Friday, November 18, 2011

We're all Postmodern These Days

They always have good subtitles at the V&A, and "Postmodernism" is subtitled "Style and Subersion 1970-1990". In a series of rooms, it doesn't give us a historical perspective as much as a thematic one. In this sense, it follows on from its last end of century show, "The Cult of Beauty". In "Postmodernism" we have spaces devoted to buildings (including the ones that weren't built); to artefacts; to music; to fashion. There's no real contextualising, except through the artefacts, which, given the subject is probably for the best. How do you come up with something as amorphous as "postmodernism" and then nail it by definition? Yet, we all know (or refer knowingly) to things being "postmodern." Like its close cousin, irony, we don't always get it right.

This video - not in the exhibition - would seem to me a gleeful example of the postmodern. Here are the Beatles, judging (and defacing) artistic representations of themselves, and giving the prize to the winner Jeremy Ratter, who chose albums by Shostakovich and Mingus us as his prize. Ratter would later find fame as the driving force behind anarchist punk band CRASS. But what of it is postmodern? The mix of fan with the worshipped? The Beatles judging a prize and the winner choosing a music that (at the the time, not later) they would have been seen as a pole apart from? Or the historical juxtaposition - that in a historical quirk, the founder of one of least populist bands ever should be thrown together, before that time, with the most popular? It would have been nice to have seen something of this kind of absurdity alongside the more formal works. But this was the early 60s, and our story starts later.

At the start of the V&A's exhibition they talk very clearly about Postmodernism in terms of its reaction to modernist design specifically in architecture. Here there's an orthodoxy that is dying through its increased irrelevance, and postmodernism was a reaction against it. The subtitle of "style and subversion" is important though. Postmodern design could be brash, modernistic, retro, but was always magpie-like in its appropriation. Similarly, the willingness to coopt both ideas and physical pieces from the past to incorporate in the new, was, I think, about looking the world the way it was and could be, rather, as in modernism at its most utilitarian, what we should plan it to be.

Yet, style and subversion are in many ways contrasts. Just as the aestheticism of the arts and craft movement and the Pre-Raphaelites led to decadence, kitsch, and a mass produced decorativeness; the intellectual idea of postmodernism as subversive comment on the past would soon be picked off, as its most commercial exploitations emphasised the style. The contradiction of Malcolm Maclaren's partner, Vivienne Westwood; punk designer to leading British designer; is there throughout the exhibition. Whatever was once radical, would soon become the mainstream. The music room is a delight, showing the best of NYC performance art - Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads - as the brash quirkiness became mainstream. Yet, turn a corner and you have a 3D hologram of Boy George, the boy who perhaps wanted success (and everything else) just that bit too much. Look away from it, and nothing appears to be there, stand straight in front and the hologram comes to life, an eerie ghosting across the years.

And if music was one way in which the postmodern could go mainstream, design culture was another. British magazines like ID and the Face were aimed at the mainstream. Their "stars", were like Warhols' "superstars", famous in their context - yet some actually became stars - like Robert Elms or Steve Strange or Marilyn. A series of Peter Saville designs for Joy Division and New Order look less like the startling classics I used to consider them, and more a trick repeated time and again, in the hope that no-one notices. Saville's wholesale theft of imagery is postmodern to the core (as in a Koons "sculpture") but in the glare of the gallery, there's a whiff of cynicism about it - of an art school kid passing off found images as their own aesthetic. In Saville, as in Neville Brody's Face covers, there's no longer a sense of "bricolage" or "collage", more a sense of pure appropriation. It is the constant question with "sampling" culture - is something original created from the vulture picking? That the appropriation sometimes works so well that it supercedes the original, well that's postmodern as well.

By 1990 surely it was all over anyway? The digital age had begun (first CDs, then the internet), and the naive early digital artworks, with their limited memory leading to the blocky representation of type, seem innocently new. Technology made it possible for everyone to be postmodern - whether its a photoshop mashup, or Richard X remixing Gary Numan and the Sugababes. The point now would be that you wouldn't notice the subversion, and that the style itself had become ubiquitous.

As ever with the V&A one is impressed by the cavernous depths of their collections. The "postmodern" never really stood much chance in British homes and cities that were still wary of the "modern" - and, as when you stand on the strip in Las Vegas, the vision of modernity we now say, is so breathlessly large, and unsubtle, that its no longer even ironic. That's why you could only describe Lady Gaga as "postmodern" to water down the original movement. There are delights aplenty in the exhibition, from failed prototypes of consumer goods, to clothes and objects you'd not be surprised to see in either junk shop or museum.

