Modernism in Literature
Modernism has no precise boundaries. Like Romanticism, Realism, etc. the term is useful at a certain level, but frays into complexities when periods, artists, styles and purposes are examined more closely. At its strictest, in Anglo-American literature, the period runs from 1890 to 1920 and includes Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. But few of these writers shared common aims, and the term was applied retrospectively. The themes of Modernism began well back in the nineteenth century, and many did not reach fruition 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 — experimentation, anti-realism, individualism, and intellectualism.
Why use Modernism at all? Because writing in the period, especially that venerated by academia and by literary critics, seems particularly challenging, which no doubt makes it suitable for undergraduate study. Many serious writers come from academia, moreover, and set sail by Modernism’s charts, so that the assumptions need to be understood to appreciate the work. And quite different from these is the growing suspicion that contemporary writing has lost its way, so that we may see where alternatives lie if we understand Modernism better.
To varying extents, writing of the Modernist period exhibits these features:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Belief that artists and not society should judge the arts, leading to extreme self-consciousness.
- Search for the primary image, devoid of comment: stream of consciousness.
- Exclusiveness, an aristocracy of the avant-garde.
- Writing more cerebral than emotional.
- Tentative work, analytical and fragmentary, more posing questions more than answering them.
- Cool observation: viewpoints and characters detached and depersonalised.
- Open-ended work, not finished, nor aiming at formal perfection.
- Involuted: the subject is often act of writing itself and not the ostensible referent.
Even by twentieth-century standards, Imagism was soon over. In 1912 Ezra Pound published the Complete Poetical Works of its founder, T.E. Hulme (five short poems) and by 1917 the movement, then overseen by Amy Lowell, had run its course. The output in all amounted to a few score poems, and none of these captured the public’s heart. Why the importance?
First there are the personalities involved — notably Ezra Pound, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams — who became famous later. If ever the (continuing) importance to poets of networking, of being involved in movements from their inception, is attested, it is in these early days of post-Victorian revolt. Then there are the manifestos of the movement, which became the cornerstones of Modernism, responsible for a much taught in universities until recently, and for the difficulties poets still find themselves in.
The Imagists stressed clarity, exactness and concreteness of detail. Their aims, briefly set out, were that: 1. Content should be presented directly, through specific images where possible. 2. Every word should be functional, with nothing included that was not essential to the effect intended. 3. Rhythm should be composed by the musical phrase rather than the metronome. Also understood — if not spelled out, or perhaps fully recognized at the time — was the hope that poems could intensify a sense of objective reality through the immediacy of images.
Imagism itself gave rise to fairly negligible lines like:
You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch� (Storm by H.D.)
Nonetheless, the reliance on images provided poets with these types of freedom:
1. Poems could dispense with classical rhetoric, emotion being generated much more directly through what Eliot called an “objective correlate”. A situation, a set of objects, or a chain of events could provide the formula for a specific particular emotion. Once these were present, the emotion was immediately evoked.
- By being shorn of context or supporting argument, images could appear with fresh interest and power.3. Thoughts could be treated as images, i.e. as non-discursive elements that added emotional colouring without issues of truth being raised. Eliot, for example, said (Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca) that the poet ” who ‘thinks’ is merely the poet who can express the emotional equivalent of thought. [He] is not necessarily interested in the thought itself.”
All three ways developed into major and continuing strains of twentieth-century poetry, but rested on shaky ground.
It is doubtful, first of all, whether specific emotion can be generated in the way Eliot envisaged. Emotive expression is a complex matter, as every novelist or playwright soon discovers. Then there is the difficulty of isolated images. It is a common observation that human beings look for sense wherever possible, and will generally supply any connecting links that the poet has wantonly removed, correctly or incorrectly. Poems are not self-sufficient artifacts, moreover, but belong to a community of codes, assumptions and expectations, which we enter into when reading literature of the past. Context is important.
Finally, there is juvenile assumption that poetry is largely an expression of emotion, and that the intellectual content is immaterial. The briefest course in aesthetics discloses the difficulties in that view. Is emotion conveyed or evoked? Is emotion a purely individual matter, or can we talk of emotion appropriate to the situation, when social codes are involved? And what do we make of the general experience of artists who find that emotion emerges as the work develops?
Nonetheless, the three streams continued as follows.
1. Snippets of mimicry, wide-ranging allusion and striking images gave beauty and power to lyrical passages — The Cantos and Briggflatts — but could not provide the larger framework for extended compositions.
