Another Reason to Celebrate Modernism

I had not known the work of the architect Charles Gwathmey until I read his obituary in the NY Times.The photograph of the small house he designed for his parents in 1966 is breathtaking and reminds one of the aesthetic power of the Modernist vision, in architecture, which I know only casually, and in poetry, which I know professionally. Things have changed, of course; Modernism has been replaced by the hodge-podge amalgam of post-modernism. The Times quotes a friend of the architect: “‘A lot of people jumped ship, but Charlie was loyal to Modernism’, said Peter Eisenman, the architect and theorist.” Given my preference for pluralism over any form of authoritarian Tradition, I should be happy about the passing of Modernism, but it produced so much great art that I not so secretly long for a return to the vision quest of the Modernist project, to put something together out of the fragments of the past as it has come down to us, though I have perhaps a more catholic appreciation for and acceptance of the sort of fragments that might be useful than the old Modernists.

James Ensor

There’s a show at MOMA I’d like to see, of James Ensor’s proto-modernist paintings. I find my own aesthetic roots in the period of western art and literature that runs from the end of the 19th century through the First World War — the period of what is sometimes called High Modernism. The NY Times reviewer, Holland Cotter, calls Ensor “an aggrieved traditionalist with a pop culture itch,” words that I might apply to myself. Ensor also labored all his life away from the centers of culture where artistic reputations were made. Ensor strikes me as paradigmatic of modernism in his combining of high and low culture and his subversion of technique by technique. [A barely adequate Wikipedia entry here; Google image results here.] One loves the old modes and methods even when they are no longer viable and one is reduced to parody and pastiche.

Something Like Spring

Haven’t been paying much attention to things online because there has been a lot going on offline. Carole left for Pictoplasma in Berlin today and will be gone a week. I’m only a month away from leaving for Vietnam and I’ll be gone six weeks. And the weather has been (slowly) improving, so there have been more dog walks and even a bit of time out on the deck, which faces south, enjoying the spring sun, though the air is still pretty cold and there are no leaves on the trees. Still a few patches of snow in the hollows, but the last of the ice has melted off the river. I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, as well as some things about Modernism, so I think I’ll have some notes to post here and at The Plumbline before long.

And Your Point Is?

Note: Originally posted on 2.8.2009, I’ve moved this back to the top because Robert Bernard Hass has been kind enough to respond in comments. I have also written a response to his comment and would love to hear the view of others, which is why I’m also going to cross-post this to the Plumbline blog.

What the hell is the point of this? I didn’t think much of Alexander’s poem either, but I tried to sketch a few reasons I thought the piece didn’t work. Jack Foley, whoever he is, has simply delivered an insult without content. Another writer at CPR (which I tend to think of as a literary organ of the rump New Formalism), makes a sronger case. Robert Bernard Hass’s objections make sense, as far as they go, but I find the assumptions underlying his conclusion problematic:

Perhaps what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant. With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often iterated, “old ways to be new.” Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem, so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American imagination—as President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech, only moments earlier.

An understanding of the the rhetorical situation is essential, I agree, but I suspect that no rhetoric can reconcile electoral politics with the “politics of the unconscious.” (Modern) poetry can only assent provisionally to ideology. The modern poet must write from an alienated position. It occurs to me, in fact, that those poets (like me) who see modernism in terms of a fundamental break in the culture of the West are likely to see a parallel fundamental disjunction between poetry & politics. On the other hand, poets (& readers) who see Modernism as just another literary style will tend to see the relationship between politics & poetry as, if not unproblematic, then at least not fundamentally problematic.

Playing with Modernism

If Modernism begins with the death of God & the subsequent plunge into subjective experience in Western culture, it remains true that old traditions keep turning up in new forms. Whereas Modernism dismisses folk beliefs for an urban cosmopolitanism, it has never managed to completely banish the old atavisms of the folk. And good thing, too, since those deep & shadowy forces continually challenge the progressivism of Modernism. All of which is prologue to reporting that I read two books this summer, one after the other, that play with their relations between the old and the new. The first, The Old, Weird America, by  Greil Marcus is ostensibly a report on the creation of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band in 1967, but is, as the title suggests, a meditation on Dylan’s reinvention of American folk music; the book is actually at its strongest when discussing Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music [Amazon link] and the country banjo player & singer Dock Boggs. Boggs is a remarkable character in Marcus’ telling, a rounder & a poet of the old America.

Dock Boggs made a primitive-modernist music about death. Primitive because the music was put together out of junk you could find in anyone’s yard, hand-me-down melodies, folk-lyric fragments, pieces of Child ballads, mail-order instruments, and the new women’s blues records they were making in the northern cities in the early years of the 1920s; modernist because the music was about choices you made in a world a disinterested god had plainly left to its own devices, a world where only art or revolution, the symbolic remaking of the world, could take you out of yourself. [Marcus153-154]

I also read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, which is about the old, weird Scotland; or rather, about the cusp between the old, weird Scotland & the modern nation of the same name. And about the hubris of science & the power of the inexplicable. Gray’s novel recounts the life of Bella Baxter, who may or may not be the creation of the deformed giant & scientific genius Godwin Baxter, whom Bella refers to as “God,” short for Godwin, which is also a sly reference to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story is composed of multiple narratives, different voices, documents, footnotes, maps, & bits of historical fact. The novel presents Godwin as, like Frankenstein, half scientist & half mage. And his creation, Bella, is beautiful, not monstrous (though she has monstrous appetites). Gray’s novel explores possible responses to what we might think of as the Modernist dissolution of epistemological certainty & personal identity. But none of these abstractions really capture the deep, sweet, weirdness of the novel.


  1. NPR story on Harry Smith & the Anthology with audio links.
  2. Dock Boggs lyrics & other information.