Guest Author - Jessica Smith
Modernism in poetry is an artistic movement that came about at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though specific dates are difficult to pin down for the beginnings and endings of movements, many consider the Modernist period to have run from 1890 until 1925 or 1945 or even later. There is also some contention among scholars about when the Modernist movement became the Postmodernist movement, the former blending into the latter, leaving many poets and important, famous works inhabiting the gray area between.
The Modernist movement in general does not refer to poetry exclusively, but all forms of art- literature, sculpture, painting, dance, music, etc. Though this article focuses on poetry, Modernism’s basic descriptors can be applied to all of these forms. In fact, even the history for this time period reflects the bases on which the modernist principles are founded.
The main requisites of Modernism are as follows:
Modernist poets no longer wished to be constrained by traditional forms of poetry. They wanted to express themselves without needing to count syllables, write a specific number of lines, or even remain within the traditional margins of the page. It’s important to note, however, that the Modernists did not throw out form or tradition completely. They studied it, understood it implicitly, then worked to move beyond it.
With the rejection of restrictive form rules, Modernist poets felt free to express themselves as they saw fit. Instead of worrying whether or not the meaning of a line or phrase would be clear to the reader, the Modernists focused inward rather than outward. In literature, this often manifested as stream-of-consciousness writing, where traditional sentence structure is abandoned for long “streaming” sentences jumping from thought to thought. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are solid examples of this.
This refers to the inward focus of the poets, and the belief that the person is more important than the facts. Focus remains on the inner, artistic, stream-of-consciousness world of the poet, rather than the outer, concrete world.
Modernism poetry is not for the casual and noncommittal. Despite its highly experimental nature, Modernism is not anarchical. It does not wish to destroy the past- but rather to evolve beyond it. Therefore, in order to truly evolve, Modernist artists must have a thorough knowledge of the old traditions. Without the base, one cannot build the tower. Most Modernist poets were experts in regards to poetic forms and traditions. It was this knowledge that allowed them to experiment with their art form (essentially their speciality) in such riveting and successful ways.
Nothing explains as well as an example, so we’ll take a look at poems from three of the big names in Modernist poetry, and how they embody the Modernist principles.
Ezra Pound: “In a Station of the Metro”
This poem is a good example of the poet considering the forms and reasons of traditional poetry, and then taking it and making it his own. In an essay describing the thought and formation processes behind this poem, Pound discussed that the brevity and beauty of Japanese haiku style poetry related well to certain moments and emotions. Then, in reference to “In a Station of the Metro”, he wrote, “I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it [. . .] Six months later I made a poem half that length.” It’s not until “a year later” that he pares the poem down to a single sentence. This follows the experimentalism of the modernist movement, as well as the individualism and intellectualism of it relating to his personal experience. With regards to intellect, one who is knowledgeable of the haiku form will recognize its influence on the poem, and therefore draw wider conclusions and deeper analysis from it. As for individualism, Pound himself claimed in the same essay that, “I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought.” It is not immediately understood, it requires the reader to be open to a non-traditional means of thought, not the everyday type of thought, but closer to the musings of a poet or artist. Pound’s purpose in this poem, he states, is “to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”
T. S. Eliot “The Waste Land”
The iconic Modernist poem. Though it is free verse, it is not without form and purpose, all of which hearken back to traditional forms. As mentioned earlier, Eliot was not interested in destroying the old ways, or even merely forgetting them. He respected and studied them, striving to write poetry reminiscent of the old forms without simply imitating them. He wished to take the best from the past, and add to it the best of the present. He was, essentially, facilitating poetic evolution. In Eliot’s poetry especially we find the modernist element of intellectualism. Not just anyone can read “The Waste Land” and fully understand. Certain obscure, specialized knowledge is required. In the epitaph and dedication alone Eliot writes in four different languages: Latin, Greek, English and Italian. This is not a poem for the average layperson, but for a scholar knowledgeable of poetic forms, literary history, and multiple languages.
e. e. cummings “Buffalo Bill’s”
Cummings is well known for his extreme experimentation, particularly in regards to grammar, punctuation and physical structure. His poetry even looks “modern”, especially compared with the set-in-stone forms of Shakespeare and Byron. “Buffalo Bill’s” for example features indents- the lines moving further and further right across the page, then snapping back. Much in the way of stream-of-consciousness, cummings scoffs at traditional punctuation, jamming some words together (“onetwothreefourfive” and “pigeonsjustlikethat”) and breaking the sentences across the page. His other poems feature commas and dashes thrown in unexpected places, and sometimes grammar spelled out rather than placed (“period” rather than “.”). This type of experimentation leads itself to the strong individualism required in modernist poetry. Cummings, like Eliot and Pound and the rest, refuses to let himself be constrained by tradition, and expresses himself in the way that best embodies himself as poet and artist.
Other Modernist poets of interest include, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, Mina Loy and Marianne Moore.