2. Disconnected images passed through stridency into gaudy irrationalism as Imagism was developed into Dadaism and Surrealism.
3. Poetry thinned into a collage of conjecture and name dropping — which might have exposed the hollow scholarship of both poet and reviewer had the content been taken seriously. In general, it wasn’t, however, and poetry came perilously close to being a rarefied and exclusive game.
Expressionism was a phase of twentieth-century writing that rejected naturalism and romanticism to express important inner truths. The style was generally declamatory or even apocalyptic, endeavoring to awaken the fears and aspirations that belong to all men, and which European civilization had rendered effete or inauthentic. The movement drew on Rimbaud and Nietzsche, and was best represented by German poetry of the 1910-20 period. Benn, Becher, Heym, Lasker-Sch�ler, Stadler, Stramm, Schnack and Werfel are its characteristic proponents, though Trakl is the best known to English readers.
Like most movements, there was little of a manifesto, or consensus of beliefs and programmes. Many German poets were distrustful of contemporary society — particularly its commercial and capitalist attitudes — though others again saw technology as the escape from a perceived “crisis in the old order”. Expressionism was very heterogeneous, touching base with Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, Dadaism and early Surrealism, many of which crop up in English, French, Russian and Italian poetry of the period. Political attitudes tended to the revolutionary, and technique was overtly experimental. Nonetheless, for all the images of death and destruction, sometimes mixed with messianic utopianism, there was also a tone of resignation, a sadness of “the evening lands” as Spengler called them.
Expressionism also applies to painting, and here the characteristics are more illuminating. The label refers to painting that uses visual gestures to transmit emotions and emotionally charged messages. In the expressive work of Michelangelo and El Greco, for example, the content remains of first importance, but content is overshadowed by technique in such later artists as van Gogh, Ensor and Munch. By the mid twentieth-century even this attenuated content had been replaced by abstract painterly qualities — by the sheer scale and dimensions of the work, by colour and shape, by the verve of the brushwork and other effects.
Expressionism often coincided with rapid social change. Germany, after suffering the horrors of the First World War, and ineffectual governments afterwards, fragmented into violently opposed political movements, each with their antagonistic coteries and milieu. The painting of these groups was very variable, but often showed a mixture of aggression and naivety. Understandably unpopular with the establishment — denounced as degenerate by the Nazis — the style also met with mixed reactions from the picture-buying public. It seemed to question what the middle classes stood for: convention, decency, professional expertise. A great sobbing child had been let loose in the artist’s studio, and the results seemed elementally challenging. Perhaps German painting was returning to its Nordic roots, to small communities, apocalyptic visions, monotone starkness and anguished introspection.
What could poetry achieve in its turn? Could it use some equivalent to visual gestures, i.e. concentrate on aspects of the craft of poetry, and to the exclusion of content? Poetry can never be wholly abstract, a pure poetry bereft of content. But clearly there would be a rejection of naturalism. To represent anything faithfully requires considerable skill, and such skill was what the Expressionists were determined to avoid. That would call on traditions that were not Nordic, and that were not sufficiently opposed to bourgeois values for the writer’s individuality to escape subversion. Raw power had to tap something deeper and more universal.
Hence the turn inward to private torments. Poets became the judges of poetry, since only they knew the value of originating emotions. Intensity was essential. Artists had to believe passionately in their responses, and find ways of purifying and deepening those responses — through working practices, lifestyles, and philosophies. Freud was becoming popular, and his investigations into dreams, hallucinations and paranoia offered a rich field of exploration. Artists would have to glory in their isolation, moreover, and turn their anger and frustration at being overlooked into a belief in their own genius. Finally, there would be a need to pull down and start afresh, even though that contributed to a gradual breakdown in the social fabric and the apocalypse of the Second World War.
Expressionism is still with us. Commerce has invaded bohemia, and created an elaborate body of theory to justify, support and overtake what might otherwise appear infantile and irrational. And if traditional art cannot be pure emotional expression, then a new art would have to be forged. Such poetry would not be an intoxication of life (Nietzsche’s phrase) and still less its sanctification. Great strains on the creative process were inevitable, moreover, as they were in Georg Trakl’s case, who committed suicide shortly after writing the haunting and beautiful piece given below.
Am Abend tonen die herbstlichen W�lder
In the evening sound/ring the autumn woods/forests
Von t�dlichen Waffen, die goldenen Ebenen
From deadly weapons, the golden plains
Und blauen Seen, daruber die Sonne
And blue lakes, over which the sun
Dustrer hinrollt; umf�ngt die Nacht
Dark/gloomy rolls; encircles the night
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Dying warriors, the wild/rugged lament/complaint
Ihrer zerbrochenen Munder.
