modernist poetryModernism is where we are now, broadly speaking, if we include Postmodernism and experimental poetry. Modernist poetry is the poetry written in schools and poetry workshops, published by thousands of small presses, and reviewed by serious newspapers and literary journals — a highbrow, coterie poetry that isn't popular and doesn't profess to be. To its devotees, Modernist styles are the only way of dealing with contemporary matters, and they do not see them as a specialized development of traditional poetry, small elements being pushed in unusual directions, and sometimes extended beyond the limits of ready comprehension.

The key elements of Modernist poems are experimentation, anti-realism, individualism and a stress on the cerebral rather than emotive aspects. Previous writing was thought to be stereotyped, requiring ceaseless experimentation and rejection of old forms. Poetry should represent itself, or the writer's inner nature, rather than hold up a mirror to nature. Indeed the poet's vision was all-important, however much it cut him off from society or the scientific concerns of the day. Poets belonged to an aristocracy of the avant garde, and cool observation, detachment and avoidance of simple formulations were essential.

Poststructuralist theories come in many embodiments, but shared a preoccupation with language. Reality is not mediated by what we read or write, but is entirely constituted by those actions. We don't therefore look at the world through a poem, and ask how whether the representation is true or adequate or appropriate, but focus on the devices and strategies within the text itself. Modernist theory urged us to overlook the irrelevancies of author's intention, historical conventions and social context to assess the aesthetic unity of the poem. Poststructuralist criticism discounts any such unity, and urges us to accept a looser view of art, one that accords more with everyday realities and shows how language suppresses alternative views, particularly those of the socially or politically disadvantaged.

Experimental poetry takes the process further, taking its inspiration from advertising, and deploying words as graphic elements.

Modernism has no precise boundaries. At its strictest, in Anglo-American literature, the period runs from 1890 to 1920 and includes Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis among many others. {1} But few of its writers shared common aims, and the term was applied retrospectively. {2} Very largely, the themes of Modernism begin well back in the nineteenth century, and many do not reach full expression until the latter half of the twentieth century, so that Modernism is perhaps better regarded as part of a broad plexus of concerns which are variably represented in a hundred and twenty years of European writing. {3}

Modernism is a useful term because writing in the period, especially that venerated by academia and by literary critics, is intellectually challenging, which makes it suitable for undergraduate study. {4} Many serious writers come from university, moreover, and set sail by Modernism's charts, so that the assumptions need to be understood to appreciate contemporary work of any type. {5} And quite different from these is the growing suspicion that contemporary writing has lost its way, which suggests that we may see where alternatives lie if we understand Modernism better. {6}

Features of Modernism

To varying extents, writing of the Modernist period exhibits these features:

1. experimentation

belief that previous writing was stereotyped and inadequate
ceaseless technical innovation, sometimes for its own sake
originality: deviation from the norm, or from usual reader expectations
ruthless rejection of the past, even iconoclasm

2. anti-realism

sacralisation of art, which must represent itself, not something beyond preference for allusion (often private) rather than description
world seen through the artist's inner feelings and mental states
themes and vantage points chosen to question the conventional view
use of myth and unconscious forces rather than motivations of conventional plot

3. individualism

promotion of the artist's viewpoint, at the expense of the communal
cultivation of an individual consciousness, which alone is the final arbiter
estrangement from religion, nature, science, economy or social mechanisms
maintenance of a wary intellectual independence
artists and not society should judge the arts: extreme self-consciousness
search for the primary image, devoid of comment: stream of consciousness
exclusiveness, an aristocracy of the avant-garde

4. intellectualism

writing more cerebral than emotional
work is tentative, analytical and fragmentary, more posing questions more than answering them
cool observation: viewpoints and characters detached and depersonalized
open-ended work, not finished, nor aiming at formal perfection
involuted: the subject is often act of writing itself and not the ostensible referent

The Shock of the New

One feature above all is striking in Modernism: experimentation, change for the sake of change, a need to be constantly at the cutting edge in technique and thought. {7} "Make it new" said Pound. Perhaps this was understandable in a society itself changing rapidly. The First World War shattered many beliefs — in peaceful progress, international cooperation, the superiority of the European civilizations. It also outlawed a high-minded and heroic vocabulary: "gallant, manly, vanquish, fate", etc. could afterwards only be used in an ironic or jocular way. {8} But more fundamental was the nineteenth century growth in city life, in industrial employment, in universal literacy, in the power of mass patronage and the vote. Science and society could evolve and innovate, so why not art?

