Metamodernist poetics

This might take some time.

Over the weekend I fell across (largely by chance) ‘Notes on metamodernism’ by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker and read it. Normally I get quickly annoyed/bored by attempts to find a label for whatever replaced the last label but this makes a number of points that might have some relevance to the current state of British poetry.

The first thing that caught my eye was this quote from Jerry Solz in the New Yorker:

I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. . . . It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly selfconscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind.

These description seems to ‘fit’ with a lot of the poetry that has impressed me in recent years and I want to use this opportunity to think about the different ways that this ‘compound-complex’ mentality may have found voice in poetry.

A definition.

The authors make a case for the metamodern consisting of an ‘oscillation’ between the modern and the post-modern with a twist of neo-romanticism thrown in. I accept that this is a crude characterisation but I think it does get to the essence of the argument.

I continue to have an inherent distrust of labels and of periodisation because they usually hide lazy ways of thinking and the modern/postmodern distinction is often as useless as the medieval / early modern divide. However I am prepared to concede that something did seem to occur in the mid-seventies involving a loss of faith in the relentless march of progress. I’m also prepared to concede that modernism tends to be quite serious/pompous and that the postmodern sets out to undermine this by use of irony and pastiche.

The essay doesn’t bother to define oscillation which is a pity because I think that this might be the most salient point of the argument. The OED has a number of definitions- “movement to and fro; periodic motion about a position of equilibrium, as the swinging of a pendulum”, “A single movement to and fro; a vibration”, ” In music, same as beat‥or beating”, “Vacillation, fluctuation, or wavering between two states, opinions, principles, purposes, etc.; an instance of this” and ” A rapid alternation in the direction of flow of a current; the state of a circuit in which this is occurring. Also: an electromagnetic wave produced by such a current”. I think they mean a rapid movement between two points rather than as in a pendulum- because this would imply a ‘position of equilibrium’ which doesn’t actually exist. I’m trying to ignore the application of ‘metataxis’ because apparently it leads to things being ‘here, there and nowhere’ which is a vain attempt to have your cake and eat it.

Metamodern polarities.

Here’s some polarities identified in the essay;

  • a desire for sens / a doubt about the sense of it all;
  • enthusiasm / irony;
  • hope / melancholy;
  • naivety / knowingness;
  • empathy / apathy;
  • unity / plurality;
  • totality / fragmentation;
  • purity / ambiguity;
  • authenticity / pastiche
  • involved / detached;
  • elitist / democratic.

I’ve added the last two because they seem relevant to what the essay is trying to say.

You may think that this has little or nothing to do with contemporary poetry in the UK but I want to show this rapid movement is used by several different poets with very different aims in mind. I’m going to use Geoffrey Hill, Keston Sutherland, Simon Jarvis and Jonty Tiplady to attempt to demonstrate this. As ever, this is an entirely provisional view that may well be amended / refuted at some later date.

A metamodern Triumph of Love.

Geoffrey Hill is often described as a ‘late’ or a ‘high’ modernist poet. This isn’t particularly useful but a lot of his output does seem to sit firmly at the ‘modern’ end of the spectrum listed above. There are however a number of glaring and significant exceptions to this observation. Two of Hill’s finest works are ‘Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ neither of which fit altogether comfortably into the exclusively modern camp.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is on one level a deeply serious consideration of the Very Bad Things that have occurred in the 20th century which concludes that grace, individual love, decency and endurance have enabled us to endure / survive. At the time of publication, Hill came in for some critical flak for the way that this very serious theme was interspersed with several much lighter / knowing elements. There are the editorial comments placed within the poems, the direct abusive addresses to three unfortunate critics and the occasional refrain from stand-up comedy. The sequence is made up of 150 numbered poems, most of these fit into one category or the other but some combine both. Poem LXIII belongs firmly at the modern end:

These obscenities which - as you say - you fancy
perverting the consecration; you hear them all right
even if they are unspoken, as most are. It is
difficult always to catch the tacit
echoes of self-resonance. Is prayer
residual in imprecation? Only
as we equivocate. When I examine
my soul's heart's blood I find it the blood
of bulls and goats.
Things unspoken as spoken give us away.
What else can I now sell myself, filched
from Lenten Hebrews?

