Friday, 14 October 2016

Poetry is dead and we have killed it: my thoughts on literature and post-modernism.

Image result for god is dead and we killed him
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche published this idea in 1882, long before post-modernism, or its earlier counterpart, modernism, had emerged. Yet, to me, the idea holds pertinence to my own views on literature in today's society.

I am not saying that poetry is pointless, or unworthy of our study. Rather, I think the very opposite. However, it is with the cultural revolution of technology that I believe our previously held conceptions of poetry, likewise of theists, are being annihilated, whilst a new paradigm of literary thought is proliferating. 

Poetry is scary; poetry asks us to pay attention. We have to examine poetry, look for its quirks - an inverted foot here, a hypermetrical beat there - and interpret it. Attributing a single truth - giving a fate to a poem - is terrifying.

I believe that this fear is the product of two things: the first, post-modernism, and the latter, technology. Moreover, in my view, the latter has only augmented the first. Perhaps late-modernity is a more suitable word here, or perhaps the irony is that no word carries the 'truth' of post-modernism (or late-modernity, or whatever you want to call it). 

Let me clarify my own understanding of what this term means to me - a task that scares many just as much as analysing, or even reading poetry (for pleasure - the horror!) . My philosophy teacher described postmodernism as "a pick 'n' mix" society. To me, this surmises exactly the kind of truth-farming that postmodernism popularises. There is no longer any universal truth in post-modernism; there are no predominant world views; there is no longer any meta-narratives. Hence, Nietzsche seemed to be writing long before his time. The very idea that "God is dead" is relevant to 'the now' more than ever: religious pluralism and multiculturalism have promoted a society of relativism. Religion, likewise literature, has become a cultural construct, grasping onto the very last threads of a slowly disintegrating truth claim. 

Now, let me bring this all back to the written word: how has post-modernism affected our literary paradigm?

Firstly, I want to propose a tentative disagreement with Barthes' 'Death of the Author' (which I previously wrote about here). Barthes' argues that the author is dead, and we, as the readers, have taken on autonomy. Rather, I think that the author is a proliferating phenomenon. With technology, we are so involved in the author's own life. We follow their Twitter; we read their articles; we visualise their own world-view through the pages of their Instagram. Authors themselves are concerned with a virality (i.e. going 'viral') as opposed to quality. In fact, the reader is not controlling the work, it is the author. The reader becomes lost in the mass of information on the modern author. Authors are being endorsed into celebrity culture and we are losing the essence of interpretation - no longer can we question what the author meant because it is likely that they've spelled it out in 140 characters on Twitter. Technology has forced itself into the supposedly intimate relationship of author and reader, necessitating a violent reconfiguration of interaction.

But back to poetry. In our "pick 'n' mix" society, we choose what we interpret. There are no truth claims to 'good' literature anymore - it's all relative. Yet as much as in my mind, this is a good thing - I want literature to be freed from its elitist shackles and made available to all - I can't help but feel like we are losing the essence of what poetry means. I have no experiential knowledge of it, but I can only liken this feeling to the public consensus to the rise of the novel: what is this controversy, this middle-class weapon? Where has our flavour for form gone, our fancy for ambiguity? The novel made literature accessible to both authors and readers. Likewise, I can't help feel that this has come at a cost. Shakespeare, in the literary world, is more-or-less on par with God. Similarly, there hasn't been a 'Second Coming', and there has been no 'Second Shakey'. We are losing our literary absolutes in the same way that religion is losing its moral absolutes.

It might be liberal and modernistic for everything to be in free verse, but where is the challenge of poetry? Where is the moment that we realise we have found a rhythm that mimics the basic rhythm of human life - of our heart, of our breath, of our footsteps? That moment after which our heart speeds up with excitement and the poem adds a spondee to mimic our own triple-increasing anticipation?

