Postmodern Poetry

"Superior Lake" by Lorine Niedecker as an Example
General concepts about serial & procedural forms
Serial form
Procedural form
"Lake Superior"
Taiwanese Postmodern Poetry (an Outline in Chinese)
Louise Chen, 11/26/1998
Postmodern poetics respond to the condition of the world. In an age of instant telecommunications and metropolitan life, the postmodern serial and procedural forms attempt to accommodate the overwhelming diversity of messages and the lapse of a grand order that is replaced by an arbitrary personal order.

I. Language

A.  In postmodern poetics, there is a paradigmatic shift from the idea that language is
transparent to the disclosure of its physicality, its intimacy, its obdurate persistence, and its
paradoxical fragility. (M 43)

B. Reader¡Xpoem:

The reader's position is contingent upon the poem and the poem¡¦s existence hinges upon
the reader and the varieties of knowledge the reader brings to the poem¡KThe adequation of
thing and sign has lapsed with the realization of the arbitrary condition of language. (M 43)

II. Self

A. Contemporary poetry:

1. Contemporary poetry positions its perspectives from a persona (who is often autobiographic) within a defined narrative structure.
2. Contemporary poetry avoids self-criticism and establishes itself as a singled unified voice. (M 48)

B. Postmodern poetry:

1. Postmodernist poetics suggests an ongoing reinterpretation of the self in the context of others. It specifically investigates the ethical-or self-critical capacity of language and its relationship to identity. (M 46)

2. The critique of the privileged and entitled ¡§I¡¨ is central to postmodern poetics. While not a wholesale endorsement of many theoretic claims to he death of the author or the abandonment of intention, postmodern poetry nonetheless insists on a re-visioning of the authorial voice and its reception. (M 46)

III. Modernism
  1. The central tenet of modernism, as propounded by Clement Greenberg, is that no text
exists outside and beyond itself. (M 44)

B. There is a ¡§desire for organization coherence, a focus of locale, a central narrative persona,

and unifying themes are present.(M 48)

C. In modern works, there is the interruption of poems by pose arrangements, but the

modernism prose fragments imply a cultural community or artifacts constituting a whole.

(M 48)

IV. Postmodernism

A. Postmodern world

  1. It presents a technological person divorced from an environment that he gamely attempts

  2. to "manage" or "condition."  Postmodern form responds to the conditions of the modern
    world. (C 16)
  3. Postmodern world is aware of what has generally been perceived as the lapse of

  4. governing orders in our existence. The postmodern artist has little confidence in
    suprahuman orders, and she will readily concede that whatever order may be apparent in
    the world is largely a projection of the human mind. (C 17)
  5. The universe is ineffable. We are that much more inclined to disbelieve the fictions of its coherence. (C 17)
B. Art and society

1. Working through such modes as appropriation, synthesis, recombination, mutation and
generation, postmodern poetics expresses a commitment to the dialogical, social world.
(M 44)

2. Postmodern art constitutes a significant and deliberate break with the "spatial form" of
modernism in its paradoxical use of self-conscious art, not to separate itself from, but to refer to and engage the dominant discourse of hegemony. (M 44)

3. The abandonment by science of a unidirectional system of causation for a multidirectional field of possibilities encourages a corresponding shift in the arts from closed to open forms. (C 19)

C. Postmodern poetics

  1. Despite its frequent recourse to a renewed formalism, postmodern poetry rejects the notion of an autonomous poem, self, or culture; while truth or identity can not be anchored, the poem offers through its very inception the possibility of transformation. (M 43).
2. In postmodern poetry the intrusion of prose signals the awareness of the arbitrariness of form and language. It is a form that seeks to obstruct the received representation of the poem or the idea of the poem per se. (M 48)

3. Artifice is¡Kthe recognition that a poem or painting or performance text is a made
thing¡Xcontrived, constructed, chosen¡Xand that its reading is also a construction on the
part of its audience. (M 45)

V. General concepts of serial and procedural forms

A. Serial form

  1. Poets such as Creeley, Opeen, and Spicer have discerned a serial order that is ¡§protean¡¨

  2. and provisional. It incorporates random occurrences without succumbing to

    formlessness. (C 11)

  3. In a ¡§protean¡¨ order the poet as Menelaus struggles to capture the incessantly changing,

  4. fluid, and contiguous phenomena as they occur. (C 11)

  5. Poets tend to make ¡§a quick graph¡¨ of the acknowledged disorder as it occurs. Seriality

  6. is a somewhat desultory topological map of the ¡§ground¡¨ of existence. (C 17)

  7. Serial works are characterized by the discontinuity of their elements and the centrifugal
force identified with an ¡§open¡¨ aesthetic. (C 42) B. Procedural form
  1. Poets such as Ashbery, Mathews, and Cage have entertained a procedural order that is

  2. ¡§proteinic¡¨ and predetermined. It employs arbitrary constrains to generate the content of

    the poem instead of merely containing it, as in traditional fixed forms.

