UGLY BIRDS: THE FAILURE OF MODERN POETRY AND THE SUCCESS OF THE NOVEL

Modernism is no longer “modern.”  Duchamp was born in the 19th century and the Mona Lisa moustache artist is several generations closer in time to Byron than he is to us.

But the legacy of modernism, with its self-conscious -isms, grows apace: ungainly poetry the public ignores continues to flourish, aided by institutional subsidy.

The New English Review published an article last year, “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” by Mark Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros, and was rebuked in First Things by Maureen Mullarkey: “Beckmann’s Deposition, A Modernist Offering.”

It is nice to know these sorts of discussions are going on, for Modernism’s profound influence is taken too much for granted.  Here is Signorelli’s reply to Mullarkey.

Compare the two paintings in Mullarkey’s article:  the one by Max Beckmann (1917) and the one by Geerhaert David (1500).

The models speak for themselves.

Rhetoric of a certain religious or political bent need not distract us.   Artistic Modernism is too important an issue to be sidetracked by religious or political wrangling, and it is precisely this wrangling, which, by its very nature, is nearly always beside the point, that helps to keep the legacy of Modernism afloat.

The cry against Modernism could be any of the following:  “God has gone out of art!” or “It is as if God, if there were a God, had gone out of art!”  Or,  “Beauty has gone out of art!”   Or, “Art now sucks!”   The rhetoric may be different, but the truth is the same.

Now, we will not deny that Modernism has a certain powerful secular, scientific, open-minded, progressive perception among many intellectuals, and that complaints against Modernism tend to be construed as nothing more than a sort of superstitious “yahoo” reaction.

But Modernism lacks genuine scientific credentials: Cubism is not a “fourth dimension” or a “new reality.”  Poems cannot be measured by “breaths” or “fields of energy” or “things.”  Also, many of Modernism’s founders were fascists.  Modernism’s heady, positive, scientific “perception” is largely a p.r. gimmick.

Modernism’s p.r. perception, however, is fading, as minds secular and religious are getting fed up with what has been to a large extent, a narrow, anti-human, anti-art, con.

Why a “con?”   Real simple:  Because 20th century art was a profitable style based on cheap materials (Bauhaus cement) and hyped painting (buy Cezanne/Matisse/Picasso low, sell high) with an accompanying apparatus of critics, lawyers, speculators, art leagues, schools, and galleries, each part validating the other.

Poetry was the intellectual con that abutted the profit con (architecture, painting).  The arts tend to pull along together: think Keats and Mozart; then Pound and Picasso.  There’s an intellectual/artistic sea that catches up all swimmers.

On a more practical level, however: the modern art collector and lawyer, John Quinn, changed import law (in US Congress!) to make the modern art Armory Show (1913) happen—Quinn also negotiated Eliot and Pound’s “Waste Land” deal.  The wildly influential modern art critic John Dewey allowed wealthy modern art collector A.C. Barnes to co-write his famous Art and Experience. The poetry clique of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, and Louis Ginsberg (Allen Ginsberg’s father) was headed up by another wealthy modern art collector, Walter Arensberg, who hosted Duchamp’s first visit to America.  Duchamp advised Peggy Guggenheim, who hung out with Ashbery and O’Hara.  William James, the nitrous oxide professor, taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard; Stein’s poetry was less important than the modern art collecting she and her brother Leo did.

Knowing the history and persons does open up our eyes, but we don’t have to waste time with shallow, abstract, ideology, or do a lot of historical second-guessing.  To repeat: the art, the models, speak for themselves.

The public is no longer interested in poetry, at least since the death of Frost 50 years ago.  Today, free verse poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver sell a little bit, but they are not critically esteemed.  Poetry is a fractured, mostly ignored enterprise.

Novels still sell, but poems do not.

In our previous post, we pointed out the crucial difference between fiction and poetry:  the public has a certain amount of patience for novels—readers will “stick with” a novel for a “pay-off;” poems are not given the same chance—and this is due to an old (and correct) expectation that poems should please us immediately.

A novel may be hard to “get into,” and even appear to be an ugly mess, at first, but readers will stay with it because they assume that the total effect will eventually please them.

Modern poets stubbornly believe readers will “give poems the same chance” they do novels.

They won’t.  Public perception of modern poems as compared to modern novels will always operate in the following way:

The consumer’s choice is simple:

Poems are no longer beautiful things which please immediately, but instead imitate the prosy nature of novels,

So what does that mean?  It means the buyer has two choices: the novel—an ugly bird who can fly a long way or, the poem—an ugly bird who can only fly a short distance.  In terms of bang for their buck, the consumer is always going to choose the bird that can fly a greater distance.

No wonder the novel out-sells the poem.

We’ve all seen the poets who try some new trick, who try to make the poem into something it isn’t: an offensive joke, a dense nugget packed with topical information, a pictogram, a revolutionary tract, a diary, but this just makes the poet look desperate: it never works.  The clever poet thinks, Look, I am not only giving them a poem, I am giving them a joke, too!  The public is not interested.  The public just thinks: if you don’t like poetry, why are you pretending to write it?  Write a novel or a joke, instead.

