Part 2: from “Spectacle and Aporia in Ted Kooser and John Ashbery” published in Reconfigurations: A Journal of Poetry, Poetics
The difference between modern poetry and postmodern poetry can be attributed to modern poetry’s putting forward the sublime as “missing contents,” and postmodern poetry as ignoring beauty and form to attempt to put forward the unpresentable. In fact Lyotard sees the relationship between modern and postmodern not as historical moments but as styles, shifting back and forth. Modern art first may be Postmodern until it is familiar or conventional and then it is Modern. With Barthes’ idea of spectacle and Derrida’s sublime aporia as lenses, this paper argues that when poetry becomes modern and familiar, it becomes a thing of beauty, a spectacle of excess. When it is postmodern, it is a spectacle of the sublime.
The poetry of Ted Kooser and John Ashbery bears this out. Kooser is the most popular poet in the USA and has recently been its Poet Laureate. Ashbery is said to be the most important poet writing in English today. However, Ashbery’s work is unknown or inaccessible to most of the population in the USA. How does one explain this apparent paradox? One may reply that one is modern, and one is postmodern. One writes beautiful poetry or poetry that embraces the spectacle of excess and attempts the sublime at some point in each poem. The other writes poetry employing sublime aporia as its instrumental tool. One writes using pre-established rules, and one does not, as Lyotard explains. But a closer look at the two poets’ work may be more revealing.
In Ted Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Shadows and Delights, any of the poems would serve as an example of modern poetry using my definition. “Tattoo,” the short second poem in the collection, is a poem beautiful in its spectacle and will serve my purposes in this short paper. (6) “Tattoo” is modern in that Kooser is not looking for dignity in his choice of subject but revealing the subject’s dignity to the reader. It is modern also because readers expect the revealing, the emptying of the poetry. Any subject is fair game. The images he brings that include a thug grown old are familiar to Americans: a yard sale, a shoulder with a tattoo, a schoolyard bully. What is new in this poem is not the images. There are harmonies in his walking between the tables, the bruise gone “soft and blue,” and youthful vanity gone bony with age’s self-recognition and yet insisting on what was once (6). Even the abused broken tools as fragments of the bully’s youth or stories of that youth are familiar and are a spectacle of excess. It is a great poem of a defeated middle-class suburbanite persona finding justice.