Of their broken/shattered mouths.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
But/still quietly/silently gathers in the pastures/grazing lands
Rotes Gewolk, darin ein zurnender Gott wohnt
Red cloud, in it an angry god lives
Das vergo�ne Blut sich, mondne Kuhle;
The spilled blood itself, moon coolness
Alle Stra�en munden in schwarze Verwesung.
Every road/street to flow/lead in black decomposition.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Under golden branches of the night and stars
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
There sways/shakes the sister’s shadow through the silent grove,
Zu gru�en die Geister und Helden, die bluntenden H�upter;
To greet/salute the mind and heroism, the bleeding heads
Und leise t�nen IM Rohr die dunklen Fl�ten des Herbstes.
And quietly/softly sounds in the reed the darkening flutes of autumn.
O stolze Trauer! Ihr ehernen Alt�re
O proud grief! Your earlier altars
Die hei�e Flamme Des Geistes n�hrt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
The hot/scorching flame of the mind/spirit feeds today a huge pain,
Die ungebornen Enkel.
The unborn grandchildren.
The evening glints with the sound
Of deadly weapons, the forests, the golden plains
And the blue lakes, over which the sun
Darkly rolls. Night encompasses
Fallen warriors; the wild muttering
Of their broken mouths.
Now silently gathers in the grazing lands
A red cloud, the dwelling of an angry god
Ingested with the blood. A cool moon and
Under it the roads run to putrid blackness.
Beneath the golden branches of the night and stars
The sister’s shadow moves through the silent grove
To greet the spirits of the heroes, the bleeding heads,
When softly, from the reeds, are the dark flutes of autumn.
How proud is the desolation, on whose altars today
The spirits’ sharp flames draw on the immense pain
Of the unborn children spilled!
The early- to mid-century movement in the arts known as Surrealism attempted to express the workings of the unconscious by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of content. The movement grew out of Dadaism, was orchestrated by the French poet and critic Andr� Breton, and had important precursors in Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautr�amont. Depending on its proponents (and Breton was continually excommunicating members), the movement drew on the troubled politics of the inter-war years, the dream theories of Jung and Freud, studies of the occult and irrational, and the usual opposition to the despised bourgeoisie. Dadaism aimed to contravene accepted values of society so as to jolt the public into seeing the world with keener eyes — beyond the hypocrisies, class repressions and stultifying conventions. Surrealism was more positive and proselytising — was indeed an instrument of knowledge. True reality lay in the subconscious, and Surrealism developed concepts and techniques to explore and express those depths. Painting was the most obvious arena for Surrealism to show its talents, but the movement also included important poets and novelists, initially French but later Spanish and Italian. For Breton and his followers, Surrealism had to be a clearly articulated process, almost a scientific discipline, and the aesthetic and/or political dimensions were secondary. English devotees, ever more cautious, mixed Surrealism with a good deal of pragmatism, so that there are few truly Surrealist poets in English, though many were influenced to some extent — W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, etc.
How did the automatism work? Writers and artists gave up conscious control of their thoughts, and then put down — rapidly, without interrupting the stream of thought or vision — whatever came to mind. Some painters — Dali for example — were self-conscious perfectionists, but even here the canvas should slowly take shape under promptings cleared of preconceptions. French poets might or might not write under the influence of the hexameter, but any conscious filtering by technique was frowned upon. Many writers passed through the movement, or were brought to fame by Surrealism, but only Paul Eluard (1895-1952), Louis Aragon (18977-1982) and Federico Garc�a Lorca (1899-1936) created their most enduring work under its influence.
Purely automatic writing — which Yeats practised for a while with his wife — produced reams of material interesting to writer and his psychiatrist, but tedious in the extreme to the reader. Was it permissible to select and shape this material? No, said Breton, but most writers and painters fudged the matter. Surrealist techniques produced vivid raw material, which could then be further developed. Was prior artistic training required, or could anyone practice the techniques with success? Opinion was divided. Many argued that formal training provided the necessary tools of expression, and the better painters and poets did generally possess a formal mastery of their craft. But that was to put the aesthetic above the true aim of Surrealism, thought Breton (generally), and so betray its larger purpose of creating a truer reality from conscious and subconscious elements.
