear and mind weave memory and fantasy and reading into a presentation of consciousness in the act of self-construction.

The caption for a typical paragraph, "What is the meaning hung from that depend," asks a pertinent question whose answer seems lost in the ensuing details. The caption queries the declarative statement in Williams' poem, which begins "So much depends/ upon" and immediately fixes the reader's attention with unwavering clarity on an arrangement of words and their objects: "the red wheel / barrow // glazed by rain / water // beside the white / chickens." Moreover, the allusion points up the contrast between Hejinian's Postmodernist diffuseness and Williams' Modernist model of concision and concentration. Nevertheless, upon close examination Hejinian's prose admits of of the kind of interpretation that Tjanting successfully repels. The details that seemed to have nothing to do with one another begin to interact and coalesce; the clouded surface begins gradually to clear and to show, however uncertainly, a depth of resonance and reference, an obliquity of connection that adumbrates an emerging coherence of perspective and statement, however problematized.

Here, for example, are the opening sentences of the paragraph foIlowing "What is the meaning hung from that depend":

A dog bark, the engine of a truck, an airplane hidden by the trees and roof-tops. My mother's childhood seemed a kind of holy melodrama. She ate her pudding in a pattern, carving the rim around the circumference of the pudding, working her way inward toward the center, scooping with the spoon, to see how far she could separate the pudding from the edge of the bowl before the center collapsed, spreading the pudding out again lower, back to the edge of the bowl. You could tell it was improvisational because at the moment they closed their eyes. A pause, a rose, something on paper. Solitude was the essential companion. The branches of the redwood trees hung in a fog whose moisture they absorbed. Lasting, "what might be," its present a future, like the life of a child. The greatest solitudes are quickly strewn with rubbish. All night the radio covered the fall of a child in the valley down an abandoned well-fitting, a clammy narrow pipe 56 feet deep, in which he was wedged, recorded, and died. Stanza there. The synchronous, which I have characterized as spatial, is accurate to reality but it has been debased.

In the middle of the passage the tag "A pause, a rose, something on paper," repeating the caption of the first paragraph of the book, reaffirms a succession of exfoliations--at once visual and verbal, organic and cognitive, objective and subjective. The opening trio of images of things heard but not seen--dog, truck, plane--intimates the "solitude" of the child made explicit later. The lonesomeness of childhood is rendered not through autobiographical anecdotes from the speaker's own early years but (1) through a vignette of her mother as child, (2) through a paradoxical generalization about solitude as the "essential companion" in "the life of a child," and (3) through the apparently recalled account on the radio of a boy's ghastly death in a well-fitting. The momentous statement about the holy melodrama of her mother's childhood seems pathetically undercut by the description of her eating the pudding, until that image is seen as a metaphor for the game of life and of the poem My Life--"improvisational" but deadly serious since in time the child's illusion of permanence ("Lastings 'what might be,' the present a future") ends "quickly" in detritus ("strewn with rubbish") and death ("wedged, recorded, and died"). The spatial synchronicity of the artwork ("Stanza there") offers the aging child, which Hejinian and we all are, another all-too-human strategy against mortality--"accurate to reality" but "debased." There is no question that reading in this way requires a commitment that even many serious readers of poetry will not be willing to make -- the passage explicated is about a fifth of one of the paragraphs in My Life -- but there is also no question that reading the text in this way reveals a subject and an object.

As with Hejinian and Silliman, the sympathy and respect linking Bernstein and Susan Howe have distracted attention from the more revealing differences between them as poets. The introductory epigraph to Howe's Pythagorean Silence (1982) makes the point that for her, as for the Romantics and the Modernists, language mediates the engagement between consciousness and the external world:

we that were wood
when that a wide wood was

In a physical Universe playing with


Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf

Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver

The poem makes a telling contrast with Pound's "A Tree." Where his metamorphosis into a tree comes through identification with H.D. as his Daphne, Howe's isolation of "words" at the center of the page-space bases her Daphne-absorption into the "physical Universe" more explicitly than for Pound in the language-act itself ("playing with // words"). Thus in the last poem in the book the repeated word "wicket-gate" offers entrance into a world-page of word-things "lightly scored" by "SOMEONE" in an "extant manuscript."


	cherubim	golden		swallow 

	amulet     instruction	            tribulation 

	winged     joy	     parent	      sackcloth		ash 

	den	sealed	    ascent	   flee 

	chariot    interpret	   flame 

	hot     arc	chaff	    meridian 

	in the extant manuscript SOMEONE
		has lightly scored a pen over

	diadem	     dagger	  a voyage	gibbet 


	weeds shiver and my clothes spread wide
The capitalized "SOMEONE" locates the centralizing consciousness, constellating her own page from the already existing ("extant") source (the manuscript and the book of nature) with the light touch of her pen. The relative anonymity of the generalized pronoun suggests the empathetic extension and submersion of self into the word-world outside consciousness in an act of negative capability learned from poets like Keats and Dickinson. Paraphrasing Gertrude's description of Ophelia's dying back into nature, the last line suggests the self-sacrifice of this commitment to the deeps, and here the "SOMEONE" is personalized. Howe's shift from Gertrude's "her clothes" to "my clothes" leaves no doubt about whose experience of submersive openness is being specified: "weeds shiver and my clothes spread wide."

