Heavy Weather, or: Why “Postmodern”?
by Joshua Corey on August 16th, 2012
When G.C. and I first began kicking around the idea for this anthology five or so years ago, we struggled to find a label that could adequately describe, or at least reference, the diversity of the approaches and styles of poem that we expected to collect. It is a diversity that has since exceeded our expectations, which makes our choice of the “postmodern” monicker even more questionable. For the most advanced theory-heads out there, postmodern is passé–some would even argue that the worldwide crisis in capitalism that began in 2008 means that we have finally definitively left postmodernism behind us, as we enter a scary new world of instability on almost every front–political, economic, climatological, you name it.
I would argue, however, that the term postmodern still has its work to do, at the very least as a descriptor of the intellectual and aesthetic climate that presided over the creation of most of the poems in our anthology, all of which were first published no earlier than 1995. We chose this cut-off date because we wanted to present an anthology of the now, as opposed to a historical presentation of innovations in the pastoral (a worthy project, but a different one; for a sketch of that history, see my article “A Long Foreground,” elsewhere on this site). There are various dates available to the history of American ecological consciousness that we might have used instead: 1965, the year a nascent environmental movement did battle to save Storm King Mountain from development by Con Ed; 1970, the first Earth Day; 1973, the passage of the Endangered Species Act; 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill; 2005, the year of the Kyoto Protocol. 1995 is not in itself a landmark, though like any past year it can be scrutinized for signs and portents: the White Earthquake in Chile, Typhoon Angela in the Philippines, or the publication in The New York Times of Ted Kaczynski‘s Unabomber Manifesto. It marks the middle of the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of millennial consciousness; it is my sense as well that it was in that year, or at any rate in that decade, that the question of environmental and ecological crisis became finally unignorable even by those with the greatest stakes in ignoring it. In the cicada’s life of seventeen years since that date the issue we blandly refer to as “climate change” has surged to the forefront of world consciousness, and it may very well be this year, 2012, that we look back on as the year that people finally “got it,” because the hyperobject of climate change had finally begun to express itself in terms of weather, possibly the most complex abstraction that we are capable of comprehending with our bodies and not just our minds.
I have considered many other terms to define the poetic phenomenon that has preoccupied me for more than a decade now: avant-pastoral and negative pastoral have each had their day, as well as broader terms like ecopoetics. If I were to choose the broadest term for this kind of writing it would probably be post-pastoral, for the sense that the prefix “post-” gives to the object it modifies as that which is conditioned by that object but which also struggles against it, trying to become something new. Ultimately we settled on “postmodern pastoral” for the purposes of this anthology because we wanted the dual dialectic that that term suggests: poetry that is conditioned by the (now fast unraveling) cultural logic of late capitalism but which is also affiliated, sometimes contentiously, with the enduring fantasy of a simpler, greener world.
Postmodernism may no longer be the right term to describe our cultural climate, but a new concept is still emergent. So postmodern will do as a descriptor of the weather that these contemporary pastoral poems track (sometimes quite literally), which impacts the forms and aesthetic decisions of poets working to translate the reality of life on our wounded planet into something readers can feel and judge for themselves.
Next time I will have something to say about the other debatable term that we have attached to our anthology, pastoral, as well as the main title, The Arcadia Project, which has more to do with Walter Benjamin’s famously unfinished opus than you might expect.