Surrealist approaches have today diffused into art and advertising, but do they offer the practising poet more than useful improvisation, a way of getting the creative juices flowing? The difficulty centres on the subconscious. Many Surrealists, though speaking of the subconscious, actually meant the unconscious, and this entity does not exist. Certainly the brain’s actions are largely hidden from us, and may well produce regularities that can be called schemas, archetypes, inter-cultural patterns of perception, but there is nothing corresponding to the id, ego and superego of Freud’s or Lacan’s formulation. Nonetheless, laboratory work has shown that the brain is marvellously retentive, and stores vastly more than we can easily recall. Moreover, it stores speech and perception as transcriptions of experience — i.e. not as language constructs, mental or otherwise, but as diverse guides for subsequent action. Some of these may be universal, as is suggested by occult and shamanistic practices, but most are surely individual. Dreams and trances are not always illuminating, therefore, and Surrealism is not a royal road to the subconscious.
But the greatest drawback is the most obvious. Even if the subconscious were more interesting than the conscious world, simply portraying it will not create art. That needs selection, and a shaping for emotive and aesthetic ends. Surrealist poetry can be novel, whimsical or apocalyptic, but it is not apt to be deeply moving.
Nonetheless, the brain’s workings can escape the straitjacket of the conventional, and its exploration is at least useful for that purpose. How imagination is accessed must depend on the equipment the writer brings to the task, the technique and larger objectives. Surrealism did tap into something real and important, but was hampered by simplistic views of free association and natural expression. The brain is an organ that grows according to accumulating need and experience, and is not therefore a repository of primeval truths. Stretching imagination against experience is what opens the writer’s portals of vision, just as working at something truly difficult develops the painter’s intelligence.
Hart Crane’s life was certainly unenviable. His parents fought continually, and the poet spent much of his adolescence in the grandparent’s home in Cleveland. The father, a prosperous businessman, wished a similar career for the son, but the unsociable young man found work in a munitions plant, in a shipyard, as a reporter, and then as an assistant in his father’s candy store. He read voraciously, submitted to avant-garde magazines, and determined on a career in poetry. In 1921 Crane returned to Cleveland to write advertising copy by day and poetry by night — a rather manic-depressive pattern — and in 1923 he completed his first major poem, For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen, where his self-education found expression in a truly modern setting.
Unlike contemporaries tackling similar themes, Crane did not use free verse, but traditional forms with dense reference and unexpected imagery. Poetry was to be a celebration of life that conveyed exaltation, power and transcendence. Whatever the claims — and he used a Modernist terminology in corresponding with many contemporary poets — Hart Crane was applying the soaring poetic expression of seventeenth century writers to his own bohemian, homosexual and chaotic existence on the darker fringes of America’s jazz age. In 1924, Hart Crane went to New York, eventually finding employment in writing advertising copy. He settled into a room overlooking the East River and Brooklyn Bridge. That window, he wrote to a friend, “is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning or evening, — rain, snow or sun, it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh, and all related and in actual contact with the changelessness of the many waters that surround it.” These spiritual journeys he worked into Voyages and the other poems he wrote in the 1924-5 period, publishing some of them in contemporary magazines, though not without amendment and lengthy explanation. Crane went to Cuba, back to New York, to Hollywood, Paris and Mexico. His first collection, White Buildings, was published in 1926, and Crane worked on the more ambitious The Bridge, but his social life was disintegrating. He was habitually drunk, abusive, given to violent rages and psychosomatic illness, too often beaten up by casual male lovers, arrested for soliciting. In April 1932, Hart Crane jumped from stern of the ship returning him from Mexico, and the body was never found.
Whatever the life, Hart Crane was remarkably clear-sighted about his literary aims. A poem should be “a single, new word, never before spoken, and impossible to actually enunciate”. Terms were to be selected for their connotations and associations, and for their “metaphoric interrelationships”. There was no place for abstract formulations of experience; the poems had to evoke the “physical-psychic experience” of the subject through which they are viewed. Crane absorbed Eliot’s poetry, and the dithyrambs of Whitman, but the style was distinctively his own: dense, allusive and metallic — not unlike a “plate of vibrant mercury”, to quote from his own Recitative.
How much is worth reading today? Voyages (1921-26), At Melville’s Tomb (1925), For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen (1921-23) in White Buildings, The Broken Tower (1932) and some sections of The Bridge (1923-30). Yet even the minor pieces have a strange power that burn themselves into the memory: It was a kind and northern face (Praise for an Urn), a steady, winking beat between (Paraphrase), We make our meek adjustments / Contented with such random consolations (Chaplinesque), I have known myself a nephew to confusions (The Fernery).
