Modernist Poetry and its Discontents

'Make it new', said Ezra Pound, and twentieth-century poetry successively discarded a need to speak to the common man (Symbolism), to represent truth (High Modernism/New Criticism) to bear witness (Imagism), to make sense (Surrealism, Dada) or use the law courts of language (Postmodernism).

Each purge produced a poetry thinner and more fractious than before, which sharpened the need for even more extreme measures. Purity of abstruse doctrine became the aim of poetry, which insensibly merged with literary criticism and then theory. As the doctrine moved the goal-posts, progressively shrinking the acceptable, what was left to poetry became of interest only to small circles of like-minded poets. Maurice Manning's 'Where Sadness Comes From', with its hints of Southern lynching parties, is typical of today's work. {1} The opening lines:

Don’t go back to say it came from way
back when. It did, it did, but now.

When you said did just now did you feel
a little dip, a curtsey in

the middle of the word, almost
another syllable but

not quite? We like to say a word,
a single word can make us feel.

There, there it is again, this time
a falling down at the end of  feel.

I’m here to tell you I come from
a place where hanging used to happen:

It's a deftly-written and intriguing reflection on the uses of language, but also one that remains rather theoretical, bloodless and elusive. Think how more rewarding would be a series of poems that got to the heart of the matter, and which, as journalists put it, actually 'named and shamed' the perpetrators, and the attitudes responsible.

To return to generalities: the successive poetry movements resulted in a local thickening as one aspect or another was taken up, but also an overall impoverishment of theme and language, with poetry dividing into coterie groups, each claiming the sole truth. Pathologists would call this a cancer, the growth of enlarged cells at the expense of the body as a whole, suggesting (as Marxists would argue) that modern literature is sick because the product of a sick society. Far from denoting more sincere and adventurous thinking, therefore, contemporary poetry may be irrational in the way documented by Pankaj Miskra's 'Age of Anger: A History of the Present'. {1} Just as Romanticism championed a more hopeful view of man, and Symbolism fled the daily grind of earning a living, so Modernism today reflects unresolved conflicts in a world of increasing alienation and uncertainty. A large literature touches tangentially on this issue. {3-13}

Death of Truth

Pride in country and community, a wish to explore, develop and identify with the aspirations of one's fellow citizens, an abiding interest in the larger political and social issues of the day and a commitment to the moral and religious qualities that distinguish man from brute animals are all aspects of modern democratic life, but they find scant expression in its poetry. Wordsworth's broodings on the ineffable are preferred to his patriotic odes, and Swinburne's urgent rhetoric is no more read today than William Watson's high-minded effusions. Even the Georgians with their innocent depictions of country life were decried by the Moderns, though what was substituted was a good deal less real and relevant to the book-buying public. The New Criticism ushered in by Pound and Eliot, finding in the admired poetry of the past so much that was no longer true, declared that truth was not to be looked for in poetry. All that mattered were the words on the page, and the ingenious skill with which they deployed. The experience of historians was set aside, as was indeed that of readers of historical romances, both of whom can remain happily suspended between the past and present. 

Rejection of the Past

Challenge is healthy, but the new practitioners rewrote the rules altogether. Poetry had always been contemporary, they argued, and that now meant being direct, personal and American. Poetry had in fact been more than that, but the proponents of popular Modernism — William Carlos Williams, the Black Mountain School, Beat Poets and the San Franciscans — had answers ready. Poetry must be unmediated if sincere, and the techniques of verse were a handicap to expression. They remembered Pound's dictum, and asserted that a more democratic age must have a more democratic poetry. And lest anyone think their work trivial, they wrapped matters up in a complex phraseology, redefining the elements of verse in startling ways. Theoretical scaffolding became a necessary part of contemporary poetry, the more so as the floodgates were soon to be opened in schools and writing classes throughout the country. Excellence lay in what authorities could be quoted, and the theoretical considerations accessible in a poem.

Civil War

Once academic careers could be carved from contemporary poetry, critics proselytised for their movements, seeking to place candidates in the apostolic succession from the founding fathers, who were de facto great poets. Some ingenuity was needed to make Hardy and Yeats into Modernists, and even more to shield Frost from the sort of criticism that damaged the enemy, but academics dug deeper into the fissile nature of language. They researched the bases of criticism, and developed a literary theory based on continental philosophy. Unless we think the critical studies unbalanced, or that they adjusted the criteria according to the poet or movement under consideration, we have to accept that there are now no common values, only a civil war between communities who choose not to understand each other.

