Modernist Poetry And The Contemporary Scene English Literature Essay

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This paper attempts to examine and explore the study of Modernist Poetry and The Contemporary Scene in the context of Indian Writing in English. Modernism is where we are now, broadly speaking, if we include Postmodernism and experimental poetry. Modernist poetry is the poetry written in schools and poetry workshops, published by thousands of small presses, and reviewed by serious newspapers and literary journals - a highbrow, coterie poetry that isn't popular and doesn't profess to be. To its devotees, Modernist styles are the only way of dealing with contemporary matters, and they do not see them as a specialized development of traditional poetry, small elements being pushed in unusual directions, and sometimes extended beyond the limits of ready comprehension.

The paper intends to discuss the key elements of Modernist poems are experimentation, anti-realism, individualism and a stress on the cerebral rather than emotive aspects. Previous writing was thought to be stereotyped, requiring ceaseless experimentation and rejection of old forms. Poetry should represent itself, or the writer's inner nature, rather than hold up a mirror to nature. Indeed the poet's vision was all-important, however much it cut him off from society or the scientific concerns of the day. Poets belonged to an aristocracy of the avant garde, and cool observation, detachment and avoidance of simple formulations were essential.


Modernist poems, experimentation, anti-realism, individualism, Elitist Intellectualism


Poststructuralist theories come in many embodiments, but shared a preoccupation with language. Reality is not mediated by what we read or write, but is entirely constituted by those actions. We don't therefore look at the world through a poem, and ask how whether the representation is true or adequate or appropriate, but focus on the devices and strategies within the text itself. Modernist theory urged us to overlook the irrelevancies of author's intention, historical conventions and social context to assess the aesthetic unity of the poem. Poststructuralist criticism discounts any such unity, and urges us to accept a looser view of art, one that accords more with everyday realities and shows how language suppresses alternative views, particularly those of the socially or politically disadvantaged.

Experimental poetry takes the process further, taking its inspiration from advertising, and deploying words as graphic elements.

Modernism has no precise boundaries. At its strictest, in Anglo-American literature, the period runs from 1890 to 1920 and includes Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis among many others.

But few of its writers shared common aims, and the term was applied retrospectively.

Very largely, the themes of Modernism begin well back in the nineteenth century, and many do not reach full expression until the latter half of the twentieth century, so that Modernism is perhaps better regarded as part of a broad plexus of concerns which are variably represented in a hundred and twenty years of European writing.

Modernism is a useful term because writing in the period, especially that venerated by academia and by literary critics, is intellectually challenging, which makes it suitable for undergraduate study.

Many serious writers come from university, moreover, and set sail by Modernism's charts, so that the assumptions need to be understood to appreciate contemporary work of any type.

And quite different from these is the growing suspicion that contemporary writing has lost its way, which suggests that we may see where alternatives lie if we understand Modernism better.

Indian English Literature

In the last century, several Indian writers have distinguished themselves not only in traditional Indian languages but also in English. India's Nobel laureate in literature was the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. Other major writers who are either Indian or of Indian origin and derive much inspiration from Indian themes are R K Narayan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Raja Rao, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Tharoor, Nayantara Sehgal, Rohinton Mistry, Indian Women writers and poets like Kamala Das ushered in the feminist era in India by her bold and confessional writings.

In recent years, English-language writers of Indian origin are being published in the West at an astonishing rate. In June 1997, a special fiction issue of The New Yorker magazine devoted much space to essays by Amitav Ghosh and Abraham Verghese, a short story by Vikram Chandra, and poems by Jayanta Mahapatra and A K Ramanujan. John Updike profiled RK Narayan and Arundhati Roy's God Of Small Things.

The Jnanpith Award and Sahitya Akademi Award are among the most prestigious Indian literary awards.

"Indian English Literature (IEL) refers to the body of work by writers in India who write in the English language and whose mother tongue is usually one of the numerous languages of India. It is also associated with the works of members of the Indian diaspora, especially people like Salman Rushdie and Kumar Kaushik who were born in India. As a category, this production comes under the broader realm of postindependence literature- the production from previously colonised countries such as India."

Early History


RK Narayan is a writer who contributed over many decades and who continued to write till his death recently. He was discovered by Graham Greene in the sense that the latter helped him find a publisher in England. Graham Greene and Narayan remained close friends till the end. Similar to Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Narayan created the fictitious town of Malgudi where he set his novels. Some criticise Narayan for the parochial, detached and closed world that he created in the face of the changing conditions in India at the times in which the stories are set. Others, such as Graham Greene, however, feel that through Malgudi they could vividly understand the Indian experience. Narayan's evocation of small town life and its experiences through the eyes of the endearing child protagonist Swaminathan in Swami and Friends is a good sample of his writing style.

