Postmodern British Poetry

If the era of ‘postmodernity’ is increasingly seen as ‘a socio-economic mode that has intensified and surpassed modernity itself’ then poetry produced under this new ‘socio-economic mode’ might rightly be dismissed as another form of ‘postmodern’ candyfloss neatly packaged for our quick or therapeutic consumption.1 On the other hand perhaps poets, often relatively uninvested in the capital of a culture industry, which is currently terming itself in its latest guise as ‘postmodern’, are one of the few cultural producers left who can afford to be sceptical of the current era and of the claims of culture itself. Paradoxically, this means that poetry has the potential to be the most ‘postmodern’ and the most ‘anti-postmodern’ of the arts. Anthologies of the period reflect the unease with which contemporary poets and critics have embraced and subsequently distanced themselves from such an elastic term. Although there is some overlap between poets represented in anthologies of British poetry since 1980, what is most striking is the divergence between them that marks an important and decisive split in post-war poetry in Britain. Poets from both groupings have been termed ‘postmodern’.

There are clearly a number of definitions of the ‘postmodern’ in operation here. The first is linked to the branding, dilution (under the guise of accessibility) and commodification of intellectual and creative activity which have become key features of the ‘postmodern’ era. The second relates to the formal and conceptual features of ‘postmodernism’ as it has developed in relation to other disciplines such as architecture and the visual arts. The editors of The New Poetry (1993) describe their selection as emphasising ‘accessibillity, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness’.2 These are all features which appear to relate to the eclecticism of ‘postmodernism’, as it has been described by critics such as Charles Jencks and Hal Foster, but they are also consistent with the commodification of art in the ‘postmodern socio-economic mode’ identified by Nigel Wheale. In their introduction to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British 42 Poetry (1981), Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion suggest that the poets included in their anthology ‘do represent a departure, one which may be said to exhibit something of the spirit of postmodernism’.3 It is not clear which features of the poetry Morrison and Motion are referring to, but Ian Gregson has called this an ‘unhelpful and at worst simply wrong’ use of the term applied as it is here to poets such as Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn, whose lyric sensibilities and commitment to normative syntax do not allow for the kind of radical questioning of the limits of representation itself which are key features of the postmodern artwork.4 By contrast some, though certainly not all, of the contemporary poets included in A Various Art (1987), The New British Poetry (1988), Conductors of Chaos (1996) and the Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry 2001 do have characteristics in common with the conceptual, formal and political possibilities of postmodernism as they have been emerging in other disciplines. This does not make them exempt from the allpervasive effects of cultural marketeering and the attendant culpability associated with the postmodern. As Robert Hampson points out in relation to Ezra Pound’s famous dictum, ‘ ‘‘Make It New’’ has to confront the fact that ‘‘the new’’ is also used to sell the latest car or weapons system.’5

Another distinction between contemporary poetries can be made between their different strategies of production and distribution: ‘Unlike the Penguin Anthology, both A Various Art and The New British Poetry draw on a wealth of poetic production that was enabled in the 1960s and 1970s by cheapish mimeo and offset litho.’6 Hampson’s comment draws attention to the way in which some contemporary poets have continued to operate through networks of production and distribution which have different priorities than those of the dominant market forces. The possibilities of a particular type of postmodern poem in Britain can be seen to have resisted definition by the current ‘socio-economic mode’ at the same time as they have utilised its emerging technologies, i.e., cheaper and more widely available office reproduction equipment such as mimeo and photocopying machines, to make chapbooks and magazines. Craig Saper has coined the term ‘intimate bureacracy’ to describe such artist-led operations which ‘appropriate the trappings of systems now common in big business’ and ‘perform processes, rituals and trappings of bureaucracies, but as alternatives to mass-media distribution networks’.7 Despite this performative appropriation (which often occurs both in the making and writing of the work itself and in its modes of publication and distribution), many of these poets are keen to avoid the use of the term ‘postmodernism’, allied as it is with delusions of cultural capital and a culture industry which is intent on commodifiying intellectual labour. In recent years the decision to call oneself ‘neo-modernist’, ‘late modernist’ as opposed to ‘postmodernist’ is a determined gesture on the part of some poets and critics to avoid the latest dominant cultural whim of the fashion market in ideas. Those poets whose work has most in common with postmodernism’s conceptual and formal possibilities in other disciplines are least likely to want to apply the term ‘postmodernism’ to their work. As Peter Middleton argues, ‘Maybe the difficulty that the term ‘‘postmodernism’’ raises is due to its readiness to supplant those other capacious names for our condition: imperialism, capitalism, and particularly consumerism.’8

