Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

(Post-)postmodernist elegy: Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’

Stephen Sexton’s If All The World and Love Were Young (Penguin, 2019) has proven phenomenally successful, having won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and being shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. And yet, it is not an easy poetry collection, proving both difficult in terms of its style and allusive references, and in its subject matter.

It broadly charts the persona’s experience of his mother’s diagnosis and treatment for cancer, and her subsequent death from the disease. The persona is a boy who is enamoured with the Super Nintendo game Super Mario World (1990). Between these seemingly disjunctive poles, the poetry swings and intermingles, as in the sonnet ‘Yoshi’s Island 1‘ (all the poems are named after levels in the game) when the persona describes the taking of a photograph while he is playing the game:

My mother winds her camera the room is spelled with sudden light:

a rush of photons at my back a fair wind from the spectral world.

I remember myself being remembered a little lotus

a cross-legged meditant for whom the questions floating in the air

are for a future self to voice decades from now who will return

again and again to this room and these moments of watershed.

It will be an adventure I think it will be an adventure

the future is cannon blasting[.]

‘Yoshi’s Island 1’ in Stephen Sexton’s If All the World and Love Were Young (London: Penguin, 2019),p. 6)

The persona’s future life, and the position from which he now narrates his memories and earlier experiences, are given in the language of the game: ‘adventure’, ‘cannon blasting’.

This is representative of the remainder of the poems, even as they delve into the deepest sorrow and grief. For example, in ‘Tubular‘ the persona plays in ‘The roughed-off ends of pipes [that] comprise a windless skyline citadel’, but misses the moment of his mother’s passing: ‘I wasn’t there we had driven to McDonald’s of all places’ (p. 96). The interplay between the so-called ‘real’ world in which the persona’s mother is ill, and the lived (though ‘unreal’) world of the game might be classified as postmodernism, especially in light of, for example, Jean Baudrillard’s ideas that the simulated world dominates the real world. Baudrillard advances his ideas by suggesting that simulacra—simulations without originals, such as Super Mario’s world—are yet more important than simulations. Sexton’s If All the World and Love Were Young might seem to be a perfect version of a postmodernist text.

However, the collection refuses to engage with the playfulness of most postmodernist writing. Yes, there is play in the strictest sense, but the interplay between the world of grief and the world of Mario refuses the postmodern hierarchisation. Rather than the simulacra Mario’s World leading the charge, the elegiac and mournful tone dominates. It may be the case that postmodern elegy is impossible because of the demands of sincere mourning; in which case, perhaps the collection is better characterised as post-postmodern.

Robert M. McLaughlin has described post-postmodernism as including ‘the need to write and live one’s way out of representation and into something more real’. Moreover, post-postmodernist writers understand what whilst ‘truth is contingent’ (a postmodernist conclusion), they must ‘speak the truth’; whilst ‘acknowledging that representation is self-referential’ they are duty-bound ‘to represent the real’; whilst ‘conceding that the human subject is constructed via socially charged discourse’ they ought ‘to value the individual’; and whilst ‘epistemological systems are contingent’, they ought ‘to commit to an ethical and productive knowledge’.[1] These characterisations aptly describe If All the World and Love Were Young.

McLaughlin elsewhere explains how post-postmodernist writers seek to make the the reader ‘feel love and […] feel hurt’.[2] In Sexton’s text, this process perhaps reaches its climax near the end of the book in ‘Funky‘:

Should I pray to gods of thunder or the wounded gods of myself

the storm crumbles the bank into the river and what can I say

this has not been easy thank you friend you are a super reader.

‘Funky’ in Sexton’s If All the World and Love Were Young, p. 102

This acknowledgement to and of the reader returns the text to the world of real emotions: of pain, of grief, of anger, and of loss. It is not merely the playful denigration of the loss of a mother beneath the game that was an escape. Instead, I read If All the World and Love Were Young as an elevation of the game to a point where the real can become more real, where the world of death can be fully felt—both by the reader and the persona who has recounted these memories. To that end, ‘post-postmodernist elegy’ seems the aptest way of categorising the text.

[1] Robert M. McLaughlin, ‘Post-postmodernism’, in The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 212–23 (pp. 218, 222).

[2] McLaughlin, p. 217.


One response to “(Post-)postmodernist elegy: Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’”

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