Diasporic writing

Among the later writers, the most notable is Salman Rushdie, born in India, now living in the United States. Rushdie with his famous work Midnight's Children (Booker Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1992) ushered in a new trend of writing. He used a hybrid language - English generously peppered with Indian terms - to convey a theme that could be seen as representing the vast canvas of India. He is usually categorised under the magic realism mode of writing most famously associated with Gabriel García Márquez.


Shashi Tharoor, in his The Great Indian Novel (1989), follows a story-telling (though in a satirical) mode as in the Mahabharata drawing his ideas by going back and forth in time. His work as UN official living outside India has given him a vantage point that helps construct an objective Indianness. Other authors include Bapsi Sidhwa, Raj Kamal Jha, and Rohinton Mistry,

Diasporic women writers like Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,and Bharati Mukherjee, and even young writers like Kiran Desai, express the feelings of double segregation, alienation and nostalgia.

One of the key issues raised in this context is the superiority/ inferiority of IWE as opposed to the literary production in the various languages of India. Key polar concepts bandied in this context are superficial/authentic, imitative/creative, shallow/deep, critical/uncritical, elitist/parochial and so on.

The views of Rushdie and Amit Chaudhuri are expressed through their books The Vintage Book of Indian Writing and The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature respectively essentialise this battle.

Rushdie's statement in his book - "the ironical proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear" - created a lot of resentment among many writers, including writers in English. In his book, Amit Chaudhuri questions - "Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England or America and whom one might have met at a party?"

Chaudhuri feels that after Rushdie, IWE started employing magical realism, non-linear narrative and hybrid language to sustain themes seen as microcosms of India and supposedly reflecting Indian conditions. He contrasts this with the works of earlier writers such as Narayan where the use of English is pure, but the deciphering of meaning needs cultural familiarity. He also feels that Indianness is a theme constructed only in IWE and does not articulate itself in the vernacular literatures. (It is probable that the level of Indianness constructed is directly proportional to the distance between the writer and India.) He further adds "the post-colonial novel becomes a trope for an ideal hybridity by which the West celebrates not so much Indianness, whatever that infinitely complex thing is, but its own historical quest, its reinterpretation of itself".

Some of these arguments form an integral part of what is called postcolonial theory. The very categorisation of IWE - as IWE or under post-colonial literature - is seen by some as limiting. Amitav Ghosh made his views on this very clear by refusing to accept the Eurasian Commonwealth Writers Prize for his book The Glass Palace in 2001 and withdrawing it from the subsequent stage. His other famous work of fiction include Shadow Lines, Calcutta Chromosome, and the very recent Sea Of Poppies

The renowned writer V S Naipaul, a third generation Indian from Trinidad and Tobago and a Nobel Prize laureate, is a person who belongs to the world and usually not classified under IWE. Naipaul evokes ideas of homeland, rootlessness and his own personal feelings towards India in many of his books.

Bharati Mukherjee, author of Jasmine, 1989, has spent much of her career exploring issues involving immigration and identity with a particular focus upon the United States and Canada. Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy (1994) is a writer who uses more realistic themes. Being a self-confessed fan of Jane Austen, his attention is on the story, its details and its twists and turns. Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winner from the US, is a writer uncomfortable under the label of IWE.

Recent writers in India such as Arundhati Roy, show a direction towards contextuality and rootedness in their works. Arundhati Roy, the 1997 Booker prize winner for her The God of Small Things, calls herself a "home grown" writer. Her award winning book is set in the immensely physical landscape of Kerala. Davidar sets his The House of Blue Mangoes in Southern Tamil Nadu. In both the books, geography and politics are integral to the narrative. Kiran Desai, daughter of Anita Desai, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2006 for her second book, The Inheritance of Loss and Indra Sinha, Animal's People nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2007 are among the gifted and ambitious younger writers of this generation.


A much over-looked category of Indian writing in English is poetry. As stated above, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Bengali and English and was responsible for the translations of his own work into English. Other early notable poets in English include Henry Derozio, Michael Madhsudhan Dutt, Joseph Furtado, Armando Menezes, Toru Dutt, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Sarojini Naidu and her brother Harendranath Chattopadhyaya.

