Sunday, March 11, 2012

Modernism, or Talking to Dead People

Wars, the persecution of heretics, the whole centuries-long history of Spain as the Islamic realm of Al-Andalus, the Chanson de Roland: this is the stuff of John Matthias’ long, late-modernist poem “A Compostella Dipytch.  The poem came about after Matthias walked the ancient pilgrimage route from southern France to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, near the westernmost point of Spain.  Not long ago I was talking to an old friend of Matthias about how I love the poem, mostly because of how it opens up whole layers of history and turns them into a kind of music.  Matthias’ friend also admitted to admiring the historical nature of the poem, and then commented on how different Matthias’ experience of walking across Spain was from that of a younger poet he knew.  Where Matthias saw the past everywhere, the younger poet saw the present: the living world of German backpackers and American trust-fund kids, the world of hostels and internet cafes and casual romance and talk of high-tech hiking boots.  This, said Matthias’ friend, was how you could tell Matthias is truly a modernist: whereas the younger poet talks to the others on the trail, Matthias spends a lot of his time talking to dead people, thinking about what he’s read and what he sees left behind in old churches and in ancient pilgrim way-stations.

There’s something to the idea that modernist poetry converses with the dead as much, or more, than with the living.  It is, after all, at the core of that most significant of modernist essays, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where Eliot tells us
…if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged.... Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want if you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense [which] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order….
There it is: the past as something alive around us, as much present on any pilgrim route as the backpacker up ahead yakking on his iPhone and wolfing down Protein bars.  When I explain this to students, I usually begin by telling them that every time they open their mouths to speak, it's the year 1066 again.  This is actually a pretty bad pedagogical strategy, since my students are overwhelmingly American, and have generally been taught almost nothing about English history. I usually have to remind them that 1066 was the year of the Norman conquest, when a French-speaking elite displaced the Anglo-Saxon regime in England, initiating a long, slow process whereby French and Anglo-Saxon fused to create the hybrid creature we call the English language.  So when you say "the submarine went underwater" you're doing something that couldn't happen had the Normans lost the Battle of Hastings: you're using a French-derived word ("submarine," coming from the French "sous-marin") and something closer to Anglo-Saxon ("under water," linked to the Germanic "unter wasser").  The results of a battle in 1066 matter now, and in a sense that battle lives on in virtually every English sentence.  And there are implications of this presence of the past poetry.  Eliot goes on:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead... what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.… Whoever has approved this idea of order… will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past…
Of course a lot of people, my students among them, do find it preposterous that the present can modify the past (and it is preposterous, in the root meaning of that word: "preposterous" originally meant a confusing of time periods, a placing of the pre- and the post- in the wrong positions).  But there's some sense to Eliot here.  Consider Satan.  Or, at any rate, consider Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost.  Milton means for him to be a villain, but William Blake famously observed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," meaning that Milton was more of a rebel than he thought he was, that a poem intended as a defense of obedience to God was really more in love with individualism than anything else.  And after Romanticism — after Blake's Milton and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and a thousand other poems and plays and novels that echo and reinterpret Milton — it's difficult to see Paradise Lost as one could see it before Romanticism.  Milton's initially villainous Satan now seems to have had many of the positive qualities the Romantics found in him.

By the time we get to modernism, this kind of revisiting and revising of the literature of the past has become one of the major poetic moves: Eliot scrapes together the fragments that make up his Waste Land, Pound reworks Homer in The Cantos, David Jones mines Welsh literature and legend, H.D. reworks the classics in Helen in Egypt, and so on.  (It's important to make a distinction here between modernism and the avant-garde, which often wanted to shrug off the past).

So many modernists wanted to converse with the dead poets.  But why?

A big part of the answer comes when we look at modernist poetry in relation to the larger literary culture around it.  Indeed, if we don't, we'll never fully understand why modernists wrote as they did.  And the larger literary culture around them was mass culture in its early dawn.  Andreas Huyssen has argued, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, that the two phenomena come into being in tandem, that "the twin establishment of a sphere of high autonomous art and a sphere of mass culture" only make sense in relation to one another.  Indeed, he says, since they're beginnings "modernism and mass culture have been engaged in a compulsive pas de deux."

There are a lot of reasons for the rise of mass culture, with its cheap novels, its enormous output of crime writing, its how-to and self-improvement books, but for the moment it's just important to note the incredible rise of this sort of literature from the 1880s on into the period between the two world wars (things start to change then — D.L. LeMahieu's study A Culture for Democracy explains how).  Publishers in the 1850s and 1860s could actually expect to make a reasonable, even substantial, profit from poetry, but the growth of the mass market for works appealing to a relatively low level of literacy meant that profit margins were so much higher in other genres that, by the turn of the century, poetry became a marginal commodity.  Poets were very much aware of this, and modernist poets often sought to find a justification for their work in terms other than popularity, on the grounds of which they lost decisively to more commercial works.  Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" captured the situation perfectly:

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities 
Than the classics in paraphrase!

The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster, 
Made with no loss of time, 
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.

Here we see modernism against the mass culture of its time—in fact, we see it being defined at its core as in opposition to the mass culture of its time.  Huyssen puts it this way: "modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture."