Is incessant change to be welcomed, and should art reflect such change? Perhaps a stronger argument could be made for stability, some inner anchor of belief and shared assumptions as society moved beyond its familiar landmarks. Well known are the disorientating and debilitating effects of the stress involved, in animals and humans. {9} Man is above all a social animal, and it may be that the media hype and advertising of contemporary life is purposely shallow to fulfill that need for shared experience.

In its desire to retain intellectual ascendancy, art overlooked one crucial distinction. Science tests, improves and builds, but does not wantonly tear down. Extensive modification of established conceptions is difficult, and starting afresh in the manner of the modernist artist would be unthinkable. There is simply too much to know and master, and the scientific community insists on certain apprenticeships and procedures. Originality is not prized in the way commonly supposed.

And does art represent its time? Not in any simple way. Very different artworks may originate in the same society at the same time — those of Hals and Rembrandt, for example. Art history naturally wishes to draw everything into its study but neither the appearance of great artists nor the direction of artistic trends seems predictable, any more than history is, and for similar reasons. Everything depends on the starting assumptions: what counts as important, and how that is assessed. Much the same can be said of economic theory. {10} The necessary are not the sufficient causes: certain factors may need to be present but they are not themselves sufficient to effect change.

The Always Unconventional

No less than other practices, art begets art, with sometimes only a nodding acquaintance with the larger world it purports to represent or serve. Much writing and painting from the early nineteenth-century days of Romanticism was frankly escapist, preferring the solitude of nature or the inner world of contemplation to the mundane business of socializing and earning a living. No doubt the shallow optimism, humbug and economic exploitation of the industrial revolution was very unattractive, but so then was rural poverty. Excepting the Georgians and some of the Auden generation, few poets of the last hundred years had first hand experience of the social issues of the day, and there are large areas of contemporary life even now that are not squarely treated: the world of work, public service, cultural differences, sexual experience. Either the literary prototypes do not exist, or writers would have to give up an individualist viewpoint and "dig out the facts" — i.e. write something closer to journalism. {11}

The Ever Individual

But the burning issues of the day pass and are soon forgotten. Art prides itself on its more fundamental qualities. If they did not have the time, training or intellectual powers to understand the contemporary world, artists would look for some shorter path to their subject matter. Hence the championing of the artist's viewpoint, on a vision unmediated by social understanding. Hence the appeal to (if not the understanding of ) psychiatry, mythology and linguistics to assert that artistic creations do not represent reality but in some sense embody reality. Poems should not express anything but themselves. They should simply be. {12}

Many techniques were used to distance language from its common uses, and assert its primary, self-validating status. And since proficiency in science and business requires a long, practical training, literature also insisted on study courses: a good deal needs to be swallowed before the student's eyes are opened to the possible excellences of contemporary writing. Maybe these are invisible to the general public, or even to rival sects, but that is not a drawback. Art is not for the profane majority, and its boundaries are carefully patrolled. Art may employ populist material or techniques, but it cannot be populist itself. Art is outspokenly useless.

All this comes at a cost. Writers in a free society may surely please themselves, securing what public they can, but there is something curious, if not perverse, in making work opaque with private allusion, obscure mythology, and misunderstood scraps of philosophy, and in the same breath complaining that the work does not sell. Professional writing is a very hard business, and even the moderately successful novelist needs to turn out a supplementary one or two thousand words per week as journalist or reviewer. The founders of Modernism had small private incomes, found patrons or begged. Dedicated writers today resort to part-time employment that is not too physically or mentally demanding, but the restricting viewpoints can be to their own and society's disadvantage.

