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  • By Adam Sedia

The Final Disintegration and Renewal of Hope: Postmodernism's Ironic Self-destruction and Poetry’s Rebirth

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As the thousand different isms of our age fall from their pedestals and countless illusions shatter before our eyes, we can take heart in knowing that timeless poetry, art and literature are in the midst of a great renewal. Join us on this journey as Adam Sedia takes us through the story of Postmodernism’s ironic self-destruction, which has surprisingly cleared the path for a rebirth of timeless art and culture today.


I. Introduction


“Postmodern” – what follows Modernism – is a multifaceted term. Postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) defined it as “incredulity towards meta narratives.”[1] In the realm of philosophy, Postmodernism deconstructs narratives and language itself. But it is also an artistic term, describing a movement that rose to prominence in the 1980’s that blends past styles in a critical or ironic way. It is most readily visible in the colorful, gaudily eclectic architecture of Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry and in the interior design of the Memphis Group, with its geometric shapes and bright colors.


Not surprisingly, poetry, which falls at the intersection of art and philosophy, entered a postmodernist phase, as well, adopting Postmodern philosophy as an aesthetic of sorts. Poets of the late twentieth century fell deeply under the spell of Postmodernist philosophy and its criticism of language and narrative, and the result was self-referential, haughtily ironic, and ultimately nihilistic poetry reflecting those ideas – poetry made for its writers alone.



This essay will explore the ideas behind Postmodernism and their history, then explore and analyze how Postmodernist ideas influence and manifest themselves in poetry, including analysis of works of some of the most prominent Postmodernist poets. Finally, it intends to offer a breath of fresh air, examining contemporary poetry that bucks the Postmodernist trend and its implications for the future.


II. Postmodernism as a Philosophy


As always, to understand the ideas at play in postmodern poetry, it is critical to understand Postmodernism as a theory. There are two strains present in Postmodern thought, both with their roots firmly in Marx. The first is Critical Theory, a comprehensive application of Marx’s economic theories to culture, and the second is Post-Structuralism, with its roots in linguistic theory, though later adapted to Marxist political theory.


Critical Theory famously originated with the Frankfurt School, a collective of largely Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany to the United States, where they developed their ideas at Columbia University in the 1940’s and 50’s. Its members included Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), and Erich Fromm (1900-1980).[2]

“As neo-Marxists, these scholars were specifically concerned with forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism as a political-economic system.”[3] Critical theorists saw rationality, particularly as envisioned in the Enlightenment, as the product of “systems of domination and alienation.” Thus, culturally and ideologically developed narratives are imposed to become “real.”[4]


In a 1937 essay, Horkheimer contrasted traditional theory, which “define[s] universal concepts under which all facts in the field in question are to be subsumed,” with Critical Theory, which “is not satisfied to relate concepts of reality by way of hypotheses.” Instead, it “spring[s] from a radical analysis, guided by concern for the future, of the historical process.”[5]


While Critical Theory attacked authority and reasoning as illegitimate products of unjust power structures, a similar attack on language itself came at the same time from France. This movement had its remote origins in Structuralism, first exposed in the theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who viewed structure in linguistics as the product of “differential relations” and therefore “not prior to the realization of these relations.”[6]


Saussure, however, left intact some “vestiges of the historicist framework.” It therefore fell to his successors, the Post-Structuralists, to examine “writing as the paradoxical source of subjectivity and culture, whereas once it was thought to be secondary.”[7] Louis Althusser (1918-1990) and Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) applied Structuralist analysis to Marxist political and economic theory, Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) to Freudian psychoanalysis, and Roland Barthes (1915-1980) to literary theory.[8]


Although he rejected the label, one of the Post-Structuralists who became one of the pillars of Postmodernist thought was Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Foucault argued that systems of knowledge are structured by which concepts and statements make sense together and how they are organized, which of them count as serious, who is authorized to speak seriously, and what questions and procedures assess who is to be taken seriously. These “discursive formations” (as Foucault called them) also include the objects of discussion. “Foucault was thus committed to a strong nominalism in the human sciences: the types of objects in their domains were not already demarcated, but came into existence only contemporaneously with the discursive formations that made it possible to talk about them.”[9]


The other pillar of Postmodernism and, indeed, its main exponent was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who, although he resisted it, originated the idea of deconstruction. Based on Derrida’s own definitions, deconstruction “is nothing, it is not a method, not a technique, not even an act, because a deconstructive reading attends to the deconstructive processes always occurring in the texts and already there waiting to be read. The deconstructive process comes not from the reader/critic but from the text itself; it is already there, it is the tension ‘between what [the text] manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean.’” Also, “[t]here is no method to deconstruction because texts literally deconstruct themselves in their impossible attempt to employ language as a ‘transcendental signifier,’ that is, as a way of ‘pointing’ at some eternal truth or other.”[10] Both academic writing and everyday speech are equally deconstructable, resulting “perhaps unexpectedly, in a new emphasis on the individual autonomy and creativeness of the researcher/philosopher/reader.” It is at once anti-populist and anti-Platonic.[11]