One way to oppose the mass culture of the present was to turn to the already-esteemed culture of the past: to acquire tradition by the sweat of one's brow, to start talking to dead people. It's tempting to see the whole phenomenon as a defensive turn.  You can't beat murder novels in sales?  So what!  Those tawdry writers may be reaching a lot of readers, but you're not insignificant, Mr. Modernist! You're changing the whole meaning and direction of the tradition!  You don't have a place in the market, but you've got a place in history!

Well, that makes the modernist ideal sound like a huge ego trip, and I suppose it can be.  But there are more sympathetic ways this plays out: I remember talking to the poet Joseph Donahue not long ago about the lack of audience for complex mystical poetry like his, and he told me that he derives satisfaction less from the connection with an audience now than from participation in a centuries-long tradition of mystics and poets, from continuing the conversation they began.  That's talking to dead people in the grand old modernist tradition, and it isn't a matter of seeking to slake the ego with a sense of personal historical significance.

Of course there's more substance to the modernist rejection of mass culture than simply a defensiveness about being displaced in the marketplace.  Yeats, for example, argued in his great essay "What is Popular Poetry" that for poems to be truly significant and beautiful, they must appeal to and resonate with tradition, they must look to old legends and myths and  "borrow their beauty from those that used them before," because then the emotions of the poem will be seen "moving before a half-faded curtain embroidered with kings and queens, their loves and battles and their days out hunting."  A poetry that talks to dead people, Yeats argues, will have an enormous resonance beyond what is possible for writing that doesn't allude to what has come before.  

There's a great deal of truth to this: I think, again, of the poetry of John Matthias, which often gives us arcane bits of old text, or antiquated pieces of our language.  The critic Vincent Sherry once said of the poetry of John Matthias, that, “on the one hand, the pedagogue offers from his word-hoard and reference trove the splendid alterity of unfamiliar speech; on the other, this is our familial tongue, our own language in its deeper memory and reference.”  We get to see our own language, and our own ways of experiencing the world, connected to their roots, to the words and ideas and ways of living from which we come.  This makes us more at home in the world, and more knowledgeable about ourselves: we see something of where we came from, and thus become more empowered in understanding why we are as we are.  We even become more capable of change, since we see that the things we think of as permanent have a history, and can thus be changed.  There is, at least potentially, a very liberationist politics at work in any kind of writing that leads us to understand our history.

There's also a preservationist politics to modernism of this kind, of course.  In the modern era of Schumpeter's capitalist "creative destruction," when (as Marx wrote) "all that is solid melts into air," the insistence on retaining a tradition is a kind of statement of dissent, though it's often a reactionary dissent.  That's certainly what it is in Pound, in Eliot, and in Yeats, where the present often appears as a horrible distortion and despoiling of a better, finer past, to which the poets wish we could return.

There's another issue involved, too, which we might think of as political.  When a poet talks to dead people, you're not going to understand the conversation if you, too, haven't tuned in to the past and done the (pleasurable, luxurious) work of acquiring a sense of the appropriate traditions.  Many people find this off-putting right at the start.  Many, too, find it elitist: it sets up a certain barrier to instant understanding for the reader, and, if you take it as a principle not just of reading but of writing, it sets up a very high cost of entry for anyone seeking to set up as a poet. 

When I hear the charge that modernist poetry is elitist and therefore excludes readers, I generally think of three things by way of response.  Firstly, I think of the poet Michael Anania, who pointed out that all of his allusions and historical references are simply things that one can look up, a difficulty far from insurmountable in the age of Google and Wikipedia.  Secondly, I think of the effort many people expend trying to get to the final level of a video game: they don't call those games elitist, even though they require a great deal more effort to get through than, say, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and the glosses on its allusions (and anyway, one could argue that the effort in both cases is, in fact, the main source of pleasure).  Finally, I think of something the dear, late poet Reginald Shepherd said:

It’s often said that “difficult” poems exclude potential readers. This can certainly be true, but I feel excluded by poems that give me nothing to do as a reader, that offer me no new experience and nothing I didn’t already know. It’s wearying to read such poems, and it makes me want to watch music videos instead, where at least one sometimes gets glimpses of shirtless guys with six-pack abs. Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences. 

Reginald may have looked for different things in music videos than I do, but we have turned to poems for the same reasons.

With regard to the charge that the approach to becoming a poet that Eliot outlined in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is elitist and restrictive — one can only respond that it's true.  If you want to be the kind of poet who talks to dead people (and that's not the only kind of poet), you're going to have to spend a lot of time in conversation with old books.  There's certainly an elitism to this, in that it requires a great deal of time and effort, and there's a material and financial reality behind the opportunity to take that time and make that effort. Of course the old modernist path to becoming a poet does not propose as great a material and financial burden as the new, 21st century way of becoming a poet we have in America: the completion of an MFA program.  It's what our age demands, and in a way, the existence of these programs has shown the inexorable progress of the very forces of modernity — standardization, credentialing, commercialization, and commodification — that led so many modernists to turn against modernity itself and immerse themselves in the splendid alterity of the past.