Here we have a desire for ‘sens’ together with a strong interest in unity and authenticity. There’s also a very earnest and serious tone together with the elitist obscurity of the last two lines. It’s also significant that this kind of stuff epitomises how Hill is portrayed in the ‘quality’ press: religious; grumpy; obscure and more than a little intimidating.

At the other end we have poem XL:

For wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distiction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

Excessive wordplay, the self-conscious anticipation and defiance of criticism (to write accessible verse is to be ‘openly servile’) followed by pastiche- this is all fairly post-modern, isn’t it?

Now we come to oscillation, ie moving between the two extremes in a single poem this is CXXXI:

Mourning registers as celebration. Haydn
at sixty-six, his clowning majesty
of invention never bettered [He means,
I think, the late 'Erody' Quartets - ED]
Bartok dying in New York, unfinished
music among the sickbed detritus:
ta-Rah ta-Rah ta-rarara Rah

This is the third of five poems with the same last line, all of which are intended to be playful. This is the only one of the five to have an editorial intervention. There is a to-ing and fro-ing between these two devices and the serious point being made about how one element of mourning can be seen as a celebration of the dead person’s life (the whole business of memorialisation is a key factor in Hill’s work. So, can this movement be usefully described as metamodern? Or is it simply late modern with a few postmodern bits thrown in?

Keston Sutherland

We now come to the slightly more complex case of Keston Sutherland. I’m going to use ‘Hot White Andy’ and ‘Stress Position’ because they both throw up quite involved questions about the use of stylistic and formal devices. The first observation to be made is that Sutherland is a Marxist and, as such, he ought to be a clear advocate of modernism’s totalising and Grand Narrative tendencies. He should be writing deadly serious and committed poetry about the political and economic issues of the day, he should have no time at all for the playful fripperies of the postmodern.

There is also the problem of differentiating between the modernist sneer and postmodern playfulness. The first is profoundly elitist and undemocratic whereas the second runs the danger of being simply vacuous. The first example for consideration is from ‘Hot White Andy’ where “I remember that / they were showing Bleaching Lenny. which has this gloss at the bottom of the page-

British reality TV show. Famous comedian Lenny Henry is caught on camera indavertently bleaching himself, one body part per week. In the final episode (8) of the series we are given to contemplate a morose Henry, by this point a ghastly supernatural alabaster from head to foot except for his (since episode 7) quasi-autonomous scrotum, engaged in teabagging an unnamed but invidiously Chinese companion of unfathomable gender. Henry fails to detect through the dark suck-hole in her latex Marsillio Ficino mask, the two tiny hidden natatorium of bleach fashioned ingeniously out of an aluminium peel-lid from a peach yoghurt pot Henry dared to lick out in the first episode (2).

Using the ironic, knowing footnote is a postmodern device, an interest in celebrity is a postmodern trait. The language of the above is also an ironic comment on the glossing of poetry. For those who don’t recall, Henry started his career by impersonating and making fun of black immigrants to the UK from the West Indies and was subsequently pilloried (as a black comedian) for pandering to racial stereotypes. So, I guess we’re meant to go along with this rather facile bleach metaphor and have a bit of a white-boy sneer, all of which feels a bit second hand even if we pause to reflect on the inclusion of Ficino’s first name. I think I’m of the view that this is a piece of old=fashioned modernism trying quite hard to wear a postmodern frock.

