A final paper for English 106, Introduction to Poetry, a freshman literature course taught by Terry Kennedy, written on 19 June 2007 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Modernism and the Creation of an American Poetics
by Matt Wallace
A dictionary definition of modernism is “modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice; esp.: a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression.” Formally speaking, the modernist literary period covers most of the first half of the twentieth century, starting with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and closing with the end of World War II in 1945. Generally speaking, modern poetry is any new or innovative poetry from contemporary times back to Walt Whitman who was a poetic innovator and model for later poets (p. xxxvii).
The first feature of modern poetry is a focus on newness as expressed in Ezra Pound’s slogan “make it new” and William Carlos Williams’s assertion “Nothing is good save the new.” The goal was to break the formal rules of poetry and find new modes of expression required by modern times (p. xl).
The second feature of modern poetry is a desire to “make it difficult.” The complexity of modern times demanded an equally complex poetry. Unlike earlier poetry, modern poetry generally presented “ideas, experiences, and sensory perceptions directly, unfiltered by explanations, their immediacy and directness paradoxically contribute to their difficulty” (p. xliii).
The third feature of modern poetry is an emphasis on the imagination. “Modern poets search for adequate fictions, fictions verging on facts, what is imagined reshaping what is seen, and their imaginative quest may be said to culminate in Stevens’s pursuit of a ‘supreme fiction’” (p. xliv).
The fourth and final feature of modern poetry is its international scope. Advances in travel and communications made it easier for people and knowledge to move around the globe. More readily than ever before, poets could physically and intellectually relocate themselves and experience new locales and cultures (p. xliv).
Ironically, modernism’s globalism spawned a linguistic and poetic nativism “within which [some] poets struggled to carve out a literary space for the local” (p. xlvi). In their own ways, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams insisted on writing about American subjects in American English. In doing so, they were emulating Walt Whitman and building upon the foundation of modernism.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) published the first edition of Leaves of Grass containing twenty poems in 1855. He added new poems and revised earlier poems as he published seven more editions over the course of his life (p. 2). In Leaves of Grass, he presaged many of the characteristics of modernist poetry. “His joyful experiments with language, his pretense of telling all while leaving much to be inferred, his reckless assumption that poets, their language, their subject matter, and their readers are all part of one expanding community, have endowed him with enormous importance” (p. 1).
Whitman was a great innovator who reinvented poetry. He was the “first major poet to write in free verse, a crucial innovation that Ezra Pound and the Imagists were to institutionalize more than fifty years later as a prime tenet of modernism” (p. xxxvii). “He realized that poems need no longer look like poems—with neat couplets and quatrains—need, for that matter sound like poems. They can sound like the Book of Psalms or Fourth-of-July orations; it was all one to him” (p. 1). Whitman even dispensed with rhyme. Summing up his poetic theory, Whitman wrote in the Preface to Leaves of Grass, “The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to thing nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul” (pp. 866).
Whitman opened poetry with his choice of subject matter. “He rescue[d] for poetry the unpoetic, the vulgar, and the profane” (p. 1). He wrote of the ordinary lives, occupations, and experiences of himself and his fellow Americans, both in close detail and in full panorama. He tried to capture and express the heroic, the noble, and the divine of the common American and the commonly American.
In the Preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote, “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. ... Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. ... Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships— ... the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom— ... the fierceness of their roused resentment—their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors— ... their good temper and openhandedness—the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it” (pp. 865-866).
Whitman was fully aware that he was creating a new poetry for a new people. “From the beginning of his career as a writer, Whitman as experimental poet aligned himself with the great social and political experiment of American democracy. His was a ‘new style . . . necessitated by new theories, new themes . . ., forced upon us for American purposes’ (letter of January 7, 1860). His ambition ... was ‘to give something of our literature which will be our own; with neither foreign spirit nor imagery nor form, but adapted to our case, grown out of our associations, boldly portraying the West, strengthening and intensifying the national soul, and finding the entire fountains of its birth and growth in our own country’ (1866 letter to William D. O’Conner)” (pp. 2-3). Whitman’s bold poetic theories and unabashed Americanism were later adopted and embraced, at least to some degree, by modernist American poets such as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.
