Most serious poetry today is still Modernist. Modernism in literature is not easily summarised, but the key elements are experimentation, anti-realism, individualism and a stress on the cerebral rather than emotive aspects.
Modernist writing is challenging, which makes it suitable for academic study. Many poets come from university, moreover, and set sail by Modernism’s charts, so that its assumptions need to be understood to appreciate their work. And since Postmodernism still seems brash and arbitrary, writing in some form of Modernism is probably the best way of getting your work into the better literary magazines. How much should you know of its methods and assumptions?
You need to read widely – poetry, criticism and literary theory. Modernism was a complex and diverse movement. From Symbolism it took allusiveness in style and an interest in rarefied mental states. From Realism it borrowed an urban setting, and a willingness to break taboos. And from Romanticism came an artist-centred view, and retreat into irrationalism and hallucinations.
Hence many problems. No one wants to denigrate the best that has been written this last hundred years, but the forward-looking poet should be aware of its limitations. Novelty for novelty’s sake ends in boredom and indifference, in movements prey to fashion and media hype. Modernism’s ruthless self-promotion has also created intellectual castes that carefully guard their status. Often the work is excessively cerebral, an art-for-art’s sake movement that has become faddish and analytical. The foundations tend to be self-authenticating – Freudian psychiatry, verbal cleverness, individualism run riot, anti-realism, overemphasis on the irrational. These concepts may not be wholly fraudulent, but as articles of faith they have not won general assent. Modernist work will give you accredited status, but possibly neither an avant-garde reputation nor wide popularity.
Modernist work is often the most accessible of today’s poetry, thanks to education, public libraries and a vast critical industry. Start therefore with Yeats, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, etc., and follow your interests – back into traditional poetry or forward into Postmodernist styles.
Any writing that is true to your personality, authentic and original, is apt to begin as dark poetry. How do you generate these qualities, and then develop them?
The author’s personality is always to be found in a good poem: it is something that only he or she could have produced. But we also expect that the personality will facilitate and further the poem’s intentions. The authentic is that individual voice, unquestionably theirs, which genuine artists find as they seek to represent what is increasingly important to them. Originality does not mean novelty – which is easily achieved – but the means by which experience is presented in a more distinctive and significant manner.
Personality, authenticity and originality are therefore linked, and achieved only by continual effort. Gifts and character make artists, and the two are interdependent.
As in life generally, success comes at a price. The creators of dark poetry are often: 1. indifferent to conventional procedures and behaviour, 2. inner-directed, making and following their own goals, and 3. keenly interested in contradictions and challenges.
Better poets can therefore find themselves at odds with society, and there is no doubt that such conflicts make for solitary, cross-grained and somewhat unbalanced personalities. Many past writers had difficult and neurotic personalities, and the same traits are all too evident today. Nonetheless, absurd posturing, sharp feuds and strident ambitions also appear in writers of no talent whatsoever, which suggests that difficulties are the unfortunate side affects of originality and not its sustaining force. Artists may be sometimes unbalanced, but not all unbalanced people are artists.
Creativity differs markedly between the arts and sciences, and even between different art forms. Nonetheless, most creativity shows four phases: challenge, incubation, illumination and exposition. Driving these phases forward, through many interruptions and loopbacks, is the earnest desire to succeed, which naturally taps some inner need. We make poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves, said Yeats, and these fears and obsessions are highly individual.