Rethinking Postmodernism in Poetry
After reconsidering my position on the postmodernist movement, especially in the art of poetry, I have determined that although some dissembling frauds have sullied the literary canon with pretense and duplicity, some of the basic tenets of postmodernism, indeed, have a place in genuine literature.
The Basics of Postmodernism
Having often railed against postmodernism in literature, particularly in poetry as the folly of Robert Bly, the dreck of Louise Glück, and the gloom-filled posturing of Adrienne Rich drive my scorn, I am now rethinking my earlier, negative stance on that literary movement and am ready to acknowledge some of its positive attributes.
Lately, I have, indeed, had at least a slight change of heart—but with a certain caveat to be explained later. It is not the fault of an entire movement that a few bad faith players have managed to load their nonsense into the canon. For example, Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” stands at the beginning of postmodernism in America; this work has stood the test of time as a game changer in literature.
Ginsberg’s long poem, loosely based on the style of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, offers a view of American life that informs that portion of society that would never consider taking the trips of a Ginsberg or a Kerouac.
Whether one agrees with or appreciates a work of art or not, that art’s message can be useful. Even if the work demonstrates nonsense or is replete with nihilism, immorality, or naïveté, readers have the right to experience the piece, in order to determine their own thoughts about the work.
Although poetry’s main function is not to deliver empirical information, poems do rely on facts as they focus on the expression of human experience of emotion and feeling.
Postmodernism, in general, decries tight structure, received moral imperatives, and many traditional attitudes toward subjects such as beauty, love, truth, patriotism, familial bonding, and legal structures. This stance includes viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism.
While in the political sphere many of those issues must be revisited with the changing of society (for example, the institution of slavery, women’s suffrage, and same-sex experience), care must always be taken not to judge harshly the good just because it is not perfect. Perfection on this mud ball of a planet is not possible—something every school child learns, or used to learn, by the sixth grade.
In their pursuit of the “perfect,” too many postmods have too often indulged in a melancholy nihilism that goes something like this—”if I am unhappy, it is because the system has failed me; therefore, the system is evil and should be abolished.”
Such thinking leads only to more melancholy and ultimately to chaotic anarchy through which no civilized society can exist. Often the works of art produced through this fog of nihilism result in a bridgeless, disjoined imagery which never coalesces around meaning.
In poetry, many postmods have succumbed to the notion that they can spew anything forth in broken lines and have it accepted as “poetry.” Often even without a system of thought which the basics of postmodernism would supply, these postmods have perpetrated a fraud upon the reading public.
If a poet does not attempt to write something that makes sense even to her, she should not expect her works to be admired by others. Unfortunately, too many so-called poets have allowed themselves to be lured by that method. Yet others have simply accepted revisionist versions of history and fallen into the victimhood pool of weepers.
Nevertheless, the basics of postmodernism, even when including informed skepticism, can result in useful works. However, because too much of postmodern thought has resulted in fake and fraudulent works, readers must be continually vigilant while experiencing contemporary poetry. Separating out the chaff from the wheat is necessary to avoid falling prey to literary charlatans as well as political hacks.
Readers might begin by reading texts more closely to make sure they are making the proper connections that lead to meaning. Look up words, find out the meaning of symbols, and determine whether the work is primarily literal, satiric, or figurative.
Letting Images Bridge Themselves
A major complaint about postmodernism—not only by me but by other critics and scholars in the field—has been its disjointedness that often drips with vagueness, purposelessness, and airy nothingness. A stellar example of this disjointed nothingness is Robert Bly’s “The Cat in the Kitchen.”
But disjointedness in itself is not to blame for Bly’s clumsy use of it. Disjointedness can be the simple act of letting the images bridge themselves. For young students, beginning readers, or others with minimal experience in poetry, disjointedness can present a problem. To those inexperienced readers, a disjointed set of images can result in the opposite meaning of the piece.
The following excerpt from my poem, “A Terrible Fish*,” provides an example of how a misunderstanding of the use of disjointedness can result in misreading the poem. The following lines from that poem fail to provide the bridge that prose readers may likely need:
Each eye-socket a window
To her own soul — $ bills
With little jackpots on them
Jump up and dance like clowns
Poking out their tongues,
Flapping campaign signs
With hammers, sickles, swastikas —
She believes – ¡Sí se puede!
The poem focuses on a woman’s nightmares. In this scene from one of those nightmares, she sees dollar bills jollying up like clowns, poking out their tongues and flapping signs that contain the insignia of statist governments—the Nazi swastika, the Soviet Communist hammer and sickle.
