Question One Part One

Question One Part One

Modernism is transnational in that the poetics of a given society matures as technological capability and cultural aesthetic preference allows it to mature.  My first point I consider to be fairly self-explanatory; the long epic poem of Homer was metered and rhymed so that it could be memorized.  It may have been impossible to expand upon (or even abandon) these conventions without the advent of the written word.  Similarly, the novel became possible at all when memorization was no longer a consideration and it could be printed.  To address my second point, the absence of rhyme in poetry or the acceptance of the novel as a legitimate literary genre fully infiltrate the academy when the aesthetic of a given society allows for such a thing.  With the advent of global communication, a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of course various corners of the globe would arrive at these things in roughly the same cultural moment.  Modernism, then, is unavoidably transnational, and Williams, Larkin, and Neruda found themselves writing in roughly the same cultural moment, considering the thousand-years long history of poetics in a global context.

If Modernism has a unifying manifesto that transcends “high Modernism” and any of the other attitudes of the Twentieth century, it is to “make it new.”  William Carlos Williams accomplishes this by what he conceived as a ground-up structural revolution in the way that a poem is composed.  Williams, who said on several occasions that he was not at all a writer of “free verse,” was concerned with composing to the music and meter of colloquial American speech.  In his view, this was unprecedented in American poetry, as his antecedents as well as his contemporaries were still enamored of their English masters or unconcerned with Williams’ perceived mission of re-structuring the American poem in such a way that it was truly an artifact of American speech.  WCW’s “Suzanne” is perhaps the easiest example of this impulse:

Brother Paul!  Look!
—but he rushes to a different
The moon!

Here, Williams produces speech that occurs between (probably) a brother and a sister.  The poem may also reveal another speaker, or an inconsistent one, but at the very least it is an example of Williams reacting to the relative freedom granted to him by two things: the (still recent) schism between the instructions of American and British poetry, and the convenient practice of contemporary publishing, where a poet could be particular about his lines and precisely how his poems were perceived by simply examining a proof before final publication.  (Robert Creeley, a WCW disciple, went so far as to include notes insisting on his lines as units of measure in the preface to his collected poems.)  Again, Modernism is a product of technological and eventual cultural progression.

If William’s mission was to write particularly American verse, then Philip Larkin was equally successful in producing poetry that was decidedly English as well as modern.  That said, Larkin’s early output was counted among the body of work of a small group of poets referred to as “the movement,” which seems to have held as its only unifying principle a preference for formalism over the more radical manifestations of modernism.  Williams refused the iamb because it was an artifact of English speech, but Larkin has nothing of the nationalistic necessity Williams professed to write in a different structural idiom particular to his cultural moment; Larkin was British, and the iamb was (by Williams’ logic) his own.  That is not to say that Larkin isn’t equally concerned with progressivism, as in this excerpt from “This Be the Verse,” which follows from “They fuck you up, your mom and dad”:

But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another's throats.

Here, Larkin demonstrates an affinity for the iambs and rhymes of his Romantic forbears, but with a decidedly Modernist bent.  First, he is fearless with obscenity.  This is a quality that made the English academy wary of Larkin, who owes his claim to literary canon primarily to his popularity in the public sphere.  It is also difficult not to read some degree of ars poetica into a poem titled “This Be the Verse.”  Larkin’s disdain for “fools in old-style hats and coats” extends from his “‘Little England’ harrumphing” as much as it solidifies his as a Modernist voice intent on distinguishing his practice from that of the generation that came before him.  Similarly, Neruda’s poetry reflects a mind that is conscious of the broad tradition of verse-making, but also presents a particular voice concerned with writing in a mode that was unprecedented and presented itself in a way that was true to the rhythms of the poet’s speech.

Neruda is certainly neither British nor American, but he was still writing in the Twentieth Century.  This, as well as his presentation as a citizen of the world, places him necessarily in a Modernist context.  Consider “Tonight I Can Write”:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, “The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.”

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Neruda is writing poetry that claims to be without precedent, however conscious it is of the tradition of lamenting a lost love in verse.  Neruda can “write the saddest lines,” which can be read as a rather bombastic claim of being the saddest poet to have ever written, but also as mindfulness of the Latin American notion of “duende.”  Whatever the case may be, he proceeds with lines presented as quotation which do in fact read as lines typical of the “sad poem.”  The following line re-dresses roughly the same sentiment in an image peculiar to Neruda, and with an air of plain-spoken-ness and sincerity that seems to follow from the simple fact that writers of Spanish verse are working with roughly one-third of the vocabulary at the disposal of the English-speaking writer.  The sincerity of Neruda bleeds from a duende-informed aesthetic, from the plain-spoken translation that follows necessarily from the nature of Spanish speech, and from image-making that is undeniably Neruda’s strength and which follows from Neruda’s particular personality as a writer.

Williams, Neruda, and Larking fit easily into a discussion of Modernism insofar as “Modernism” was only ever vaguely defined as a cultural moment where writers were doing something new with received forms, making structural innovations of their own, or “ignoring” form all-together.  WCW’s exploration of how to re-structure American verse results eventually in his “variable foot”, which (vaguely-defined though it might have been,) necessitated the re-production of speech in poetry and resulted eventually in a terraced tercet, visible in later poems like “The Orchestra.”  At the very least, Williams was a formal innovator who engaged with form on such a level that it was reflective of speech particular to his America and to his implementation of language.  Larkin achieved the same feat in continuing the tradition of English verse into the modern era, in a manner that was wary of the academy and oftentimes adversarial.  Similarly, Neruda wrote poems that discarded the stanza altogether, (as in “Tonight I Can Write’s” couplets with irregularly-placed single lines,) or by working in received forms (the Ode, the Sonnet) in a voice peculiar to the music of his native tongue or that re-appropriated said form to Neruda’s own purpose.  (Consider his “Ode to Socks.”)

Simply put, all that a Modernist must do to be a Modernist is to “make it new.”  Moreover, Williams, Larkin, and Neruda accomplish this in deceptively similar ways.  I would go so far as to say that they would have written precisely the same poetry were it not for who they were, where they were, and when they were.  At the very least, they all inhabited roughly the same “when,” and in an era where the advent of easy global communication made global culture more homogeneous than it had ever been.


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