Make Make It New New
Asked to compile a list of proscriptions, à la Pound, I was a little worried. My first impulse was to try to be funny. Then I started a project that involved reading thousands of pages of new, unpublished poetry. That put me in a more thoughtful and serious mood. It was as if all the young poets had been told beforehand what six or seven qualities would be rewarded and had gone charging after those alone. It comes down to a straining for effect. This is nothing new. But that’s part of the point.
As usual everything is all about a kind of unusualness. There’s ordinary sensationalism, as when the word anus or the word hegemon suddenly appears in a poem about a bowl of fruit. There’s unconventional typography: the italic voice-from-the-beyond, secret indentation systems, banished punctuation, etc. But there is also a new, relentless infatuation with whimsical discontinuity. One tactic is obscurity, which may include nonsequential thinking, ellipsis, or dreamlike imagery. Obscurity can be wild (Breton), atmospheric (Bishop), or imitative of thought (Eliot). It can reward you with a mindblowing revelation (Dickinson). But the obscurity I’ve encountered recently is merely outlandish, and unyielding. It vibrates with the superficiality of fashion: there is nothing better for it to do but stand there being cute and empty. Non sequiturs abound, in two main flavors, quirkily funny and very — so very — serious. Undemanding punch-line-style ironies are everywhere, and so are Bland Statements of Profundity. In an important subtype, mock-profundity replaces profundity, with a result probably meant to sound like Ashbery or James Tate. Often the best you can hope for in this kind of poem is a hollow cleverness that might be termed “a wonderfully skewed perspective.” Part of this is how much a matter of course poets have made nonconformism. The automatic reduplication of provocative gestures is dulling. The field becomes more and more homogeneous, the sameness camouflages whatever good hides there, and poets continue winking as if they were devastatingly original. Poetry becomes another variety of conformist nonconformism, like Green Day or ironic eyewear.
Commemorating Pound may be what brought him to my mind. But it’s no accident that he stuck there like a radio jingle. After all, what are these offputting tendencies if not the reductio ad absurdum of Modernism? Each is marked by cargo-cult exaggerations of qualities cultivated by Pound, such as novelty, imaginative priority, fragmentation, and difficulty. All of these are desirable sometimes, one or two most of the time. But the special formulae popularized by the Modernists and their followers provide what must be the most brutally contrived models younger poets have ever had to start from.
You can’t hold the Modernists solely responsible. They may’ve wanted to install themselves as oracles of some final indestructible -ism, but they invented no new poetic first principles. Few young poets name Pound as a main influence, and many now get their Williams and Stevens from later poets, in the way half the country gets its water from soda pop or beer. However we come to it, Modernism is always there, and apparently we haven’t yet begun the process that leads to our having detested it long enough.
Literary movements often exhaust themselves before their last adherents notice. But these days it’s like being on a crowded escalator when the people at the top step off and stop dead. Modernism is an especially hard case because of the specific character of its most celebrated principles and the hard-line approach of its leaders, many of whom could’ve bullied Bill O’Reilly down to the size of a Pekingese. Of course Modernism is complex, but its leaders hammered up its most revolutionary points with evangelical zeal. Its campaign for novelty and iconoclasm continues clearing space for pioneers like Rothko, or the Stooges, or Béla Tarr. But, after awhile, oversupply does what it does and devalues the new coinage. Novelty gets rarer, no icons are left to smash, and nothing is more predictable than whimsy.
Modernism also stirs up a lower-stakes version of the us-and-them dichotomy of authoritarian regimes. Opponents are ignored or ridiculed, and any alternative to acceptable practice is sweepingly dismissed as cliche — the cold kiss of death in all arts. Meanwhile, Modernist cliches go unrecognized because they are cliches of Modernism, enemy of all cliches.
In the end, poetry looks radical only to the outside world, which ignores it, while from inside it looks static. Poets got out of these situations before by doing something new, but novelty is superfluous now. There is no way to get into the game without upping the ante, and there is no way out without bluffing or folding or everyone agreeing on a new game. If you’ve been a poet for a while you might not see how bizarre it all seems, and how monotonous, but if you shake your head and look again as a human being, you might.
Poet Joshua Mehigan grew up in upstate New York and earned a BA from Purchase College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of the poetry collections The Optimist (2004), winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,...