Unsurprisingly, Postmodernism is imbued with a deep sense of irony. “There was never yet a Postmodernist who did not claim to be an ironist in one form or another,” except “irony” in that context means skepticism – “a conscious skepticism towards grand narrative and towards a whole range of other possible things.” Irony, which “started off as a sense of hidden meaning” became “an idea of the superiority of the ironist; in other words, a kind of almost self-flattering affectation.” Thus, Postmodern irony depends less on an idea of hidden meaning than on a relationship between author and reader “in almost the way” the Postmodernists themselves deny.[12]


III. Postmodern Poetics


Postmodernism in poetry, at least in the United States, has its remote origins in the poems and theories of Charles Olson (1910-1970), who used the term “postmodern” as early as 1951. “If Allen Ginsberg was the popular and spiritual leader of the postwar experimental poetry, Charles Olson was its leading thinker and strategist.” Olson emphasized the active over the passive: “Art does not seek to describe but to enact.” The poet, therefore, must replace (in Olson’s terms) the “classical-representational” with the “primitive-abstract.”[13]


In a 1950 essay, Olson envisions “open” (i.e. “free”) verse as a “field,” with the ear determining the syllable and the breath determining the line, which “brings us up, immediately, bang, against tenses, in fact against syntax, in fact against grammar generally, that is, as we have inherited it.” Instead, the “law of the line” overrides “the conventions which logic has forced on syntax . . . .” Olson stops there, though: “But the analysis of how far a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests, is too big for these notes.” He leaves the problem of grammar to future theorists.


Regarding the “stance toward reality outside a poem as well as a new stance towards the reality of a poem itself,” Olson advocates for what he calls “objectism” – that is, “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the ‘subject’ and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature . . . and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects.”[14]


Olson’s poetics predate the major writings of Lacan and Derrida and their influence on poetics. Still, we can see in his ideas the germ of what would become postmodern poetics: the language of the poem itself as paramount to anything outside of it. Olson even anticipates the postmodern treatment of grammar as an artifice forced on raw language, but seems daunted by that idea, choosing instead to leave the issue open for the future.


Olson’s theory has its roots deep in modernism, with its shifting of the meaning of the work of art from within the artist (or poet) to the viewer (or reader), treating the work itself as an “objective” medium – in the sense that it is a mere object, with the active role taken by the reader. Olson takes this idea to its logical extreme, where the poem as an object transcends even the rules of logic as embodied by grammar.

By the end of the twentieth century, Olson’s ideas, nourished by the French postmodernists, dominated discussion of poetic theory. By then, however, grammar – and by extension, logic – became much more than a mere inconvenience to the natural expression of the poetic line, as Olson saw it. Instead, language itself was seen as unreliable, and because poetry is expressed through the medium of language, the very foundation of poetry was “problematic.”


In her essay “The Rejection of Closure,” the poet Lyn Hejinian discusses the unreliability of language in the context of “closure” in a literary work. For her, “Language discovers what one might know. Therefore, the limits of language are the limits of what we might now.” Thus, human psychology

is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it, and, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss, or disclose it.

But despite its inadequacy, language is also “one of the principal forms our curiosity takes” and is therefore “never in a state of rest.” It both induces a “yearning for comprehension,” and at the same time is incapable of “clos[ing] the gap between ourselves and things.” Thus, poetry does not match the world, but provides an avenue to “discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things.”[15]


In a 2000 essay, the poet Steve McCaffery (b. 1947) brings Olson’s problematization of grammar to its full fruition, relying on French postmodernism and the Marxist roots underlying its theory of language. He discusses in economic terms the concept of “language writing” or unreadable writing, differentiating between traditional “readerly” (lisible) texts “grounded in a transmission theory of communication” versus “writerly” (scriptable) texts, which are “resistant to habitual reading” and render the reader “no longer a consumer but a producer of the text.” Unreadability, therefore, is an ideological departure from consumption to production.


McCaffery acknowledges “the problematics of the concept of writing itself” as theorized by Derrida and concludes “that the purpose of a certain writing should be to raise these problems.” Language writing, as a result, proposes “a shift for writing away from literature and the readable, towards the dialectical domain of its own interiorities as primarily an interacting surface of signifiers” and towards a “critique of the ideological contamination operative upon the very order of sign production.”

This critique serves the political function of two major “fetishisms” in language – with “fetishism” defined in Marxist terms as “a mechanism of occlusion” that detaches commodities from their meaning as products of labor and presents them as self-perpetuating “things” that take their place within social circulation as an exchange value.” The fetishism are grammar, which “acts as a mechanism that regulates the free circulation of meaning,” and reference, which is the idea that “language must always refer beyond itself to . . . some extra-linguistic thing,” and therefore “wants a message as a product to be consumed.”