Elitist Intellectualism

But Modernist writers and their commentators do not regard the narrowly individual outlook a shortcoming, quite the opposite. Nineteenth-century realism was tainted with commerce and the circulating libraries. Twentieth-century realism all too blatantly takes the form of TV soaps and blockbuster novels. God forbid that the modern writer should obey the first tenet of art, and portray something of the world in clearer and more generous contours. That would mean actually experiencing the hard world as it is for most of its inhabitants, of living like everybody else.

The intellect has its demands and pleasures, but the Modernists do not generally live such a life, which requires university tenure or independent wealth. Their learning tends to be fragmentary, with ideas serving ulterior purposes, one of which is social distinction. There is a persistent strain of intellectual snobbery in Modernism — sometimes breaking out in racism and contempt for the masses, sometimes retreating to arcane philosophy: idealism, existentialism, Poststructuralism. {13} Modernists are an aristocracy of the intellect. The cerebral is preferred. Modern dramatists and novelists may appeal to mythology, but their understanding is intellectualized: work is not crafted to evoke the primal forces unleashed in plays by Euripides or Racine, but shaped by concepts that serve for plot and structure.


Poets belonging to the 'high Modernist' phase include:

Ezra Pound: e.g. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly {14}
T.S. Eliot: e.g. Waste Land {15}
Wallace Stevens: e.g. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird {16}


Modernism evolved by various routes. From Symbolism it took allusiveness in style and an interest in rarefied mental states. From Realism it borrowed an urban setting, and a willingness to break taboos. And from Romanticism came an artist-centred view, and retreat into irrationalism and hallucinations. Even its founding fathers did not long remain Modernists. Pound espoused doctrinaire right-wing views. Eliot became a religious convert. Joyce's late work verged on the surrealistic. Lewis quarrelled with everyone.

No one would willingly lose the best that has been written in the last hundred years, but earlier doubts are coming home to roost. Modernism's ruthless self-promotion creates intellectual castes that cut themselves off from the hopes and joys of everyday life. The poetry can be built on the flimsiest of foundations: Freudian psychiatry, verbal cleverness, individualism run riot, anti-realism, over-emphasis on the irrational. The concepts themselves are fraudulent, and the supporting myths too small and self-admiring to show man in his fullest nature. Sales of early Modernist works were laughably small, and it was largely after the Second World War, when the disciples of Modernism rose to positions of influence in the academic and publishing worlds, that Modernism came the lingua franca of the educated classes. The older generation of readers gradually died out. Literature for them was connoisseurship, a lifetime of deepening familiarity with authors who couldn't be analyzed in critical theory, or packed into three-year undergraduate courses.


1. Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-39. (1987), Chapter 1 of Douwe Fokkem and Elrud Ibsch's Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature 1910-1940 (1987), and Vicki Mahaffey's Modernist Theory and Criticismentry in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994).
2. Harry Levin's What Was Modernism? in Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature (1966).
3. Alistair Davies's An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Modernism (1982).
4. John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1930 (1992), and Barry Appleyard's The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-war Britain. (1989).
5. David Lodge's Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel (1966), and D.J. Taylor's A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980's (1989).
6. Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990), Dana Gioa's Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992), and Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning (1996).
7. R. Poggioli's The Theory of the Avant-Garde. (1968)
8. Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern History (1975).
9. See the large literature on stress, both academic and popular accounts.
10. Gertrude Himmelfarb's The New History and the Old (1987) and Guy Routh's The Origin of Economic Ideas (1977).
11. Chapters 1 and 2 of A.T. Tolley's The Poetry of the Forties (1985).
12. M.H. Abrams' Poetry, Theories of entry in Alex Preminger's (Ed.) The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms (1974).
13. Carey 1992, and Paul Johnson's Intellectuals (1988).
14. Ezra Pound. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (Part I) http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/pound.htm. Bibliography, short articles and some poems of 1920 and before.
15. T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Waste_Land Short article, with links to the poem text, etc.
16. Wallace Stevens. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/124. Biography, bibliography, links and nine poems.

