Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Modernist Poetry and Common Readers: Notes Of A Barbarian

 As many of you know, something odd happened to the arts sometime around or shortly before the fateful 'turn' of the 20th century: music, art, and poetry began to become 'modern' and then 'modernist'—a process that seems to have begun with what Kandinsky called the "the discrediting of the object" in impressionist painting (something similar was happening in the 'symbolist' poetry of Mallarm√© and Valery); the arts became self-consciously difficult and obscure; and the middle classes began to assume that whatever Art was all about, it had nothing to do with them—a situation that still persists.

It's significant —but significant of what?— that the modernist revolution in the arts preceded the first World War and the political revolutions—communist or fascist—that had been brewing for a long time and which that war ignited; after that war, modernism became the dominant 'paradigm' in the arts (I'm not satisfied with this word but can't think of a better).

Some of the greatest artists, musicians, poets and novelists of the 20th century came of age during years that preceded WW1—Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Picasso, Joyce, Frost, Proust, Stevens, Stravinsky, Berg, for example—and did much or most of their finest work after it. What no one has ever been able to explain, convincingly at least, is how or why or even if the extraordinary flowering of modernist art during the first decades of the 20th century is related to the horrendous political revolutions that were occurring at or about the same time. (For that matter, we still don't know or at least can't agree about what that word 'modernist' means.)

When art began (in Kandinsky's phrase) discrediting its objects, its only purpose was to free itself from the officially imposed (in France) shackles of classicism. But, like all revolutions, this one had unforeseen consequences: when art ceased to be mimetic, when it ceased to hold a mirror up to nature or life and began to strike out on its own as a self-justifying enterprise, it made itself irrelevant to all but the hyper-sophisticated literati; the masses went to the movies.  Which, I suppose, was inevitable, in any case.

Different countries responded differently to the siren songs of modernism that were coming from France: England, for example—and here one thinks especially of Hardy and Larkin—ignored them; American poets, with the notable exceptions of Robert Frost, W. C. Williams and Marianne Moore, listened and were bewitched.

I've already said quite enough about T. S. Eliot. I've recently been reading a lot of (and about) Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), America's greatest symbolist poet and a man (in Helen Vendler's words) "of chilling reticence." (Someone once quipped "that the French read Edgar Allen Poe and thought they were reading Stevens.") The best way to think about symbolist poetry is to think of it as poetry written in a private language; you can see why a man bent on revealing as little as possible about his inner life (or his public life as a vice-president of the Hartford Insurance and Indemnity Co.) and the miseries of an unhappy marriage, might want to write in a private language. Add to this the fact that his interest in the way imagination constructs reality is entirely esthetic and that he took no interest whatsoever in the politics or sociology of American democracy, and you have a poet whose poetry was bound to become increasingly desiccated as he aged, increasingly devoid of moral or human or intellectual content. This is a poet who pushed the theory and practice of art for art's sake about as far as it could go and didn't give a damn about his audience; or even whether or not he had one. The experts will say that I'm wrong; the poetry, especially the later poetry—"Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction" for example—is full of beauty, vitality and intellectual power; you just have to let the experts tell you where and how to look for it. Now I have read some of these experts—especially Helen Vendler—from whom I have learned a lot; I still have to say, however, that I still don't get it—reading that poem, and not only that one but just about all of his long poems, I never know where I am.

Has something has gone wrong with our literary culture when a common educated reader like me cannot read a poem, by a person universally acclaimed as great, without the help of academic critics—help that never helps him answer such basic questions as, where am I? What's going on?

I still think that most of Stevens best poetry is to be found in his first book, Harmonium (1923), written at a time when his life was anything but harmonious. "Sunday Morning," "The Snowman," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," "The Death Of A Soldier," "The Dwarf," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,"
and "The Idea of Order At Key West," will be read long after most of the later poetry is only to be found on dusty, dimly lighted shelves.


  1. The arts are always evolving, just like cultures and languages. Modernism did some good things and some bad things to the arts. Music suffered most. There is some great 20th century music, but compared to the 18th and 19th centuries, the 20th century has produced the smallest amount of beautiful, exciting, and moving music.

  2. Keep blogging.