Literature is the one art that's mostly missing, (a quote from Amis's "Money" rather than his very postmodern "London Fields"),perhaps unsurprisingly, but given a movement that can sometimes seem more an intellectual conceit than anything more real, then something - whether Ashbery, or Wolfe or Barthes or Foster Wallace - would have seemed a more appropriate contextualisation than the 80s New Romantic soundtrack that is released to coincide with the exhibition. Two key movies from the early 80s play overhead - "Blade Runner" and "Koyaanisquaatsi." What's great about both is that they are fully formed - they are the achieved vision of their visionary directors, rather than tentative stabs at the future. After both movies, the future city was a fixed idea, rather than the malleable one that might have appeared earlier. The shock of seeing the fast collages of "Koyaanisquaatsi" and hearing Philip Glass's music focused on depicting these visuals was highly radical at the time - but has been so endlessly repeated ever since that we can almost forget the radical questions it once asked. And that, probably is where postmodernism becomes a victim of its own ubiquity. The style is wonderfully apparent throughout this diverse exhibition, but the subversive gets lesser and lesser as time goes on.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Live in London - Monday 14th November

I'm reading poetry at the Compass in Islington, London on Monday night with other Salt Modern Voices, Lee Smith, Clare Trevien and JT Welsch. Its free and all are welcome, hope to see some London friends there. We'll start from around 7.30pm and I'm in the first half.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France - the last years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis

Poets, I'm beginning to think, are the best biographers of other poets. There's Andrew Motion's Larkin and Keats; there's Ian Hamilton's Lowell; and now there's Matthew Hollis's Edward Thomas. What do we know of Edward Thomas? His poem "Adlestrop" is one of those rare moments of magic that seems embedded in the language; as one of that group of poets who fought, wrote about, and in Thomas's case, died during the Great War, his work has a wider currency than that of many other poets. Yet, beyond that I knew very little. English Literature has its highways and it byways; its main streets and country lanes; and in many ways the byways and country lanes are the more prosperous routes. Thomas is that strange beast, a minor poet in the good sense, in that his work is not extensive (less than 200 hundred poems), yet important to both readers and other poets. Hollis, is a book that is as subtle as its fascinating subject, is making a similar minor-key statement as Thomas did in his poetry: if there is propaganda here it is for a certain type of writing.

I'd often seen the febrile poetry scene of London before the war as the beginning of a battle for poetry's soul - the imagists to the left, the Georgians to the right. You could say, the future, versus the past. Yet poets tend to defy categorisation, however much they might congregate at the time. Thomas's closest poetic friends were Walter de la Mare and Robert Frost. If Thomas was breaking with the strictures of Victorian writing, its worth considering that he himself was a later Victorian, and that his poetry was written later in his too short life. As a biography Hollis grasps that mettle in the subtitle - the "last years" of Edward Thomas, for its the poetry, rather than the years as a jobbing hack, literary journalist and critic, that Thomas is read and remembered for. Critic turned poet; like poacher turned gamekeeper - or is the other way round?

In many ways Hollis gives us the "making of Edward Thomas". The facts of his death are stark; like all Great War stories the single death stalks the life, as an ending we cannot avoid or escape. But the "making" is more complex than that. Thomas was an honest - a too honest - critic, but as he wasn't writing poetry himself, the honesty was accepted, encouraged. His judgements, in Hollis's telling, seem pretty robust. Most critic-poets will develop an aesthetic that is shared between their critical and their artistic work - and Thomas is no exception. In meeting Robert Frost he finds a kindred spirit, who, similar to Thomas, was yet to find his place in history - who, like Eliot and Pound, had come to England to be published there, in order that he might then become published in America. Frost would win the Pulitzer, read at a President's inauguration and sell over a million books in his lifetime. That is all some way off. He has a family in tow, no real contacts in Britain, and has only just begun writing the poems that would make his reputation. The Gloucestershire poets that they are briefly part of, is a group of the great, the good and the mediocre - but aren't all groups the same? For all that Pound's "imagistes" were fascinating, the poetry, outside of Pound himself, and perhaps some of H.D., seems minor.

Hollis tells Thomas's story with great care, and no little style. His own prose is sharp, warm, and considerate, and the biography, though deeply researched from a vast array of original sources, almost reads like a novel - it last just over 300 pages, and I read it over a weekend. The "poems" are the key source, of course, and Hollis is meticulous in digging out their origins, in both events and - so often in Thomas - in previous prose accounts. At the background to all of this is a restless soul unhappy, but not quite regretting, in marriage, and fatherhood, in his hackery. Thomas's parents are distant figures - his father hated; and in turn, he finds himself unable to engage with his son. Torn between the countryside - the England that is his muse - and London, where literary life keeps drawing him in; there's something of the Leonard Bast about Thomas; caught in a young marriage that is a tie and a bind, even though (unlike Bast), it is solace. Neither rich, nor poor, a poor "middle class" worker, if you like, Thomas's plight seems emblematic of the times. Had he outlived the war, what would have become of him? He had hoped to join Frost in America; his wife would outlive him by half a century, but would they have lasted?

