modernist approaches

Modernist poetry, i.e. that written by most serious poets during the last eighty years, comes in a bewildering mix of styles and objectives. Even today, there are poems being written that:

1. Simply replace formal by free verse: i.e. are traditional in 'modern' dress.

2. Deliberately adopt the tenets of Modernism: experimentation, individualism, intellectualism and anti-realism.

3. Appear normal lines of text, but reject any notion of an implied speaker, a rational development or narrative.

4. Are wholly experimental, using words only minimally, and often incorporating sound tracks, graphics or happenings.

5. Seem traditional, even rhyming, but mock or undermine the cultural expectations of previous art forms.

No brief survey can do justice to all these combinations, but here are some of the commoner techniques.

Free Verse

Initially, free verse was simply a development of formal verse. It kept metre, but varied the metre and/or line lengths throughout the poem: {1}

Cruelty and Love / Love on the Farm.

What large, dark hands are those at the window
Lifted, grasping the golden light
Which weaves its way through the creeper leaves
To my heart's delight?

Ah, only the leaves! But in the west,
In the west I see a redness come
Over the evening's burning breast
'Tis the wound of love goes home!

From Cruelty and Love / Love on the Farm by D.H. Lawrence. Love Poems and Others 1913

Or it took a standard verse form and rearranged it on the page: blank verse: {2}

April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs
Out of the dead land, mixing memory
And desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering earth
In forgetful snow, feeding a little life
With dried tubers. Summer surprised us, coming
Over the Starnbergersee with a shower of rain;
We stopped in the colonnade and went on
In sunlight, into the Hofgarten, and drank coffee,
And talked for an hour. Bin gar keine
Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

The Waste Land

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

From The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land 1922

Or it broadened metre to include quantitative rhythms: {3}

Homage to Sextus Propertius

The twisted rhombs ceased their clamour of accompaniment.
The scorched laurel lay in the fire-dust,
And the moon still declined wholly to descend out of heaven.

But the black ominous owl hoot was audible,

And the one raft bears our fates
                                       on the veiled lake towards Avernus
Sails spread on Cerulean waters, I would shed tears for two;
I shall live, if she continue in life.
                                       If she dies, I shall go with her.
Great Zeus, save the woman,
                                       or she will sit before your feet in a veil,
                                       and tell out the long list of her troubles.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius by Ezra Pound Homage to Sextus Propertius 1919

Or both rhythm and metre were dispensed with, but not the cadences of verse: {4}

The Waste Land

"This music crept by me upon the waters"
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

From The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land 1922

With the popular Modernism came what was essentially prose, but the line breaks directed attention to the rhythmic properties of individual sections, each of which enclosed a thought or concept: {5}


This institution,
perhaps one should say enterprise
out of respect for which
one says one need not change one's mind
about a thing one has believed in,
requiring public promises
of one's intention
to fulfill a private obligation:
I wonder what Adam and Eve
think of it by this time,
this firegilt steel
alive with goldenness;
how bright it shows --

From Marriage by Marianne Moore. Observations 1924

Finally, free verse was prose, though sometimes prose heightened by subtle use of assonance or melodic echo: {6}

A Display of Mackerel

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales'
radiant sections
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery
prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way
distinguished from the other --
nothing about them
of individuality.

From A Display of Mackerel by Mark Doty. Atlantis: Poems 1995

Many effects are possible with prose as free verse, not as powerful as those of formal verse, but adding variety and much-needed distinction to the lines: some examples.

Private Allusion and Symbolism

Private or recondite allusions are a feature of the Symbolist movement, but the intention of Modernist poems is to bypass rational thought and appeal directly to the unconscious: its archetypal images, its deep fears and uncertainties: {7}

Afternoons in May

The light closes its tiny fist.
The trees put up their old ladders.
Spring is coming with both its eyes closed,
stumbling against brick. Suddenly its left hand
is found on my living room floor.

Quebec is burning too.
The roads between here and Ontario are green
with talking buds.
Huge planks of sunlight maze the roads.

From Afternoons in May by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. Dancing in the House of Cards 1977

Feedback as Process

Not only do poems make the actual process of writing the subject of the poem: they thicken the texture by continually drawing on and exploring what has been written before — an approach of all poetry, but now the 'working' is not hidden but placed on the page. {8}

A Body

If a poem is a body
and desire is more than a

word, then I desire the body
of this poem, standing beyond these

words, naked, unwritten, teasing me by
addressing you, reader, judge and executioner

of my will, which I am
writing in public, counting to six

and watching lines pair, as I
want to experience this body of

writing word by word. If it
exhibits crime by writing learnedly ventilator,

it is to give you pleasure,
and an irrational return on your

reading investment,

From A Body by Bob Perelman. Virtual Reality

Collage of the Immediately Given

The shapings of narrative, consistent viewpoint or argument are seen as artificial and/or repressions, and to avoid these poems employ collages of remembered thought or conversation, assembled as readymades of life around, the more apparently arbitrary the better. {9}


Ream of Crete. When I tell my nephew I'm going to Tennessee tomorrow, he says, "That's where Davy Crockett was born." History as heroes narrows the story. The man who patented the polygraph also created Wonder Woman. Among the red-assed baboons, what distinguishes the dominant male is not simply the architecture of his anus, but the long grey mane, lion-like, though pacing the hill he walks more like a dog.

I can get it for you retail. Behind the state capitol is a rough neighborhood. Constant fan of hotel air conditioning. In the cafe, the headwaiter keeps trying to refill coffee into my cup of tea. Hazy humid morning over the Cumberland River.

Cafe music. Backlit display. I roll awake to a new day in a far town. All is cost.

Even in a green, spiked metal mask, like an Africanized hockey goalie, his singing voice is clear as the small boy in his lap holds first one book of poems, then another, then an old paperback novel, as he sings from each, simultaneously playing the small piano in a bluesy, neutral accompaniment, although it's unclear how many of the people in the little crowd around this softball backstop in a small park had anticipated such a performance.

After the rain, crickets, and above them, the cicadas. I'm crossing the lawn on the estate of the late Andrew Jackson, past the mansion, away from the circus tent under which a bar band sings, "Hang on, Sloopy, Sloopy, hang on." While she waits for them to place their order, the waitress shifts her weight from one foot to the next. After the lights are out, I lay awake, waiting for my body to settle, the mind to drift, no stars but the random squares of light from offices in the next highrise tower.

From Under [a new section of The Alphabet] by Ron Silliman 1994

Image and Not Argument

To widen the appeal, vivid images only tenuously connected with narrative or general argument of the poem are employed: {10}


hot wind came from the marshes
           and death-chill from the mountains.
And later Bowers wrote: "but such hatred,
           I had never conceived such"
and the London reds wouldn't show up his friends

From Canto LXXXI by Ezra Pound

References and Resources

1. Cruelty and Love / Love on the Farm (Version 1) by DH Lawrence.
2. The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot.
3. Homage to Sextus Propertius. Ezra Pound.
4. The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot.
5. Marriage. Marianne Moore.
6. A Display of Mackerel. Mark Doty.
7. Afternoons in May. Pier Giorgio DI Cicco.
8. A Body. Bob Perelman.
9. Under [a new section of The Alphabet]. Ron Silliman. 1994.
10. Canto LXXXI. Ezra Pound.


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.