It was on The Bridge that Hart Crane’s ambitions centred. Though published after White Buildings, the poem in its final form was composed over the long interval between Crane’s best writing period and the tail-end of his powers. The seventy-odd pages contain fine sections — To Brooklyn Bridge, parts of The Harbor Dawn, The River and The Tunnel — but there is also overblown rhetoric and long passages that do not work. The poem is an epic, Crane’s answer to Whitman, but the lyric quality could not compensate for the loose integration. The subject matter is arbitrary, and the rhythms too often merely workmanlike. In the best sections, well anthologized, Crane achieved a rare physical immediacy, conveyed with imagery as dense and apposite as that of the later Shakespeare, but these do not unify the whole.
The moral for today’s writers may be that the long poem cannot work without intensive organization, any more than a novel hold together without plot, setting, character development, etc. Yet Crane’s failure is the greatest pity, for what appears in snatches throughout his work is a portrait of America that perhaps he alone had the gifts to draw. The writer most called to mind is the novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), but, in place of Wolfe’s odd gift for phrase, there are innumerable telling and beautiful images. Hart Crane’s technique is not modern, but his Romantic nineteenth-century approach created vistas beyond those of what most twentieth century poets could achieve, or perhaps even wanted to.
Hart Crane’s first important poem, For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen, ends :
Anchises’ navel, dropping of the sea, —
The hands Erasmus dipped in gleaming tides,
Gathered the voltage of blown blood and vine;
Delve upward for the new and scattered wine
O brother-thief of time, that we recall.
Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
Of imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.
Such exhortation and density is not easily matched in English. But consider this well-known section from Lycidus.
Return, Alph�us, the dread voice is past
That shrunk they streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales, and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flowerets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied flowers,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansie freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise;
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where’er they bones are hurled,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great Vision of the guarded mount
Looks towards Namancos, and Bayona’s hold.
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
Milton�s has the greater range, but the two poems present similar tones and themes. Both are impersonal, and a poetic de force. Both use the Pindaric ode. Censorship restricted what Milton can say, and behind the anguish of Crane no doubt lay a good deal of frustration and self-loathing. But public poems were built of public property, and ask to be judged on how effectively they deploy and refresh the great commonplaces by which a society understands itself.
Eliot�s escape from personal tragedy was via The Waste Land, a bitter collage of fragments that could both refer to standards and mock them. Crane disliked that negativity. Poetry was an affirmation of life, and Crane continually sought a worthy and inspiring theme. Financial worries, alcohol, the degradation forced on him by homosexual affairs were increasing handicaps, but the main culprit was possibly Modernism itself. So privately-based, inward-looking and antisocial a movement denies the communality of beliefs on which epic poetry needs to be built, as Ezra Pound was himself later to find.
William Carlos Williams
Good old Bill. Yet if much of current poetry is modelled on his unpretentious little pieces, it certainly didn’t begin that way.
William Carlos Williams was born in 1883, studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and settled in Rutherford, then a pleasant suburb in industrial New Jersey. His more famous associates travelled, got involved in politics or founded important literary movements, but Bill Williams stayed put, married, had two sons, tended the garden, practised as an obstetrician and paediatrician. Nothing to distinguish him from countless suburbanites with literary interests — except that he wrote in a singularly prosaic style, believed it was important, and wouldn’t be shifted.
Williams was prolific and began writing early. His first book, predictably influenced by Keats and Whitman, was published at his own expense in 1909. A copy sent to Ezra Pound left the iconoclast unimpressed. A second collection (The Tempers, 1913) was written much more on Poundian lines, and Pound persuaded a London publisher to bring it out. Williams thereafter submitted to New York magazines, corresponded with bohemian members of the avant-garde, but remained himself on the other side of the street — as did Wallace Stevens, to whom recognition also came late in life.
The poetry was still fairly traditional, but the next three volumes — Al Que Quier� (1917), Kora in Hell (1920) and Spring and All (1923) — brought great changes. Williams experimented with improvisation and developed his characteristic “chopped-up prose” style. He also tried his hand at novels, short stories, literary essays, and then embarked on the long poem Patterson, though these efforts won rather modest recognition. Williams struck up literary friendships, revived associations in trips to Europe in 1924 and 1927, but from 1948 suffered a series of heart attacks, which caused him to retired from medicine but not writing. He was still an approachable and sunny character, however, and never failed to give enthusiastic encouragement to young poets who wrote to him.