The next obvious candidate for metamodernism is Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’. It is deeply po-mo to include fictional characters from other periods and genres as if to flaunt notions of authorial/poetic chicanery and sleight of hand. Having Black Beauty (the horse created by Anna Sewell) as a main character in a poem about American imperialism and torture in Iraq would not normally be seen as a modernist device. I have written at length about the poem as a whole but looking at it in terms of this particular divide then it does contain many postmodern devices together with passages that are resolutely in a ‘modern’ voice. The clearest examples (apart from the horse) ar the b-movie quasi kitsch ending and the remarkable and very modernist dream riff on mental illness.

I’m not entirely clear that there is much oscillation going on between the two but I’ll give this further thought.

The Jarvis sneer.

With regard to Simon Jarvis, I’ve looked again at the Princess Di / Paul Burrell ‘theme’ in F0 and at the Cheryl and Ashley Cole quips and I can’t get much further than reading them both as straightforward modernist sneers. I’m prepared to accept that I might be missing some key ingredient but I see both as old-fashioned elitism. I’m not entirely sure where the Jarvis interest in the British road network and related signage fits in ths spectrum, if at all which might underline the problem with this kind of exercise.

Jonty Tiplady’s hurt face.

When I first read the essay, two poets were vying in my head for attention in the metamodern, Geoffrey Hill and Jonty Tiplady. The second of these was provisional but stemmed from something I’d written about Jonty’s contribution to ‘Better than Language’. I don’t normally quote myself but I am rather pleased with this- “This is really clever stuff that’s deceptively straightforward whilst actually managing to undermine to poetry-making business in a number of different ways. I’m particularly impressed by the humanity of the ‘voice’ running through this and the way in which the playful tries to batter the serious into submission”. I think this ‘battering’ process might be close to what the essay calls ‘oscillation’. It so happens that on my hard drive sits a prose piece by Tiplady that has yet to see the light of day. It is called “But my face hurts” and this is from somewhere in the middle-

Sit down in your room if you have one and think carefully about whether there is really anything left to say. Make sure you say in the next moment whatever it is you decide is then left. The end of the end is the end. You can find
my eyes in the sockets in my skull. Please come straight up to me and kiss me. Please rape me properly. Bugs Bunny is a
stupid fucking bunny rabbit. I am not interested in wearing any clothes anymore. I am not surprised by how many times I
pretend to have conversations with you. I am surprised by how cruel kindness seems. I have never had any idea what is
happening. Such cruelty comes from everything. I think I have a mania about the planet. This morning I was worried my
hands would hit me. Last night I was worried my Dad would be in the bathroom when I turned the light on. I am getting older and I will die eventually. My hands are so big. There have been several perfect moments.

At some time in the future I want to go on at much greater length about how utterly wonderful this is but here I want to point out the embodiment of the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ the utterly serious within the incredibly banal’ and the absence of earnest intensity that the metamodern might be about. I think the above demonstrates a very, very clever use of oscillation between and within registers. I was going to list the modernist and then the postmodern but I think they are reasonably obvious. What leaves me in jaw-dropping awe is how this very self-conscious series of statements manages to find by shifts in register and focus a very clear and compelling account of what it might be like to be alive in the clattering now.

So, am I now converted to labels? No, I don’t think that they are particularly useful but I do think that looking for common traits within those labels can be a useful way of rethinking some work. For example, I’m now more confident about what ‘The Triumph of Love’ might be trying to achieve and I’m even more convinced of the towering genius that is Geoffrey Hill. The New Yorker quote above has also pushed me into thinking about an ‘ethical turn’ that might be under way but I’ll need to think a bit more about this.

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One response to “Metamodernist poetics

  1. I’m always pleasantly surprised to stumble upon essays such as this. Lately I’ve been dealing with what you call “labels” and have come to a similar conclusion as you. Metamodernism in my opinion offers us the opportunity to have a fickle mind and enjoy it, unlike its predecessors. I am not very familiar with the poets you listed, however I managed to grasp the idea. Great essay, I’ve really enjoyed it.

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