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:

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