Almost cruelly, in the 1950s and 1960s, when strokes had deprived him of the use of his right hand, the recognition started appearing. William Carlos Williams was clearly a Modernist, one of a mythic generation, but not academic and not difficult. Indeed he was small-town American. He delighted in the local and inconsequential, and did not drag in unnecessary allusions to mythology, past literature or remote events. His work showed freshmen dutifully studying literature how little there was to fear from poetry, and has enjoyed a large following ever since. Jarrell, Lowell, Olson, Ginsberg and Levertov acknowledged the value of his work, and Williams began collecting honorary degrees from the academia he had opposed throughout his career.
But literary pretension was still the enemy. In books and diary jottings, if a bit muddled and repetitiously, William Carlos Williams advocated poetry based on live contact with the world. Art should make more vivid what is already there. Poems arise from moments of heightened consciousness in individuals whose sensibilities had been developed and extended by writing a responsive poetic line. His own work exemplified: 1. the discontinuous nature of experience (i.e. composition by juxtaposition), 2. a syntax and diction based on the spoken language, 3. observations brought to prominence by framing techniques and not encumbered by connotations, deep questions, symbolism and the like. Trite and banal, mere chopped-up prose they might appear to the uninitiated, but they were honest and American and the way forward.
To young poets starting out, to troubled individuals needing to immediately express themselves, and to students intimidated by the sophistications of a high art form, Bill Williams� remedies were a godsend. Poetry was not so different from normal speech, just a bit more personal and concise. Make it realistic. Don�t rehash old themes. Forget the classics, foreign languages, poetry craft and other leftovers from a European culture. A good poem is personal and short and unpretentious.
But what happened when everyone wrote at this lowered intensity? Writers may have been satisfied, but readers were not well catered for, indeed couldn�t be. What distinguished one poem from another? Subject matter, of course, and some idiosyncrasies of style, but little else: poetry was no longer about the deeply moving, the significant, or the memorable. The magazines and collections piled up, but had only the contributors for their readership, and then only if their own pieces featured. The outlines of today�s glut in poetry were becoming plain.
But William Carlos Williams was not an amateur. His better pieces did achieve their modest aims. The first section of Spring and All that features below is keenly perceived and convincingly natural. Set as prose it would work perfectly well as a chapter opener in a contemporary novel. But would we remember it, wish to reread it, understand that something more significant was being illuminated? If the answer is no � as it may be to more experienced readers — then poetry is being hindered by adopting methods designed for other purposes. Speech is speech, and poetry something different. Which is the nub of it, as Bill could have said.
Does poetry have a purpose? In place of argument, let us compare two pieces of writing. Both are celebrated, unvarnished descriptions of the local scene. The first is the fragmentary opening of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All(1923):
By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -— a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
The second is in the regular — to our ears somewhat monotonous — measure of late Augustan verse: a short section from Delay has Danger (Tales of the Hall) by George Crabbe (1754-1832):
Early he rose, and looked with many a sigh
On the red light that filled the eastern sky;
Oft had he stood before, alert and gay,
To hail the glories of the new-born day:
But now dejected, languid, listless, low,
He saw the wind upon the water blow.
And the cold stream curl’d onwards as the gale
From the pine-hill blew harshly down the dale;
On the right side the youth a wood survey�d,
With all its dark intensity of shade,
Where the rough wind alone was heard to move,
In this, the pause of nature and of love,
When now the young are rear�d, and when the old,
Lost to the tie, grow negligent and cold �
Far to the left he saw the huts of men,
Half hid in mist, that hung upon the fen;
Before him swallows, gathering from the sea,
Took their short flights, and twittered on the lea;
And near the beansheaf stood, the harvest done,
And slowly blacken�d in the sickly sun;
All these were sad in nature, or they took
Sadness from him, the likeness of his look,
And of his mind � he ponder�d for a while
Then met his Fanny with a borrow�d smile
Crabbe�s piece is telling a story, using conventional couplets to depict rural life in a realistic and unpalatable manner — more than the pastoral tradition encouraged, or even Wordsworth much attempted. Williams is simply presenting the scene as it strikes him. With Crabbe�s piece we can note that 1. the Fenland scene is aptly described, 2. the description sets the mood, 3. the youth�s musing on his surroundings give the story a wider significance, 4. the storyline engages our interest and leads us over the banalities of description, 5. the sense is always emphatically clear, 6. considerable variety of expression exists within the regular verse.