Robert Frost (1874-1963), contrary to his well-developed persona as New England farmer, was born and lived in San Francisco until he was eleven. He then moved with his family to Massachusetts where they lived in town and not on a farm. He was an excellent student in high school where he was covaledictorian with his future wife. He briefly attended Dartmouth on a scholarship and later Harvard, though he never completed a degree. From about 1899 to 1911, he lived with his wife and children on a New Hampshire farm. While he was a casual farmer which found its way into his poetry, he was primarily a teacher. From 1912 to 1915, he and his family lived in England where he met other modernist poets and had his first two books published. He returned to the United States in 1915 because of World War I. He continued to publish his poetry and teach in various universities (pp. 201-202).
Though he liked to portray the image of a simple New England farmer, Frost’s personal history reveals that he was clearly no country bumpkin or ignorant hick. True to his adopted persona, he exploited the simplicity and directness of New England culture and dialect to disguise his poetry. His poems use a more traditional form and structure than Whitman. Even so, Frost resembles Whitman in that his poems are expressed in simple, colloquial language and deal with seemingly commonplace subjects of a uniquely American region (p. 203).
Frost is a modernist in his use of indirection. In his essay “Education by Poetry,” he wrote, “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, ‘Why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections—whether from diffidence or some other instinct” (p. 203). The seeming simplicity and directness of “Mending Wall” or “The Road Not Taken” masks an irony that reveals a deeper truth. What appears to be provincial on the surface is actually universal in depth.
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was an insurance company executive by day, and a poet by night. He kept his business life separate from his literary life. In his literary life, he seemed to have little to do with other writers. Even so, his poetry is vivid and imaginative. His poems reflect his concern “that the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written” (p. 235).
Like Whitman, Stevens doesn’t use rhyme, though he often uses regular meter. Also, he uses American locales and settings in his poetry, not so much as they actually are, but as devices, “necessary fictions,” used in his exploration of reality and the role of imagination in creating reality. “Sunday Morning” uses a quiet weekend morning in an American home as a point of departure to question religious faith in general and Christianity specifically. “The Idea of Order at Key West” uses the experiences of the island as fodder for an exploration of the nature and use of imagination (p. 236).
Stevens is a modernist in his emphasis on imagination. While “imagination is the liberty of the mind,” it must ultimately “express agreement with reality.” In Stevens’s view, imagination is vitally necessary to endure the violence of the modern world. “It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” (p. 236).
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a medical doctor by training, and a writer by avocation. In addition to his poetry, he wrote short stories, novels, essays, and an autobiography. He never considered himself a literary artist but insisted that he was just an ordinary man. He used slang and readily played the fool to avoid being thought a pretentious highbrow (pp. 283-285).
Williams commended Whitman for his daring. Like Whitman, Williams wrote completely in free verse and strove to push literature in a new direction, what he considered the right direction. He wrote of seemingly commonplace things; his American epic, Paterson, centered on the ordinary lives of ordinary people in an ordinary American industrial town. He was even more radical in his Americanism than Whitman. “He disapproved of Pound’s and Eliot’s expatriation and called the publication of The Waste Land (1922) ‘the great catastrophe’ that, by its genius, interrupted the ‘rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principles of all art, in the local conditions’” (pp. 284-285). “Williams propose[d] instead an exuberant American poetry that, [took] advantage of its geographic isolation, [laid] claim to genuine originality” (p. 954).
Williams is a modernist in his emphasis on the new. He insisted, “Nothing is good save the new” (p. 954). He is a modernist also in his emphasis on imagination. “’To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force—the imagination,’ says Williams, with something of Blake’s (and, indeed, of Stevens’s) radiant energy. ‘The only realism in art is of the imagination’” (p. 285).
Much of what is considered modernist poetry can trace its origins to Walt Whitman’s enthusiastic embrace of America writ large: everything about America that was new, common, large, open, and, most importantly, free. In their turn and in their own ways, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams expanded on Whitman’s innovation. In doing so, all made contributions to the creation of a uniquely American poetics.
(Note: Page numbers refer to The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 3rd Edition, Volume 1: Modern Poetry unless otherwise indicated.)