Indeed, there are some contemporary poets who do write in 'traditional' (I write 'traditional' with caution, because in a post-modern world, does tradition really have authority?) forms. Seamus Heaney and Don Paterson are two examples. Yet, these are for BBC Radio 4 listeners and people (like me) who prefer to sit in bed flicking through an anthology rather than scrolling through social media. A few months ago I deleted social media (which I will be writing about in the near future) but when I did use it, most poetry shared by popular channels stretched about as far as Rupi Kaur. I think that Rupi Kaur is an excellent writer and proposes some interesting ideas, but for me, Kaur's simplicity and use of simple, free-verse, often made her feminist agenda almost too easy to grasp. After all, she is known as an "InstaPoet" - technology has made everything free and quick, and so such poetry must also be possible to consume quickly and easily. This has made us appreciate 'good' poetry far less. By the same token, in terms of broader 'literature', many, including myself, are dissuaded from reading news articles online when a fee is asked for, such as on The Times - if half of the article is cut off and asks for a subscription, I simply turn to another news outlet. We are consumed by a habit of consumption; the internet is like fast-food: if it is not fast enough, or greasy enough (i.e. extremely hyperbolised), we often complain. 

Nietzsche himself questions, "must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" The internet has created a similar culture of I, I, I. We are obsessed with the self and more than often, the mind loses substance. We are concerned with virality, not vitalityPoetry has lost the element of ambiguity in a world where information is so abundant.

It is not the reader's, nor the author's fault. We live in an age of technology, of late-modernity, an age wherein choice is so emphasised. But yet, for all of the apparent positives, we have not only slashed the shackles of tradition but run away from the greats, on a line that lacks the very rhythms of life. 

We are experiencing a revolution, and it is not one which I warmly welcome: poetry as we knew it is dead, and we have killed it.


This post was inspired by my philosophy coursework which explores the impact of the internet on language, and to what extent it has empowered the disempowered. As a result, I read some interesting articles which I believe hold a particular value to this rant of mine:

Monday, 10 October 2016

I am dancing on a volcano.

My thoughts swirl inside of me like magma. I am dormant; I am in waiting.

It is 10:45pm. The glare of my computer screen casts artificial light over the work before me. The humble drone of The Maccabees filters into the night air through my open window, and the brisk October wind finds shelter inside. 

My mind dances restlessly with anticipation for news of the future. I feel the weight of my dreams in the pen I hold and in the words I read. The racing rhythms of my mind permeate the membrane of my every day. Often, the ambition hurts; I am terrified that I am falling in love with an intellectual pattern. 

Yet, I am my sole weapon in the battlefield of academia. I strive for academic achievement in the most archaic sense: I want genuine intellectual exchange; hands stained with the ink of ideas; dark circles undermining eyes glaring with curiosity. But I am not sure what will happen, what the outcome of this dormancy may be. After all, ambiguity is at the center of what is it to be human.

The ground may be rough, but the views imbue me with an unprecedented thrill. It is from this precarious, ambiguity-governed position - dancing on the peak of a volcano - that I fall upon a moment of consideration. Tapering behind me lies procrastination, university applications and the bittersweet haze of summer. Before me lie the ridges of hard work - the blueprint of success. Here, from my vantage point, absorbed in this moment of utter potential, I have a choice.

My mind pulses with desire and my body trembles.

I'm going with my head.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

a short story on femininity and freedom

Isabella blew out the gas-lamp by her side, and undivided darkness prevailed. The only fracture in the night sky was the ethereal gleam of white light emancipated from the moon.

The indifferent silence perplexed her, and she began to reflect upon how all life was indeed far removed. She could hear only the bleating of elk in the distance and in the thinned, elastic air she dismissed her light-headedness. Inhaling deeply, she longed to feel the optimistic rush of oxygen to her brain, mistaking the onset of faintness for strength, and thus lulling her mind into a false sense of vitality.

