Sunday 11 June 2023

Hauntology in Poetry

The way much of the poetry that matters is written has changed very little over the last few decades. It generally conforms to ways of writing that evolved during the course of the twentieth century and which became the stylistic norm in the second half of it. Of course, many things have changed – the sexism of some poetry once thought radical now seems cringe-worthy, for example – but in many stylistic and technical ways, the way poets write what they write is much the same. Many of the poets whose work was included in Michael Horovitz' 1969 anthology, Children of Albion, say, could submit the kind of work they were writing then, more or less, to a literary journal today, without the editor raising an eyebrow.

The situation was very different one hundred years ago. In 1935, Ezra Pound coined his often-quoted Modernist imperative, 'make it new' (1). Before that, in 1921, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf had been discussing the relationship of their work to that of their predecessors. Woolf suggested that their work was 'not as good as Keats'. Eliot demurred, suggesting that he and Woolf were 'trying something harder.' (2) The world they were writing in had changed massively since the days of Keats and they needed to find new ways to say the things that needed to be said. It was an era of groups and movements in the arts and creative manifestos. Few writers today would feel a similar gulf existing between themselves and the generation of writers represented by Woolf, Eliot and Pound (although they might feel more affinity with other writers working at the same time – Bertolt Brecht, AndrĂ© Breton and Tristan Tzara, to name but three). Like them, though, they would still feel a gulf to exist between themselves and the world of Keats. (One could argue that avant-gardists are often Romantics at heart, but that's another discussion).

In relation to music, people sometimes talk about hauntology, a nostalgia for futures that never came to pass, leaving the ghosts of  imagined futures to haunt the present, in the form of musical styles from the past and the technology used to produce them. Could the same be said to apply to poetry? Movements in the arts don't change simply because it's 'time for a change' but because the world changes. The brighter future many saw to be promised by the ideas, social movements and technological advances of the twentieth century has not yet materialised. If poets in 2023 still find themselves writing poetry in ways that would not have seemed out of place forty years ago, it may be because they still find themselves working, in many ways, in a similar milieu. The poetic toolkit in use back then may still have a lot to offer. And a poet has a job to do. As Gael Turnbull said:

All that can be willed is to give oneself as fully as possible to what is going on, to try above all to be true to the closest instinct of the moment, at each moment. Even when its pattern or its meaning may appear utterly lost. Then, later, from another vantage point, we may see what has happened... The very language we use is not 'mine' but is only 'ours'; and what we would say, of any material, is shaped by those others both past and present; as it is also shaped by the meanings which are in the material itself, meanings which perhaps we discover rather than create.(3)

So there you have it. If what the poet discovers today bears a strong resemblance to what poets discovered half a century ago, so be it. Poetry today might express a nostalgia for futures that never came to be, but not because the poet is by nature nostalgic, but because the tool of poetry exposes reality for what it is. Digital technology and the internet have massively transformed the world but can mask the fact that, in many other ways, the world has not changed a great deal in that time. When it does, it may be that the way poets make poetry changes with it.


1. Ezra Pound, Make it New: Essays by Ezra Pound, Yale University Press, 1935.

2. Virginia Woolf, Diary, 22nd March, 1921.

3. Gael Turnbull, Kuchur 7, 1962, quoted in Children of Albion: Poetry of the 'Underground' in Britain, ed. Michael Horovitz, 1969, pp. 319-320.


  1. 'Cringe-worthy' indeed. Imagine writing Robert Herrick's advice to virgins these days:
    Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may go marry;
    For having lost but once your prime,
    You may for ever tarry.
    Robert Herrick 'Gather ye rosebuds.......
    1591 - 1674

  2. Seems like no matter how much poetry might change, the same old shite gets published?

    1. When there's real social change, what is 'mainstream' changes. In the meantime, I guess it's down to the people who write the more challenging and less cosy stuff to get it out there - like the Beats did in the US, Michael Horovitz and co did in the 1960s in the UK, and other people are doing now.


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