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Modernist Poetry

by Sidney Beck

The single most common trait of modern poetry (in the European and American traditions, at least) is probably a free or open form which is quite different from closed or fixed forms found in traditional poetry. A reader of poetry today sometimes has to look around carefully to find recently written sonnets, ballads or other poems with regular line length, stanza length, meter, and end rhyme.  Not all recent poetry is "modern," of course, but even writing which tries to copy or obey (say) the Victorian style will almost certainly show the more modern traits described above.  A second common characteristic of modern poetry might be called allusion, fragmentation, juxtaposition, intertextuality involving multiple references to other poems or other writings. The multiplicity of styles is a characteristic of modern poetry.

A close look at Modern (better to call it Modernist) poetry shows that it is more predominantly intellectual/cerebral in its appeal, rather than emotive, e.g., Eliot’s Prufrock with his ‘head upon a platter’. Modernist poetry is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life.    Modernist poetry is chiefly imagistic and involves symbolism, often private in nature. Yeats uses emotional symbols like ‘purple glow’ in Lake isle of innisfree, or intellectual symbols like the ‘moon’ in Phases of the Moon.   Modernist poetry is impersonal, anti-romantic, innovative in attitudes and approaches to life, as opposed to  Romantic poetry. Modernist poetry is often lexically, semantically and grammatically challenging for the uninitiated reader; such poetry rejects traditional versification and metrics to opt for free and experimental forms.

The words 'modern' and even 'modernism' are of course vague terms with precise meanings which are hard to pin down. In the history of literary criticism, the 'trend' called modernism is associated with several features seen in the literature of the early twentieth century, after the First World War, (and especially after the publication of Eliot's "The Waste Land" in 1922), until just after World War Two.  Shortly after The Waste Land was published in 1922, it became the archetypical modernist text, rife with allusions, linguistic fragments, and mixed registers and languages.

Modernism in literature and modernist poetry are usually said to have begun with the French symbolists, starting around 1880 as a movement and ending soon after World War Two.   Poets like Yeats and Rilke started in a post-Romantic, Symbolist vein and modernised their poetic idiom after being affected by political and literary developments. Their new idiom of Imagism proved radical and important, marking a new point of departure for poetry. Some consider that it began in the works of Hardy and Pound, and Eliot,   and reached some of its highest forms with English-language poets, like  Eliot Poundand Frost

Modernist poetry in English begins with the appearance of the Imagists. In common with many other modernists, these poets wrote in reaction to the perceived excesses of Victorian poetry, with its emphasis on traditional formalism and ornate diction.  Their criticism echoes what urged  Wordsworth to instigate the Romantic movement in British poetry over a century earlier, criticising the gauche and pompous school which then pervaded, and seeking to bring poetry to the layman.   In general, modernists saw themselves as looking back to the best practices of poets before the Victorian period and even in other cultures.

 Modernism emerged with its insistence on breaks with the immediate past, and its different inventions, 'making it new' with elements from cultures remote in time and space.  The questions of impersonality and objectivity grew to become crucial to Modernist poetry. Modernism developed out of a tradition of lyrical expression, emphasising the personal imagination, culture, emotions, and memories of the poet. However, for the modernists, it was essential to move away from the merely personal towards an intellectual statement that poetry could make about the world. The best examples are by  Eliot in the Four Quartets and by Pound in The Cantos.

The insistence on such breaks prompted  Herbert Read to say, "The modern poet has no essential alliance with regular schemes of any sort. He/she reserves the right to adapt  his/her rhythm to his/her mood, to modulate his/her metre as he progresses.”     As regards rhythm: he/she is likely to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.    An extreme example of this is  Hopkins who wrote in an unusual experimental prosody about radically conservative ideals,  and he believed that sound could drive poetry. Specifically, poetic sonic effects (selected for verbal and aural felicity, not just images selected for their visual evocativeness) would also, therefore, become an influential poetic device of modernist poetry.

Modernist literature, in general, is characterized by the radical break with the traditions of literary subjects, forms, concepts, and styles.  Modernist poets have violated all the known conventions and established rules of the past. Old rhyme/rhythm traditions have been demolished and new experiments tested. Traditional symbols and metaphors are no longer dominating poetic devices. In poetry, we can discuss the modernist elements in terms of four major subheadings dealing with such a break. Each poet makes his own rules, with new experiments in form and style,   new themes and word-games,  new modes of expression,  and complex and open-ended meanings.

The most striking element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new modes of expression. Modernism includes many ‘-isms’ and therefore many different ways to express ideas and feelings. The imagist way presents just concrete images for the readers to understand and experience the feelings themselves.  The symbolist way presents things in terms of symbols of ideas and feelings for readers to interpret them intellectually. The realist way truly reflects the reality of the world. The naturalist way, with  extreme of realism shows the private, psychological, fantastic and the neurotic. The impressionist way presents unrefined first impressions of everything by the observer. The expressionist way probes deep into one’s own psyche and tries to express the hidden and deepest feelings, as in confessional poems. The surrealist way imposes the mood of madness, intoxication, and neurosis to excite the illogical ‘language’ of the unconscious.  Modernism includes all such experimentations in the technique of expression.

Another important element of modernist poetry is the use of new and wide-ranging subjects, themes, and issues. Traditional poetry had to be limited to subjects of universal significance, general human appeal, and so on, even when the poems were romantically personal on their surface. But in modernist poetry, we read poems about just any topic and theme. We find poems about nature as well as simply eating plums, myth as well as satire of an old Christian woman, single characters as well as poor people. We find issues dealing with the meaning of art as well as erotic memories of a woman; dealing with spiritual crisis as well as guilt of abortion;  dealing with the feminist movement as well as the neurotic despisal of a father;  and dealng with  an allegory of life-journey as well as the irony of death;  and so on.

Besides being written on a large range of subjects and themes, modernist poems tend to be multi-themed. It means that some single poems are about many things at the same time. For instance, Dylan Thomas’s poem “This Bread I Break” is at the same time about nature, about spirituality, and also about art.   Marianne Moore’s poem   “Jellyfish”   is also about the fish itself, the nature of human emotions and desires, the nature of women, as well as modes of poetic expression. The modernist poet never fully says, as in traditional poems, what the one and precise meaning of the poem is.

That is why the reader has to work with the complexity of many ‘possible’ themes and open-ended meanings in the same poem. The best one can expect is to try and find logical support for the theme or themes that he ‘finds’ in the poem. So, in modernist poetry, the meaning of a poem is the ‘differing’ interpretation of different readers. There can be no single and fixed meaning of any poem.

The masters of multiple meanings,  the giants of modernism such as Eliot,  Yeats, and  Pound have been much emulated by greater and lesser poets and composers including Frost, Bishop, Moore, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and countless others whose names have become so commonly used as to have become legendary, not only to generations of literature students but also to folk music buffs.