To break free from grammar, language writing operates as “an expenditure of meanings” in the isolated parts of the text “for the sake of the present moment,” and to break free from the referential fetish, it “shifts away from literary concerns back to the ground of semantic production.” If it achieves these ends successfully, however, language writing “falls short in addressing the full implications of this break and seems especially to fail in taking full account of the impact of the human subject with the thresholds of linguistic meaning.” This in turn opens language writing to a “libidinal economy,” a complex not of representations but of “intensive forces, active only in the realm of power.” Because libidinal circuits are “intractable, intensely permeative and impossible to locate,” language becomes “simultaneously composed and dissolved, made and unmade, consumed and regurgitated” – connecting “with the unconscious and its drives.”[16]


Addressing this production/consumption dichotomy further, Kenneth Goldsmith (b. 1961) in his essay “Conceptual Poetics” discusses conceptual or uncreative writing – which he illustrates by real-life examples of infusing a chemical alphabet into the DNA sequence of a bacterium and retyping an entire edition of a day’s copy of the New York Times as a 900-page book. “Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds,” he writes, “the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish.”


In conceptual poetry, “it’s the machine that drives the poem’s construction that matters” – that is, “the mere trace of any language in a work . . . will carry enough semantic and emotional weight on its own without any further subjective meddling from the poet . . . .”  As a result, “traditional notions of a poem’s meaning, emotion, metaphor, image, and song are subservient to the raw physicality of language.”


Goldsmith goes on to anchor the roots of conceptual writing in the “densely unreadable texts” of Gertrude Stein, which were “designed to be skimmed” instead of read, “to delight the eye (in a visual sense) while holding the book – presciently predicting current reading habits. He also finds influence in the “procedure compositions” of composers John Cage and Jackson Mac Low and the films of Andy Warhol, which Warhol himself said “were better thought about than seen.”[17]

In sixty years, from Olson’s essay to the first decades of the new millennium, poetic theory underwent a total breakdown. Olson’s original germ of an observation that grammar restricted the expression of poetic language transformed into a mistrust of language itself as a means of communication, and with it a shift in poetry away from being a medium of expression to a pure object, where the language itself is a sort of toy to be played with.


With this understanding of postmodern poetic theory, we can now examine and analyze some outstanding examples of postmodern poetry. All examples chosen here are from American poets, as the university system in the United States has been at the forefront of adopting French postmodern theorists’ ideas into English literature.


IV. Postmodernism in Poetry


An early example of postmodern thought in poetry is the famous and often anthologized 1967 poem “The Dover Bitch” by Anthony Hecht (1923-2004). Written exactly a century after Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” it responds to Arnold’s poem:


The Dover Bitch

A Criticism of Life: for Andrews Wanning


So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them, And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me, And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad All over, etc., etc.’ Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read Sophocles in a fairly good translation And caught that bitter allusion to the sea, But all the time he was talking she had in mind The notion of what his whiskers would feel like On the back of her neck. She told me later on That after a while she got to looking out At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad, Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds And blandishments in French and the perfumes. And then she got really angry. To have been brought All the way down from London, and then be addressed As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty. Anyway, she watched him pace the room And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit, And then she said one or two unprintable things. But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is, She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while And she always treats me right. We have a drink And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year Before I see her again, but there she is, Running to fat, but dependable as they come. And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d' Amour.


To understand Hecht’s treatment fully, a word must be said about the poet behind “Dover Beach.” Matthew Arnold in his 1880 essay “The Study of Poetry,” cites Aristotle for his proposition that the superiority of poetry as a literary genre lies in the “high seriousness” of the treatment of its subject matter.[18]


Hecht takes exactly the opposite approach from Arnold, trivializing Arnold’s poem, from transforming “Beach” in the title to “Bitch,” to ridiculing Arnold’s facial hair, to transforming the addressee of Arnold’s elevated discourse into a vapid and sensuous woman who really just wants “a good time” and a drink. Hecht’s playful trivialization of Arnold’s serious discourse deconstructs the original poem, knocking the classic off its pedestal without replacing it with anything else. Arnold and his discourse are made ridiculous, when all the “Dover Bitch” wants is casual sex and a drink.


Hecht was not the last postmodern poet to “play with” a classic. Laura Mullen (b. 1958), originally from Los Angeles, describes her work as “postmodern” and eve “postlanguage,” insisting that “that which is felt in a poem is created by words, words, unreliable words.”[19] Her 2011 collection, Dark Archive, refers to a concept that “comes from the digital world and refers to a copy of a data set to which almost no one has access and that is retained in remote storage against the possibility of disastrous loss.”[20] The following poem comes from that collection:


I Wandered Networks like a Cloud That floated o’er my couch, remote In one hand, drink in the other, as a crowd On the screen (frightened, enraged) Fled the tanks beneath the leaves Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Continuous as the stars that shine, These wars, these displaced “refugees,” Filmed in never-ending lines Along the margins and at bay. Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Hurrying nowhere, like worried ants. The waves beside them danced; but they Bent weeping over loved bodies: A poet could not but be gay, Far from such desperate company: I gazed – and gazed – but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought: For oft when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that satellite dish Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, To channel surf the world’s ills.