First some uncomfortable facts. British poetry declined in importance from the eighteenth century, and had ceased to be the most important literary genre by the mid nineteenth. From the end of that century to the 1930s, only some 15 poetry books of any significance were published each year in England. Seventy percent of borrowings from public libraries were prose fiction, and not much of the remaining thirty percent was poetry. The 10,000 copies subscribed before publication of a new volume by Stephen Phillips were a publishing phenomenon, but still only a tenth of those achieved by Lorna Doone in 1897.

General periodicals like The Cornhill, The Nineteenth Century, Longmans and Murray's Magazine published a little poetry, and new literary magazines like The Yellow Book generally had limited circulations and short lives. Poets could support themselves on their poetry even less than they do today, there being no poets in residence, public readings or interviews on the radio and TV. What did spring up were coteries of poets and writers, more in England than the USA, and particularly in London. There were the usual disagreements but the Moderns were not personally at odds with the Georgians: they mixed with them socially and found much to admire in their work. Pound was asked to contribute to Georgian Poetry, and Eliot's poetry was liked by Munro and others. That coterie world continues to this day:

‘Let me be specific as to what I mean by "official verse culture" — I am referring to the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of The New York Times, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, the poetry series of almost all of the major university presses (the University of California Press being a significant exception at present). Add to this the ideologically motivated selection of the vast majority of poets teaching in university, writing and literature programs and of poets taught in such programs as well as the interlocking accreditation of these selections through prizes and awards judged by these same individuals. Finally, there are the self-appointed keepers of the gate, who actively put forward biased, narrowly focused and frequently shrill and contentious accounts of American poetry, while claiming, like all disinformation propaganda, to be giving historical or nonpartisan views. In this category, the American Academy of Poetry and such books as The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing stand out.’

Those coteries later became university-based. In 'Scrutiny', F.R. Leavis applied the approaches of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and William Empson in a more sustained manner.

‘For Leavis and his followers, analysis was not merely a technique for precise description of literature, but a process whereby the reader could “cultivate awareness”, and grow towards the unified sensibility. Analysis was necessary because a poem resulted from a complex of associated feelings and thoughts. A great poem was not a simple, forceful statement of some well-known experience, “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd”, but a profoundly original creation only fully comprehended after close textual analysis. Because of these attitudes, the practical critic spent his time discovering complexities, ambiguities and multiplications of meaning. He was attracted to irony and wit, because a poem with these qualities offers different layers of effect for interpretation. Long, discursive poems, such as Paradise Lost, which depend for much of their organisation on rational analysis, were undervalued, and the critics tended to treat all poems, and even plays and novels, as akin to lyric poetry in their structure of imagery.’

Yet many critics disliked the approach. ‘Helen Gardner and C. S. Lewis have pointed out that a student can be taught a technique of analysis, and do well in examinations, without any real appreciation of poetry whatsoever.’ But poets kept up the running.

 ‘Literary critics are rarely under fire and never tested by the high seas of artistic creation. Instead, as John Updike puts it when titling his own collected essays and reviews, they "hug the shoreline" of accepted practices and ideals. Their potshots are taken from behind the cover of their age's standards, and the long progress of the history of ideas.’

Modernism was a jealous god, moreover, and imposed standards of its own. We probably understand Hardy, for example, better through biography than his poetry or novels, and no doubt all poets would be closer to us if textbooks included their less admirable aspects: Hardy's misogyny, Yeats's calculated affectations, Eliot's ambition that encouraged his wife's association with Russell but had her committed when his career was threatened, Pound's philandering and anti-Semitism, and so forth.

So what happened to the broad church of Modernism? Perhaps there never was a movement as such, but only poets reacting in their own ways to individual circumstances. Perhaps poets remained unconvinced by the theory created to help them, finding it abstruse and over-ingenious: many are the stories of Eliot bemused and chuckling over Ph.D. theses on his work.

But the literary scholar's task is perhaps not to review, which is a matter for the small presses and their endless squabbles, but, firstly, to explain and find an audience for the poet or poets under study. Then, secondly, came research into the bases of criticism, recreating literary theory and its contemporary philosophy. Thirdly, literary scholars sought to dethrone the elitist and monolithic criticism of the past, replacing its lofty and supposedly universal standards by something more democratic and individual.

