Belle Lettre on the Postmodern

Ruben Quesada

The Digital Age invites a toggling between the universal and the relative, in part due to the seemingly global access to experience; today, the subjective experience is beginning to unravel.


When we invited poet Ruben Quesada, author of Next Extinct Mammal, to contribute an essay on postmodernism, we looked forward to an insightful exploration. We weren’t disappointed—we were, however, surprised. What we received was a contemporary belle lettre—an essay as compelling for its style and tone as for its content—which covers a century of poetry with remarkable, stark brevity.  In style, it’s more Ezra Pound than T.S. Eliot, but this is a Pound with Eliot’s facility for heady literary theory.  We hope you enjoy it and find it as rewarding to revisit as we do.



In Aristotle’s Poetics, he posits that “a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order.” In free verse poetry, the composition and the evolution of diction, syntax, and content must be arranged with purpose in order for each component of craft (line, sentence, stanza, text) to be worthy of recognition. Chaos is not a sign of beauty, and chaos which lacks organization is not beautiful. The living organism or its parts must be organized. The poet’s voice embodies the living organism. It is also through the imaginative use of language that the poet answers Aristotle’s call for mimesis.


The poet’s sense of the world, the sense of reality is relative. The words used to curate reality are dictated by culture, experience, and the time in which the author writes. Merwin’s essay, “On Open Form,” asserts that “what is called for may be simply that part of the poem that had directly to do with time.” Other poets have had similar ideas, such as Charles Olson’s “composition by field” and Robert Creeley’s claim that “form is never more than an extension of content.” The form is dictated by the content of the poem. Its content must reflect the human experience to produce feelings of exaltation that affect the mind and the senses. In order to achieve this in free verse, the composition must be purposefully arranged.


Universals of the mind and the senses make poetic movements and schools possible. Universal sensibilities provide generations with solidarity around the voice of particular poets. It is the privileging of a poet’s voice that gives rise to his or her subjectivity. This subjectivity has enabled the evolution of Twentieth century free verse of the postmodern period. The magnitude of the free verse movement is a result of the order surrounding the poet’s voice. Postmodern poetry evolved into the dominant literary mode of the last half of the Twentieth century; and subsequently reflected the poet’s concern for cultural ontology. The poet’s voice in the second half of twentieth century American poetry depicted the abundant populace of American identities (i.e., African-American, Asian-American, Chicano, Latin@, LGBTIQ); its distinctive subjective trait now saturates the poetic experience. The subjective is now the dominant discourse, and it has become a postmodern paradox.


In reaction to Modern poetry’s singular, overarching view of the world, the postmodern movement championed the subjective voice. Exemplified by Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich, these poets opened the door for what was anachronistically a multicultural perspective (i.e., Tomás Rivera, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, June Jordan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Li-Young Lee). Now in the Digital Age, a subjective view of the world marginalizes experience by relying on the author’s subjectivity. In order to provide a more objective sense of being in the world, the depicted experience must shift away from an authorial subjectivity toward an objective ontological depiction of life; this can be seen in recent works by Jeffrey Eugenides, Sean O’Brien, Gary Jackson, and Jesmyn Ward, whose writing reflects a negotiation of its predecessors: an attempt to depict a universal and a relative voice simultaneously.


In 1951, Wallace Stevens described the poet’s role as one which attempts to reconcile the “pressure of reality,” in other words, the sense of being in the world; the purpose is to understand one’s own place in relation to history and to the present moment. Taking into account that the imagination is inseparable from reality, the poet composes poetry when moved by events of the world, but also, the poet “must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure” of his or her moment in time. The degree of this resistance or evasion varies and as a result each poet’s depiction of the human experience varies; there is no static sense of reality. The reality of the world is continually changing and it is the poet who grasps at moments of reality through language.


Emerson said, “Language is fossil poetry.” One of the significant qualities of early postmodern poetry was its ability to capture moments in time. It provided a relative account of an experience. Poetry enables generations of readers to understand our American narrative. This is easily understood when reading the work of Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, June Jordan, or Hayden Carruth. Poets are curators of history.


Within each poetic tradition there comes a time when the reliability of the speaker comes into question and someone new arrives to present their authority on the matter of the human experience. As early as 1915, Eliot presented his etherized speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” calling the reliability of the speaker into question. Toward the end of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, digital information has enabled the poet a more precise reflection of the singular experiences of the world. Contemporary poetry informed by access to a seemingly infinitesimal amount of information reflects the growing density of our human identities, but also calls its reliability into question.  The Digital Age invites a toggling between the universal and the relative, in part due to the seemingly global access to experience; today, the subjective experience is beginning to unravel. More than ever, the crafting of experience must rely not simply on authorial subjectivity, but upon purposeful decorum, accuracy, and attention to mimesis.


The contemporary poet struggles to rescue his or her sense of authenticity from the saturation of the postmodern, digital ethos. In acknowledging the varied subjective depictions of the human experience in postmodern poetry, Stevens would say that traditions “[pass] from one to another,” not necessarily that one dies and becomes another. The distinction and influence between traditions such as Romantic, Victorian, and Modern poetry are much clearer; these distinctions are more thoroughly explored by Robert Pinksy in The Situation of Poetry (1976). Pinsky examines perspective and language to identify how poets contributed to the existing postmodern tradition of his time. Postmodern poetry as a tradition requires an examination of what came before it in order for it to evolve beyond the privileging of the authorial subjective. The poet must turn toward Eliot’s “impersonality of poetry” and present the world through a more personal, direct, and often fragmented experience resounding of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.


Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal (Greenhouse Review Press, 2011). His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, Third Coast, and Stand Magazine (UK).  His awards include residencies & fellowships at Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Lambda Literary Foundation Retreat, Vermont Studio Center, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.

More Quesada:

Visit his official web site.

Buy his book, Next Extinct Mammal, at

Read three poems from Next Extinct Mammal at Moonday Poetry.