The Waste Land can be regarded as the first self-conscious exploration, though certainly not the first instance, of that elusive and friable concept, the postmodern. Limitations of space do not permit a full discussion of the postmodern: it seems to mean different things to architecture theorists, literary critics, political commentators and practically anyone with anything to say about the twentieth century. But mercifully the enclosed field of poetry and linguistics allows us a more confident grip upon its function as a means of classifying the structure and function of a text. I'll begin with a general thesis: the postmodern poem involves the acknowledgement and the deployment of devices and functional premises drawn from the recognised archetypes of modernist and pre-modernist form.
If we are to test this thesis against alternative perceptions of twentieth-century literature we must start with an implicit paradox. In short, the modernist and the postmodern poem are the same thing. The most obvious and explicit break with traditional form involves a total rejection of the conventional elements of the double pattern, but the single feature which had once been the organising principal of these elements, the line, is maintained. No other aesthetic genre, linguistic, visual or musical, involves the same degree of formal continuity. True, modernist fiction will usually make some concession to the organising principle of the sentence, and abstract, surrealist or postimpressionist paintings often share with their traditional predecessors a hierarchical disposition of units, colours or shapes, but none can claim to have transposed a formal element which is so regular, persistent and influential upon the broader signifying patterns of the artefact as the modernist/postmodern poem's deployment of the tension and interdependence between syntax and the line. We have so far identified four types of free verse technique whose common feature is their foregrounding of the syntax-line relationship. In what follows we will examine how these stylistic types are deployed in poems that have been variously categorised as modernist, pre-modernist, anti-modernist and postmodernist. In short we will use this abstract framework of documentation in an attempt to identify a synthetic but nonetheless recognisable denomination of the 'modern'. It would be wise to remind ourselves of what these four techniques involve and allocate names to each.
1 The dominant syntagm. Line division is secondary to the more dominant pattern of syntax.
2 The isolated line. The line operates as an enclosed syntactic and thematic unit.
3 Innovative tension. The line functions as an axis between shifting patterns of interpretation, while making few concessions to the conventions of regular form. The visual-acoustic, static-temporal tension is particularly important.
4 The stylistic precedent. Concessions are made to the mainly acoustic elements of the conventional pattern, often, though not exclusively, as stable a counterpoint to syntactic, semantic, thematic and deictic discontinuities.
The following poems and extracts will deploy one or a combination of more than one of the above as a significant element of their structural and functional identity. Our use of these stylistic models will be supplemented by references to the broader aesthetic and historical context of the poem.
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