The Williams poem illustrates its author�s views on poetry. It serves no end beyond making us see the commonplace more acutely. And see it through the author�s eyes. Modernist poets are not self-abnegating, not a medium through which to view the world with a little selection and personal colouring. There is no dichotomy between life and art: their experience is the world they present. For this reason, Modernists have generally avoided the novelist�s art, or made the actual composition the subject of the poem — an annoyance to older readers but a means of giving coherence to what would be otherwise be very fragmentary and discontinuous.
It is pointless to judge art by what it purposely rejects, but we can wonder whether fresh responses are all that poetry should offer. The purism is not restricted to Modernism, or to western art. Spontaneity is essential to Chinese calligraphers, for example, and they respond to the content as they write. Skill, insight, humanity and a dozen other qualities are displayed to the connoisseur�s eye, and this expression of content through the calligrapher�s personality is rightly prized. But the spontaneity is within an arduous tradition. Calligraphers practice the examples of the past so assiduously that they become imbued with the personalities of their masters, and what we would call originality comes later, when skills are fully mastered, and can be used to extend what a deep understanding shows the old masters were attempting.
The conclusion? Not that Modernism has limitations — all art has that — but that the early poetry of Modernist, like the example of Chinese calligraphers, may have been successful because it still remembered the larger purposes of art.
Even the New York Times seemed nonplussed. Wallace Stevens, Noted Poet, Dead, the obituary began. Yes, noted by connoisseurs of Modernist poetry, but never a well-known figure, nor one assiduous of reputation. The thoughts and imagery were foreign, French very probably, and the tone was detached and often cerebral. For all their gaudy celebration of the senses, the poems fought shy of actually saying anything, just as Wallace Stevens himself was cautious of bohemian impropriety. He was a respected officer of a large insurance company who happened to write poetry — very accomplished poetry, but poetry devoid of passion, biography or social comment. Even now, after the excesses of speculative literary theory, to which poetry so empty of obvious content proved irresistible, the question remains: what does the poetry signify?
Wallace Stevens was born in 1879 in comfortable circumstances, became president of the Harvard literary magazine, tried his hand at journalism for nine months in New York, but then opted for the safety of a dull aspect of the legal profession. He married his long-suffering sweetheart in 1909, delayed having a child for fifteen years, and finally left New York in 1919 with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he reached the position of vice-president in 1934. But for odd trips to collect the honours that accumulated in the last years, Stevens stayed in Hartford for the remainder of his life as a safe company man.
Stevens was in his late twenties when he started writing modernist poetry, and forty-four when his first book, Harmonium (1923), was published. Thereafter, the volumes appeared with increasing if not pressing frequency: A Primitive Like an Orb (1948), Transport to Summer (1949), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), The Collected Poems (1950) and Opus Posthumous (1957). The subjects developed variously, but the themes did not fundamentally change. Harmoniumis the most original collection, and contains many of his most anthologised poems – The Emperor of Ice Cream, Sunday Morning, Peter Quince at the Clavier, Anecdote of the Jar, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Sunday Morning was an impressively sustained hedonistic reverie, but the others — were they anything but elaborate entertainments in poetic skill? The New York Times critic couldn’t believe so: “From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not one word that can arouse emotions. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead.” That was overstating matters, but the criticism was just, from a certain point of view.
But Stevens was not writing in the old tradition. As the critic had shrewdly realised, Stevens was creating something exotic: a poesie pure, a Symbolist poetry without the usual symbols, a poetry indeed where rhythms, vowels and consonants substituted for musical notes. And that, for the good Percy Hutchinson, was simply not enough. “Poetry,” he wrote “is founded in ideas; to be effective and lasting, poetry must be based on life, it must touch and vitalize emotion.”
But Stevens’ ideas did affect the mind, at least his own mind, and he went on developing his themes at great length. True, some of the more enigmatic lines: The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair. would have exasperated the moral philosopher. (How are desire and despair being used in this instance, and what is the situation they are describing?) Stevens provides information on neither, which raises spectres of intellectual frivolity, of playing fast and loose with concepts. Poetry is not philosophy, but are his poems — except perhaps Sunday Morning — in any way what even Postmodernists call an experience? Perhaps Stevens did see things more intensely than most. Perhaps his reality was crucially that of the imagination. Perhaps the Symbolism he espoused was too rarefied an import for isolationist America, and one that needed caf� society to thrive. Whatever. Stevens made few converts and founded no movements.
