Modernist poetry  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Modernist poetry refers to poetry written between 1890 and 1930 in the tradition of modernist literature; the dates of the term depend upon a number of factors, including the nation of origin, the particular school in question, and the biases of the critic setting the dates. It is usually said to have begun with the French Symbolist movement.

Through much of the post-renaissance, poetry in the major European languages had focused on development of large scale prosodic structure, reference and ornament, in a tradition that was seen as stretching back to the works of Dante Alighieri and Petrarch. By the 19th century a large range of established forms and norms had been established in French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian, and these norms were the standard against which new works were judged.

Modernist poetry is a mode of writing that is characterized by two main features. The first is technical innovation in the writing through the extensive use of free verse. The second is a move away from the Romantic idea of an unproblematic poetic 'self' directly addressing an equally unproblematic ideal reader or audience.


Marjorie Perloff's course of anthologies

there was little doubt as to the position of the Great Modernist Precursors. True, one could quarrel as to the relative merits of Robert Frost or of e. e. cummings, true such forgotten women poets as Mina Loy and Laura Riding Jackson had not yet been rediscovered. But whose list did not include Eliot and Pound, Stevens and Williams, Moore and H.D., Gertrude Stein and Hart Crane? Add to these the English poet Auden, the French Valéry and Reverdy, Apollinaire and Cendrars, the German Rilke, Trakl, and Brecht, the Spanish Lorca, and Argentinian Neruda, and you have a pretty fixed notion of what Modernism-in-Poetry would look like. . . . such 'forerunners' of Modernism as Blake, Hölderlin, Dickinson and Rimbaud through the Futurisms, Dada, Surrealism, and Objectivism . . .


Although London and Paris were key centres of activity for English-language modernists, much important activity took place elsewhere. When Mina Loy moved to New York in 1916, she became part of a circle of writers involved with Others: A Magazine of the New Verse which included William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, among others. This magazine, which ran from 1915 to 1919, was edited by Alfred Kreymborg. Contributors also included Pound, Eliot, H.D., Djuna Barnes, Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken, Carl Sandburg and Wallace Stevens.

The U.S. modernist poets were concerned to create work in a distinctively American idiom. Williams, a doctor who worked in general practice in a working-class area of Rutherford, New Jersey, explained this approach by saying that he made his poems from 'the speech of Polish mothers'. In this, they were placing themselves in a tradition stretching back to Whitman.

After her initial association with the Imagists, Marianne Moore carved out a unique niche for herself among 20th century poets. Much of her poetry is written in syllabic verse, repeating the number of syllables rather than stresses or beats, per line. She also experimented with stanza forms borrowed from troubadour poetry.

Wallace Stevens' work falls somewhat outside this mainstream of modernism. Indeed, he deprecated the work of both Eliot and Pound as "mannered." His poetry is a complex exploration of the relationship between imagination and reality. Unlike many other modernists, but like the English Romantics, by whom he was influenced, Stevens thought that poetry was what all humans did; the poet was merely self-conscious about the activity.

In Scotland, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid formed something of a one-man modernist movement. An admirer of Joyce and Pound, MacDiarmid wrote much of his early poetry in anglicised Lowland Scots, a literary dialect which had also been used by Robert Burns. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I and was invalided out in 1918. After the war, he set up a literary magazine, Scottish Chapbook, with 'Not traditions - Precedents!' as its motto. His later work reflected an increasing interest in found poetry and other formal innovations.

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