The decades between roughly 1890 and 1960 witnessed unprecedented efforts to create new art, new values, and a new culture in Europe and the United States to distance itself from the more socially acceptable works of late Victorian poets and artists. During this time, Western writers, artists, and intellectuals questioned the accepted aesthetic norms and produced radically experimental works of art and new understandings of what it means to live in modern times. The first half of the 20th century also witnessed the most devastating conflicts in Western history – the two World Wars and the Holocaust – and these events accelerated and profoundly influenced cultural changes. Modernist poetry – one of the most interesting cultural developments – emerged during this time.
While it is true that modernist poetic developments sprang up in unlikely and seemingly spontaneous ways, we will attempt to progress through this course in a roughly chronological manner. This is because, in many ways, even modern poetry retains a social form that can reflect the cultural and political situations in which it is written. The course starts with a theoretical consideration of modernity and modernism, as well as a brief introduction to poetics and some references to pre-modern Victorian poetic practices. This course then explores transitional, fin-de-siècle poetic innovations of the French symbolists and World War I poets. The course addresses early modernist movements like Imagism, Vorticism, and Futurism as well as the writings of High Modernism. A unit on African-American modernism, often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, explores another crucial dimension. Finally, you will analyze how World War II and the Holocaust affected poetry.
By the end of the course, you will have studied the work of major American and British modernist poets, and you will have critically explored the characteristic techniques, concerns, and tropes of modern poetry.
The Course’s Grand Design
Two Bridges to Modernity
Think of this course in terms of two bridges. The shorter bridge is the main subject of this course, or modern poetry in a certain time period, being from the relative orderliness of the late 19th century (i.e., Victorian era) to the chaotic end of World War II and the potentialities for world-wide nuclear annihilation during the early 1960’s.
The Longer Bridge
The longer cultural bridge is the overarching philosophical paradigm shift to modernity, marked in literary terms on one end by John Milton’s 1674 Paradise Lost [Note: The best website for all of Milton’s poetry is The John Milton Reading Room at Dartmouth.] and on the other end by William Carlos Williams’ 1923 “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The really big question in this course is how did Western culture come from Milton’s confident “justifying the ways of God to men” in his epic poem:
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: . . .
to barely being able to hang on to the existence of reality itself with William Carlos Williams’ poem?
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
“So much depends” on what, Mr. Williams? Milton explained in gargantuan detail what depended on Adam’s tasting of the forbidden fruit, while William Carlos Williams leaves us with a 16 word enigma about a wheelbarrow and chickens.
The Shorter Bridge
The shorter bridge that this course on the modern represents is the one that connects the Victorian period to the start of our contemporary artistic endeavors. The one that begins near Tennyson’s “Into the valley of death rode the 6,000” and ends with the advent of the Beat poets with Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Ginsberg’s “Howl” in so many ways registers the culmination of the wars and the beginning of self-absorbed, contemporary poetry, which would be the subject for a subsequent course.
The main goal of this course is to show you the functioning of that shorter bridge. Hart Crane visualized it both concretely and metaphorically. For him, it was the “Brooklyn Bridge” itself. For me, it is the term modern.
On her death bed, Gertrude Stein’s last words expressed modern art’s continuing efforts to express the inexpressible in our center-less universe. “What is the answer?” she asked, and when no answer came she laughed and said: “Then, what is the question?” We will hear a number of 20th century poets try to explore these questions throughout this course.