Nevertheless, some of the aspects of postmodernism worth pursuing in relation to poetry include those conceptual and formal possibilities for the postmodern artwork outlined by Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition (1979). A consideration of representation and its apparently inevitable ‘impossibility’ is fundamental to Lyotard’s description of the tendencies of the postmodern artwork. In the work of many contemporary poets this translates into a particular approach to language itself; language is utilised not as an apparently transparent conduit for the emotions of the poet. Language has been shaped by and is shaping the social and political forces throughout our culture and this is the necessary subject of the postmodern poet who does not approach representation in language as pure and unmediated material: instead language becomes foregrounded as both the medium and the potential subject of poetry. As Richard Kerridge writes of the work of J. H. Prynne, ‘Language is exposed as system, not inhabited as utterance.’9 This is analogous with the postmodern move in the visual arts to produce work which acts like ‘a dye in the bloodstream [ . . . ] to delineate the circulation system of art’.10 For the poet, the actual language of the poem is the ‘dye in the bloodstream’ that highlights and diverts the routes of the everyday ‘bloodstream’ of communication and representation. This is similar to Charles Jencks’s description of ‘Post-Modernism’ in architecture as ‘double coding: the combination of Modern techniques with something else’.11 In poetry this ‘double coding’ is at work in writers who draw attention to forms and genres and who recast them in contemporary settings; a more complex and endlessly refracting ‘double-coding’ occurs when poets foreground the coded nature of language itself and its saturated ideologies. This is the case in Drew Milne’s Go Figure (2003):

This imperium’s eagle spreads ancient wings
as the saying goes ahem friends Romans
and globalists most dextrous ego-surfers
of the remotest control say go figure
let slip the bristling clusters and gas
from each harsh Doric column stabbed long
and hard into a ruin of sea and dimpled air
most cleaving indifference over physical
features that depict no political borders
lost upon spicy chicken wings as claws
do special resolutions in pink cartoons
nails down tankers the chalk on board thing
and the gas is all for oil, galley slave
of this grade class fellow-guzzling petrol 12

The poem is more than ‘double-coded’ with a variety of registers: Shakespeare (Mark Antony’s speech on Caesar’s death), the language of the Internet and digital communications, the vocabulary of war and of specific bombs and weapons used in Afghanistan and Iraq, classical architecture, globalism, fast-food, advertising, education, slavery, oil, flight and quantification. In Milne’s poem none of these codings is allowed to remain fully intact and impermeable, each is bent and refracted to meet another ‘double-coding’ which proliferates at each intersection into further contextual overlays before it can become fixed in anything as simple as parody or quotation. The reader proceeds through recognition and continual readjustment of expectation as ‘countrymen’ become ‘globalists’, ‘channel surfers’ become ‘ego-surfers’ and political borders are lost. The poem is at once a Disney-like cartoon of existence and also a diagrammatic cartoon; ‘the chalk on board thing’ of a landscape or a world-view from the fractured perspective of a ‘galley slave’ or airline passenger, whose class identity is determined by the ‘grade’ on his ticket rather than his social background.

Lyotard describes the postmodern era as being characterised by a dispersal of ‘clouds of narrative language elements’ and within each cloud ‘are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind’ and ‘each of us lives at the intersection of many of these’.13 This description is useful as a way to think about reading elements of Drew Milne’s Go Figure which sometimes appear to be made up of ‘clouds of narrative language elements’ which have been dispersed across a series of tightly controlled structures. The poem offers us a ‘pragmatics of language particles’ which are to be negotiated as the reader makes her way through its ‘intersections’. For Lyotard it is essential that the postmodern artwork occupy the space at the ‘intersection of the clouds’ as an alternative to the usual structures of power and control:

The decision makers, however, attempt to manage these clouds of sociality according to the input/output matrices, following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and that the whole is determinable.14

Go Figure is in direct conflict with the attempt to manage these ‘clouds’ with numbers. The logics of management are not commensurable with the linguistic project of the poem which is to resist the tyranny of statistics that seek to replace figures with ‘figures’.

