Form and Transcendence: A Reply to Micah Mattix


The authentic story of modernism is not one of continuity and emulation, but of violent rupture and hostility to tradition. Art should be oriented toward beauty.

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I wish to thank Micah Mattix for his thoughtful reply to my essays “The Meaning of Modernism” and “To Teach and Delight.” I am glad to find the two of us agree on several points. Nonetheless, as should be clear to anyone who read his work and mine, deep and important differences remain between us on this topic. Let me try to explain the way I understand those differences.

I begin with Dr. Mattix’s genealogy of modernist poetry. He cites Wordsworth as a precedent for the free verse innovations of the modernists, writing: “Wordsworth’s attempt to use a selection of ‘common’ diction in Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude is clearly a precursor to free verse.” This is false. Nothing in Wordsworth’s appeal to “the real language of men” provided later poets a warrant to jettison meter, and in his famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he explicitly denies that his innovation in diction entailed the need for any sort of corresponding innovations in metric technique. By trying to enlist Wordsworth as a precedent for the modernists’ innovations, Dr. Mattix is obscuring the profoundly revolutionary nature of modernism. He is certainly not the first to do this; the modernists themselves often invented genealogies of their own to disguise the radical nature of their enterprise. In every case, these narratives were bogus—false, concocted tales of traditional integrity where there was only wild innovation. The authentic story of modernism is not one of continuity, but of violent rupture. The real modernist attitude towards the heritage of Western poetry was not one of emulation, but of rivalry, even hostility—an attitude aptly captured by Alfred Jarry’s call to destroy even the ruins. Those contemporaries of T. S. Eliot who referred to him as a “literary Bolshevik” knew what they were talking about.

The fact is that the modernists conceived of the poet’s task on grounds perfectly irreconcilable, and even contradictory, to the notions of traditional poets; they thought the poet should discomfit and “brutalize,” rather than delight; that he should be “non-communicative” (in Jacques Barzun’s phrase) rather than communicate; that his prime aspiration should be a liberation from form, rather than a perfection of form. When we are clear about this matter, we will recognize that practical criticism in our times faces a choice; we can write poetry on modernist principles, or we can write poetry on traditional principles, but not both. To say this is not to be reductive, but merely consistent. We cannot write as though poetry should be at once enchanting and revolting, communicative and esoteric, formed and formless. We cannot create, at one and the same time, a poetry of cultural nourishment, and a poetry of disintegration. To make any progress in our art, we must settle questions of such a basic nature.

The poet therefore requires some adequate grounds upon which to make these choices, and as I argued in “The Meaning of Modernism,” one way to find them is to consider the philosophical provenance of stylistic options. If there is some reason for the poet to believe that the stylistic options on offer from modernism have their pedigree in habits of thought he finds erroneous or noxious, then he does indeed have adequate grounds for eschewing those options in his art. Dr. Mattix caricatures the argument I made to this effect, when he writes: “Signorelli’s argument rests on the premise that all artifacts embody the spirit of the age in which they are produced. The spirit of the modern age is relativism; therefore, Signorelli concludes, free verse can be rightly understood as embodying this relativism.” But I did not merely toss off a breezy little syllogism in this way; I supported my assertion by identifying the striking affinities between certain tendencies of modern thought and modernist poetry, affinities that Dr. Mattix does not really try to call into question.

Instead, he paints a hazy picture of incompatible motives converging at one and the same time on the same stylistic eccentricities, for which there was not the least precedent in three thousand years of poetic craftsmanship. So he tells us that the use of free verse was sometimes evidence of decadence, but sometimes also evidence of a desire for transcendence, though he is far from telling us how we can recognize when it was one, and when it was the other. He tells us that the very same features of modernist language—fractured syntax and absurd images—sometimes reflect a debased notion of autonomy, but sometimes also a concern for the dignity of man in the face of positivist doctrine. All of this strikes me less as a bad explanation, than a refusal to explain at all—a refusal to search for the common causes of the common and unmistakable effects of modernist innovation.

Look again at his rationale for Bonnefoy’s use of free verse; he tells us that the poet’s technical decision in this case stemmed from a desire to represent the simultaneous longing for boundlessness and the realization that such boundlessness is impossible for men, an experience he calls a “two-fold truth of human existence.” But one cannot adequately explain the origins of poetic techniques unique to one age of history by appealing to experiences that are consistent to every age of history, that are “truths of human existence.” In the idiosyncrasies of modernist innovation, we have an enormous fact about literary history that needs to be explained, but it is no explanation at all to say that these idiosyncrasies emerged from conditions of human life that have obtained in all times and places.