In modern times, Indian poetry in English was typified by two very different poets. Dom Moraes, winner of the Hawthornden Prize at the precocious age of 19 for his first book of poems A Beginning went on to occupy a pre-eminent position among Indian poets writing in English. Nissim Ezekiel, who came from India's tiny Jewish community, created a voice and place for Indian poets writing in English and championed their work.C:\Users\My\Pictures\sarojini.gif

Their contemporaries in English poetry in India were Arvind Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Gieve Patel, A K Ramanujan, Parthasarathy, Keki Daruwala, Adil Jussawala, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Eunice De Souza, Kersi Katrak and Kamala Das among several others.

A generation of exiles also sprang from the Indian diaspora. Among these are names like Agha Shahid Ali, Sujata Bhatt and Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, and popular ones among women writers, Jhumpa Lahiri.

The current generation of Indian poets writing in English includes Ranjit Hoskote, Jeet Thayil, Tabish Khair, Vijay Nambisan, H Masud Taj, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, C.P. Surendran, Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker, Gayatri Mazumdar, Vivek Narayanan, Gavin Barrett, Anjum Hasan, Jerry Pinto, Smita Agarwal, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Anand Thakore, Meena Alexander, Gayatri Majumdar, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Reetika Vazirani.

Features of Modernism

To varying extents, writing of the Modernist period exhibits these features:


Belief that previous writing was stereotyped and inadequate ceaseless technical innovation, sometimes for its own sake originality: deviation from the norm, or from usual reader expectations ruthless rejection of the past, even iconoclasm.


Sacralisation of art, which must represent itself, not something beyond preference for allusion (often private) rather than description world seen through the artist's inner feelings and mental states themes and vantage points chosen to question the conventional view use of myth and unconscious forces rather than motivations of conventional plot.


Promotion of the artist's viewpoint, at the expense of the communal cultivation of an individual consciousness, which alone is the final arbiter estrangement from religion, nature, science, economy or social mechanisms maintenance of a wary intellectual independence artists and not society should judge the arts: extreme self-consciousness search for the primary image, devoid of comment: stream of consciousness exclusiveness, an aristocracy of the avant-garde.


writing more cerebral than emotional work is tentative, analytical and fragmentary, more posing questions more than answering them cool observation: viewpoints and characters detached and depersonalized open-ended work, not finished, nor aiming at formal perfection involuted: the subject is often act of writing itself and not the ostensible referent.

The Shock of the New

One feature above all is striking in Modernism: experimentation, change for the sake of change, a need to be constantly at the cutting edge in technique and thought. "Make it new" said Pound. Perhaps this was understandable in a society itself changing rapidly. The First World War shattered many beliefs - in peaceful progress, international cooperation, the superiority of the European civilizations. It also outlawed a high-minded and heroic vocabulary: "gallant, manly, vanquish, fate", etc. could afterwards only be used in an ironic or jocular way. But more fundamental was the nineteenth century growth in city life, in industrial employment, in universal literacy, in the power of mass patronage and the vote. Science and society could evolve and innovate, so why not art?

Is incessant change to be welcomed, and should art reflect such change? Perhaps a stronger argument could be made for stability, some inner anchor of belief and shared assumptions as society moved beyond its familiar landmarks. Well known are the disorientating and debilitating effects of the stress involved, in animals and humans. Man is above all a social animal, and it may be that the media hype and advertising of contemporary life is purposely shallow to fulfill that need for shared experience.

In its desire to retain intellectual ascendancy, art overlooked one crucial distinction. Science tests, improves and builds, but does not wantonly tear down. Extensive modification of established conceptions is difficult, and starting afresh in the manner of the modernist artist would be unthinkable. There is simply too much to know and master, and the scientific community insists on certain apprenticeships and procedures. Originality is not prized in the way commonly supposed.

And does art represent its time? Not in any simple way. Very different artworks may originate in the same society at the same time - those of Hals and Rembrandt, for example. Art history naturally wishes to draw everything into its study but neither the appearance of great artists nor the direction of artistic trends seems predictable, any more than history is, and for similar reasons. Everything depends on the starting assumptions: what counts as important, and how that is assessed. Much the same can be said of economic theory. The necessary are not the sufficient causes: certain factors may need to be present but they are not themselves sufficient to effect change.