Around 4,500 feet from the foot of Long’s Peak, part of the Rocky Mountain range discovered in 1820, 
53 years ago, her memories and her dreams seemed apparent to another existence. Two evenings ago alongside her travelling companions, Jim Nugent and Mrs Chalmers, she had reached the base at the foot of the mountain. Upon their arrival, with the sun dutifully descending down over the glorious, desolate mountain range, she had excused herself in order to admire the native Indian settlements visible upon the horizon. She had, however, split from her acquaintances instead, and began to ascend the mountain alone as darkness fell. Her reasoning for doing so was an irrational streak to escape her peers - feeling that they were confining her successes, and that in order to truly succeed, she must be alone. Her mission was therefore a mission of self-discovery, and a subconscious effort to prove herself capable of the highest personal achievement: refusing to allow others to influence her successes.

After escaping from her companions and fleeing up the treacherous mountain path, she was forced to stop a few hundred feet up as night had fallen and she could no longer configure a safe path. The next day, she climbed further, and from the vantage point at which she paused to rest upon, she watched Jim Nugent and Mrs Chalmers frantically trawl the landscape below in search for her. As they trawled the area in close proximity to the base, their figures on horseback became toy-like. They would assume her dead, her mountaineer skills concluded feminine - inept. A search party would be sent out on request of her family, but she estimated she still had a few days yet.

But now, once again sitting alone in the darkness, though without the adrenaline of spontaneous escape, the dense silence created no distractions from her thoughts. The night seemed opaque to her. Exhausted, she lay out on the rock, still warm from the day’s heat. Her body felt as though it were detached from her mind. The cold shawl of the wind pummelling her body and the skin of her lips, fractured from the heat, did not feel genuine in existence.

Struggling against these thoughts of existence, past reality appeared obscure and fantasised. She questioned whether the reality she was experiencing was all but a trick of the mind. Her watch told her of the time, but she did not see for she became lost in the darkness of late evening.

Her mind, a morass of questions; her body, feeble and weak, collapsed into a state of heavy sleep. She slept deeply, and her body drifted into a state of unfrequented unconsciousness. She dreamt of her youth, and the stigma of these images haunted her. She awoke startled; though determined and refreshed, despite the palpitant heat of the morning.

She grasped with her surroundings. The distant callings of birds rang with splintered hope and the bleak shrubbery sat still.

Her future appeared to loom upon the horizon, stained with the tumbling colours of dawn and antipathy of her past. Her mouth was arid with dehydration but her mind was drenched in astringent memories, heavy with questions and the embittered taste of harrowing mistakes. In empty daylight, the once glorious mountain range that had seemed to reassure her with its heights and intangible power, became ghastly: an imposing, desolate landscape, dry of reassurance.

Again, delirious thoughts forced their way back.

The wild, intangible colours of the morning sky seemed to prove to her that her life was simply an extension of a dream, that she was stuck inside a painting of her own mind.

The skies looked like a paisley patterned wallpaper: a wonderful mixed cauldron of purple hues and emerging blues, passionate pinks and flaming oranges: electric, wild clashing colours that chased after each other in kaleidoscopic curls. It was almost illusionary, appearing in a different combination of colours and patterns at every tilt of her head. In the first few minutes of sunrise as the moon had secreted itself into the gashed pores of the universe, the skies were murky underfoot seaweed. As the sun rose, a burning sphere of orange white light, the skies were a hundred chameleons crawling over these colourful wallpapered walls of the atmosphere. In her mind it was her thoughts: chaotic, tumbling with unrestricted emotion and laughter and light: physical freedom and haunting wilderness, colliding together at dawn and bursting through dotted pin-pricks when absolute darkness prevailed at dusk, for that was when she was left alone to be with her thoughts.

She laughed instinctively, and the echoes of the unknown joke ricocheted down the face of the mountain, breaking the stone-silence. Her mind seemed to be as free as the unruly positioned masses of rock stretching out around her, and as wild as the shrubbery lining her way.