If, as I have argued, the decisive influence on these idiosyncrasies is to be found in certain habits of modern thought, then the stamp of its time period runs far deeper into modernist poetry than Dr. Mattix allows. He writes: “Works of art—particularly great ones—embody, yes, but also transcend their ages. This is what makes them great.” He is certainly right about this, but it is obviously not an effective objection to my argument. I agree that great art achieves such universality, but I deny that modernist poetry is great art. The fact is that no poetry ever transcended its period less than modernist poetry; no poetry was ever marked so thoroughly, down to its stylistic presentation, by the habits of thought prevailing in the era of its composition.

Modernism was essentially a temporal provincialism, an assumption on the part of its adherents that the despair and confusion unique to their historical epoch were in truth part of the general condition of mankind. The Wasteland did not transcend the desolation of its period; it catalogued it. Waiting for Godot did not transcend the nihilism of its period; it instantiated it. Prufrock wondering “do I dare to eat a peach?” or Hugh Selwyn Mauberley burdened by the age’s demand to produce “an image / Of its accelerated grimace” do not represent universal humanity; they reflect the stupid mental pathologies of the age in which their creators worked. So it is precisely on this standard—on the capacity to transcend its era—that I condemn modernist poetry for its great failures.

The question of how poetry achieves some sort of transcendence, and specifically, how poetic form lends itself to that achievement, is a complex and important topic that cannot possibly be treated in an adequate fashion here. But let me simply hint at the direction in which an answer might lie. Pascal famously called man “the thinking reed,” a feeble creature, prey to the entire universe, who nonetheless stands above the universe by his capacity to consciously consider his own predicament. “All our dignity then consists in thought,” he wrote, “by it we must elevate ourselves.” For the poet, this conscious conquest of nature takes place through his form, because by form he does not merely think the pains and passions endemic to human life, he orders them, harmonizing even the bitterest portion of our experience to a serene and consoling pattern, a rational structure that refers to a reality over and above that experience.

Through form, the poet reconciles to the turmoil of life the soul’s most profound desires, which are finally directed towards something more than the turmoil of life. This is the real objection to be made to Bonnefoy’s practice; if he made his form—his free verse—an expression of the desire for boundlessness, as Dr. Mattix tells us he has, then the man simply does not understand his art, because form should always be an ordering—that is to say, a limiting—principle, if it is to contribute to the sort of transcendence I have described. “God hates the unbound,” wrote Holderlin, and so too does the authentic poet.

To say that form harmonizes or orders is to say that it is directed towards beauty, since beauty has traditionally been understood as a kind of harmony or order. Several authors—most notably Roger Scruton—have commented on the fact that, in the modern world, beauty is no longer an important category for art, no longer serving either as a legitimate aim for the artist, or a legitimate criterion for the critic. If this is true (and I think it is), then art, and poetry in particular, has forfeited the capacity for transcendence, the power to help “elevate ourselves” above an often ugly, often adversarial world. I think Dr. Mattix errs in not recognizing the revolt against meter as one element of the modernists’ more encompassing revolt against beauty. And he greatly underestimates my critical aspirations when he seems to suggest that I just wish to bring back meter and rhyme to contemporary poetic practice. What I really want to see is the entire art oriented once more toward beauty, its proper orientation; the revival of meter and rhyme would constitute only one part, and not the most crucial part, of such a restoration.

Modernist poetry was simply never beautiful enough to get at what is most deeply and distinctly true about human nature, and therefore it never displayed any real capacity to transcend its era, no power to achieve that conquest of nature and history attained by their conscious ordering, no tendency to “elevate ourselves” above ourselves. Modernism is a poetry that leaves the world just as it found it, and Dr. Mattix wishes to keep that poetry just as he found it. But this will never do, not for those who strive for excellence in the art, and not for those who wish to restore health to our intellectual culture, because, as I have argued previously, that health depends, more than we presently acknowledge, on the flourishing of poetry.

Dr. Mattix tells us that art is a “communal act,” ignoring the disturbing fact that the modern world is defined in large part by the absence of any real communities, if, by that term, we mean groups of people living together according to shared beliefs. For us, at this juncture in history, poetry must be a community-making act, as it was for Homer, as it was for Goethe—the attainment and disclosure of a certain vision of things which, by its compelling truthfulness and beauty, is capable of turning the desires of men all in the same direction. The Modernists never even pretended to offer such a vision, being content always to reflect, rather than edify, their age; that is why, for all who presently labor toward the renewed flourishing of our culture, it is time at last to be done with them and all their works.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in the New English Review, the Front Porch Republic, the University Bookman, Arion, and the Evansville Review. His personal website is

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