Here Mullen paraphrases Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Like Hecht, she inverts the classic she paraphrases. Wordsworth’s poem addresses the concept of the ideal, and how the image of the daffodils continues to provide solace long after the perception has ended. Mullen, by contrast, addresses the presentation of tragic events as entertainment viewed on television from the comfort of home. For her, what matters is the real, not the ideal. Like Hecht, Mullen trivializes Wordsworth’s philosophical discussion by “recontextualizing” it among the banalities of everyday contemporary life. Wordsworth’s observation of the daffodils is transformed into watching television.


John Ashbery (1927-2017) has been called the “leading poet of his generation.” Influenced by French avant-garde writing and using periphrasis, or circumlocution, as a primary literary device, his poetry “is often considered difficult.” But “in its inconclusiveness and linguistic play, Ashbery’s poetry captures the philosophical spirit of the age, as otherwise reflected in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida.”[21] His poetry reflects indeterminacy as “the conditionality of truth” and demonstrates “a tendency away from finality and closure; the text is in a state of unrest or undecidability.”[22] The following 1981 poem illustrates Ashbery’s indirect style and postmodernist outlook:


Paradoxes and Oxymorons This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level. Look at it talking to you. You look out a window Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it. You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other. The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,Bringing a system of them into play. Play? Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern, As in the division of grace these long August days Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters. It has been played once more. I think you exist only To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t here Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


Ashbery here achieves – ironically for a postmodernist – a clear and concise manifesto of postmodern poetics. His poem is about itself. Like “Dover Bitch,” its tone is playful, but instead of addressing a particular classic, this poem addresses the very concept of language. It begins by describing the poem “talking to” the reader, but the reader misses it. The gulf between the poem and the poet is inseparable because of the faultiness of language. All that remains to the poet, Ashbery concludes, is “play,” which is “open-ended.” With poetry as endless wordplay, the poet and the reader are equivalent, and the poem becomes the reader. The poet’s play becomes the reader’s, with the poem as a mere object. This open-endedness reflects the eschewal of “closure” discussed by Hejinian.


Charles Bernstein (b. 1950) studied philosophy and became a “leading theorist of language poetry,” and produced many essays on the subject.[23] The following 1999 poem addresses some of Bernstein’s theoretical views:


This Line This line is stripped of emotion. This line is no more than an illustration of a European theory. This line is bereft Of a subject. This line has no reference apart from its context inthis line. This lineis only about itself. This line has no meaning: its words are imaginary, its sounds inaudible. This line cares not for itself or for anyone else – it is indifferent, impersonal, cold, uninviting. This line is elitist, requiring, to understand it, years of study in stultifying libraries, poring over esoteric treatises on impossible to pronounce topics. This line refuses reality.


Bernstein here echoes Ashbery. While Ashbery deconstructs the poem as a whole, Bernstein focuses on the line. Illustrating the postmodern concept of language as inherently unreliable because of the power structures behind it, Bernstein’s poem is devoid of content. “The line” does not exist; instead, each line is a recitation of what postmodernism views as the forces at work behind language: eurocentrism, hierarchy, historical context. Bernstein states the postmodern dogma that the line is self-referential only, and states it as a poem to illustrate that point.

This deconstruction is taken further in the following 2005 poem by Linh Dinh (b. 1963), a Vietnamese poet who emigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1975:[24]


Vocab Lab This word means yes, however, maybe, or no, depending on the situation. This word means desire,love, friendship, rape, or a sudden urge to engage someone in a philosophical conversation. This word is unlearnable, its meaning mermetic to all outsiders. It can neither be pronounced nor memorized.

This word is protean and can be spelled

an infinite number of ways. Its meaning, however, is exact.

This word is also protean, and may be used in place of any other word, without loss of meaning.


This word can only be hinted at, implied, and thus appears in no books, not even in a dictionary.

This word can neither be spoken nor seen. It can be freely written, however, but only in complete darkness.


This word means one thing when spoken by a man, and another thing, altogether different, when said by a woman.

This word means now, soon, or never, depending on the age of the speaker.


This word means here, there, or nowhere, depending on the speaker’s nationality.


It has often been said that the natives

will only teach foreigners a fake, degraded language,

a mock system of signs

parodying the real language.


It has also been said that the natives

don’t know their own language,

and must mimic the phony languages of foreigners,

to make sense out of their lives.


Ashbery deconstructed the poem and Bernstein the line. Here Dinh deconstructs the word itself. “This word” – which may or may not refer to a single word throughout – always has exaggerated nuances and cultural contexts that render meaning impossible to derive. Dinh’s perspective as a non-native English speaker likely contributed in no small part to such views on the difficulty of language. But here Dinh extends the concept of untranslatability to all language. Not just the poem, not just the line, but the word itself – the basic unit of language – is unreliable because it lacks any fixed meaning. Anything the reader can derive from the word is false because it fails to account for the myriad nuances and contexts behind it.


