I’m not very good with labels because I don’t think that they’re all that helpful and because I get more than a little tired of the adherents of one label pouring scorn on the others. That isn’t to say that I think that postmodernism is simply a phantom, I realise and accept that the culture in which we live started to experience major shocks in the mid-seventies and that Lyotard’s analysis of these shocks was fairly accurate. I also accept that some poetry can be described as post-modern in that it can be seen as a reaction against the worst excesses of modernism. I can see a reasonable case for describing Paul Muldoon as being more post-modern than modernist and many American poets as being thoroughly postmodern.
I’m a huge admirer of Charles Olson’s ‘The Maximus Poems’ and was about to re-read it when I glanced at the back cover. This was a mistake as part of it reads: “The Maximus Poems is one of the high achievements of of twentieth-century American letters and an essential poem in the postmodern canon.” The obvious response is that this simply isn’t the case, Olson writes firmly within the modernist idiom and all of the features that we come to expect from modernist poetry are fully present in ‘Maximus’. Or does this assertion simply mean that the publishers were so desperate to move a quite expensive book from the shelves that they gave it a tag to make it seem more relevant?
The other problem is that this tome was published in 1983, was there a ‘postmodern canon’ in 1983? Is there one now? How long does a movement or style have to be in existence before it can be said to have a canon?
I have read someone describe ‘Maximus’ as ‘sub-Poundian’ and this was meant as a sneer but I find it much more helpful than the ‘postmodern’ tag. I can make a strong case, if pushed, for Olson as a late modernist poet but I also acknowledge that this term carries such a broad range of connotations as to be almost meaningless.
Jeremy Prynne’s definition of postmodern poetics (in ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’) is quite dismissive: “I don’t think this is equivalent to post-modernist playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way….” Olson never lets meaning go skimming across the surface in any kind of way. He’s a modernist, as is Prynne.