One of the defining features of the so-called postmodern era has been the academic rehabilitation of many of the different strands of Modernism which were initially passed over or actively lost from the official histories of the first part of the twentieth century. At the same time some recent accounts of postmodernity have been just as sceptical of the inclusion of poetry as poets have been of being termed postmodern. If postmodernism is ‘a principled reaction to modernism’, then the problem of situating British poetry in relation to the contexts of postmodernism has to confront the vexed question of the relationships contemporary poetry in Britain can be said to have to the formal innovations, politics and new subjectivities that Modernism produced.15

There are a number of positions which seem tenable. At first glance the apparently single and certainly dominant grand narrative account of postwar verse history sketched through successive anthologies such as The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry (1982) and The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945  (1998)might imply that contemporary British poetry is in fact both ante-modern and anti-modernist. That is to say that, for the most part, the contemporary poets featured in these anthologies bypass the radical trajectory of possibilities offered by writers such as Hope Mirrlees, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid and W. S. Graham, in favour of an extension of the dispiriting conservatism of the Movement poets whose roots lie in the poetry of Thomas Hardy and early W. B. Yeats.

The reaction of the Movement poets to the modernisms of the earlier century can certainly be read as a ‘principled reaction to modernism’ in that they wrote as if Modernism had never happened. Chronologically speaking the Movement poets of the 1950s are the postmodernists of twentieth century poetry and perhaps in them we have the postmodernism we deserve. Edward Lucie-Smith writes somewhat regretfully in 1985, in the revised introduction to his anthology British Poetry Since 1945, that:

In general . . . it must be said that the full reconciliation between the modernist spirit and British poetry which I looked forward to in 1970 has yet to take place. The most discussed new poets, often brilliantly accomplished within the fairly strict limits they have chosen for themselves, are often not only conservatives, but ones bold enough to flaunt their own conservatism. Indeed, they seem to look upon a declared hostility to modernism as being in  itself a form of innovation – which perhaps, taken in the broader context, it actually is.16

Rather than innovations of form, the 1950s produced innovative hostilities to Modernism which have been maintained in official verse culture to the present, and this necessarily has implications for how it becomes possible to draw a map of a possible postmodern poetics.

In contrast to the Movement, increasingly it has become the task of the contemporary poet and critic to approach Anglo-American Modernism as the ‘cultural construction around selective aesthetic and ideological values, and not as a thing in itself’.17 The reinterpretation of this ‘cultural construction’ opens new paths of conceptualisation between the early twentieth century and the twenty-first century. Similarly, the relationship between both what Peter Brooker calls ‘hegemonic modernism’ and the twentieth-century’s avant-garde is essential to consider if the postmodern poem is to be read as more than a by-product of capitalism, or what Drew Milne calls ‘the hot air balloon debates of postmodernism’, in which ‘Madonna and Public Enemy fight it out for critical attention’.18 This suturing of a previous century’s avant-garde onto the consideration of contemporary writing clearly throws up problems of terminology for Lyotard in the naming of the postmodern art work:

I do not like the term avant-garde, with its military connotations, any more than anyone else. But I do observe that the true process of avant-gardism was in reality a kind of work, a long obstinate and highly responsible work concerned with investigating the assumptions implicit in modernity.19

Lyotard’s description connects the ethical responsibities of the avant-garde with that of the postmodern poet and it aligns the potential of the postmodern poem with a practice of writing bent on ‘investigating the assumptions implicit in modernity’ which does not situate itself beyond the possibility that it will be complicit with the very fabric of the cultural ideologies which it seeks to unfix.

