legacy of modernism.jpg


Or, Why This Legacy?

Anis, how can you have a debate about the current state of American poetry by making this assumption—an assumption of “greatness”—right from the start?

The “moderns” had no hit records.  They are not read.

True, outside of school, very little poetry—and very little literature of merit—is read, but if we can’t blame the moderns for this, we certainly can’t ascribe to the moderns a “legacy,” for the public turned away from poetry during their reign!

Let’s look at what happened, shall we?

The little magazines of the modernists had tiny audiences.

The “moderns” enjoyed a small window of notoriety after World War II, when the New Critical modernists insinuated themselves into ‘English major’ textbook anthologies.

The ‘English major,’ however, is fast becoming extinct in the university, replaced by Business majors, mostly.

The “moderns” had a brief, artificial existence—which is now dying.

There is no “legacy.”

Every age has some good poets; granted.  But this is quite different from “betraying” a previous era’s “legacy.”

First:  As everyone knows, the “legacy” of the “moderns” is a vigorous and explicit betrayal of their prior eras.   So obviously one has to “betray” the “modernists.”   One can’t have one’s cake and eat it.

Second:  Very few (their friends) read the “moderns” until they were put into school textbooks.   Now, the new poetry today is only being read in school.   The idea, then, of a “betrayal” could only be understood by a New Critical, ‘close-reading’ comparison of “modernist” poetry with today’s poetry.  Obviously, one wouldn’t expect poets writing today to write just like William Carlos Williams; if one felt ‘William Carlos Williams influence’ were necessary to avoid “betrayal,” it would be highly quixotic to even ask for such a thing, much less make any attempt to prove some sort of “betrayal” of that “legacy” because WC Williams was not being followed closely enough.  Why not ask whether the “legacy” of Chinese poetry, or that of the Provencals or the Romantics, or the Greeks, has been “betrayed?”

Yet, the “moderns,” of whom no one reads, and who are no longer modern and whom “betraying” might just be profitable; the moderns, that small group of gentlemen, are held over our heads, with great ceremony and solemnity.

If we keep asserting this “legacy,” based on what is now fusty, fussy writing that failed to catch on with the public, how are we going to see clearly or make any reliable judgment on this matter at all?


  1. Mabool said,

    September 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    Prufrock appeared in 1915, about the time cinema killed off the written word. And if cinema didn’t do it, then TV did in 1950.

    George Orwell, 1943: The pub, with its elaborate social ritual, its animated conversations and its songs and week-end comedians, is gradually replaced by the passive, drug-like pleasures of the cinema and the radio.

    Orwell link

    And now we have Facebook. Blogger might survive a while because it is Google’s. But Word[sic]press is probably done for.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    September 15, 2010 at 9:58 pm


    The New Republic appeared in 1914, funded by the Whitney fortune. The TNR urged the U.S. to join the bloodbath folly of WW I. Likewise, modernist Ford Maddox Ford, War Propaganda minister, urged the same thing. Conrad Aiken praised ‘The Waste Land’ in the New Republic, when that work appeared. Aiken was Eliot’s classmate at Harvard. Aiken’s papers are at Washington U. in St. Louis, the college founded by Eliot’s grandfather.

    Ah…the “modernist legacy…”

    I’m not sure the cinema killed the printed word, but Scarriet has explored the connection between the 1922 film “Nosferatu” and Eliot’s “the Waste Land.”


  3. Mabool said,

    September 15, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    The various fixers, financiers, enablers don’t have much sway. The people have sway. A century ago, Cecil B. de Mille said that for every one person who goes to the theater, a thousand will go to the movies. ( He got rich on this insight ). So it is today. People don’t want to read on WordPress. People want to go on Facebook and be entertained. Google’s money behind Blogger will help Blogger for a while, but only for a while. The people rule.

    Who wants to read about a patient etherized upon a table? Eliot probably realized that his audience, formerly Poe’s audience for The Raven ( for example ), had gone elsewhere. Eliot could write anything he wanted because he wasn’t going to have an audience no matter what he did. Also, because he was independently wealthy, he didn’t need to actually sell his output. This is modernism.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 17, 2010 at 11:33 pm


      “Eliot could write anything he wanted because he wasn’t going to have an audience no matter what he did.”

      I agree with you that the Modernists could write anything they wanted.

      The whole thing is childishly simple, so simple that we miss it.