Always Unconventional

No less than other practices, art begets art, with sometimes only a nodding acquaintance with the larger world it purports to represent or serve. Much writing and painting from the early nineteenth-century days of Romanticism was frankly escapist, preferring the solitude of nature or the inner world of contemplation to the mundane business of socializing and earning a living. No doubt the shallow optimism, humbug and economic exploitation of the industrial revolution was very unattractive, but so then was rural poverty. Excepting the Georgians and some of the Auden generation, few poets of the last hundred years had first hand experience of the social issues of the day, and there are large areas of contemporary life even now that are not squarely treated: the world of work, public service, cultural differences, sexual experience. Either the literary prototypes do not exist, or writers would have to give up an individualist viewpoint and "dig out the facts" - i.e. write something closer to journalism.

The Ever Individual

But the burning issues of the day pass and are soon forgotten. Art prides itself on its more fundamental qualities. If they did not have the time, training or intellectual powers to understand the contemporary world, artists would look for some shorter path to their subject matter. Hence the championing of the artist's viewpoint, on a vision unmediated by social understanding. Hence the appeal to (if not the understanding of ) psychiatry, mythology and linguistics to assert that artistic creations do not represent reality but in some sense embody reality. Poems should not express anything but themselves. They should simply be.

Many techniques were used to distance language from its common uses, and assert its primary, self-validating status. And since proficiency in science and business requires a long, practical training, literature also insisted on study courses: a good deal needs to be swallowed before the student's eyes are opened to the possible excellences of contemporary writing. Maybe these are invisible to the general public, or even to rival sects, but that is not a drawback. Art is not for the profane majority, and its boundaries are carefully patrolled. Art may employ populist material or techniques, but it cannot be populist itself. Art is outspokenly useless.

All this comes at a cost. Writers in a free society may surely please themselves, securing what public they can, but there is something curious, if not perverse, in making work opaque with private allusion, obscure mythology, and misunderstood scraps of philosophy, and in the same breath complaining that the work does not sell. Professional writing is a very hard business, and even the moderately successful novelist needs to turn out a supplementary one or two thousand word per week as journalist or reviewer. The founders of Modernism had small private incomes, found patrons or begged. Dedicated writers today resort to part-time employment that is not too physically or mentally demanding, but the restricting viewpoints can be to their own and society's disadvantage.

Elitist Intellectualism

But Modernist writers and their commentators do not regard the narrowly individual outlook a shortcoming, quite the opposite. Nineteenth-century realism was tainted with commerce and the circulating libraries. Twentieth-century realism all too blatantly takes the form of TV soaps and blockbuster novels. God forbid that the modern writer should obey the first tenet of art, and portray something of the world in clearer and more generous contours. That would mean actually experiencing the hard world as it is for most of its inhabitants, of living like everybody else.

The intellect has its demands and pleasures, but the Modernists do not generally live such a life, which requires university tenure or independent wealth. Their learning tends to be fragmentary, with ideas serving ulterior purposes, one of which is social distinction. There is a persistent strain of intellectual snobbery in Modernism - sometimes breaking out in racism and contempt for the masses, sometimes retreating to arcane philosophy: idealism, existentialism, Post structuralism. Modernists are an aristocracy of the intellect. The cerebral is preferred. Modern dramatists and novelists may appeal to mythology, but their understanding is intellectualized: work is not crafted to evoke the primal forces unleashed in plays by Euripides or Racine, but shaped by concepts that serve for plot and structure.


Poets belonging to the 'high Modernist' phase include:

Ezra Pound: e.g. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly

T.S. Eliot: e.g. Waste Land

Wallace Stevens: e.g. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Concluding Remarks

Modernism evolved by various routes. 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. Even its founding fathers did not long remain Modernists. Pound espoused doctrinaire right-wing views. Eliot became a religious convert. Joyce's late work verged on the surrealistic. Lewis quarrelled with everyone.

No one would willingly lose the best that has been written in the last hundred years, but earlier doubts are coming home to roost. Modernism's ruthless self-promotion creates intellectual castes that cut themselves off from the hopes and joys of everyday life. The poetry can be built on the flimsiest of foundations: Freudian psychiatry, verbal cleverness, individualism run riot, anti-realism, and over-emphasis on the irrational. The concepts themselves are fraudulent, and the supporting myths too small and self-admiring to show man in his fullest nature. Sales of early Modernist works were laughably small, and it was largely after the Second World War, when the disciples of Modernism rose to positions of influence in the academic and publishing worlds, that Modernism came the lingua franca of the educated classes. The older generation of readers gradually died out. Literature for them was connoisseurship, a lifetime of deepening familiarity with authors who couldn't be analyzed in critical theory, or packed into three-year undergraduate courses.