To emphasise the continuities with Modernism, Rod Mengham (Vanishing xvii) and Drew Milne use the terms ‘late Modernist’ and ‘Neomodernist Avant-Garde’ respectively to describe poetry which, because of its formal characteristics, might in other discussions of contemporary art forms be termed ‘postmodern’. This alternative terminology, employed to uphold the links between contemporary British poetry and radical or avant-garde modernist writings, forcibly rejects a connection to the Movement poets and their successors whose verse can be characterised as ‘a closed, monolineal utterance, demanding little of the reader but passive consumption’.20 By contrast many of the formal strategies of the ‘late modernist’ and ‘Neo-Modernist avant-garde’ poem – lack of closure, narrative redistribution, use of procedural methodologies of writing, fragmentation and proliferation of the lyric subject, use of found material, a demand for the active engagement of the reader and so on – are clearly to be found in the work of British Modernists such as Hope Mirrlees, Basil Bunting, David Jones, Mina Loy and W. S. Graham. Nevertheless, the danger of such strategies of extended recuperation is that they might be seen as merely a ‘carrying-on, in somewhat diluted form, of the avant-garde project that had been at the very heart of early modernism’ rather than presenting new directions for contemporary work which breaks with previous traditions.21 This recuperation is more than this as it offers a new space for the contextualisation of contemporary work which highlights the innovative and the experimental use of form and procedure as central to the history of poetry and poetics in the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Ironically, this history is itself a series of what Lyotard would term ‘postmodern micronarratives’ which are partial and fractured and emerge from many different modernisms. These micronarratives are themselves in flux and are constantly being reshaped according to the constant critical reshaping of modernism. According to Lyotard, ‘the ‘‘post-’’ of ‘‘postmodern’’ does not signify a movement of comeback, flashback or feedback, that is, not a movement of repetition but a procedure in ‘‘ana-’’: a procedure of analysis, anamnesis, anagogy and anamorphosis which elaborates an ‘‘initial forgetting’’’.22

Modernism is certainly not the only context for considering a ‘postmodern’ poetry. Eric Mottram termed the period between 1960 and 1975 ‘The British Poetry Revival’ because so many magazines, presses and publications flourished in Britain at this time. Wendy Mulford, poet and publisher, whose work emerged from a generation of writers who came to prominence in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, describes the direction of influence on her and her contemporaries as involving a ‘search [which] took them to the theoretical considerations about language welling up in Europe, and back to the USA’.23 One of the important contexts for the development of postmodern poetry was the rediscovery of European Modernism as mediated by the US Modernist tradition. Donald Allen’s ground-breaking anthology The New Poetry, 1945–1960 (1960) introduced new American and British readers to the late Modernist poetry of the Black Mountain, New York and San Francisco schools. Later UK magazines such as Reality Studios, Spectacular Diseases, Archeus and fragmente were crucial in facilitating the ongoing ‘transatlantic shuffle’ in late Modernist poetry.24 Fulcrum Press published work by Modernist writers such as Basil Bunting and George Oppen and introduced a British audience to poets such as Ed Dorn and Robert Duncan. It also published British poets such as Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood so as to emphasise a parity of concerns between poetry in the United States and Britain. The readers of such magazines also absorbed the influences of Black Mountain, the Beats, the New York School and the ideas and techniques of writers associated with the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E(1978–1982).

There is certainly an eclecticism of influence in British postmodern poetries that shows a merging of high and low culture, of previous and contemporary styles from ‘open field, projective verse, sound text, concrete poetry, surrealist and dada developments, pop lyrics, and various conceptual forms’.25 Contemporary poets such as Denise Riley are involved in a play of identification and subversion of many of the forms and traditions of poetry. Riley offers a reworking and reconsideration, rather than an absolute rejection, of poetic conventions such as the lyric subject. This is seen in Wherever You Are, Be Somewhere Else, which presents an intertextual fabric of echoes and allusions embedded at various depths within the poem, recycling lines from Scottish ballads and The Peach Blossom Fan by K’ung Shang-jen. The poem juxtaposes the conventional idea of the function of poetry as a form of lyric transport out of the everyday with the potential escapism of a computer game; both are inhabited by the poet and found to be wanting. There is no hierarchical distinction made between the solace of the lyric poem and that of the computer game, and the boundaries between each mode of escapism are blurred by the interchangable role of the computer as a games console and an instrument for writing lyric poetry. The technologised mediation of subjectivity is foregrounded in both poem and game. In keeping with this the poem simultaneously describes both its own construction and that of its lyric subject in the first verse as:

A body shot through, perforated, a tin sheet
beaten out then peppered with thin holes,
silvery, leaf-curled at their edges; light flies

right through this tracery, voices leap, slip sidelong,
all faces split to angled facets: whichever
piece is glimpsed, that bit is what I am, held

in a look until dropped like an egg on the floor
let slop, crashed to slide and run, yolk yellow
for the live, the dead who worked through me. 26

