Contemporary British and American Poetry
Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of areas of study including art, music, film, literature, communications, fashion and technology. Postmodernism followed modernism, which is the movement in visual arts, music, literature, and drama which rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of high modernism, from around 1910 to 1930 the major figures in modernism literature helped radically to redefine what poetry and fiction could be and do; figures like T. S. Eliot, Pound, Kafka, and Stevens are considered the founders of twentieth century modernism.
Postmodernism, like modernism follows most of the same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing imitation, parody, irony, and playfulness. Postmodernism art and thought favor reflectivity and self consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity, ambiguity, simultaneity, and emphasis on the destructured dehumanized subject.
While postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history an example of this being T. S. Eliot s The Waste Land which presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning, which have been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism in contrast doesn t lament the idea of fragmentation or incoherence but rather celebrates that. Three American postmodern poets who demonstrate this celebration of fragmentation and dehuminzation are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Carolyn Kizer.
Sylvia Plath is a confessional writer that used her feelings to write. Sylvia s writing was greatly affected by her life. At the age of eight her father died due to diabetic complications. She felt deliberately betrayed by her father s death and soon after began writing, using poetry as a fantasy escape and a defense. Another factor affecting Plath and her work was her friendship with Anne Sexton, another confessional poet. Both Plath and Sexton attended Robert Lowell s poetry class. Sylvia committed suicide when she was thirty-one during the same week that her first book of poetry was published. In her poem Stillborn Plath takes a cold scientific view of the loss of a child.
These poems do not live: it s a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn t for any lack of mother love.
Plath makes a connection of having children to writing in these lines; her poems are her children and like any mother she has done all she could for them to help them grow. She connects the power of creation in birth to that of art.
They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy and fishy air
It would be better if they were alive, and that s what they were.
But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,
And they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her.
These lines express Plath s ever-present fear of not being recognized for any accomplishment. She would rather her work be judged and fail than not hear any response at all. T.S. Eliot also uses birth and death reference in his works.
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We have evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no linger at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot writes of a birth that is as painful as a death, he states that birth is agony and once the thing is born there is no return to what things once were. This change due to creation is similar to Plath s inability to disconnect for her creations; every new creation for her brings more pain and fear of not being recognized for her work.
Lady Lazarus, another work by Plath has many references to death, and also her suicide attempts. The poem displays a very American situation of a woman discussing very openly her own attempts on her life. She portrays her cycle of suicide describing it as an escape in dealing with life and a way for her to get attention.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I ve a call.
It s easy enough to do in a cell.
It s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
Plath describes dying as an art form or a job. She discusses the matter in an exhibitionist s manner as if the actions were only taken to make her the center of attention. She is very mater of fact in her explanations with a preformed sincerity that portrays a movie star quality.
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you al
If one setting a pillow by her head,
Should say: That s is not what I meant at all.
That is not it at all.
In these lines from Eliot s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock he describes a vague hint of suicidal thoughts which are much more subdued than Plath s.
Another confessional poet who happened to be a friend of Plath is Anne Sexton. Sexton began writing as therapy for mental problems. One of her most famous poems, The Abortion can be compared right along with Plath for it s blunt and unattached description of death. She displays a kind of off had disregard of a good thing gone bad. The poem is written in a child like perspective where she describes the scenery without focusing on the issue.
The grass as bristly and stout as chives,
And me wondering when the ground would break,
And me wondering how anything fragile survives;
Up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
Not Rumpelstilskin at all, at all
He took the fullness that love began.
Returning north, even the sky grew thin
Like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin,
There is a difference between what Sexton is doing and what the reader sees. She is looking nowhere and explaining nothing in her avoidance of the truth. Where Sexton holds back any detail of what she is doing Plath would describes in detail to put it on display for an audience.
Another work by Sexton that displays a feminist view is, The Fury of Cocks in which she describes her acceptance of men and their weak moments.
Whereas last night
The cock knew its way home,
As stiff as a hammer,
Battering in with all
Its awful power.
Today it is tender,
A small bird,
As soft as a baby s hand
Sexton describes men as only being powerful during sex. There is a question of power because women are what bare men. This attitude towards men and their weakness is similar to Elizabeth Bishop s in her poem The Armadillo in which she uses an armadillo to represent men.
Hastily, all alone,
A glistening armadillo left the scene,
Rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
And panic, and a weak mailed fist
Clenched ignorant against the sky!
Yet another feminist postmodern poet is Carolyn Kizer who describes her childhood like a still life painting in Thrall. Kizer displays a lack of attachment to her father as she grows and sees spending time with him as a duty until he is gone.
When the afternoon is older
Shadows in a smaller room
Fall on the bed, the books, the father.
You read aloud to him
La Belle Dame sans Merci.
You feed him his medicine.
You tell him you love him.
You wait for his eyes to close at last
So you may write this poem.
There is a feeling in Kizer s poems that neither of her parents really cared or paid her much attention yet she makes the little interaction between them seem pretty. This romanticism is similar to that in Lullaby by W.H. Auden where in he beautifully describes a one-night stand.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and feavors burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
While postmodernism may seem very much like modernism, it differs from it in its attitude toward a lot of trends. Modernism tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning, which have been lost in most of modern life. Postmodernism in contrast doesn t lament the idea of fragmentation or incoherence but rather celebrates that. Three American postmodern poets who demonstrate this celebration of fragmentation and dehumanization are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Carolyn Kizer and when these poets are compared to the modern poets and the postmodern poets that have come before them it is clear to see the expansion of expression and the confessional progression that the feminist poets have moved in.
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