Dazed and drawn back sharply into reality, her laughter cut itself short. She was here, alive: a young woman on her way to the summit of her own mind. Her mother had taught her well in her youth: knowledge of the universe; maths and physics, subjects deemed abhorrent taught to a girl; and knowledge of literature and geography, subjects deemed more suitable. She had always been equal to her male counter-parts in child-hood, despite the ill-health that had plagued her. In her view, she thoroughly believed that varying biological attributes should define you no more than the colour of your eyes or the length of your nose. In her journey, that happened to occur as both a physical and mental challenge to herself, she felt she should be considered no less equally than Stephan Harriman Long, the male explorer who had once discovered this very rock. Everything was relative, she thought again, and how she took solace in the illusion that her existence may as well be fabricated!

But such lucid thinking had impoverished her mind. She needed water to quench her thirst and oxygen to replenish her brain. Delirious, she had drank the remains of her water supplies in the heat of the day before, and now without a stream in sight, she was feeling the onset of severe dehydration. Her skin was rough, her throat rattled dry and her eyes looked on dulled, exhausted after having glittered with the prospects of the souls offerings.

Her thoughts had reached their ultimate peak, and inevitably now suffered the soaring downfall, cursing down from esteemed heights along a sharp gradient of self-ridicule. She deemed her own earlier notions on existence as abhorrently childish, though this confusion only heightened her severe altitude sickness.

It was fear of the unknown that had brought her to concur a false reality made of her own illusions of existence. Was that all fear was, a mechanism of escaping death? Had she felt such intimidation by the universe that her existence had seemed false?

She yearned for proof. Proof that she did exist, that physical existence was all, and that there was indeed a society out there beyond this mission of self-discovery.

Desperate, she pleaded with the rocks to spare her the energy in regaining motivation for life. For her lips to be softened with the dewiness of filtered water, her throat to smooth like a snake shredding its skin, her mind to replenish itself, for then perhaps her derisory views on existence would cease. What it would be to be awake, truly, after this lull in existence!

The sun had risen now, and she could feel convention diffusing out of her body in the bitter sweat that glistened on her face. In the new light, she could see plants hanging precariously from the rock face above her, anchored into cracks that spread out like individual pathways into the rock-face.

“Plants!” She exclaimed, and then paused, thinking. “Plants!” She exclaimed again, though with more assurance in her tone. For in her first spoken words since her departure from civilisation, she had reached an epiphany: plants relied on water, and if not sudden relief from this altitude, she needed water to mitigate her dehydration.

Tormented but eager, she used her nails to claw at the cracks in the rock nearest to her. Her nails tore and broke, unfamiliar to such drudgery. But it was no use, for the water did not appear. Her mouth was dry, and her thoughts were draining of enthusiasm. She had reached a point where social etiquette was abolished and fear of others other than herself was ridiculed more than her own thoughts. Her mission in escaping her companions was to prove to the doctors, the nurses and the specialists involved in her childhood that challenges, even as a woman, do not make you incapable. Her ill health in her youth was not a barrier, but an obstacle to overcome, one that she was only now truly defeating in her travels. If she could be at one with herself by proving all others wrong and herself right, then she could find ease of mind. But these thoughts were ignored as she realised that despite her reverence for life, in these moments, existence only mattered because she had found water and it would only continue to matter if she could consume it.

Her mouth filled with bile that tasted like the dirt of society she had come to acknowledge, and she spat it out with distaste.

For she was both the water in the rocks and the woman clawing the rocks, in search of herself, the water. The rock: societies hard-faced orders of conformity, needed to be cracked and broken apart, and only then would the water appear: a mirror of her true self. She came to realise that she was not lost to the wilderness of her surroundings, but to herself. In realising this, her mind became unsaturated, and purity prevailed.

She heaved with the weight of realisation upon her chest, and fainted, on an uneven patch of rock, around 4,548 feet above sea level, at 6:32AM, at one with herself, finally.


This short story was submitted as part of my English Literature and Language coursework in the summer of 2015. The title was 'Women and Fiction', and needed to be influenced by at least two other texts. The primary textual sources that inspired this short story were The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Lady’s Life in The Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.