The Modern Poetry Era




Dating the era modern poetry came into being is difficult, with a number of theories current. Some literary scholars trace its genesis to the late 1800's, when writers had broken away from the constraints of Puritan conservatism and the age of rationalism and began to experiment with much more liberal concepts.

Like prose writers of the Romantic age, poets had burst into lyrical verse that focused on man not so much as a part of the universe but apart from the universe.

A few leading modern poetry anthologies list the works of Walt Whitman, considered by some to be at the threshold of modern poetry. With such masterpieces as "Leaves of Grass" and "Song of Myself," he broke new ground in the world of poetry with rare genius. He showed what could be done with innovative concepts such as free verse, abandoning conventional poetic figures and taking symbolism directly from his own experience.

Whitman was courageous enough to write about sex and procreation, helping to fell barriers that have never really been raised to the same level since.

Emily Dickinson is also regarded as having affected modern poetry, minutely observing her world and identifying it in terse, efficient poems featuring very short lines and great power. Her work reflects incredible attention to tiny detail; microcosms of human life and emotions and the vagaries and beauty of nature.

Some later poets were avid students of Walt Whitman's work in particular. Gerard Manley Hopkins said, "I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like mine than any man's living." Hopkins, too, had his new shapes and rhythms, but one divergence from Whitman's output was Hopkins' attention to God.

The modern era of poetry, shaped as it was by writers such as Whitman, can be chronicled at the turn of the 20th Century, although some regard World War I as a convenient beginning point. Yeats' book, "The Wind Among the Reeds," was published in 1899 and it can be considered to have given a significant start to the modern poetry period.

It created a stir in literary circles because of its symbolism and his discovery of a man-centered universe, something of a departure from the trends of the Romantic period.

Elements of nature, such as the seas, forests, wind and stars became reflections of human feeling, and human figures also symbolized human passion. T.S. Eliot was introduced about the same time to French symbolist poets. He patterned his early verse after their concepts until contacts with other poets and schools of writing altered his views.

Yeats later conceived a second symbolism system and was influenced by the young American poet, Ezra Pound, who was intent on developing new and modern techniques, certainly of profound influence on modern poetry.

Pound, headquartered in London, became a focal point for innovation in poetry for both British and American poets. T.S. Eliot was a confidante, and Pound was amazed at his work, considering that Eliot had modernized his work more or less on his own, as no other poet had been able to do. Pound's influence on Eliot, however, is indicated by the heavy editing he suggested for what some believe is the greatest poem Eliot penned, "The Wasteland."

Pound is said to have influenced young poets more in recent years, but Eliot is thought to have had their attention in the 1920's. He was an enthusiastic proponent of the symbolist movement of the early 1900's.
Conferring, debating and working with such literary figures as Hilda Doolittle and Joseph Campbell, he joined them in founding the "imagist" movement, which was of some importance to modern poetry. The imagists insisted on "direct treatment of the thing," advocating free and blank verse and undetermined by the metronome.

They favored no ornamentation but rather blunt treatment and eliminated words that did not contribute to the presentation. Amy Lowell later joined the group and approaches were further refined to insert language of common speech to create new rhythms instead of copying old ones. This rendered particulars exactly, with concentration on the very essence of poetry.

About the time World War I was ending, the imagist movement had about run its course, but it remained a tool for modern poets. Some regard it as really the beginning of modern poetry, making the first attempt since the Elizabethan period to establish a new English cadence. T.S.Eliot said that few other 20th Century poets have been so influential to modern poets as the imagists.

Another form studied intensely by such poets as Pound was the Japanese haiku, with its simple three-line presentation. The haiku lent itself to the precepts of the imagists, with their direct, concise writing, excising all excess verbiage. In fact, Pound described his popular two-line poem, "In a Station at the Metro", as haiku-like.

It is not unusual for literary scholars to see World War II as a terminal point for the modern poetry era, with poetry written since as contemporary.

Some experts also divide well-known modern poets into three categories: the academic, inclusive of such poets as Eliot and Pound; centrist or moderate writers like E. E. Cummings and a third group, which includes Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

What has the modern school of poets accomplished? Like generations of poets before them who have waxed from modern to contemporary, they have sampled the crafts of their predecessors and succeeded in devising new credos.

Their experimentation led to a plethora of new styles, rhythms, syntax and lyrics for the next generation of contemporaries to explore and with that take-off base again generate something modern, unheard of and untested and untried.

Like each generation before, the modernists endlessly shaped and re-fashioned a word here, a piece of punctuation there; a different beat; a new type of line, stanza or brand-new word dredged out of their intellect, often with magnificent effort.

Writing good poetry is hard work and writing a new kind of poetry is even more demanding. One result is the rewards of creative satisfaction when a poem is completed, or better yet, published, even if it is an obscure journal at some equally obscure college concentrating on the humanities. Like now-famous poets unknown during their lifetime, like Emily Dickinson, some of today's best struggling poets are undoubtedly unrecognized.

And what did the modern poet write about? Although the subjects vary enormously, he or she examined virtually every conceivable subject and emotion, not unlike schools of poetry preceding. A sampling encompasses nature and the universe, romance, love, sex, art, religion and God, war, travel, loneliness, companionship, and the inner mental and physical mystiques and conflicts of man himself.

Poets have spent hours, even months, trying to find a better way to burnish copy about the beauty of flowers, birds and butterflies; the power and majesty of the ocean and weather; the inevitability of the grave or the mundane repairing of a stone wall.

By so doing, they have made life more meaningful, more beautiful and often more understandable for all who avidly follow and marvel at their words through countless readings.