Twenty-First Century Modernism

A few days ago David Wheatley tweeted in response to Joey Connolly’s essay on prize culture in the latest Poetry Review and said what I suspect a lot of people have been thinking:

I suppose the gripe that I share with the PoRev piece on prize culture is…1/3

…that: it’s not like prize-winners are first and Shearsman/Reality Street poets et al are a distant second. 2/3

It’s that the prize-winners are first and Shearsman/Reality Street poets et al are nothing and nowhere in the eyes of our #poetryhegemony. 3/3

For the record, I love lots of things on the lists of all of the major publishers Connolly’s essay singles out, and it would be hard to accuse any of them of being hostile to experimental writing (looking up at the shelf as I type this I see a clustering of David Jones (Faber), John Ashbury (Carcanet) and Basil Bunting (Bloodaxe) wedged alongside the more recent Dear World and Everyone in It (Bloodaxe) and Meirion Jordan’s Regeneration (Seren)), and many of our most celebrated poets draw variably on the modernist tradition as well as the dominant/conservative lyric. But it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a prejudice in our wider UK poetry culture against modernist and experimental writing.

A caricature of the current “conventional wisdom” would trace a line of descent from Edward Thomas down through Larkin to the contemporary lyric “I”, bypassing poets like Bunting, MacDiarmid, David Jones and Lynette Roberts. Eliot and Yeats are familiar (and hence safe) enough to be assimilated, but little of Pound beyond a station of the metro and a few snippets from Cathay. J H Prynne is invoked as a kind of journalistic synecdoche for the entirety of UK avant-garde writing, and generally held to be unintelligible (often by people who’ve flicked through a copy of Poems for all of a few minutes). True, I’d struggle to give a “Shakespeare made easy” prose translation of many of his poems, but only an idiot would want to (unless we reserve Eliot’s dictum that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” solely for works we already know).

A lot of this is (I suspect) about difficulty. Poems are allowed to be experimental in an easy-to-grasp tricksy way that makes us feel smug for “getting” them, but genuine difficulty is seen as suspect and/or elitist. But if we insist on all poems’ being instantly comprehensible, we limit poetry to subjects that can be comprehended instantly (which rules out pretty much all of the ones that matter). Yes, wilful obscurity is irritating and lots of poems aren’t worth the effort, but that’s a distinction between good poems and bad ones rather than between easy and difficult.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but: a good poem says what it says in the only way it can be said; difficult poems are not just harder ways of saying what easier poems could otherwise say; they’re the only way of saying precisely what they say. Consider two short extracts from Prynne’s “Price Tag Song”:

OK and relevant to the
….cosmos, scarce of
……………………..air said
aunt Theoria, the scar
….city is not for
….resale or photograph
……………………..ic repro


the part healed city
…………………………where we start
…………………………led in
…………………………………….sects live

There is no other way to say this. The breaking of scarcity into scar city then the partial healing that separates the “led in” from startled insects (leaving “start” and “sects” behind) simply cannot be simplified or paraphrased, and it would be idiotic to rush too quickly into trying to determine what it “means”.

Although this hostility to modernism and the experimental isn’t solely a UK phenomenon, we seem to have it worse than the rest of the Anglophone world. Shearsman editor Tony Frazer (who runs both a British and an American list) comments in a brief interview that the submissions he gets from American authors are generally more experimental, which is unsurprising given the respective poetry cultures on either side of the Atlantic.

Why does all of this matter? It’s arguable that the avant-garde is by definition marginal to the commercial mainstream. Barque Press co-founder Andrea Brady has said that she and Keston Sutherland “never doubted that there were ways of being a public writer which did not require commercial success” – but “public” is the important word here, and I don’t buy the “inherently marginal” argument, because the avant-garde is displaced from the centre precisely because it’s at the forefront, trying to advance and catalyse change.

Although I don’t get on with Nathan Hamilton’s introduction to Dear World and Everyone in It, he argues convincingly that many of the “new” generation of poets distrust language because they’ve grown up saturated with advertising and spin: “consider…’corporate message’, ‘defamation’, ‘marketing’, ‘sponsors’…Consider declining literacy rates and civil rights, apathy. Why would anyone write poetry that doesn’t question itself and the language it uses.”

It’s tempting to point out that this is nothing new, but that doesn’t invalidate Hamilton’s point. I’d go further: today we communicate using technology so advanced that even a generation ago it would have been indistinguishable from magic; we have mapped the human genome, recreated elements of the big bang, and dethroned what Daniel Dennett calls the “benign user illusion” view of human consciousness, opening up to scientific inquiry things that were previously the preserve of mysticism; we project our minds around the planet and have access to the totality of human knowledge from a mobile phone browser; we have eradicated killer diseases and species alike, and are damaging our ecosystem but unable to overcome our own natures sufficiently to prevent it. In short, we are living through the greatest period of change in human history: how can our poetry seriously resist the need to “make it new”?

And that, for me, is the heart of it: modernism is not a historical phenomenon of the twentieth century, a wrong-turn from which lyric poetry has since recovered. It is the ongoing struggle to find a language adequate to today’s world. Far from being over, it is the most vital poetic challenge of our new century, and that’s why anyone serious about poetry in the UK needs to engage with Shearsman and Reality Street and Barque and Bad Press et al as much as with the TS Eliot shortlist.