All Our Questions Are Posed As Answers
First, it’s important to remember where we’ve been. This, from William Wordsworth, in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802):
“The objects of the poet’s thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labors of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.”
And this, Harold Bloom’s footnote to the above selection:
“Alas, this has not come to pass. Science, so far from being 'familiarized to men,' has developed to the point where it is beyond the comprehension of most men, including poets.”
The tension between these two positions, one, that the poet must (will) be aware, and work with, the “material revolution” of science (as forecast by William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads) and two, that the comprehension of this revolution is beyond most people, (as noted by Harold Bloom) reveals the tension at the heart of the progressing tradition of the irrational imagination. Proceeding through the very real day, looking for sign posts, poets of the irrational imagination attempt to put a “form of flesh and blood” on what has, and hasn’t, come to pass, to move, while at the same time, remaining aware that much of what has come to pass is, or is nearly, inexplicable. So what assumptions, what politics, might guide this poetry?
We go on tour.
One of the difficulties / problems with cubism is that treating nature by the sphere, the cone, etc, is not treating nature as nature. It’s a theoretical overlay. It’s another of the willed impositions of Modernism. On the other hand, Picasso made some beautiful art, so where does that leave us? The same can be said for Stevens. Stein. Frost.
Looking at it another way, there never was a Modernism. For, if one looks at Milton, looking for it, one can also find fractals. So? Are periods an imposition then? Of course they are. All things can be found where one looks for them, if one is determined enough. But still, no one would mistake T.S. Eliot for Alexander Pope. So things do change.
And then one can say that Post-modernism’s reaction against this overlay of Modernism is/was to use a pastiche of styles and influences that gives the appearance of the messy underside of the machine of Modernism, even if Duchamp and Picasso and Stein were there first.
And the reaction against Post-Modernism, then? Is it to renew the idea of a center? Spiritual? Political? Aesthetic? Is it to take the idea of fractal infinity and apply that to—add it back to—our experience of Modernism? What would such a movement look like? A friendly Modernism? William Carlos Williams?
Modernism broke as it was hijacked as totalitarian. Post-modernism has now broken as it was hijacked as empty. So? Both Warhol and Koons are institutional, so intentional surface is at its logical end. But one could have said the same thing when coming across Duchamp’s fountain. The logical end continues to renew itself.
There’s always backward. We can say nothing of value has existed since fill in the blank. Shakespeare maybe? Hopkins? Dickinson? Southey?
And if the hijacked definition of Post-modernism was that it was blank, is the turn now to fill in the blank with a newness? And if so, how would that differ from Modernism? One could try to correct the past, to correct the totalizing aspects of Modernism by imbuing it with a more natural-seeming surface.
But Robert Frost was there first, right? And wasn’t that what William Carlos Williams was all about? And then Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop?
Some terms have been tossed around, including New2 Sincerity, New Spirituality (OK, so that was just how I formulated them, but the ideas aren’t new with me). What these point to is trying to use the methods of Post-modernism toward a more centered consciousness. “I is an Other” worked well for a time (quite a long time, actually), but “I is a We” appears to be replacing it as a general psychological position. I find this possibility exciting. Or whatever. None of these categories holds up all that well—and all are already present in the others.
My own view is that we’re at a point that is similar to Cézanne’s (et al), a crisis of representation. Specifically, a crisis in the representation of reality.
The world has proven time and again that any anti-art that can be made can be admired. Whoops: Time has proven DADA to be fecund. Our intentional failures have failed to fail. Our grand mansions have become train stations.
So we just want to play what the day presents (as Miles Davis would say).
Post-modernity is a condition, not an aesthetic stance. It’s equally an outcome of this condition to denounce contemporary art as incomprehensible and to call for a return to an earlier, coherent time, as it is to dive into further iterations of making it new. And neither of these positions is one side of a binary, as much as many on either side would wish.
So here we are, and Modernism has eaten itself, and we don’t yet have a better plan. There is no moving past “make it new” that isn’t already part of “make it new,” even if one should turn to the past, as a large measure of Pound’s version of making it new was to dust off some very old things.