New is Better

Axiomatic in many books and articles is that poetry must move on, that newer is necessarily better, an assertion clearly at odds with the historical record. Did Aeschylus, Euripides or Sophocles improve on Homer, and did the Alexandrians improve on those playwrights? Antiquity did not think so. Did the Latin poets of the Silver Age improve on Virgil, Lucretius or Catullus? Again the answer is obvious, and European poetry did not achieve real splendour again until the Renaissance. Sanskrit literature saw a great flowering in Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, both of whom wrote with moving simplicity, and then grew increasingly clever and ornate until it became unreadable to all but a small caste. The great poetry of the Chinese was written in the Tang dynasty, and these poems were still serving as models a thousand years later. No one has written better Arabic than al Muttanabbi or better Persian poetry than Ferdowsi or Rumi. We don't have to believe in Spengler's or Toynbee's cycles of history to see how assiduously the second-rate has been promoted as answering to contemporary needs. Science, industry, governance and host of other disciplines do make progress, but the arts deal with the more permanent aspects of human nature.

Whenever there is evidence to judge, we find that great poets develop, widening their themes and improving technique so as to deal with more taxing themes. In general, however, the Moderns have not developed in this way, but simply switched from one approach to another. Lowell's confessional mode may have been a relief from his high formalism phase, but the poetry wasn't better. Larkin, Hughes, Hill, Ginsberg, Merrill, Heaney and others have not become more accomplished, but somewhat repeated themselves: distinctive work, but not sufficient to place their books on our favourites bookshelf.

‘It is almost now a standard chapter of a poet's life that she or he describe some struggle and eventual emancipation from the constraints of form or the confines of a particular verse-genre or critical ideology, whether imagism, formalism, new-formalism, new criticism, or the local dogmas of a university workshop.'

'Timothy Steele in his book Missing Measures has traced the process by which the understanding that poetry was some thing more than language arranged metrically turned into the belief that poetry was something quite other than language arranged metrically, and meter, which until the late nineteenth century had been a sine qua non of poetry, was thrown out of the window. The same thing seems to have happened to paraphrasable meaning: the recognition that poetry was something more than its language's paraphrasable meaning has become the dogma that paraphrasable meaning is unpoetic, or at least that a poem approaches the poetic in so far as it is unparaphrasable. This would have been a very weird doctrine to anyone before 1800, and to almost anyone before 1900 (that is, in those now almost unimaginable days when large numbers of people besides poets bought, read, and cared about poetry). Even Coleridge, who was hardly the most stalwart advocate of poetic clarity, is on record as saying (in his Table Talk) ‘Poetry is certainly something more than good sense, but it must be good sense at all events; just as a palace is more than a house, but it must be a house, at least.'


Many features of contemporary poetry are those of a failed state: a country of revolution and civil war, assailed by corruption and ever-increasing emergency measures, where an intelligentsia without experience of life or any skill beyond writing a dense prose bristling with non sequiturs controls the media, where new developments are referred back to the writings of the founding fathers whose inspiring struggles for liberty make the foundations of its citizen's training programme, where the government proclaims an age of universal plenty invisible to its inhabitants or to those in surrounding countries, and where all offers of outside aid are rejected as attempts to suborn the inviolable integrity of the state.

But how could such a ‘failed state’ view, so at odds with the inspiring view fostered by the poetry press and mainstream media, be anything like the truth?

Because the media — all media — are quietly managed, and have to be. Thomas Jefferson may well have said that the public's right to know the facts they need to govern themselves is more important than the official's right to govern, but realists (or realists with no high hopes of human nature) generally see survival as the first duty of a state — to maintain its constitutional, judicious and effective use of power, without which no institution, large or small, can function properly. Since power will often favour some communities or classes at the expense of others, and since democracies — and to some extent all states — ultimately govern with the assent of their citizens, the temptation is always to mask that power in more attractive guises, presenting idealizations or 'necessary fictions' that governments not resting on naked coercion have long employed.

Is that a conspiracy theory? To most middle-of-the-road readers, their favourite newspaper’s articles will seem appropriate and sensible, reaffirming that America is indeed the world’s much-needed policeman.

Yet these same Americans, among the most generous and hospitable of people, would be bewildered to find their government detested abroad — for its increasing violation of US and international law, for supporting repressive governments in the Middle East and Latin America, for imposing coercive economic policies, and for the many coups and invasions that have removed 'undemocratic' governments. The one essential and beneficent nation, the defender of democratic freedoms, is widely seen as the greatest threat to world peace.

