Sunday, June 03, 2007

From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century

"From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century" by Jennifer Ashton is a book I have been wanting to write something on for a while. So, Sunday night before another busy week; here is a long rambling rave from off the top of my head.

Ashton's text is a carefully argued but at the same time very broad account of the currents which flow between modernism and postmodernism in American poetry during the 1900s. It is verse written by Americans, not really by those Americans living in America that concerns the text. Of course it is Gertrude Stein that is the pivot in the whole affair. Her The Making of Americans is the text Ashton returns to again and again. The dual concepts existing between the modernist and postmodernist 'missions' could you say in poetry are summarized by Ashton as entity/identity, logic/phenomenology, intention/attention, meaning /affect being the transformation "that has defined the movement from modernism to postmodernism and in the process redefined modernism itself." (222)
If you want to come to a deeper understanding of the exchanges and interdependency between modernism and postmodernism, Ashton's text is excellent. As well I found it to be a learning tool in how to write; clear and simple ideas flow through well constructed paragraphs. It is not only Stein who is dissected in the pages, a fascinating account of the poetry and thought of Laura (Riding) Jackson is juxtaposed against much of what we take for granted in language today. I mean by this the indeterminacy of language; the idea that words mean different things to different people. In fact that is why I first picked up Ashton's text, because it is in many ways a reply and update to one of my favorite critical works on poetry; Marjorie Perloff's The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Rimbaud to Cage (1981). Ashton pays homage to Perloff but at the same time demolishes several of the assumptions that ground her text. Ashton bases much of her critique of Perloff on the mistaking of experience for meaning. This is achieved by examining the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets and the ideas Stein expressed in the lectures she gave in the States in the 1930s. The split really starts to become obvious in the 1940s when (Riding) Jackson abandons poetry, seeing language as "the essential moral meeting-ground." From meaning (morality) to effect: experience- was a long way for (Riding) Jackson. But by this time Wallace Stevens was gaining a place in the landscape of American verse and things were changing. Incidentally one of my favorite poems is The Idea of Order at Key West by Stevens. I feel the space of The Idea of Order at Key West, but what it is about that is up to you. Reason or logic had fallen as (Riding) Jackson spent the next 30 years working on a huge polemic on the morality of words. Steven's instead stated that “the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them." Stevens' modernism sits close to William Carlos Williams and his wheelbarrow-

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The image overtakes the logic of the scene and it is the experience that arises out of the reading and not a concrete reality that can be placed in a single moral context. As Ashton reminds us:

"the identity that arises out of the relation between what a thing is at one moment and what it is at another is inevitably a function of what it is to or for is just this interdependance between subjects and objects that makes nature look continuous with consciousness and vice versa." (171)

Stevens breaks into this consiousness and 'slows it down' so to speak, as the points in a scene (he's looking out the window I seem to remember someome speculating) collide in the 8 rhythmic lines. The phenomenon holds our attention and although it means bugger all, we have a meaning to take away from the reading. Its distillation bringing affect. Ashton does not ask for the sanctity of the postmodern to observed, as if the phenomenon of consiousness is going to take us out of it. She is critical of the neurobiology, cognitive science, and neuropsychology direction a certain stream of linguistic research has been taking in recent years (see Lakoff, Fauconnier, Turner et. al.)

I could go on but it is getting late. Anyway, I recomend From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century..that's enough.
Well, one more thing actually. I woke up at 4am this morning due to my son deciding it was time to get up (he's 18 months old) so during out time together in the early hours we put a poem together. Here it is: Alchemy

No comments: