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1.5: Modernist Poetry

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    226911

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    1.5 Modernist Poetry

    Writer Virginia Woolf stated that human nature underwent a fundamental change 'on or about December 1910.'

    Understanding the context of literary modernism (specifically, modernist poetry) is important. What prompted such a “fundamental change” in human nature? The rise of cities; profound technological changes in transportation, architecture, and engineering; a rising population that engendered crowds and chaos in public spaces; factory life; and the aftermath of WWI. These influential factors contributed to making individuals feel less unique and more alienated, fragmented, and at a loss in their daily lives and larger worlds.

    Indeed, the speaker of modernist poems characteristically wrestles with the fundamental question of “self,” often feeling fragmented and alienated from the world around him. In other words, a coherent speaker with a clear sense of himself/herself is hard to find in modernist poetry, often leaving readers confused and “lost.”

    Such ontological feelings of fragmentation and alienation, which often led to a more pessimistic and bleak outlook on life as manifested in representative modernist poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), were prompted by fundamental and far-reaching historical, social, cultural, and economic changes in the early 1900s. These changes transformed the world from one that seemed ordered and stable to one that felt futile and chaotic.

    For many, high modernism is perhaps best characterized by the emergence of a new kind of poetry. The battle cry of the modernists—"make it new"—is reflected in the experimental, difficult, highly allusive nature of much of the poetry written during this time.

    Probably the easiest truism to make about the poetry of the early twentieth century, a time known by the name Modernism, is that it was boldly experimental. It was more experimental with regard to form and subject than poetry had been in any period in its English-language history. (The only time to rival it occurred in the late middle ages, when syllabic, alliterative verse gave way to meter and rhyme.) In the Modernist period, long-standing conventions of meter and rhyme were swept away, with nothing as definite as syllable or meter to determine the length of a line, and no definite pattern of sound. One of the most prominent and influential poets of the era, the American Ezra Pound, stated at one point that it was his task to “break the back of the iamb”—which, as you learned several weeks to, had been the most prominent feature of poetry since the time of Chaucer.

    Pound and the Modernists had great success in freeing poetry from the straitjacket of meter. Although traditional forms and meters did not disappear, they no longer dominated poetry. It was a time when it seemed that almost anything was possible. Poems varied from the astonishingly simple verse written by William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Amy Lowell, to the highly allusive, imbricated verse of Pound and T.S. Eliot.

    If twentieth- and twenty-first-century students in the English speaking world are quick to take the stand that a poem means whatever the reader thinks it means (a statement that would not have occurred to a living soul between Adam and about 1920), we probably have the Modernists to thank for it. Although there’s no evidence I know of to suggest that Modernists anticipated that state of affairs in which readers confronted with the difficulty of the text simply gave up and declared “It means whatever I want it to mean,”they perhaps unwittingly invited their readers to do so. The fact is that much of this poetry assumes a reader as adept in poetry and, in fact, in all of literature as the authors were themselves—and sometimes adept in other things as well (Ezra Pound now and then included Chinese characters in his poems even though he did not read or speak Chinese). Modernists often expected their readers to do the necessary research, to struggle through and find out what their writing was all about. (James Joyce, a writer of fiction, once suggested that to understand his work, a reader would have to devote his entire life to studying it.) These works do not imply the knowledge base or reading sophistication of the average 18-year old. And much of this poetry is too open or too associative in its logic to be easily restricted to any single, monolithic understanding.

    Much of the literature of the time manifests a desire not to give up on reading but to change the way that we read. If you try to read Eliot’s poetry in the same way that you read Beowulf, Paradise Lost or Lyrical Ballads you will be frustrated. The hierarchy of value has been broken. In that hierarchy allusions support—are subject to—a singular, central meaning. In Modernist poetry, the element of meaning, while still absolutely present, is no longer king; it is limited, but no longer necessarily singular.