Ronald Johnson (1935-1998) is postmodernism’s epic poet. He began his epic, ARK, in the early 1970’s and published the entire work in 1995. It consists of three sections of thirty-three poems: The Foundations (made up of “Beams”), The Spires, and The Ramparts (made up of Arches).[25] “Over these, as a metaphorical dome, rests ARK 100, a rewriting of Paradise Lost by excision.”[26] ARK 100 appeared in 1977 as RADI OS, which Johnson said was inspired by a Lukas Foss record in which a Handel piece was excised to give it “a modern, modish feel, but it was definitely Handel.” “[T]he next day,” Johnson said, “I went to the bookstore and bought a Milton Paradise Lost. And I started crossing out. I got about halfway through it crossing out anything because I thought it would be funny. But I decided you don’t tamper with Milton to be funny. You have to be serious.”[27]


from RADI OS


O                     tree             into the World,                                                                            Man                                     the chosen Rose out of Chaos:                                          song                                                outspread                         on the vast Illumine.


Johnson’s work embodies Goldsmith’s idea of “conceptual poetry” – poetry as assembled rather than created. As with Hecht and Mullen, Johnson “plays with” a classic, except here instead of inverting the subject matter, Johnson attacks the text itself, defacing it, and leaving for the reader fragments that ostensibly carry a meaning independent of the original work. Yet Johnson does not regard his methodology as mere play; he “ha[d] to be serious” to “tamper with Milton.” The “seriousness” of the work, then, lies in its treatment of the original. Like all postmodern work, “conceptual poetry” makes a statement about what it sees as the inherent unreliability of language. Here, like the excising of Handel that inspired it, the poem remains unmistakably Milton, yet assumes an entirely new meaning. For example, the phrase “the chosen / Rose out of chaos,” can constitute a statement about language, how from the inherent chaos of meaning the poet chooses specific words – much like the process by which Johnson redacted Milton.


K. Silem Mohammad (b. 1962), an original member of the Flarf Collective, a California-based cyberpoety school compared to Dada, which used computer search engines to write purposefully bad poetry.[28] In his collection, Sonnagrams, written between 2008 and 2011, Mohammad used Shakespeare’s sonnets to generate his own material according to a procedure he describes thus:


I feed Shakespeare’s sonnets one line at a time into an anagram engine, thus generating anew group of words from each line, which I then paste into a Microsoft Word document. This initial textual output gives me a bank of raw material that is quantitatively equivalent to Shakespeare’s poem at the most basic linguistic level: the letter. At the same time, it sufficiently alters the lexical structure of the original poem so that I am not overtly influenced by Shakespeare’s semantic content. I click and drag the text generated by the anagram engine letter by letter until I am able to rework it into a new sonnet in iambic pentameter, with the English rhyme scheme . . . . The letters that are inevitably left over are used to make a title.[29]


Mohammad’s transformation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 47 according to this method yields the following result:


The the the the the the the the the the Death (Hey Hey) Hell yeah, this is an English sonnet, bitch: Three quatrains and a couplet, motherfucker. I write that yummy shit to get me rich: My iambs got more drive than Preston Tucker. I also got that English rhyme shit straight, That alternating shit the verses do. Word: every foxy mama that I date Feels how my goddam prosody is true. And I don’t mess with no Italian shit: I only blow your mind the one way, ho. I line it up four-four-four-two, that’s it: That’s how I do my sonnet bidness, yo. My mad Shakespearean moves are “phat” or “def”: They weave my pet eel Lenny – what the eff?


Here Silem combines both trends of postmodernism: pure wordplay with subversion of classical forms. Silem’s methodology has a “conceptual” element much like Johnson’s; he took a preexisting text (in this case Shakespeare) and transformed it via a process looser than an algorithm, assembling a new text as a result. At the same time, Silem writes a classic Shakespearian sonnet, but trivializes the form with highly colloquial, profanity-laced “street language.” An ancient and revered poetic form is fitted with phrases like “yummy shit” and “my . . . bidness, yo.”


V. Analysis & Conclusion: A Return to Meaning


In Postmodernism we see the final breakdown of not just poetry, but of language itself. With Foucault, reason itself is reduced to a mere expression of power structures. And with Derrida language loses all meaning, and all linguistic expression is nothing more than wordplay. Poetry as a linguistic expression is subject to deconstruction as much as any other text. Given the futility of poetry as expression, it would seem Postmodernists would abandon poetry altogether as pointless. Yet – perhaps counterintuitively – rather than abandoning the craft, Postmodernist poets persisted in writing poetry. But what were they left with to write about? With Postmodernism’s denial of the ability of the text to communicate anything outside of itself, the only thing left to the Postmodernist poet was to write poems about the poems themselves, turning them into self-deconstructing works – at once self-referential and nihilistic.


The triad of deconstructive poems by Ashbery, Bernstein, and Dinh exemplify where Postmodernism has taken poetry. Ashbery’s poem is about the poem itself, while Bernstein’s is about its constituent lines and Dinh’s about its very words – the basic building-blocks of the poem. Each poem affirms that it really has no meaning. Thus, it cannot really be about anything other than itself; a discourse rather than a poem.