Thomas, a piscean, doesn't seem a tortured soul so much as a conflicted one. Frost's famous "The Road Not Taken", a poem that it is too easy to take too seriously (and a close reading highlights its playfulness) was taken too seriously by its subject, given to be Thomas. There is something fatalistic about his volunteering to become a soldier in his late 30s, something fatalistic in his marriage and the significant (but apparently not quite adulterous) relationships he would have with other women; perhaps something fatalistic in his poetry - that appears fully formed, a lifetime of reading the poets of his time, creating a clarity to his own writing. Such clarity, we feel is hard-won.

Reading this wonderful book as a general reader one is impressed by Hollis's portrayal of the pre-war world - whether its Harold Munro's poetry bookshop or the rural isolation of Gloucestershire. In both cases, Hollis's picture is a highly nuanced one, and the world of these educated men of letters is seen with more clarity than romance would usually allow.

But reading the book as a poet, one is struck forcefully by its timeliness. The poetry world of a century ago is not so dissimilar to that we live in today. It has its focal point(s), its anthologies, its plethora of publishers, its old guard and young Turks, its rivalries and competing schools, its literary funds, its critics and its gatekeepers. The most popular poets of the day have not necessarily lasted, whilst reputations, such as that of Thomas, are yet to be made. There is, then as now, a small public beyond the poets themselves. If Hollis has an agenda to make (and if so its on a very measured scale), it is that the poetry is what lasts. He makes the case for Thomas, (one echoed by Leavis, Larkin and others) that is fine as far as it goes - he's a major poet, albeit in a minor key. His aesthetic though, perhaps, that's more questionable. The short lyric poems, about England, about nature, war and, occasionally, love, are limited. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and H.D. were about to do more promising things. "The road not travelled" in English poetry is a wide one; and Edward Thomas, for all his essential qualities, appears to be the familiar route, that poets such as Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy (who graces the back cover) are keen to endorse. If we take anything from Frost's poem and his relationship with Thomas, it should be that such narrow routes are hard won, and, as importantly, aren't the only ones we should take.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Downton Poetry

Tonight's the last episode of series 2 of "Downton Abbey" - though thankfully its going to be back for a third series. Yes, its become a bit of a guilty pleasure, though whether its for its sumptuous set dressing, its overwrought melodrama, or just because I'm in love with Lady Mary (see above), I couldn't say. Though its as historically accurate as, say, "Anonymous", it does at least try. We've had the Titanic; we've had the Great War; and tonight it looks like we're going to get Spanish Flu (a very useful cast winnowing device!) But I think they've missed a trick. I'm pretty obsessed with the literature of a century ago, and the years immediately before and after the first world war see a highly fertile literary and artistic scene - with London, and later Paris, at the heart. Reading biographies of this period is a bit like a costume drama, as characters have a walk on part in each other's story. Poets, in particular, drawn to London, sought out W.B. Yeats' regular weekly meetings at the Cheshire Cheese.

I've just started reading Matthew Hollis's beautifully written biography of Edward Thomas, and the main characters of Thomas and Robert Frost have already been joined by Yeats, Pound and Rupert Brooke. "The War Poets" are familiar to every school child, and its often too easy to separate them out from the literary culture they came from (as they died young, and as a writer like Wilfred Owen was unknown before the war) yet there was a literary culture that young men (in particular) aspired to be part of. Publishers then, as now, treated poetry as a bit of a side project, often the poets subsidising the books' production; and literary reputation was jealously guarded, and new poets usually depended on an older writer's reputational patronage to "get on".

Thomas is at this point in the narrative a literary hack, and yet to write a line of poetry - but he's just met Robert Frost so I've high hopes for him, and I'm sure I'll give the Hollis book a proper review later, though so far, its a lovely work (like Andrew Motion and Ian Hamilton, Hollis is proving that poets make excellent biographers of other poets). But, back to Downton Abbey, surely Mary - a romantic soul, but with both a wild temperament and an inner hardness to her, would be married off by now if only Matthew had written poetry? Then again, maybe her impressionable sister, Sybil, is the one - and the Irish chauffeur Branson will turn out to be a poet as much as a revolutionary. For though most poets these days would not get anywhere near the great and good, in those pre X-Factor days, even such philistines as the Queen Mother would find themselves in the company of poets such as T.S. Eliot ("Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank.") Poetry fans look forward to Series 3 of Downton with expectation....