      Poetry is good for society because it promotes beautiful, intelligent and skilled discourse. Any idiot can see this. If you, as a citizen of a nation, murder (symbollically and actually) a poet like Poe, your nation and your society are going to suffer for it. If you turn Poe into a hero and every young person aspires to be a great poet, or at least feels that a great poet is worth aspiration, society will be better for that. “The Raven” is a wonderful piece of skilled poetry, and this sort of thing inspires poetry to be practiced and imitated and loved. “The Waste Land” is an entirely different thing: it is a reflection of a sick society, a commentary on how the sick society has destroyed our capacity to enjoy poetry like “The Raven.” You are right that it didn’t matter what Eliot wrote—literally it didn’t matter, because “The Waste Land” is a pile of fragments; “The Waste Land” inspires no innocent pride and love for poetry itself; in fact, it’s a sophisticated mockery of it. So, on a very, very simple level, “The Waste Land” is bad for poetry. Poe should have been a national hero, influencing subsequent generations of young people to aspire to that deep love and respect for Letters which is so beneficial to society on so many levels. “The Raven” is good for poetry, but since the death of Poe, hope for national pride in poetry and letters was lost, 1) because of the terrible things done to Poe by his own country and 2) because of the subsequent modernist movement, which was basically a celebratory dance over poetry’s grave.

      The philosophers helped kill poetry, by making poetry a prop for their philosophy. Poetry should be a healthy product of a beautiful soul—but not to these philosophers. Which philosophers? Emerson, William James, and Nietzsche, the philosophers of modernism. Emerson (who hated Poe) was actually a very pessimistic philosopher and greatly influenced Nietzsche. These philosophers were obsessed with the sick society, the sick individual, and with over-analysis of the sickness, and obsessed with how poetry must reflect the sickness of society—this is what killed poetry. This is what “new” meant. The old is “sick” because it’s old, and the new is “sick” because we have the ‘waste land’ of our war-torn, industrial societry. Poetry became obedient to morbid social science.

      So you are right: it doesn’t matter what the modernists wrote. They wrote extremely self-conscious poetry, poetry that was broken and ugly, and the ugly, broken nature of this poetry justified itself because the old world had to give way to the new one, a breaking literally had to happen; their work always had a manifesto attached, and the manifesto replaced the poetry, which got worse and worse and worse, until we’ve reached a point where poetry is dead to the public, and has been for a long time. The breaking was a societal issue, ultimately, not a poetic one; the breaking may have had some emotional resonance in social terms, but it ruined poetry for people while all this breaking was happening. Poetry should have been left alone. And I’m not just talking about “The Raven” v. “The Waste Land.” Poe succeeded in so many other areas, in so many inventive and scientific other areas, that Letters would have had a real hero. And I am talking in these simplistic terms for more than one reason: how young people and students think of poetry is crucial. Eliot’s criticism is merely a slick defense of the general awfulness of modern poetry. If one really examines Eliot’s critical judgments, they are very poor, indeed.


  4. thomasbrady said,

    September 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    “a lady of title backed a review for Eliot called ‘The Criterion’ and Ezra and I did not have to worry about him anymore” —Ernest Hemingway, secretary for Gertrude Stein, “A Moveable Feast”

  5. Mabool said,

    September 17, 2010 at 9:58 am

    The Huffington Post page relating to Anis Shivani is instructive. It is so covered with ads and eye candy and what not that you almost can’t figure out where the text is, and the text is so doped up with Youtube that you almost can’t follow it. You are more like decrypting than reading. Yet without the advertisers, who is going to pay the bill? Maybe a subscription service like The Wall Street Journal, or donations like Wiki.

    I think the days when you just put text on the web willy nilly are over. You are going to have to deal with something like the Huff Post page, ie Facebook, which is a TV screen basically, where the host does not want you to bring in readers, but rather viewers who will respond to ads.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    September 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm


    I think it’s easy to exaggerate the importance of video and cinema. People still read and love to read. You could think of it this way: If a movie today makes 50 million at the box office, that means at 10 bucks a ticket, 5 million tickets were sold, and since most films are aimed at niche audiences, many of those tickets are repeat purchases by crazies who see a movie 10 times. So if 3 million people actually see the film, that’s less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Now, there are ‘movie stars’ whose films rarely make more than 50 million at the box office. But if you work in an office with 100 people, only one person in that whole office has seen that film, and perhaps a week later they have completely forgotten that film.