In one sense, this is an outgrowth of Modernism, in which the work of art derived its meaning from what the viewer or reader assigned to it. Except a meaning assigned by a viewer is still a meaning and still acknowledges the communicative function of language. Postmodernism takes the final step and denies even this, stripping the poem of any remaining sense of meaning. All left for the poem to do is play with its own language (and we have another word for playing with oneself . . .).


It has frequently been observed that Postmodernism does not withstand its own scrutiny. If texts are unreliable, mere impositions of power structures, then the texts conveying the ideas of Postmodernism are themselves unreliable. Yet if the reader is to accept Postmodernist ideas from their authors’ texts, then language does indeed convey meaning and the entire premise of Postmodernism collapses. The true Postmodernist is one who writes no text at all.


Postmodernist poetry therefore seems superfluous – especially for an art form come to be regarded by many already as superfluous. What point is there in writing a poem when it can convey nothing, when even the words by which it plays with itself are unreliable? It is really a pointless exercise, and an embodiment of why poetry has come to be irrelevant except to those who write it. Yet it would be a mistake to consider Postmodern poetry a mere sideshow or curiosity; it has been profoundly influential, and poets like John Ashbery have enjoyed widespread renown and influence in the literary world.


But Postmodernism has another, more insidious side. In works like “The Dover Bitch” and “I Wandered Networks like a Cloud,” reference to great poems of the past is irreverent, but not in a way that criticizes them or adds a new understanding. Instead, the later poems trivialize the former, with Hecht reducing Matthew Arnold’s great mourning of the loss of faith to a boring old man who needs to have more fun and Mullen comparing Wordsworth’s contemplation of the Platonic ideal to channel-surfing news stations. And Mohammed’s sonnet, strictly Shakespearean, takes an actual Shakespeare sonnet and transforms it through a Google search into a profanity-riddled street-boast. Postmodenism does not stop at deconstructing language, but – and this is the Frankfurt School’s primary task – it deconstructs the mystique of the works of the past, trivializing them, overlooking the messages that made them into enduring works, and rendering them instead objects of ridicule viewed from the vantage of a supposedly more enlightened present day.


As early as the mid-1990’s cultural discourse began to refer to Post-Postmodernism, Trans-Postmodernism, Post-Millennialism, and so forth – as developments from and, in some cases, reactions to Postmodernism. It is hard to see how Postmodernism can develop further. Deconstruction represents the ultimate degradation of art, philosophy, and even language. Any further breakdown, such as that seen now in the sciences with biological concepts subject to deconstruction, is only a further iteration of Postmodernism.


The only way forward from Postmodernism is as a reaction against it – not a reaction in the sense of destruction (what could be more Postmodernist than destruction of destruction?), but reaction as “backing away from the edge.” Postmodernism is the abyss of nihilism, a place with nowhere further to go, and in which going only leads to more nothingness. The abyss consumes, convincing those who gaze on it that it is the truth – but it is not inescapable. We can back away from it.


Backing away from this abyss necessarily amounts to backing into meaning – and into an understanding of poetry that has existed across all cultures through all of human history. That function is to find meaning in the world through beauty – expressing the inexpressible in words. In this respect, ironically, poetry implicitly acknowledges the Postmodern doctrine of the insufficiency of language. But that has never posed an insurmountable problem until Postmodernism. All prior poetry used the language available to express as closely as it could the ideas that inspired it. As Shelley writes in his essay “A Defence of Poetry,”

A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, . . . .

Yet to acknowledge meaning is to reject not only Postmodernism but Modernism, too, and return to the reality that Mankind knew until just over a century ago: of fixed truths and of language and art as a means to reach it, however imperfect of means they were. As Robert Frost famously put it, poetry is “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”


Such poetry is far from a lost art. Despite Postmodernism’s cultural dominance, the timeless tradition of poetry continues to thrive and, if anything, is receiving increased attention. Two striking examples of poets who buck the Postmodernist trend and write poetry with meaning, at least in America, are Richard Wilbur and Dana Gioia.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), a contemporary of Ashbery and other Postmodernists, rose to prominence and actually served as United States Poet Laureate in 1987 during the Reagan years. His poems, including the following poem from his 1987 collection New and Collected Poems, provide a refreshing antidote to contemporary Postmodernism:


Transit A woman I have never seen before Steps from the darkness of her town-house door At just that crux of time when she is made So beautiful that she or time must fade. What use to claim that as she tugs her gloves A phantom heraldry of all the loves Blares from the lintel? That the staggered sun Forgets, in his confusion, how to run? Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet Clock down the walk that issues in the street, Leaving the stations of her body there As a whip maps the countries of the air.


This poem describes a fleeting moment of beauty, at once ephemeral and profound – with its profundity paradoxically emphasized by its ephemerality. There is no wordplay here. The language conveys an idea, and the idea – the paradox presented – is timeless. Another striking feature is that Wilbur uses rhyme and meter to convey his idea, linking the poem to the origins of poetry in song.


Another poet writing alongside and in spite of Postmodernist poets is Dana Gioia (b. 1950), who also achieved renown, serving as Poet Laureate of California and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. Importantly, Gioia has also been an advocate for poetry and poetic craft, authoring the influential 1992 book, Can Poetry Matter?