This is an uneasy affirmation of the lyric voice foregrounded alongside the fact of its own constructed nature which is as ‘artificially made’ as the poem itself: ‘a tin sheet / beaten out then peppered with thin holes’ and a ‘tracery’ through which ‘voices leap’. The hybridity of this lyric voice is emphasised by the title of the poem which echoes a Nintendo Game Boy slogan. The artificial is not simply confined to the allusions to technology, it also relates to the language registers of the poem itself. Lines 10–27 outline a nightmare vision of eggs cracking open to reveal snakes, a near-suicidal leap over a glacier and a blinded and gagged lyric speaker who is terrified of ‘being left’ alone. This, it seems, is just an illusion, akin to the unfolding narrative on a Game Boy that has been worked up by the poet:

I can try on these gothic riffs, they do make
a black twitchy cloak to both ham up and so
perversely dignify my usual fear of ends

Riley is trying on various guises offered to the lyric subject, hamming it up without identifying with any single subject position or discourse: ‘a million surfaces without a tongue and I never have wanted / ‘‘a voice’’ anyway, nor got it. Alright’. As Lyotard points out, the postmodern writer positions herself outside the possibility of an identification with one ‘Voice’; instead she writes to undo any such certainty: ‘One writes against language but not necessarily with it. To say what it already knows how to say is not writing.’ 27 Riley expresses a desire for the self-expression of the lyric ‘I’ at the same time as she recognises that this is a nostalgic reaching after a simulacra of authenticity which she knows to be illusory: ‘so I go to the wordprocessor longing for line cables / to loop out of the machine straight to my head’. Language does not loop out of her head in natural waves; there is no binary split between a ‘natural’ voice of poetry and an ‘unnatural’ medium of technology. Both seem to offer modes of speaking or writing but each represents its own barrier or interface, however negotiable, between subject and the world that cannot be taken for granted. This is very different from a poem which ‘assumes’ that it ‘is the record of an ‘‘I’’ speaking its loves and losses’ directly and transparently to the reader, which, as Peter Middleton says, is ‘a self untouched by postmodernism’.28

Another strand of poetic production in Britain, characterised by the very different work of Allen Fisher, Bob Cobbing and cris cheek is one which foregrounds process and procedure in the making of the work. This emphasis has some similarities to the pataphysical writings of the French OULIPO group but the work of these British poets is less explicity rule-based and is more likely to derive its dynamic from the repetition, translation and transformation of various sonic, semantic or visual characteristics of an initial text.

Allen Fisher’s main works include two poem sequences that have been published serially as chapbooks and pamphlets since the 1970s and recently collected as Place (2005) and Gravity (2005). Place moves through London on various experiential and textual levels. In his introduction Fisher describes his mode of composition as both ‘process and process-showing’, an approach which he has developed out of a methodological synthesis of the ‘open field’ poetics of Charles Olson with the process-showing systematic procedures of Jackson Mac Low. Mac Low often prefaces his poem sequences with an account of the steps he has taken to make a poem. Fisher does not include such details but often the actions that have been performed on the text become apparent through patterns of sonic or visual repetition in the reading of the poem. Like Mac Low, Fisher includes a list of the source materials that he has consulted and used within each poem. These are not so much a reading list that has to be followed to understand the poem but more like a demarcation of the textual field.

Like Olson, Fisher uses the page visually, incorporates found materials and uses a process-based poetics that has similarities to Olson’s ‘FIELD COMPOSITION’ poetics as outlined in ‘Projective Verse’. In this wellknown manifesto Olson calls for a move away from a poetry based on the individual ego of the poet, what he calls ‘the private-soul-at-any-public-wall’ which produces a ‘closed verse’. He sees the poem as ‘a high energyconstruct’ and ‘at all points, an energy discharge’ which is mediated between poet and reader.29 Similarly, Fisher’s poems demonstrate an interest in the physics of conducted energy between different substances. This also becomes an analogy for reading and writing. In ‘second release Homage to Charles Olson’, Fisher writes:

Your place is this moving field of resources
around a war of the intellect
that is exuberant and not aggressive
a dance preceding mechanics knowing rest in kinesis
‘how to act fiercely but, with dignity’
not centred but craving to continue, speaking
getting at matters that way learning
how to alert hearing in intense extempores
that continually reshape the going moves. 30