    In fact, Modernist poetry takes advantage of an aspect of language which poetry would seem to have a natural affinity for: even the simplest, easiest-to-understand utterance is potentially infinite in its meaning—or in its ability to create and become involved with meaning. There’s nothing radical about that claim. For a word to be transferable from any one context to any other context it must be infinitely transferable. Most often actual uses of language—me talking to you, me writing this lecture to you, you talking on the phone to your mother, Shakespeare performing the ghost of Hamlet’s father—work very hard to limit the ways that the words can be taken. But this does not affect the fact that language is in itself illimitable. It is like liquid which must be precisely held in a solid container or it goes everywhere. The container will give it measurable shape. In itself it has no shape but will conform for the moment to whatever shape it finds itself in. Modernist poetry still gives language shape, but it tends to give it a looser shape, shapes that let more of its inherently shapelessness appear.

    That’s not to say that all twentieth-century poetry or even all Modernist poetry is this way. In addition to Williams and Eliot and Pound, there is Robert Frost, and Elizabeth Bishop, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and William Butler Yeats—and of course many many others—who work in traditional forms. Eliot himself often rhymes, often writes in iambic pentameter. So does Williams and sometimes even Pound. There’s a lot of experiment going on in Modernist poetry; it involves every aspect of language. Early twentieth-century poetry is characterized more by this experimentation than by its frequent lack of meter or rhyme.

    While not every poet of the mid- to late-twentieth century took Whitman as the model, the poetry of this Postmodern era generally became simpler, easier to read, while it retained the poetic movement away from traditional forms dominated by rhyme and meter. Indeed, during the sixties and seventies it would have been difficult to find a newly published poem that rhymed. At present poetry is doing nothing more profoundly than trying to figure out why it exists in a world in which more and more poetry is published by smaller and smaller presses for fewer and fewer readers, most of them academics, poets, or students. Poetry still has occasional high-profile moments, such as when Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural, or when a celebration of poetry was abruptly cancelled at the White House for fear the invited poets would use the platform to protest America’s invasion of Iraq. But at present poetry in the English-speaking world, leads a mostly underground life. It is still everywhere, most people, most of the time, manage to ignore it.

    There were those, like Wallace Stevens, who said that poetry did not need to have a meaning. But that’s not the same as saying that poetry means whatever you want it to.

    Remixed from:

    “Indroduction to Modernist Poety.” Edisitement. 2022. https://edsitement.neh.gov/curricula/introduction-modernist-poetry CC BY 4.0.

    Lindsay, Alan & Candance Bergstrom. “Introduction to Poetry.” Public Consulting Media. 2019. https://www.publiconsulting.com/wordpress/introtopoetry/ CC BY 4.0.

    Sawler, Trevor. “Modernist Poety.” The Modernist Web. 2022. http://www.modernistweb.com/page/Copyright CC BYNC ND.

    MODERNIST POEMS

    The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

    by TS Eliot

    S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

    A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

    Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

    Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

    Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

    Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

    Let us go then, you and I,

    When the evening is spread out against the sky

    Like a patient etherized upon a table;

    Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

    The muttering retreats

    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

    Streets that follow like a tedious argument

    Of insidious intent

    To lead you to an overwhelming question ...

    Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

    Let us go and make our visit.

    In the room the women come and go

    Talking of Michelangelo.

    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

    The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

    Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

    Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

    Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

    Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

    And seeing that it was a soft October night,

    Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

    And indeed there will be time

    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

    There will be time, there will be time

    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

    There will be time to murder and create,

    And time for all the works and days of hands

    That lift and drop a question on your plate;

    Time for you and time for me,

    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

    And for a hundred visions and revisions,

    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

    In the room the women come and go

    Talking of Michelangelo.

    And indeed there will be time

    To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

    Time to turn back and descend the stair,

    With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—

    (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—

    (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

    Do I dare

    Disturb the universe?

    In a minute there is time

    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, known them all:

    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

    I know the voices dying with a dying fall

    Beneath the music from a farther room.

    So how should I presume?

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

    Then how should I begin

    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

    And how should I presume?

    And I have known the arms already, known them all—

    Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

    (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

    Is it perfume from a dress

    That makes me so digress?

    Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

    And should I then presume?

    And how should I begin?

    Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

    And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

    Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws

    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

    And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

    Smoothed by long fingers,

    Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,

    Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

    Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

    Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

    But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

    Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

    I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;

    I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

    And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

    And in short, I was afraid.