Though Howe's poems do not punctuate themselves with the insistent "I" of Romantics like Keats or Dickinson, the language and imagery register the intense pressure of a personal consciousness shaping itself in(to) words. It is no wonder that Howe wrote My Emily Dickinson; hers is the most Dickinsonian sensibility in contemporary poetry. For example, Section 13 of the sequence "Pythagorean Silence" begins with a dialectic between sleep and waking, harmony and multiplicity, memory and forgetfulness. But the poem is again imbued with an aura of Romantic ambiguity. Is waking more oblivious than sleep or less, more attuned to harmony or less? Is sleep a lapsing from, or a coming to consciousness? The Spacing of the lines pushes paradox to epiphany. "Memory" engenders "Knowledge" as "simple recollection" and "history" as "Tracing // the change in ideas about change," but this personal and collective record of the "intellection of fate and fame" comes to no more than Drafts // of furiously scrambled pages Scraps / of beginnings." Still, persisting beneath and through our history and art is a sense of "lost Originals'': "sheen of sacramental mystery," "unfathomable visionary dream." Section 13, invoking the Arthurian theme that runs through the poem, ends with this sublime experience of identity and transcendence which Dickinson would have understood, even to the commingling of chivalric, natural, and religious imagery:

	Approach to the Castle of Perilous

	knight tested by the illusion 

	of nothingness		     Estray
	into my own Exile 

	(a dome to hive) Majestical
	Soul is a god 	 and sun is a God 

	on the horizon	      (Principle
	vision)	   out of an ocean 

	Soul is the maker of sun 	She
	is dressed as a man

	Beholder in silence and in utter 

Earlier in this essay we heard Bruce Andrews speak of "faith in the power of writing to construct," but it is a long, slippery slide from Pound's ideogrammic method and Stevens's "blessed rage for order" to MacLow's "diastic chance selection method" and Bernstein's poetry of the signifier. Marjorie Perloff's excellent essay on language poetry tentatively raises the question of whether, with the function of the speaker and of referentiality called into serious question, such poetry, for all its Marxist talk, might be seen as "no more than a mandarin game designed to entertain an elite coterie." With regard to much of this poetry I am in the end more inclined than she to answer the question in the affirmative. But, as she would agree, the label "language poets" obscures the more important differences among them, and these readings of representative texts is to sort out on my the mandarins from the poets.

The distinction lies in the degree to which one yields to language a devouring self-reflexivity that denies both subject and object by refusing to mediate between them. The increasing inclination to predicate the material autonomy of the verbal medium detached from a consciousness, however divided, and a world, however problematic, sets off much of the avant-garde writing of the seventies and eighties from such earlier Postmodernist experiments as Lowell's Notebook (1969, 1970) Creeley's Words (1967) and Pieces (1969), even Ashbery's Three Poems (1972). Some poststructuralist commentators have argued that we have been so alienated and self-alienated and language has been so appropriated by our late-capitalist system that the only authentic use of words is to show them as constructions operating within the system or as material entities wiped clean of such corrupted referentiality, association, syntax. Whether this premise represents the counsel of despair or an exorcism preluding the formulation of a new language and grammar, its immediate consequence is to paralyze the capacity of language for change and effecting change and to reduce the range of reference and resonance to mere spread of surface.

The recent writing that I find most engaging and moving, even among the language-oriented poets, denies this deadening premise. Works like My Life, Pythagorean Silence, David Bromige's "Six of One, Half-a-Dozen of the Other" (1980), Michael Palmer's Sun (1988), Fanny Howe's Introduction to the World (1986), The Lives of a Spirit (1987) and The Vineyard (1988) discover new and old possibilities for language to mediate a consciousness of a phenomenal world. Indeed, Fanny Howe's work represents the most radical questioning of many of the increasingly canonical premises of language poetry, as the titles of her books suggest. Her combination of Catholic mysticism and liberation theology compels her to reject language as a self-referential code ("words speaking to words") and to postulate the encounter of subject and object ("consciousness" and "visible existence") in an incarnational language through which "true resurrection takes place: that is, legitimacy is resolved between Logos and spoken thought."


