Is it just me, or does modernist poetics seem puerile in the extreme?

In my (2003) Norton -Third Edition- of Modern Poetry (including Contemporary vol. 2 which Scarriet will review later) there are 864 pages of poetry and 135 pages of poetics, the latter of which contain nothing that could be called iconic or indispensible, except perhaps T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Walt Whitman is the first entry.  But he had no poetics.  Whitman: “here are the roughs and beards and space…”  Etc.  With Walt we get the rhetoric of Emersonian expanse, which in its good will and windiness, finally cancels itself out.  Poetics?  Pastry.

Next we get a few of Emily Dickinson’s letters to T.W. Higginson—which not only contain no poetics, but do not even show Emily  in a very good light; her wheedling tone is not attractive.

Next, some letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” 

No doubt. 

“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm…it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone…I do not say the idea is altogether new…”

Doh! not new at all.

Then we have W.B. Yeats, and who reads his prose?    Yeats and his friend, Arthur Symons, influenced Ezra Pound and Eliot; Yeats writes, “The Symbolist Movement in Literature [is] a subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been dedicated to me,” and Yeats is right: the book is so subtle that today none care what Symons had to say about “symbolism,” a word used in so many subtle ways since Symons’ day that the word has now returned to its orginal meaning: ‘this stands for that,’ and everyone is happier.

Yeats:  “A poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table,  there is always phantasmagoria.”  And Yeats, again: “Style is always unconscious.  I know what I have tried to do, little what I have done.”

Well, he’s honest.

Next up, T.E. Hulme, expelled from Cambridge U. in 1904, part of Ford Madox Ford & Pound’s Imagism crew, “a critic of pacifism,” WW I casualty : “I object even to the best of the romantics.  I object to the sloppiness…”

Oh, is that what the best poets in English were?  Sloppy?

Now we get a real treat: excerpts from the magazine Blast.  Like most little modernist magazines, it lasted only a few issues, even as some now-forgotten female, an heiress or lady of title, was emptying her bank account for it, just so the world could be honored by the wisdom of Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis and E. Pound:


“The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—”

“In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is, ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art.”

“Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.”

“Fairies have disappeared from Ireland (despite foolish attempts to revive them) and the bull-ring languishes in Spain.  But mysticsm on the one hand, gladiatorial instincts, blood and asceticism on the other, will be always actual, and springs of Creation for these two peoples.”

“England is just now the most famous favourable country for the appearance of great art.”

“…our race, the most fundamentally English.”

“We assert that the art for these climates, then, must be a Northern flower.”

“It cannot be said tht the complication of the Jungle, dramatic tropical growth, the vastness of American trees, is not for us.”

“Once the consciousness towards the new possibilities of expression in present life has come, however—it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe…”

I wish I could say BLAST was merely English patriotism, but knowing something about the authors, I have a feeling it is something far worse…

There follows a “Feminist Manifesto” from Mina Loy, which tells women:

“To obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your “virtue” the fictitious value of woman as identified with her physical purity…”

No wonder Loy was one of the few women intellectuals invited into the Modernist men’s club…

After a two very brief prologues (Amy Lowell and Wilfred Owen) E. Pound returns with gems such as:

“Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.
   The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s ‘Drover’: his ‘O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die’: Joyce’s ‘I hear an army’; the lines of Yeats that ring in my head and in the heads of all young men of my time who care for poetry: Braseal and the Fisherman, ‘The fire that stirs about her when she stirs’; the later lines of ‘The Scholars,’ the faces of the Magi; William Carlos Williams’ ‘Postlude,’ Aldington’s version of ‘Athis,’ and ‘H.D.’s” waves like pine tops, and her verse in ‘Des Imagistes’ the first anthology; Hueffer’s [Ford M. Ford] ‘How red your lips are’ in his translation from Von der Vogelweide, his ‘Three Ten,’ the general effect of his ‘On Heaven’; his sense of the prose values or prose qualities in poetry; his ability to write poems that will sing to music…”

E. Pound names “the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head” and they are all his publishing partners and friends!  What a startling coincidence!  Joyce, Yeats, Williams, Aldington, H.D, and Ford Madox Ford!  How uncanny!  What exquisite taste!  What rare and discerning judgment! 

We are now two-thirds done with “Poetics” of the Moderns, which commenced with Whitman.

T.S. Eliot gets 10 pages. 

Next, William Carlos Williams, from the prologue to Kora In Hell:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.  To me this is the gist of the whole matter.”

Can anyone tell me what this means.  Or this: 

“The instability of these improvisations would seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention and become particles of a wind that falters.  It would appear to the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly.  It would be these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools.”

Enough of Mr. Williams.  He is too busy fighting off  “fools…”

D.H. Lawrence (a preface to New Poems, U.S. edition) follows:

“Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds.  Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance.”

Yes, by all means!

Langston Hughes makes an appearance:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’  And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Enough of that logic…

Next, Hart Crane defends his ‘At Melville’s Tomb’ in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe.  She found the poem obscure.  It is obscure.  Hopelessly so—Monroe was right.

Wallace Stevens’ turn:

“Poetry is not personal.”

“All poetry is experimental poetry.”

“It is the belief and not the god that counts.”

“Poetry must be irrational.”

“We live in the mind.