Fisher’s own practice has much in common with what he identifies in Olson here as being a strategy of writing which balances out apparently opposing impulses towards a fixing and an unfixing of meaning in ‘a war of the intellect’, or between the ‘preceding mechanics’ of poetic form and the ‘dance’ or energy of the poem which manifests itself in a process of writing which generates its own logics of continuation and proliferation. Similarly the ‘hearing’ and attention of the poet is directed through writing even as it remains open to all possibilities, ‘in intense extempores’, of risk and chance encounter which might deflect the poem from its apparent subject. Important for both Fisher and Olson is the way in which the writing and reading process can keep in play ‘this moving field of resources’ that is ‘continually’ reshaping itself through the negotiation of this dynamic.

This stress on motility and fluidity in both Olson and Fisher might usefully be considered in relation to the distinction that Roland Barthes makes between ‘work’ and ‘text’; Barthes differentiates between the tangible and physical quality of ‘the work’ as it appears as ‘a fragment of substance’ in books and libraries and the text which is experienced as ‘a methodological field’, ‘a process of demonstration’ or through ‘an activity of production’.31 Fisher’s Place would seem to be studded with fragments of works (local history, science, literature, philosophy and music) that have been activated in a methodological field of encounter which blurs the distinction between the activities of reading and writing. Place can be approached as a ‘textbetween’ of many others which must be set going by the reader rather than consumed.

Place was being planned and written at the same time as Fisher was involved in the development of Fluxus in Britain during the 1970s; Fisher’s poetics are allied to the redefinition of visual arts practice which ‘dematerialised’ the art object. Art objects were replaced with language, diagrams, ephemeral propositions, performance. In The Topological Shovel Fisher describes how ‘art as objects and poetry as poems’ have ‘gradually lost credibility’, to be replaced by ‘many attentions of activity’ that are ‘process’ and ‘idea-oriented’.32 This redistribution of ‘attentions of activity’ is central to any consideration of the political possibilities of a contemporary poetry. It also clearly stands at odds with a poetry which marks accessible vocabulary and easily assimilable thematic content as necessarily democratic and inclusive to the exclusion of all other forms of writing. The reaching after these ‘attentions of activity’ might have the effect of transforming the poem utterly away from known poetic conventions; from ‘poetry as poems’.

Lyotard characterises a postmodern artist or writer as one who produces a text that cannot be judged by ‘the application of given categories’. Like Allen Fisher, who has also made work in performance and the visual arts as well as poetry, a growing number of practitioners are producing work at the interstices of disciplinary boundaries, often between the visual arts and writing in bookarts, installation, digital poetics, live-art and performance. These practitioners are engaged in what Lyotard terms the investigation into ‘rules and categories’ of the contexts and sites of their textual practice and often their work moves in various manifestations between the gallery and the page. Practitioners in this mode include Susan Johanknecht, Brian Catling, Caroline Bergvall, John Cayley and cris cheek.

Susan Johanknecht’s Modern (Laundry) Production (2001) is a striking example of a bookart that also functions as a sculptural installation. In bookarts the physical form and the linguistic content of the book are often read simultaneously. Johanknecht’s book is a double-sided concertinafolded sheet of paper that comes in a slip case. The poem utilises found images and text from 1940s manuals and accounts of laundry production in combination with Donna Haraway’s ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism for the 1980s’ (1985). When it is unfolded horizontally it is long enough to be held between the fully outstretched arms of the reader, but in order to read the text of the bookwork the reader must feed it vertically through her hands, an action which, as the reading progresses, begins to echo the actions of a laundry worker feeding sheets through an industrial press. The book has also been shown as part of gallery installations: in this context it hangs from the ceiling and is situated alongside a video monitor showing slides of cropped images of the laundresses at work. Through the reader’s physical interaction with Modern (Laundry) Production a wry comparison is invited between the performance of reading and the performance of the role of the laundress in an increasingly industrialised and dehumanising environment.