Modernism gambled on the fragile conviction that through the powers of the imagination aesthetic coherence could, if nothing else could, perform a vital psychological, moral, even political function that made personal and social life possible. "It is," in Stevens' words, "the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation." Post-modernism correctly sees Modernism in the context of Romanticism and --wrongly in my view--takes that fact as the source of Modernist errors and self-deceptions. Thus, though Bernstein admits that in some respects Modernism can be seen as a "move away from reference, image and meaning," he associates "the modernist assumption" more essentially with "a poetry primarily of personal communication" and "'direct experience,' both in terms of recording the actual way objective reality is perceived (the search for the objective) & making the writing a recording instrument of consciousness." Similarly, Silliman sees the paradox of Modernism in its being at once "the announcement of the post-modern" and "a lingering hangover from the previous realist paradigm," which in his discussion is identified with Romantic notions of "'organic' form" and an "artificial holism" and with the attempt at "a unity between signifier and signified."

I would make the same point about the affinity between Romanticism and Modernism but draw a different conclusion. The very fact that Postmodernism has not devised a name for itself indicates that it is what is left of Modernism. In fact, the crucial shift in the aesthetics of the two halves of this century might be reduced to the following formula: Modernism - Romanticism = Postmodernism. Marjorie Perloff located the continuity between Modernism and Postmodernism in the development of a poetics of indeterminacy, but that illuminating linkage is only part of the story. The Postmodernists are correct in viewing Modernism as in many respects a reconstitution of Romanticism, and their disaffection with Modernism on precisely those grounds points to a discontinuity at least as important as the continuity. The poetics of indeterminacy is in fact what is left when Modernism is severed from its Romantic roots.

The declension in the Western post-Romantic mind from Modernism to Postmodernism can be understood as a shift from epistemological skepticism to ontological skepticism. That is to say, while the Modernists, like the Romantics, found it more and more difficult to find the basis or the terms for affirming a secure stance towards objective reality, for the most part they continued to posit or to act as though they posited, an objective reality to strive towards and engage; the skepticism lay in the epistemological process of coming to know rather than in the conviction that there was something finally to come to know about the self and the world. Postmodernists have reached an ontological doubt about the existence, nature, and character of objective reality itself. Often Romantics and Modernists end up admitting ruefully and ironically that they can only present a subjective view or version of objective reality, but with many Postmodernists, according to Herbert Grabes's "The Parodistic Erasure of the Boundary between Fiction and Reality in Nabokov's English Novels," "there is no longer a representation of discrete versions of a given reality, but merely a range of synthetic constructs which may, at certain points and in certain habitual guises, touch on or even evoke what we conventionally take to be 'real,' but which can with equal justification be termed 'fantastic' (or 'fictive') or 'realistic'"--'realism' being the most fantastic illusion.

In response to this critique Postmodernists would no doubt argue that clearing away the delusive and dangerous pretensions of Modernism has had some positive results: the opening of poetry to popular culture and to everyday, even banal experience and speech (what Stevens dismissed as "the malady of the quotidian"), the recovery of play in a world of chance, the resistance to forced and false closure, the demystifying insistence that poetry deal modestly but honestly with a world graced by neither coherence nor splendor, the acceptance of the subject-object split as a challenge to scrutinize whether and how words can be thought to refer to things and make meaning.

I recognize these issues as central to our poetry and culture since World War II. At the same time, in pondering recent answers to Frost's query to twentieth century poets--"what to make of a diminished thing"--I also find a countertendency that I would call Neoromantic in the work of poets like Roethke, Lowell, Berryman, Olson, Duncan, Everson, Levertov, Rich, Berry, Snyder. And, from the generation of the language poets, Fanny Howe and Susan Howe. Neoromanticism has to be a roomy rubric to admit the mystical Roethke and the skeptical Lowell, Rich the radical feminist and Everson the Dionysian Catholic, Duncan the occultist and Berry the agrarian. However, through their differences all these poets express a passionate desire to press limits and extend possibilities, an insistence that language penetrate rather than maintain surfaces, a compulsion to fathom the mystery linking subject and object, person and person, word and thing in a constructive act of signification. Auden's famous remark, after the Spanish War and on the brink of World War II, that poetry does not make anything happen, served as one marker for the collapse of Modernism into Postmodernism. The poets I am designating Neoromantic all believe, even in the face of the violence of contemporary history, that the word can effect personal and social change, that poetry can, almost against the odds, make things happen--psychologically, morally, politically, religiously.

Just as American poetry in the first half of this century turns on the dialectic, within the period and within the poets, between Modernism and the Romanticism it masked, so the poetry of the second half of the century can be read as the even more complicated dialectic between Neoromanticism and Postmodernism. This essay has traced the descent of Postmodernism from Modernism in terms of its final exorcism of the Romantic aspirations that Modernism assimilated to its own ends, and my identification of a persistent or re-emergent Neoromanticism here at the end projects the discussion past the purposes of the essay into what will have to be a book tracing out the subtleties of the interchange between Postmodernism and Neoromanticism. However, whatever valuation one puts on these alternative modes (mine are by now clear), the history of American poetry since the forties can most incisively be told in terms of that dialectic.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/gelpi.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:25:55 EDT