Modernism is Dead: Long Live Modernism

For anyone trying to write literary poetry today, Modernism is the watershed. It made all previous schools irrelevant to the would-be writer. Try to write like Keats or Milton and see who pays attention.

Twenty-first Century poetics are still stuck in the early 20th Century. Modernism still rules.

The flavors of 20th Century styles — starting with the Modernists and their variations and oppositions (say those poets writing with or against the Modernists up to the late 50’s), the Confessionals (up to the late 70’s), the Language poets (roughly at the same time), what I call the post-Confessionals (say those poets writing with or against New Formalism and into the 90’s), the post-post Confessionals (poets writing since about 2000), and the Conceptualists, who have a long pedigree in Dada and Language poetry — are basically variations on a theme.

If you pull back for a long shot, you see that everybody from the Imagists and Eliot onward has written some form of Modernism, as opposed to the Edwardian, Victorian, and Romantic schools that preceded it — even the Conceptualists are a logical continuation of Modernism’s focus on the fragmentation of culture and language.

Despite all the labels, no true new school has arrived since the early 20th Century.

What poet will make Modernism irrelevant?

And when?



  1. You say derivative. I say degenerative. Maybe you say degenerative, too. Eliot’s Modernism was brilliant, and a fitting reaction to the Victorian Age. As you say, there has never been that kind of reaction to Modernism; all new forms are forms of the last form. New Formalism tried to react, but is was a worthless attempt, because New Formalist poetry was Modernist poetry shoved into form. It had neither the spirit, nor the power that traditional poetry had. It was a lazy attempt at artisanship. Like a hip-hop artist sampling a classical symphony, then calling himself a classical composer.
    As far as I can see, the only way to upheave Modernism is by making the reaction complete, reverting to a completely traditional style (though employing contemporary language: no ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s)…and doing it well. Perfectly well.

      1. Well, Modern and contemporary poetry is primarily observational and situational instead of philosophical; exploring persons, places, and things instead of ideas; particulars instead of universals. People still read Dante and Shakespeare because their characters and ideas are universal types, archetypes, stereotypes. Modernism was a reaction to fragmentation in society, but instead of connecting the fragments, it became fragmented itself.

        I think the key is to push structure, and structure of thought is assisted by structure of form.

        Please check out my poem, “An Essay on Stained Glass,” which, thus far, is my best example of how I’m trying to accomplish this in my own way:

        I hope you enjoy it.

  2. Very interesting site you have. I enjoy many of the essays here.
    But I must admit I don’t really understand what makes someone a “Modernist Poet”
    Is it the way you write your poetry or is it mainly the attitude or is it just the fact of being alive?
    Personally I just think of myself as a poet and my poetry is influenced by Beowulf, Baudelaire, Homer and Juvenal as much as it is by Ferlinghetti & Bukowski.
    Rather than Modernist (actually a very old-fashioned concept-nothing ages faster than “the Modern”)I guess I see my poetry as Cosmopolitan, drawing freely on the past and present alike.

    1. I am using the term “Modernist” rather loosely to mean poets writing in what I see as the dominant style of Anglo-American poetry since right before World War I.

      I’m thinking of the shift to “natural language” initiated by Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, the emphasis on free verse and a repudiation of “poetic” verbosity by Ezra Pound and the Imagists (H.D., William Carlos Williams, etc.), and finally Elliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922).

      I see that as the last clear break we’ve had with “the poetry that came before.” When I look at the cannon (say the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry) it strikes me that we’re still writing like Modernists 100 years later.

      My argument is weakest when it comes to experimental poets such as Gertrude Stein, the Dadaists, the Language poets, and the Conceptualists, but these movements are not central to the poetry cannon: they seem to inhabit the edges, unable to displace “Modernism” from its central place.

      I commented on other people who have pointed this out a while back:

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