We are now, according to Alan Gilbert, in the ‘twilight’ of a postmodern era, in which grand narratives such as ‘economic realm market fundamentalism’ reassert themselves.33 Some poets, eager for assimilation, have been co-opted into service by the cultural-lite demands of the postmodern high street, while others prefer to maintain a foothold in alternative modes of production and networks of distribution which have been recently facilitated by the Internet and by the development of new technologies of printing and production. Although it seems inevitable that poetry cannot possibly stand in isolation from the emerging new economies of labour, leisure and consumption of which it too is a part, it does appear necessary to distinguish between a postmodern poetics which actively resists the commodification of culture, and a poetry that is being branded with terms such as ‘postmodernism’ for ease of marketability, a term which is often in the ‘postmodern era’ wrongly made synonymous with accessibility. The work of Milne, Riley, Fisher and Johanknecht reaches out of the autonomous niche afforded to poetry by closely guarded disciplinary and nationally constituted boundaries. Each writer foregrounds practices and methodologies of writing which demonstrate an awareness of and a refusal to capitulate to the commodification of the cultural, conceptual and formal possibilities of the ‘postmodern’. Their work makes links back to a previous century’s avant-garde while it remains radically engaged with the possibilities and inevitable contradictions inherent in the negotiation and formulation of a poetry and poetics of the present.


Source: The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry Edited By Neil Corcoran Cambridge University Press 2007

1 Nigel Wheale (ed.), The Postmodern Arts: An Introductory Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 14.

2 Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley (eds.), The New Poetry (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1993), p. 16.

3 Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion (eds.), The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 20.

4 Ian Gregson, Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement (London: Macmillan, 1996), p. 209.

5 Robert Hampson and Peter Barry (eds.) New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 134.

6 Hampson and Barry (eds.), New British Poetries, p. 5.

7 Craig Saper, Networked Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 16.

8 Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), p. 201.

9 Richard Kerridge and N. H. Reeve, Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), p. 109.

10 Hal Foster, ‘Subversive Signs’, in Lawrence E. Cahoone (ed.), From Modernism to Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 313.

11 Charles Jencks, What is Post-Modernism? (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987), p. 14.

12 Drew Milne, Go Figure (Cambridge: Salt, 2003), p. 4.

13 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. xxiv.

14 Ibid.

15 Stuart Sim (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. x.

16 Edward Lucie-Smith (ed.), British Poetry Since 1945 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 24–5.

17 Peter Brooker, ‘Postmodern Postpoetry: Tom Raworth’s ‘‘Tottering State’’’, in Anthony Easthope and John O. Thompson (eds.), Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 154.

18 Drew Milne, ‘Agoraphobia, and the Embarrassment of Manifestos: Notes towards a Community of Risk’, Parataxis: Modernism and Modern Writing, 3 (Spring 1993), 28.

19 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 93.

20 Richard Caddel and Peter Quatermain (eds.), Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), p. xv.

21 Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The ‘New Poetics’ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), p. 3.

22 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982–1985 (Sydney: Power Publications, 1992), p. 93.

23 Wendy Mulford, ‘Curved, Odd . . . Irregular’: A Vision of Contemporary Poetry by Women’, Women: A Cultural Review, 1, 3 (Winter 1990), 263.

24 Geoff Ward, Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p. 186.

25 Hampson and Barry (eds.), New British Poetries, p. 16.

26 Denise Riley, Selected Poems (London: Reality Street, 2000), p. 47.

27 Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained, p. 105.

28 Peter Middleton, ‘Who Am I to Speak? The Politics of Subjectivity in Recent British Poetry’, in Hampson and Barry (eds.), New British Poetries, p. 119.

29 Quotations from Charles Olson, Selected Writings, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966).

30 Allen Fisher, Place (Hastings: Reality Street, 2005), p. 398.

31 Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, ed. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1982), pp. 157, 163.

32 Allen Fisher, The Topological Shovel (Ontario: The Gig, 1999), p. 6.

33 Sim (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, p. xi.

Further reading

  • Caddel, R., and P. Quatermain (eds.), Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970,
  • Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1999
  • Hampson, R., and P. Barry (eds.) New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993
  • Mengham, R., and J. Kinsella (eds.), Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems, Cambridge: Salt, 2004
  • Middleton, P., Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005 Tuma, Keith (ed.), Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry,
  • New York: Oxford University Press, 2001 Wheale, N. (ed.), The Postmodern Arts: An Introductory Reader, London: Routledge, 1995

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