  3. In a ¡§proteinic¡¨ order the poet initiates an encoded structure or network that builds on

  4. itself, replicates with variation, and produces the text. (C11-12)

  5. Poets enlist an admittedly arbitrary and personal order as mediation between the mind

  6. and its environs. Proceduralism produces a grid transparently superimposed on¡Xand as

    easily lifted from¡Xexistence. (C 17)

  7. Procedural works are typified by the recurrence of elements and a centripetal force that
promises a self-sustaining momentum. (C 42) VI. Serial form
  1. Prototype¡XWilliam Carlos Williams¡¦ Spring and All (1923)¡Xconsists of twenty-seven
numbered, untitled poems interspersed with prose arguments. Williams¡¦s demand in one

argument that poetry be ¡§new form dealt with as a reality in itself.¡¨ ¡Kthe series

distinguishes itself from the neoromantic sequence principally because it forgoes the

linear, thematic development of that form¡K Williams¡¦s book can be considered the

prototype for those poems whose form is both discontinuous and capable of recombination.

(C 20)

B. General characteristics

1.The open form of the poetic series is defined by its limitless set of relations; it takes its

shape from the diverse ways in which items come together.(C 15) 2. The series are the product of ¡§a ¡¥stemmatous¡¦ imagination of the chain or network.¡¨

They function as ¡§an arrangement of mobile, substitutive parts, whose combination

produces meaning, or more generally a new object.¡¨ The serial form is thus based on the

complex and multifarious means by which , as Rovert Creeley points out, one thing finds

its place with another. (C 21)

3. The serial form in poetry is one of ¡§those works,¡¨ as Barthes puts it, ¡§whose fabrication,

by arrangement of discontinuous and mobile elements-or their resistance to a

determinate order. (C 21)

  1. The series does not aspire to the encompassment of the epic; nor does it allow for the

  2. reduction of its materials to the isolated perfection of the single lyric. The series

    demands neither summation nor exclusion. It is instead a combinative form whose

    arrangements admit a variegated set of materials. (C 21)

  3. The series is an open form in large part because it does not require the ¡§mechanic¡¨

  4. imposition of an external organization. It is not, however, an ¡§organic¡¨ form. (C 22)

  5. In a series the reader is encouraged to select any of these ¡§passages¡¨ as an entrance.
(C 23) 8. The postmodern theorist proposes an open structure that welcomes possibility, choice,
and chance. (C 24)
Sequence Series
humanism  post-humanism
a hierarchical cosmos an expanding universe
centripetal force centrifugal force
symbolic depth syntagmatic link
organic  atomistic
unity  recombination 
immanent  aleatory
linear  curvilinear and disjunctive
logical  irrational
continuity discontinuity
progression disruption
a single voice cacophony or no voice
hypotactic: arranged one 

under another 

paratactic: arranged side by 


metaphoric metonymic
VII. Procedural form
  1. The ability of procedural forms to sustain their own momentum derives from their relationship to the "paradigmatic consciousness." ¡K It sees the sign in its "profile" and thus pays particular attention to the formal relations of signs and to the regular constraints of a work. It is attention to the system. (C 41) One is caught, forced to move in the direction that the form dictates. (C 42)
  2. A procedural form is "closed" by virtue of its entirely predetermined structure. It is not dictated by tradition, but assembled as a set of choices that can be disassembled or reconstituted according to the poet¡¦s assessment of their effectiveness. Form is not "endowed" by some suprahuman or historical authority, but "fabricated" with an emphasis on displaying the poet's artifice. It asserts the very arbitrary system of organization ¡K It claims the devolution of intellectual authority to personal decision. (C15)
  3. The procedural form is a generative structure that constrains the poet to encounter and examine that which he or she does not immediately fathom, the uncertainties and incomprehensibilities of an expanding universe in which there can be no singular impositions. (C16)
VIII. Lorine Niedecker's finite serial form: "Lake Superior"
  1. Objectivism
  1. The Objectivist poetics pays an acute attention to particulars and details¡Xthe hard, clear
image. The poets think with things, not about them.
  1. Cyclical form

    1. "Lake Superior" is a series whose individual poem deserves a certain degree of autonomy. They are not to be stacked on top of one another as if they are stanzas of a single continuous poem. Niedecker seeks to express not a single chain of cause and effect but an "awareness of everything influencing everything" by stressing the autonomy of the poems which form a cyclical structure.

    3. Every living thing once was stone, and the living will turn to stone again. On this cycle of the organic and inorganic, minerals and stone are the recurrent figures in the series, as they are in nature. Within the cycle of stone-leaf-stone, the recurrent thing does not extinguish itself or encounter a full stop, but returns in a new and separate environment.

    5. Niedecker had eliminated the Roman numberals which order the poems in the original arrangement. Her spare use of punctuation throughout the series also reinforces this concept of an endless cycle: there are no full stops, no periods.
  1. Does postmodern poetics break completely from modern and the Coleridgean theory of organic form?
  2. How does postmodern poetics correspond with theory of postmodern fiction?