“Every man dies his own death.”

“Realism is a corruption of reality.”

And other gems. 

The final 25 pages of “Poetics” finds 3 pages of Robert Frost (The Figure A Poem Makes), 7 pages from a Transatlantic Interview with the crackpot Gertrude Stein, 6 pages of  Marianne Moore (6 too many) and finally, 10 pages of W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

What is wonderful about Mr. Auden is that he is only educated modern poet who does not speak down to his audience.

It is probably  no surprise that modernist poetics is so paltry.  Modern poetry is enjoyed by the few, and with the general public out of the way, the old need to apologize for, or defend, poetry is no longer there.   Small ideas appeal to small audiences, and since the modern poets have turned their backs on the larger public, small has been the rule.

Unfortunately, however, I have the uncomfortable feeling that modern poetics is less than small.  Something about it feels downright silly and childish, or even worse, manifesto-ish.  And still worse: obscure, grumpy, condescending.

I don’t see how one would want to teach Homer without teaching Plato at the same time;  nor would I ever dream of teaching modern poetry without first teaching Homer and Plato, Dante and Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, Shelley and Poe.   I don’t see how what is typically taught as modern poetics can even be called poetics at all, when compared to what came before.

But that’s just me.


  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    October 3, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I am wholy convinced that anyone can write great poetry if they begin to write precisely what arouses them; at first a mangled, illiterate kind of linguistic freedom coughs and splutters out in ugly writing, but in not too much time it works itself out into existentially resonant, emotionally relevant writing. It is on this basis that reading poets and the Western tradition can develop a poetically sincere voice.

    Too many people endulge in gluttenous consumption of poetry before they have realised their own poetic voice. People might stuggle on in the latter fassion their whole lives, produce technically profficient poetry that never moves a soul. I know this is a marginal view but as always, the dominant view is no less immune to the demand for intellectual justification. Consumption of the poetic tradition is a consumption of form; and form is osseous in itself.

  2. October 4, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    I will agree that it sounds like they include too much modernist “poetics.” -probably an essay by Eliot and perhaps something else (to represent something besides white European or Europhile men in the high modernist tradition).

    Perhaps they should have modeled it on Allen’s “New American Poetry” and let the poems speak for themselves.

    Poetics always seems a tricky proposition to me – especially in the classroom. But maybe I was scarred by the textbooks formulas described in the move “Dead Poets Society.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 4, 2010 at 10:03 pm

      I’m not saying they included too much “poetics,” coffee. I think “poetics” is great. My point is that modernist poetics is rather paltry, and their choices were not very good.

      However, they could have included better material, in my opinion. John Crowe Ransom writes brilliantly on Modernist poetics, for instance. Randall Jarrell. They felt compelled to begin with Whitman, Dickinson, who don’t have important contributions to poetics in prose. They could have gone back to Wordsworth, or Poe, or Emerson. Whitman is 19th century, so why not include more important voices?

  3. Marcus Bales said,

    October 4, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Aaron wrote: “I am wholy convinced that anyone can write great poetry if they begin to write precisely what arouses them; at first a mangled, illiterate kind of linguistic freedom coughs and splutters out in ugly writing, but in not too much time it works itself out into existentially resonant, emotionally relevant writing.”

    That’s the postmodernist view, all right. I’m sure you think that anyone can be a great surgeon, too, if they’ll just start cutting into people: at first a mangled, ignorant kind of blood-bath seethes and heaves around them in maimed bodies and lives, but in not too much time it works itself out into … nah, I can’t even write it.

    This view is pure bullshit, Aaron. I’m not saying anything about YOU, you understand, only about this view. It’s wrong on the face of it. Any skill requires theory, study, and practice.

  4. October 5, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    I think that post-modernism or contemporary poetics is actually more interesting than what was produced by the modernists (poetics, not poetry).

    I believe it was David Foster Wallace who noted his generation of writers was as much influenced by French, post-war theoretical writings as by poetry and fiction. An exaggeration, of course, but notes an important development.

    • Marcus Bales said,

      October 5, 2010 at 7:14 pm

      Yeah, well, give me interesting poetry on bad theoretical grounds rather than interesting theory and bad poetry.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    October 5, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    By definition, bad theory will never produce good poetry.

    For instance, the poetic theory of Charles Olson cannot produce good poetry.

    And the converse: Poe’s poetic theory, if followed, will produce good poetry.

    Genius ‘sees out’ good theory to its inevitable, happy conclusion.

    The unhappy result of modernism/post-modernism is that the genius of a prior day has been eclipsed by bad theory. So has manifesto-ism ruined us all.

  6. October 5, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    I actually miss a good manifesto – one with legs.

    All of our modern manifestos lack the “oomph” and pervasive influence of the Futurists manifestos or Breton’s Surrealism.

    All we get is some worn out crap like “Contract on/for America” or the even more odious contemporary version – Boehner’s Pledge to America.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    October 6, 2010 at 9:55 am


    The Futurists were fascist nutjobs, though, weren’t they?

    Modern Surrealism is OK, perhaps a little too self-consciously manifesto-ish for my taste. Let surrealism be done tastefully, tactfully, with purpose, as the best of it that already exists, in Ovid, fairy tales, Hawthorne, Poe, etc etc


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