Foreigners blame Washington, of course, realizing that citizens’ views are not properly represented by their governments, and that citizens are anyway fed a pleasing image of themselves through a media controlled by a few large and self-serving corporations: in films, TV and newspapers. Most Americans take their news from the TV, and even quality newspapers provide very little in-depth reporting. Foreign news coverage is partisan, generally no more than Reuters' feeds with slant added to make it more palatable to the target audience. Newspapers cultivate links with government and the CIA. Journalists who stray off message are marginalized or fired. The alternative media, whose articles are often more detailed and better-researched, is bad-mouthed and dismissed as ‘fake news’. When honest, intelligent and responsible Americans can have so partisan an outlook, what hope is there for the inbred world of poetry where careers, movements and livelihoods can rest on little more than unsupported opinion? 

Downgrading of Literary Criticism

Companies do not waste time honing their mission statement but proactively adapt to changing circumstances and needs. The more successful are ‘outside-in’, i.e. they continually learn what their customers want by market research, innovation and testing. All company managements, of whatever stripe, are judged on results, moreover: share price, profitability, productivity, product quality, and market share.

Modern poetry is concerned with few of those things, but, in contrast, often seems to glory in its unpopularity, seeing it as proof of intellectual superiority. Whatever its limitations, literary criticism did attempt some quality controls, setting standards, discovering what worked and what didn’t, and why. Radically new work was not rejected out of hand, but compared with the traditional, and some balance sheet drawn up of gains and losses, without which all enterprises founder.

But critical theory has replaced literary criticism in many universities, and often seems closer to politics than sound business practice, i.e. resorts to oversimplification of issues and voter (tenure and publishing) bribery. What literary criticism does survive tends to be narrow and specialized, aimed at fellow academics rather than the general reader. That old ideal of universities, the cultivated, rounded and wisely educated man, has disappeared. Even back in 1999, only 9% of students taking the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) indicated an interest in the humanities, and English teachers now seem to have lost faith in both their abilities and their subject matter. Indeed the more interesting books and Internet articles already seem dated.

Perhaps that was only to be expected, given the poetry world’s attack on the old standards. The articles — well-chosen, intriguing, often illuminating — that round off Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology focus on the need to experiment, to perform and  dissolve conceptual boundaries, but say nothing on the poet’s larger responsibilities: to bear witness, engender emotion and insight, entertain and make some sense of the world.

Standard of Poetry Today

Back in 1994, the above-mentioned and well-put-together Norton Anthology contained a small sprinkling of successful poems. My count was 20 odd in the 477 poems or selections printed. Not too good for 50 years of American writing, one might think, but most do not amount to what is needed by poetry of any stripe. American work should employ American idioms, and it’s sensible (though possibly limiting) to employ everyday speech for contemporary themes. But surely not the:

Pedestrian (e.g. David Antin’s a private occasion in a public place)

I consider myself a poet but im not reading poetry as you see
    I bring no books with me  though ive written books   I

Endless shopping list (e.g. Anne Waldman’s Makeup on Empty Space)

I am putting makeup on empty space
all patinas convening on empty space
rouge blushing on empty space 

Coy (e.g. Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnet 15)

A thousand apples you might put in your theories
But you are gone from benefit to my love

Pretentious (e.g. Kenneth Koch’s Alive for an Instant)

have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach
And a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals

Perverse (e.g. Clayton Eshleton’s Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc d’Audoubert)

bundled by Tuc’s tight jagged
   corridors, flocks of white

Or the breathless ‘this is a poet talking to you’ tone (e.g. Robert Duncan’s Poetry, A Natural Thing).

The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

Only Allen Ginsberg, Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe, Amiri Baraka and Bob Perelman seem to have any larger, political awareness. Postmodernism dislikes ‘grand narratives’ but few of the poems even concern themselves with the issues of the workaday world, or indeed offer anything that could conceivably interest the general reader — assertive, refreshingly different, coterie-centered, obsessed with the process of writing, intriguing in small doses: that’s about as generous as one can truthfully be.
However modest may be that achievement, the later work collected in the 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry is even more negligible.  Nor does a survey of the small press output prove any less depressing. Most offerings are not poetry by any usual meaning of the word, and fewer still are wholly successful, even within their own limits. William Logan is surely correct: current American poetry is in a bad way.

