Stephen Colbert’s Metamodern

If you’ve been watching Late Night with Stephen Colbert recently, you’ve been inundated by a good deal of experimental poetry. That’s because Colbert, long considered a “metamodern” performer by the American literati, reads experimental metamodern poetry to his late-night audience most nights. That he doesn’t call it that makes his popularization of avant-garde verse no less shocking a development.
The term “metamodernism” was coined by an American professor in 1975 to describe literature that seamlessly combines opposite qualities — for instance, sincerity and irony, high art and low art, competence and incompetence, optimism and cynicism, or Life and Art — and does so in a way that makes it impossible for readers to know how to take it.
While the term is frequently applied to David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest and the generation of “alt-lit” it inspired, in poetry metamodernism has both taken longer to manifest and been decidedly less mainstream when it has.

In the same way that forward-looking high school English teachers in the 1990s and 2000s often told their students that some rap music can credibly be considered poetry, in this decade teachers are realizing that certain social media texts — carefully framed, reframed, or remixed — carry all the hallmarks of experimental writing. For instance, the “bad kids’ jokes” Stephen Colbert and Sarah Silverman recently read aloud on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (see video below) would be considered metamodern art by avant-gardists because it is unclear whether they are funny or not, and why; whether they were intended by Colbert to be funny or painfully bad; whether there is a genius in their incompetence that could not be captured by a “competent” comic; and whether appreciating the strange humor of children is a cynical act or one that honors the unique logic of a still-forming human brain.

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