Poetry may be dead, but the idea of it still lives.

Modernism couldn’t kill that.

9 Comments

  1. Gerald Parker said,

    September 28, 2013 at 1:06 am

    When all of the alibis of the recent past, the present, and of whatever future is left of modern art and apoetic poetry, the day of reckoning will come, when museums of the modern close and the dustbins are chock full of once modern art canvases and gewgaws. There is not room for so much essentially tacky and ugly stuff. There needs to be room for the beautiful things of the past and a renewed tradition. The junk simply will have to go. Good poetry will find its place again, and the poor stuff will fill the crevices of libraries’ intensive storage off-side shelving and, also much of it, those same landfill sites where much of the visual art will load up its holes carved out of the belching earth. And there is no real reason to feel sad about that!

    • Commenter from New York City said,

      October 1, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      Hilarious comment. Please start a blog with this voice.

      • thomasbrady said,

        October 1, 2013 at 9:24 pm

        New York City! Wow!

    • October 11, 2013 at 12:04 am

      A few days before my birth on Feb. 28, 1951, my grandparents were in an eager, expansive mood, and decided to splurge on a new piece of furniture for their living room. At the Nebraska Furniture Mart here in Omaha (the same furniture Mart that you may have heard Warren Buffet bought a big chunk of), they found what they were looking for: a very “geegawy” corner piece that my grandmother always referred to as a “what-not” and the “conversation piece” of her living room. It cost exactly $100 — a relatively big sum of money in those days, I am told. I inherited it from my grandparents after they died within three years of each other in the early 1980s. I love the piece. Now, my grandmother always told me that there was another corner “what-not,” identical to the one they bought, on the floor of the Furniture Mart. About two years ago a new thrift shop opened up in the part of town where I lived. and what should I see in the shop the very first week it was open but the unmistakable “twin” what-not, which a vendor told me he had bought at a public consignment auction in South Omaha (not a fashionable part of town). So here I am, at the tender age of 62 no longer a swain, having said everything about “Brideshead Revisited,” my favorite novel, that I wanted to, in Evelyn Waugh Studies, having hit the lighlights of my life in several substantial, autobiographical articles, having seen a fair amount of the world on 11 overseas trips, and even having found, in the “Joshua” series of books by Fr. Joseph Girzone, a little niche in salvation history that I just fell into, I can’t escape my feeling, influenced by Thornton Wilder’s book, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” with a strong dash of Woodbine Meadowlark from Frederick C. Crew’s book, “The Pooh Perplex,” that the first “what-not” came to greet me into the world, and the second has resurfaced to call me home. Thank you and good night. David Bittner.

  2. September 28, 2013 at 1:33 am

    I think we should rename “modernism” as Collagism since it is mostly collages of fragments voices and scenery and anguished shouts.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 28, 2013 at 11:51 pm

      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/australian-poetry-plagiarism

      This is what I’ve been saying recently on Conceptualism: it’s not about concepts at all. It’s simply about copying. And, possibly, stealing. Modernism as Collagism. Brilliant, Simon.

      • September 29, 2013 at 1:53 am

        Wow, great article which describes what I mean!

      • Diane Roberts Powell said,

        October 2, 2013 at 2:09 am

        You’re spot on Tom, and I cannot believe that they have even wormed their way into the academy, literary journals, and now the White House.

        When you create something like Flarf, as a joke, and then turn it around, and get angry, when other people don’t take it seriously, then there’s something bizarre going on.

  3. October 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Dear Tom, Recently you suggested that we all make a few musical loose associations, and I think you must be right. First of all, because psychologists tell us we’re all somewhat schizophrenic, and because it explains why in Broadway or Hollywood musicals we all seem to readily accept it as a convention of these shows that people will burst into song in the middle of dialogue!
    But now let me tell you about another theory about speech that I have: I submit that we may all be a bit dyslexic! Now, I’ll tell you what leads me to this theory — it was like the apple that fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, leading him to discover gravity!
    For five years I assisted our church sacristan in setting up for mass every morning. (She has since passed away, and I now live in a retirement center far away from this church we both belonged to.) Anyway, at one point during this five-year period, a man who became our new pastor and the priest who had been “resident” for about two years at this church took turns being the celebrant at daily moning mass. This meant the sacristan and I had to look every morning at two lists of initials, side by side, standing for our two priests’ names. (Every priest has little preferences about the way he likes things “set up,” the size of the host he uses, the use of his own personal chalice, etc.) I wondered why I always seemed to have a little trouble at first telling the two priests apart on this list. Finally I realized the reason. The two priests, named Fr. Gerald Melchior and Fr. Matthew Gutowski, had the same initials, transposed, i.e., GM and MG! No wonder it took a little time to focus on the list and determine which priest was going to be the celebrant that morning. The next time I saw my ophthalmologist I told her about this theory I had–that we all may be a little dyslexic–and she did not dispute me, but smiled seemingly appreciatively!


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