    So when you despair that certain vehicles for fame are crowding out the written word or interesting blogs, you need to put things in perspective: No one is really famous.


  7. September 17, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    The percentage of the population that sees a “successful” movie is probably a bit higher than your estimate, since you are ignoring DVD rentals and online streaming services. I might go to a movie theater twice in three years, but I still see at least a couple dozen movies that come out in a given year on DVD. And even though I don’t participate to a very high degree in popular culture, and have had periods of time over the past decade or two when I was practically Amish in that regard, I still have a general awareness of all kinds of various media personalities.

    Even if only one person in my office has seen the film in question while it was in the theater, a fair percentage more will rent it from Netflicks or Redbox over the coming year and beyond. And a high percentage of the people in the office would be familiar with at least one or two of the actors, perhaps even the director. I even dare venture to say that a distressingly high percentage might have very well developed opinions about the personal lives of these actors and directors.

    I do agree with the larger point, that public attention is much more massive and widely dispersed than ever before. The pobiz world is kind of a niche cultural phenomena like Horrorcore music or something. Most of the population has only a very vague awareness of its existence, yet there is hotly contested prestiege to be won and even modest fortunes to be claimed.

    But a Hollywood actor might be able to make the public believe that a transparent scam-cult like Scientology is a legitimate religion. A Hollywood actor can become governor of a state with the sixth largest economy in the world. Why a Hollywood actor can become Leader of the Free World and point-man for launching the destruction of the middle class and the long march back to the days of the Robber Barons. Don’t ever underestimate the power of Hollywood, Tom Brady. You risk making a Marsyas of yourself.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 17, 2010 at 10:40 pm


      When is the last time you worked in an office, or asked a sampling of people if they can name one director? Or name one poet? Or talk intelligently about one movie?

      Governors and presidents in capitalist states are figureheads.

      Since plenty of nobodies have acheived high office, you can’t assume being a Hollywood actor makes you somebody and that’s why you got to be president. You can’t blame people for voting out the peanut farmer in 1980. What other choice did they have? The Hollywood factor could have been purely accidental. You’re falling into the trap of assuming movie actors are a big deal. They’re not. And Scientology was very big long before Cruise and Travolta came along.

      For every one person in our hypothetical office who can name a movie, two dozen can name a quarterback. But who cares?

      There’s knowing—and then there’s knowing.


  8. Mabool said,

    September 17, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    That’s all true, Tom, but you haven’t told me who is going to pay the bill. The New York Times is one of the best pages on the web, basically text, although video also. But it is losing money. It has got to change, either go behind a password, or become substantially like Huff Post.

    My hypocrisy is elemental. If I have to pay at these blogs, or NYT, I am not visiting. I won’t tolerate much clutter either. No Huff Post for me.

  9. Marcus Bales said,

    September 17, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    And, Briggs, it might pay to reflect on the fact that when Byron was the world’s most famous poet England had the population, roughly, of Ohio now., and the total number of English speakers in the world didn’t equal the population of California, now. So, oddly enough, poets of decent regional fame now are as famous as Byron ever was, in terms of numbers of people. Of course, the cultural impact of regional poets on English speakers everywhere is not quite Byronic!

  10. September 17, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    The commenters seem to be talking about the nature of today’s audience, but is that what Shivani is saying?

    He doesn’t ask whether we, the reading audience, have betrayed modernism, but whether American poets have betrayed it.

    We’re arguing apples and oranges (though for the record – I agree that not enough people read and enjoy art, including poetry – and I don’t think American poets have “betrayed” modernism – participated in various oedipal rebellions, yes – but that’s the nature of the beast).

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 17, 2010 at 10:21 pm


      There is no legacy to “betray.” That’s my point.

      Anis—and just about everyone else—blithely assumes High Modernism was some golden era in poetry. But the ‘legacy’ of Moderism is

      1. Fascism
      2. Sexism
      3. Snobbery

      The fact that Marxists and liberals and guys like Ron Silliman celebrate Modernism is hilariously funny.


    • Mabool said,

      September 17, 2010 at 11:53 pm

      A paying audience and a non-paying perceive differently. What I see is colored by what I pay. The are a lot of hermeneutics, by Anis Shivani, Ron Silliman, others, on the Huff Post page. Whither modernism? Is American poetry moribund? Why do I even care if it’s free? Pretty soon we are going to start paying again, and then all this masthead stuff will be important again, but not to me, because, as the saying goes, your mama will be gone.

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