The literary credo known as Modernism started around the time of T.S. Eliot’s book length poem The Waste Land and never really recovered. Or rather, literature never recovered from it. Modernism was an attempt to represent a world newly fragmented and distorted by global wars, a world of new technologies and a questioning of old beliefs which were seen as having made Shelley and Wordsworth’s romanticism redundant. No doubt Sir Simon Schama would have much to say on this point, but he is not here. And these are just my thoughts.
Of course modernism was not purely a literary concept – there were modernist paintings, architectures, etc but I am looking at briefly at the poetic one today. To look at what modernism hoped/thought/tried to achieve it is helpful to look at a day in the life. Scenario 1 is the romantic view. Scenario 2, modernist.
Its Monday morning. No-one has yet heard of the word pandemic, or if they have it is as a plague from history, the subject of brilliantly written novels about Thomas Cromwell, rather than an everyday 21st century reality. The train’s on time. Sunshine and Goodwill pour from every radio TV or screen. The kids have done their homework, found their own gym kit, created wonderfully healthy lunch boxes without adult input. Older kids have passed those exams, got themselves jobs. They never once looked at porn on the internet or imbibed anything illegal.
You go to work feeling happy. You have satisfying and well paid work where you feel valued by your team. People on the tube greet you and smile a warm good morning. You do not pass by anyone homeless because no-one is. The boss is in a great mood. Or – you are the boss and you’re in a great mood. All around you, unadulterated and unpoisoned, nature abounds in glory. You don’t owe anyone anything and no-one wants anything from you.
Life. There’s a pile of unpaid bills on the mat or in the inbox. The train’s late or doesn’t turn up at all. The news on radio TV or screen makes Dante’s Inferno look insipid. You don’t know which way to turn. Nor do the kids. And it’s still only 7.30 a.m. The worlds flashes by in an agony of torn fragments, of images, many of which barely even impinge on your consciousness. At the end of the day you collapse with a glass of wine or two before getting up the next morning. Repeat. To add to this, the very existence of our beautiful blue planet is in question.
What we ask ourselves, is going on? Modernism tried to reflect this exhausting lifestyle and in did but it often forgot that there is a process, a search for spirit. That there can be hope. That things can change.
A friend of mine has a sign hanging in her study where she teaches music. It says: “What if the Hokey Cokey is what it’s all about?”
This irreverent but still humorous comment offers up its own awkward truth– that alongside scientific and economic problems of climate change, depletion of natural resources, food shortages, wars and political instabilities – the world is spiritually bereft.
There are many that subscribe to the idea of faith but no-one will agree which faith. Philosophers will say that a unifying philosophy is missing which is not disconnected from the faith point. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) said we lack an underlying and cohesive moral foundation without which humanity cannot transcend its suffering.
I am not a politician or a leader of one of the world’s great religions. I am just a blogger and poet. I believe poetry is a literary bulwark against these aridities – as are painting and music, any artform, – as long as there are words, as long as there are works that key into the universal. And I believe we have seen full evidence of that on the world’s stage in the last week.
Whatever a poem is, it is not a faith or a lecture. “Poetry is a weapon” Gorman said. If so, this young lady knows how to wield it. A poem is the very opposite of a weapon of destruction but a weapon of healing.
American poet and writer May Sarton (1912-1995) wrote in her famous Journal of a Solitude
“On a deeper level I have come to believe (perhaps that is one way to survive) that there is a reason for these repeated blows – that I am not meant for success and that in a way adversity is my climate. The inner person thrives on it. The challenge is there to go deeper.”
Those words would be echoed 26 years after May Sarton’s death by a young black poet in the US, descended from slaves, performing at the inauguration of President Joe Biden: “Even as we grieved, we grew./Even as we hurt we hoped…”
I loved Amanda Gorman’s poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ which the young US laureate performed so beautifully at the Biden inauguration – and so did millions of others judging by the rush to acquire her books. It is so heartening to see a young person taking the lead with a beautifully phrased call for unity and hope. Most of all I loved her language, so clear and uplifting, yet still deceptively clever in its alliterations, rhythms and half rhymes.
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”
May Sarton also said: “…if art is not to be life enhancing what is it to be?”
And of Virginia Woolf (who was of course much criticised in her own time for daring to write and be more intelligent than men) Sarton said:
“… one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive.”
We need work – words – art – music – to be life enhancing. More than ever, we need work with spiritual depths and with something to say about the future. That is why millions loved Gorman’s poetry and why her books went straight to No 1 on certain websites of online giants who shall remain nameless. She represents not just hope but the hope of the young generation.
I thought modernism was a technique of writing in fractured sentences or phrases – a representation of things once broken that can never be made whole again. It wasn’t. It was just an exhausting, draining race into a pit of despair. What we need our poems to do now is to turn our gaze upwards again, to remember that we are here to make things whole again in Gorman’s words – “If we are brave enough to see it/If we are brave enough to be it.”
Modernism is so dead. Thank God.