Recognition came belatedly. To the narrower strains of New Criticism, however, his work was living proof that poetry is composed of words used in new and subtle relationships. Postmodernists in their turn found his work a paradigm of true poetry, of artwork entirely sealed from reference to the outside world. Academia found him useful teaching material: students most certainly had to work hard at his poetry: the content was rarefied, the diction unexpected, and the allusions obscure indeed.
The general public was less enthusiastic. Some poems were as fresh and playful as Edith Sitwell’s.
Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
(Bantans in Pine Woods)
Others could be tiresomely clever:
The prince of proverbs of pure poetry,
(Esth�tique du Mal)
And much was simply baffling. What, exactly, did this mean:
Call him the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds
(The Emperor of Ice-Cream)
We make, although inside an egg
Variations on the words spread sail.
(Things of August)
Was Stevens truly a Symbolist? Certainly he wrote in an allusive, enigmatic, and musical style. He developed the art of suggestion, and employed rare words, private associations and syntactical intricacies. But Symbolism attempted to extend the evocative power of words to express feeling, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. Open-ended symbols brought the invisible into being through the visible, and linked the invisible through other sensory perceptions. The poet could project inner feelings onto the world outside, and/or meditate on words which would slowly permeate the consciousness and express states of mind that were initially unknown to their originator. We cannot know if Stevens identified with these aims, if he ever knew them, but his few comments on his work certainly don’t express such “high seriousness”. His later work in fact attempts a more public role, which is precisely what Symbolism was designed not to do. Of the great mass of people he wrote The men have no shadows / And the women have only one side. The note is elegiac, but perhaps a little patronising in:
…that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate with life
That is sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze
The nineteenth century world-weariness of “as for living, our servants can do that for us” almost returns with those lines, and a man better read than Stevens might have understood the dangers of embracing an art for art’s sake movement at such long second hand.
Academia has placed Wallace Stevens in the literary canon. Others may see him as a businessman who entertained himself with poetry on themes and in styles he was not equipped to handle. A life devoid of outward drama, excitement or interest hardly provides compelling insights, and career pressures curtailed the vicarious experiences that wide reading can afford. Continental philosophy was foreign to America at the time, and Stevens had no philosophical training to call on. True, he read Bergson and Santayana, but as an amateur, without being obliged to critique them. He also knew the apercus of writers and critics, but they were as partial and unreliable as ever. Poetry has to be written out of sustained experience and vision, and with some broad ends in mind. If Wallace Stevens ever entertained such intentions, he seems to have kept them pretty much to himself.
Below is a stanza of Wallace Stevens’s celebrated Sunday Morning. The poem has a Keatsian-like dwelling on sensation — though not the sustained hush of a too-obvious craftsmanship — but is interesting for another reason. Keats was certainly aware that brevity gives relish to life, but he would not have said Death is the mother of beauty. Keats was a Romantic, a child of his time, and those times embraced political change. He was not a sickly idealist, but a practical man brought up against the realities of life by his medical training. Dreams and imagination may have been the raw materials of art, but Keats gives them the warmth and individuality that Stevens does not usually attempt. Perhaps only this beautiful poem — of which copyright restrictions allow us to quote only a stanza — shows what Stevens might have written if he not been a Modernist and a cautious man.
Stanza V of Sunday Morning
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty, hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our path,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willows shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Though still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who can thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit, what struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah happy, happy boughs that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu,
Ah, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! More happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little river by town or sea-shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou are desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape, Fair attitude!
With brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought;
With forest branches and trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou halt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Everyone understands what Keats meant by equating truth and beauty, but Stevens has no such happy equivalents. Sunday Morning concerns itself with the impermanence of sensuous happiness, and somewhat contrasts the Christian with Greek views of life. The first sees our life on the earth as a preparation for the next. The second sees life here as the all important, and one that should be lived to the full. Unfortunately, we can only say ‘somewhat contrasts’ because the themes are muddled — allowing a plethora of interpretations that students must read. What is meant by Death is the mother of beauty? That sensuous matter has beauty because it or we have no extended existence? That beauty is conferred on objects by considerations that lie beyond the veil of Death? Both can be read into the poem, but are odd views, and not what Keats and his fellow Romantics would have accepted. We can withdraw to lower ground, of course, and agree that the poem is simply about the numinous quality of sensuous life, its underlying mysteries and unfathomable nature, but many of the poem’s sallies then become a toying with notions and intellectual possibilities. What then? Such are the difficulties with Stevens, his lacunae of thought and half-hearted seriousness — and, unfortunately, of much Modernism generally.