Even poets on the public circuit seem embarrassed by questions like: ‘what does poetry do?’ ‘Its gatekeepers believe poetry matters because it's poetry, not because of what it says.’ Certainly the aims of poetry are discussed, endlessly in literary circles — the excellent The Great American Poetry Show had listed 4774 articles and essays by March 2016. — but their tone overall is more defensive than celebratory, quoting authorities rather than striking out for higher ground.

State-Supported Poetry

Serious poetry has become almost exclusively university-based. It is tertiary education and associated MFA teaching courses that give contemporary poets their salaries, status and publishing opportunities. But if academia has become practically their sole refuge, that refuge is also under threat. Political correctness, budget cuts, perpetual assessment by students ill-placed to judge, disappearing tenure, and uncertainty over the bases of literature itself have created an academic rat race where it is the astute political operator that best survives. Work must conform to academic standards, support the narrow tenets of Modernism, and not seriously question establishment views.

Tenure in the humanities is hard to gain, and increasingly easy to lose. Outside tenure there is only part-time and ill-paid teaching. Beyond academia itself there is practically nothing: academics are not trained in journalism, and the balanced and well-researched article is not what popular outlets want. Alternative media are expanding, of course, but still struggle to pay their authors a living wage.
Public appointments expect public views, as Amiri Baraka found. In 2002, a year after 9/11, the black American poet and activist read a long poem criticizing America and including questions about the Israeli intelligence warning of an impending attack on the twin towers. It was in his usual no-holds-barred, in-your-face style, and the poet was writing from an establishment position as the poet laureate of New Jersey. The response was loud and predictable. The Jewish community accused him of anti-Semitism, and demanded his resignation. The mainstream press demonised him as anti-American. The literary world distanced itself from his views, but pleaded for artistic freedom.

No one pointed to the obvious, that firstly the poem was crude pamphleteering and, secondly, there was nonetheless a pressing need for a sustained, detailed and transparent investigation into the 9/11 tragedy, as there still is. The media shot the messenger, or tried to, as the unrepentant Marxist wouldn’t lie down. Baraka did not resign, and the Governor was obliged to discontinue the position.

A literary world so dependent on the public purse will encourage a poetry that knows its place, i.e. be adventurous in arcane and theoretical matters, but not seriously threaten the mainstream narratives that govern American life.

Extinction of Traditional Poetry

Critical theory was first helpful but then became more hostile to traditional poetry, eventually killing off its host.

American poetry in the early years of the twentieth century was popular and profitable, having, its supporters declared, the ability to ‘beget spiritual sensibility, to build character, and to refine one's sense of beauty, truth, or morality.

Modernists were following other concerns, however, and their 'unpoetic' productions did not much feature in mass-circulation magazines or later radio shows. High Modernism and the New Criticism eventually triumphed, after a long battle through the universities, becoming the reigning orthodoxy in the 1940-50 period, when poets who had written excellent but alas popular poetry — Kipling, Masefield, de la Mare — were 'reassessed' and marked down. Improved university courses passed them by, and their rehabilitation continues to depend on approved Modernist elements being identified among their other features.

The fight was bitter, and hostility naturally continued long after victory, against all forms of tradition, and society in general, however unreasonable. Inevitably, with triumph of the Modernist paradigm, came unswerving belief in the innate correctness of its views, and these beliefs are held just as firmly as those of the American Academy of Arts and Letters that for thirty years stood opposed to the ‘the lawlessness of the literary Bolsheviki [that] has invaded every form of composition.’ Modernism today may be no more aware of increasing dissatisfaction with its narrow views than had been the earlier Academy that ‘irony and pastiche and parody and a conscious fever of innovation-through-rupture would overcome notions of nobility, spirituality, continuity, harmony, uncomplicated patriotism, romanticized classicism.


What alternatives exist for contemporary poetry? Only, it seems to me, by rethinking the history of Modernism, and perhaps reshaping English Literature courses to:

1. Rework what Modernism has made available to poetry — all the ground, not merely the latest fad.

2. Foster a genuine love of literature, sufficient to carry graduates over a lifetime of deepening and delighted reading.

3. Treat critical theory in its broader framework of aesthetics and related philosophic issues.

4. Insist students have a proper grounding in cultural history, not only western but worldwide. Literature cannot be understood in isolation.

5. Teach writing skills that allow complex and contentious material to be addressed in the manner of educated beings: with sensitivity, intelligence and some sense of proportion and good humour.

6. Appreciate that literature is both inspiration and craft. Poetry in particular will not recover its popularity until it writes movingly on things that matter to everyday people.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Modernism articles.