Internet Resources

1. Modernism. Holly Ashkannejhad. http://www.class.uidaho.edu/eng258_1/modernists/homepage1.htm. Illustrated guide to accompany freshman course.
2. Modernism. Jan 2004. http://nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Modernism. Nationmaster Encyclopedia entry.
3. American Modernist Poetry. 38. http://www.utoledo.edu/library/canaday/Modernist.html. Notes and a listing of material at the University of Toledo.
4. Modernism in Literature. http://dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Periods_and_Movements/Modernism/. Open Directory's short listing of sites. NNA
5. Modernism. http://vos.ucsb.edu. Voice of the Shuttle listings.
6. Bohemian Ink. http://www.levity.com/corduroy/index.htm. Useful listings for key figures.
7. Perspectives in American Literature. Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century - American Modernism: A Brief Introduction. Paul P. Reuben. Jan. 2003. http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/7intro.html. Useful notes.
8. Book Reviews: 21st-Century Modernism and With Strings. Yunte Huang. 2002. http://www.bostonreview.net/BR27.3/huang.html. Review of books by Perloff and Bernstein.
9. Pound: On Canto IX. Lawrence S. Rainey et al. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/canto9.htm. Analysis of modernist techniques, by several critics.
10. American modern poetry. http://www.findarticles.com. Many articles on American and modernist poets.
11. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Matei Calinescu. 1987. http://www.duke.edu/~aparks/Calin1g.html. Summary of Calinescu's 1987 book.
12. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm. Introductions and selected listings.
13. Dana Gioia Online. http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ecpm.htm. Articles on poetry and twentieth century literary figures.
14. Shrink-Rapt Poetry? Dean Blehert. Apr. 2002. http://www.blehert.com/essays/shrink.html. New York Quarterly essay on relationship of modern poetry to psychiatry.
15. Modern American Poetry Criticism. Timothy Materer. 1994. http://www.missouri.edu/~engtim/ALS94.html NNA. Reviews of 1994 critical articles.
16. Modernism Links. Nancy Knowles. 2002. http://www2.eou.edu/~nknowles/winter2002/engl322links.html NNA. Good selection.
17. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/guide/. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.
18. Literary Criticism. http://www.libraryspot.com/litcrit.htm. Library Spot's listing.
19. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample . Jun. 2003. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/Complit/Eclat/. Essential listings.
20. Literary Resources on the Net. Jack Lynch. Jun. 2003. 'shttp://andromeda.rutgers.edu/%7Ejlynch/Lit/. Extensive as usual.
21. KWSnet Web Resources. Kirk W. Smith. Jan. 2004. http://www.kwsnet.com/litstudi.html. Excellent directory of literature sources.
22. Internet Public Library. Jun. 2002. http://www.ipl.org/div/litcrit/. Listing of critical and biographical websites.
23. Voice of the Shuttle. Alan Liu et al. http://vos.ucsb.edu/browse.asp?id=2718. Literary theory section.
24. Literary Criticism and Biographies. http://library.hilton.kzn.school.za/English/litcrit.htm NNA. Short but useful directory.
25. English Literature on the Web. Mitsuharu Matsuoka. http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/%7Ematsuoka/EngLit.html. Very extensive listings.
26. Literature Webliography. Mike Russo. Jul. 2003. http://www.lib.lsu.edu/hum/lit/lit.html. LSU Libraries useful listings.
27. Literary Periods: Modern: 1900 to 1945. http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/periods/modern.htm. Useful listing of sites.
28. Modernism and the Modern Novel. Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin and Robin Parmar. 2000. http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0255.html. Brief articles but good bibliography.
29. Modernist Poetry. Jun. 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernist_poetry. Short articles with extensive lists.
30. Dana Levin, Make It New: Originality and the Younger Poet. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5893. Short article and links to featured poets.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    |     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.