The following poem comes from Gioia’s 2016 volume 99 Poems:


The Road He sometimes felt that he had missed his life By being far too busy looking for it. Searching the distance, he often turned to find That he had passed some milestone unaware, And someone else was walking next to him, First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife, They were good company – generous, kind, But equally bewildered to be there. He noticed then that no one chose the way –All seemed to drift by some collective will. The path grew easier with each passing day, Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill. The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom. Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?


First, form and tradition are respected, not mocked. Gioia unironically presents a tried-and-true Petrarchan sonnet, and uses the form according to its traditional structure: octave, followed by sested that begins with a turn. Nor is there any wordplay: the poem uses proper grammar and syntax to relate to a subject outside of the poetic text – both anathema to the Postmodernist. Gioia describes the sensation of feeling bewildered as life “happens to” us – and presents as its turn that not only the subject but everyone feels this way: “no one chose the way.”


Anyone reading Gioia’s poem understands the sentiments he is conveying and relates to them. A Postmodernist might deconstruct the poem by exhaustively interpreting line by line and word by word, revealing micro-level inconsistencies and non sequiturs. Even so, no hyper-exhaustive reading detracts from what the reader receives from the poem and what is readily intelligible on a first reading. Any analysis that goes beyond that is mere sophistry, mired in a radical egalitarianism that presumes the validity of all meanings readable into a text, even those inconsistent with what the language in its overarching use conveys.


Not only does the clarity, simplicity, and lyricism of Wilbur’s and Gioia’s poems stand in stark contrast to the navel-gazing, smug, and ultimately pointless poems of Postmodernism, their poems treat their subjects as timeless – in strong contrast to the ephemerality of the Postmodern poems presented, all of which very much dwell “in the moment.” And there lies the deepest and most important contrast between traditional verse and Postmodern poetry.


Wilbur’s and Gioia’s transform the mundane into the timeless – achieving the “profound seriousness” theorized by Arnold – but also employ traditional form and the musicality of rhyme and meter. Tradition serves as the link with prior generations, stretching into the distant and unknown past and at the same time into an equally distant and unknown future. It is a form of ritual, a constant form in a world that otherwise changes and dies, which by its very immutability serves as a reminder of and a link to the realm of the eternal and changeless. Just as attending the changeless rites of a liturgy transports the worshipper from the grimy streets into the realm of God, treating a novel or contemporary subject in a traditional form removes it from its current time and place and places it in the realm of ideas, eternal and changeless. In this way poetry acts as a powerful mystical force that, as Shelley says, “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar;” which “reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists.”


This mystical, quasi-ritual function is poetry’s profoundest aspect, and unites Horace’s dual functions of teaching and delighting into one: the experience itself serves as a glimpse beyond the ephemeral “here” and “now.” Postmodernism – not only in poetry, but in all the arts – actively abhors such ritual significance, as it views symbols and words (which it treats as mere symbols) as nothing more than the oppressive means of power structures and therefore illegitimate. But Postmodernism – quite intentionally – offers nothing to replace the glimpse of the eternal that the human mind by its very nature craves. Thus it is perhaps the cruelest worldview of all: nothing has meaning, so we might as well play.


But ideas always have consequences, and there is little wonder that in the world dominated by Postmodernism suicide has become a pandemic and whole populations have lost the will to reproduce. It appears that civilizations self-destruct under the influence of Postmodernism in the same way that texts self-deconstruct. But the good news is that self-destruction is not inevitable, and the movement away from that abyss begins with poetry. Just as the epics of Homer used the songs of the long-lost Mycenaean world to inspire what would become Classical Greece and Dante’s Commedia Divina fused the long-lost Classical world with Christian doctrine to inspire the Renaissance, the poets of our generation, too, can take all that is good from the past and work with it in the context of the present to build a culture for the future. Bridging time in this way reconnects our world to the changeless and eternal realm of ideas, at once resolving the present crisis of meaning and inspiring new generations to creative action.



Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. He is a regular contributor to The Chained Muse and has contributed to various other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.


[1] Lyotard, J.-F. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Univ. of Minnesota Pres, 1979).

[2] Lindlof, Thomas R.; Bryan C. Taylor. Qualitative Communication Research Methods (Sage Publications, 2002), 48-49.

[3] Id., 49.

[4] Id.

[5] Horkheimer, Max. “Traditional and Critical Theory.” Critical Theory: Selected Essays, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Continuum Publishing, 1975), 207.

[6] Lechte, John, ed. Fifty key contemporary thinkers: From structuralism to postmodernity. (Routledge, 2006). 40, 171-75.

[7] Id., 108.

[8] Id., 40-44, 77-78, 260, 138-39.

[9] Rouse, Joseph, “Power/Knowledge” (2005). Division I Faculty Publications. Paper 34.

[10] Derrida, Jacques. Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida, with a new introduction. (Fordham University Press, 2020). 274.