    And would it have been worth it, after all,

    After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

    Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

    Would it have been worth while,

    To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

    To have squeezed the universe into a ball

    To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

    To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

    Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

    If one, settling a pillow by her head,

    Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

    That is not it, at all.”

    And would it have been worth it, after all,

    Would it have been worth while,

    After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

    After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the

    floor—

    And this, and so much more?—

    It is impossible to say just what I mean!

    But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

    Would it have been worth while

    If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

    And turning toward the window, should say:

    “That is not it at all,

    That is not what I meant, at all.”

    No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

    Am an attendant lord, one that will do

    To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

    Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

    Deferential, glad to be of use,

    Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

    Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

    At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

    Almost, at times, the Fool.

    I grow old ... I grow old ...

    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    I do not think that they will sing to me.

    I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

    Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

    When the wind blows the water white and black.

    We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

    By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

    Remixed from:

    Eloit, T.S.(1998) Prufrock and Other Observations. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1459. CC0.

    DANSE RUSSE

    By William Carlos Williams

    If I when my wife is sleeping
    and the baby and Kathleen
    are sleeping
    and the sun is a flame-white disc
    in silken mists
    above shining trees,—
    if I in my north room
    danse naked, grotesquely
    before my mirror
    waving my shirt round my head
    and singing softly to myself:
    “I am lonely, lonely.{45}
    I was born to be lonely.
    I am best so!”
    If I admire my arms, my face
    my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
    against the yellow drawn shades,—

    who shall say I am not
    the happy genius of my household?

    Remixed from:

    Williams, Carlos Williams. (2016) Al Que Quiere! Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/51997. CC0.

    Personae

    By Ezra Pound

    Revolt

    Against the crepuscular spirit in
    modern poetry

    Revolt

    Against the crepuscular spirit in
    modern poetry

    I would shake off the lethargy of this our time,
    and give
    For shadows—shapes of power
    For dreams—men.

    "It is better to dream than do"?
    Aye! and, No!

    Aye! if we dream great deeds, strong men,
    Hearts hot, thoughts mighty.

    No! if we dream pale flowers,
    Slow-moving pageantry of hours that languidly
    Drop as o'er-ripened fruit from sallow trees.
    If so we live and die not life but dreams,
    Great God, grant life in dreams,
    Not dalliance, but life!

    Let us be men that dream,
    Not cowards, dabblers, waiters
    For dead Time to reawaken and grant balm
    For ills unnamed.

    Great God, if we be damn'd to be not men but only dreams,
    Then let us be such dreams the world shall tremble at
    And know we be its rulers though but dreams!
    Then let us be such shadows as the world shall tremble at
    And know we be its masters though but shadow!

    Great God, if men are grown but pale sick phantoms
    That must live only in these mists and tempered lights
    And tremble for dim hours that knock o'er loud
    Or tread too violent in passing them;

    Great God, if these thy sons are grown such thin ephemera,
    I bid thee grapple chaos and beget
    Some new titanic spawn to pile the hills and stir
    This earth again.

    I would shake off the lethargy of this our time,
    and give
    For shadows—shapes of power
    For dreams—men.

    "It is better to dream than do"?
    Aye! and, No!

    Aye! if we dream great deeds, strong men,
    Hearts hot, thoughts mighty.

    No! if we dream pale flowers,
    Slow-moving pageantry of hours that languidly
    Drop as o'er-ripened fruit from sallow trees.
    If so we live and die not life but dreams,
    Great God, grant life in dreams,
    Not dalliance, but life!

    Let us be men that dream,
    Not cowards, dabblers, waiters
    For dead Time to reawaken and grant balm
    For ills unnamed.

    Great God, if we be damn'd to be not men but only dreams,
    Then let us be such dreams the world shall tremble at
    And know we be its rulers though but dreams!
    Then let us be such shadows as the world shall tremble at
    And know we be its masters though but shadow!

    Great God, if men are grown but pale sick phantoms
    That must live only in these mists and tempered lights
    And tremble for dim hours that knock o'er loud
    Or tread too violent in passing them;

    Great God, if these thy sons are grown such thin ephemera,
    I bid thee grapple chaos and beget
    Some new titanic spawn to pile the hills and stir
    This earth again.

    Remixed from:

    Pound, Ezra. (2012). Personae. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41162. CC0.