Finally, concluding this scene of statist, totalitarian symbols is the line, “She believes – ¡Sí se puede!,” containing the slogan, spouted by cult/labor leader Cesar Chavez, as he worked to unionize striking grape-pickers during the late 1960s in California.
Unsurprisingly, statist presidential candidate, Barack Obama, borrowed the English version of the phrase—”Yes, we can!”—for his own campaign. When the like-minded, statist politico, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., began occupying the Oval Office in January 2021, he replaced the bust of the highly acclaimed statesman, Winston Churchill, with the crazed cultist, Cesar Chavez.
If, because the woman is dreaming of statist symbols, the reader concludes that her politics lean leftward and that she is likely a member of the American Democratic Party, then the reader has failed to grasp an important implication of those symbols and how they are functioning in this poem.
All of those leftist symbols are jeering at her, taunting her; thus, the idea that her political philosophy aligns with leftism is absurd. If she admired the leftist philosophy, the symbols would be welcoming and comforting. The behavior of those symbols is threatening, mocking, and disturbing; they are not there to comfort.
If the lack of a bridge, or disjointedness, causes confusion resulting in the misunderstanding of the poem, then one could just add the bridge like this:
Each eye-socket a big statist government
Window to cause her pain: she is
Losing her $ bills
To those totalitarian minnows
Gliding in with stealth and clipboards
And then out of those windows.
On the slippery bank up, up, up go
Taxes, gasoline prices, and the price
Of beans and rice—
All skyrocketing beyond the sky blue of blues.
She thinks, she believes but knows she can’t
Stand on the slippery slope of big statism.
The added bridging is omitted from the first disjointed version because that first version makes for the better poem: more colorful, less overtly political, more showing than telling, and it achieves those better ends with four fewer lines and thirty-eight fewer words!
If images accurately coalesce around true meaning, the use of a prosaic bridge is not necessary. And for this poem, only a failure to read closely enough could so grossly confuse the function of the political symbols in this poem, thereby rendering void the poem’s actual message.
Postmod with a Caveat
If poets allow possible misreadings of their poems to affect how they write, they are allowing themselves to be censured and censored. And any form of censorship cannot be condoned—even those poets whose works one doe not admire like Bly, Glück, and Rich must be allowed to follow their own inner promptings. Honest, heartfelt claptrap is better than timorous, duplicitous apple-polishing.
The main reason then for my rethinking postmodernism is that I have been writing somewhat in that vain but without doing so purposely. Now I have turned over a new leaf and heartily accept some elements—especially disjointedness—of the movement that I have so long disdained. Of course, I do so with a hefty caveat: I still vehemently disdain utterly senseless bilge, blather, and poppycock with its nihilistic whining and pointing blame at others for one’s victimhood.
As for omitting those useful prose-like bridges: While I feel sympathy for those inexperienced—and, at times, clueless—readers, they will have to fend for themselves and learn to correct their own vision—if they choose. But then they likely have little interest in spending time with poetry, anyway.
- Caitlin Flanagan. “The Madness of Cesar Chavez.” The Atlantic. July/August 2011.
- Cheryl K. Chumley. “Democrats Aghast at Outing as Communists.” Washington Times. February 20, 2020.
- Chris Jewers and Tim Stickings. “Joe Biden’s Socialist Hero.” DailyMail. January 21, 2021.
- David Solway. “The Origins of Postmodernitis.” PJMedia. May 25, 2011.
- Editors. “Barack Obama: Yes We Can.” English Speeches. Accessed February 21, 2021.
- Inkoo Kang. “Cesar Chavez: Yes, We Can Make Better Biopics Than This One.” Miami New Times. March 27, 2014.
- Lee Stranahan. “Google This: The Cult of Cesar Chavez.” Breitbart. April 2012
- Linda Sue Grimes. “Two Poems by Malcolm M. Sedam: ‘ Desafinado’ and ‘Joseph’.” Owlcation. Updated April 12, 2021.
- – – – . “Robert Bly’s ‘The Cat in the Kitchen’.” Owlcation. Updated April 21, 2021.
- – – – . “A Terrible Fish.” Maya Shedd’s Temple. Updated February 19, 2021.
- Nasrullah Mambrol. “Postmodernism.” Literary Theory and Criticism. March 31,
- Paul Austin Murphy. “Postmodernism Is Leftism.” American Thinker. April 8, 2017.
- Ron Rolheiser. “Post-Modern Nihilism.” Ron Rolheiser, OM. February 27, 2000.
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