[11] Lechte, 124.

[12] Prickett, Stephen. “Postmodernism and Irony.” The AnaChronisT 7 (2001). 199-214.

[13] Hoover, Paul, ed. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. 2d ed. (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013), pp. xxix, 3.

[14] Id., 862-71 (quoting Charles Olson. “Project Verse (projectile (percussive (prospective vs. The NON-Projective.” Poetry New York, No. 3, 1950)).

[15] Hoover ed., 894-900 (quoting Lyn Hejinian. “The Rejection of Closure.” The Language of Inquiry (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2000)).

[16] Hoover ed., 913-21 (quoting “Language writing: from Productive to Libidinal Economy.” North of Invention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. (Roof Books, 2000). Part I, pp. 143-52.)

[17] Hoover ed., 933-43 (quoting “Conceptual Poetics,” http://www.sibila.com.br/index.php/sibila-english/410-conceptual-poetics.)

[18] Arnold, Matthew. “The Study of Poetry” (1880), available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69374/the-study-of-poetry.

[19] Hoover ed. 649 (quoting Kass Fleisher. “Laura Mullen: Threatened as a Threat: Rethinking Gender and Genre.” Eleven More American Women Poets of the 21st Century: Poetics Across North America, ed. Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell (Wesleyean Univ. Press 2012), p. 217.)

[20] Id. (quoting Bruce Whiteman. “Dark Archive by Laura Mullen.” Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century. Oct. 15, 2011, http://rattle.com/blog/2011/10/dark-archive-by-laura-mullen/.)

[21] Hoover ed., 242-43.

[22] Id., xxxix.

[23] Hoover ed., 517.

[24] Hoover ed., 733 (quoting Susan M. Schultz. “Most Beautiful Words: Linh Dinh’s Poetics of Disgust.” Jacket 27, April 2005, http://jacketmagazine.com/27/schu-linh.html.)

[25] Hoover ed., 249.

[26] Id. (quoting Biography of Ronald Johnson. The Dictionary of Literary Biography, reprinted at http://www.trifectapress.com/Johnson/interview1.html.)

[27] Id. at 250 (quoting Peter O’Leary. “Ronald Johnson Interview, November 19, 1995,” http://www.trifectapress.com/Johnson/interview1.html.)

[28] Hoover ed., liii, 727.

[29] Hoover ed., 727 (quoting Slack Buddha Press website. Sonnagrams 1-20, 2011, http://slackbuddha.com/chapbooks/la_perruque/sonnagrams.html.)

11 comments

11 Comments


Kurt Rightmyer
Kurt Rightmyer
Mar 26

I still maintain that it is possible for postmodern theory to provide a theoretical framework for writers without dictating that all writing be condemned to nihilistic navel gazing. I have found postmodernism to be tremendously liberating, especially for creating ironic and allusive works that draw the reader into complex webs of association distinct from modernism. The problem again, is that writers have not fully explored the strengths of postmodernism's appeal, and instead have used it to cudgel art, culture, and humanity in general. Personally, I think our current MALE MEN need to deliver and reassert their primacy as thinking leaders a la Robert Bly, but the gender diaspora has now made that more unlikely. It remains to be seen wha…

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ajsedia
Mar 30
Replying to

I will give Kurt credit for at least envisioning a Postmodernism used for constructive means, similar to what Borges did -- although I would argue it would cease to be Postmodernism at that point; it would more resemble structuralism.


But I believe you read my essay backwards. This is a polemical work criticizing the ideas of Postmodernism. The selection of poems was necessarily limited to those most illustrative of the ideas discussed. This essay took me months to write and I had a selection of a good 20 poems I considered discussing that I necessarily had to pare down to the 7 actually used. I fully acknowledge the heterodox nature of Postmodernism, but in spite of that it has a…


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Kurt Rightmyer
Kurt Rightmyer
Mar 24

I find it hard to believe no one else has commented. Then again that may be the quintessential postmodernist response. First, it appears the examples of postmodernist poetry chosen, while famous, are clearly not at the apex of the writing. Second, critics of postmodernism have yet to realize the locus of postmodernism shifted from the northeast to the southwest. The best postmodernist poets largely came out of California, not New England. Charles Harper Webb, Ron Koertge, Wanda Coleman, and Fred Voss all pushed the envelope in interesting and constructive ways. And Bukowski forcefully interjected personality back into writing. I would gladly add myself to the list, but my own writing hasn't even been discovered yet. That brings me to my…

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ajsedia
Mar 30
Replying to

The poems selected here (massively pared down from my original selections) were chosen based on how the illustrated the theory behind Postmodernism. Even so, it would be hard to dismiss John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein as not illustrative of Postmodernist poetry. And Johnson, Mullen, and the Flarf movement are all California-based, though in my view geography does not define Postmodernism so much as theory, hence the discussion of philosophy and poetics.


Finally, I would not classify Bukowski as a Postmodernist. If anything, he more closely resembles the Beat poets, though I would not classify him quite that way, either. He was definitely his own animal -- as I'm sure he would agree.

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