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Modernisms Influence on Postmodern Poets

All poetry is connected in some way, shape, or fashion. Through the years, decades

and eras, the structure and form of poems has changed as has the context. By context, it is

meant as the meaning and the portrayal of the meaning of the poem. In early, more structured

times, there were meanings on the surface and meanings underlying that were found in the

images, symbols, rhythms, rhymes and actual structure of the poem. In the early 20th century,

this began to change. The poets began changing their views of their work and sometime

between 1940 and 1960 the postmodern poets shared their work through what has been

categorized as not only postmodern, but also Black Mountain School, the Beat Generation, and

the New York School. The main fact is that all these poets wrote in similar ways, with disregard

to the structure of the formalized poetry of the past. These poets were outspoken and the

written word was exactly what they wanted the poem to portray. The symbolism is scarce, but

not gone. The in your face attitude makes it easier for all readers to understand the meanings

of the poem composed by these postmodern poets.

However, these poets needed to get their initial training and inspiration from some

where. When the poems are analyzed, it becomes apparent that many of these poets took the

lead from the modernist poets, such as Pound, Eliot, and Williams. In fact, several of the

postmodern poets were often compared to their modernist counterparts. So, how do the

postmodernist poets compare to the modernist poets, and how do they differ? Each poet holds

their own place and the similarities and differences are not just between the past poets and the

postmodern poets, but between these postmodern poets themselves. For while they all write in

approximately the same time frame, they are not as similar and many people would assume.

Each faction of postmodernism is a little different and it is these differences that create the

poems that are crude, disconnected, and up front with the issues of the world at the time of the

This essay will follow four postmodernist poets and one modernist poet to explore the

similarities and differences within their poems, through structure and context. Each of the

postmodern poets fall within the different categories of the period and will be discuss in light of

these differences, and have at sometime been compared to and contrasted from the modernist

poet, who is William Carlos Williams (Mattix, 688).

Robert Lowell came from a family tree of literary people, but his own family he disliked

and wrote about in very unflattering ways. Much of his early poetry is in regards to the dislike

he had for his family and his poems were more formal and followed more of the rigid rules of

poetry. Eventually, he broke from this mold and headed head first in to the postmodernist era,

creating freer verses that were often awkward and conflicting. The use of symbols as

metaphors were gone, and the only thing left was the experience through the words of the poem

on the page (Ramazani et al, 120).

The poem “Grandparents” written in 1959 by Lowell reflects the autobiographical

memory of grandparents through the eyes of the teenage child at their death. He states they

are “otherworldly” in the very first line of the poem (Ramazani et al, 126) even before their

death. They have their rituals and they have their qualms, but the speaker misses these things

after their death. Lowell uses blank verse, and the poem is more to be spoken and understood

rather then chanted and reflected upon. There are no hidden meanings in this poem only the

memories that are put out there for the reader; nothing is hidden including the emotion of the

speaker as to his inheritance upon their death. He uses the pauses and end stopped lines to

create conclusions, but not resolutions. One could assume he wrote poetry like he thought,

straightforward, and cyclical since the memories start the poem, then the experience of death

and his inheritance, and then back to the memories. Most people would think in this way and

Lowell shows and writes it as he feels it.

The next poet, Robert Creeley, was part of the Black Mountain School facet of the

postmodernism. While many poets are very verbose, Creeley was more worried about the
meaning than the articulation of the meaning. He not only put the experiences and emotions

out to the public, but he did it quickly and cleanly, leaving nothing missed. In 1983, Creeley

wrote “Mother’s Voice” about the memory of his mother and how those memories bring back the

sound of her voice whether he wants to hear it or not. In fact, by the end of the poem, the

speaker realizes that it is not just through memories that his mother’s voice is heard, but in his

own speech he hears remnants of her speech (Ramazani et al, 333). Many people have said

“that sounds just like my mother” and that is what this poem is saying to the reader. The child

will take on facets of the mother and in time when the child is older he or she will hear the

mother’s voice in his or her own.

Creeley was not only swift and to the point with his poetry, but used free and blank verse

with little rhyme, only incidentally, and a disconnected rhythm that is forced by the lack of

caesuras, and pauses. These pauses do occur, but at uncooperative points within the poem,

creating a friction that can be related to the friction of the speaker realizing the voice of his

mother coming from not only his memories but his own mouth.

The Beat Generation can be remembered with coffee houses and the spoken word.

Allen Ginsberg was a big part of the Beat Generation along with many others including Jack

Kerouac, and William Burroughs. His poetry is said to create a relationship with the reader

causing the emotion and inspiration of the meaning of the poem to be lived by the reader and

experienced, not just heard. Ginsberg did not like the nice neat poems of yesteryear and often

stated “First thought, best thought” meaning that there were no revisions, just straightforward

thoughts of the poets experiences (Ramazani, 335). Where Creeley was short and sweet,

Ginsberg’s poetry was longer and more vivid and delved deeper into the emotion that he was

feeling and that he wanted to portray to his audience. “Kaddish” was written in 1961 and was

about the death of Ginsberg’s mother (Ramazani et al, 349). He was close to his mother, and

she fostered the radical side of her son. Her death was hard on Ginsberg, but he allowed his

readers to feel his loss in this poem. It also accentuates the guilty feelings he had in regards to
institutionalizing his mother and authorizing a lobotomy that left her all but dead. She also

suffered a stroke which created more guilt for Ginsberg. This poem was his healing and the

laying out his guilt for all to see and share with him. The poem is more like a prose or essay,

but the fact that there is a rhythm to the paragraphs and the structure and use of punctuation,

caesuras, and other parts of grammar, the poem takes shape and the feelings roll through the

stanzas and force the reader into the next, never allowing the reader to stop for air or to let go of

the guilt until the very end and the confession is finished.

The last postmodernist poet is Frank O’Hara. His poetry is a reaction to the poets that

tried too hard and ended up with a facsimile of reality. He wanted poetry to be read and

understood by the masses and therefore had to be about the emotions and experiences of the

average person (Ramazani et al, 361). In his poem “The Day Lady Died” shows just how he

bucked against the formal structures and even against the blank and free verses of his time.

The poem was written about Billie Holiday’s death, and the things that he was doing on the day

of her death. The lack of structure, which includes the lack of punctuation, creates a rushed

feeling gaining speed as the reader gets further into the poem. Then on lines 16 and 18 he

adds commas, which cause an unnatural break in the rush and slows the reader down for just a

moment before the end of the poem. The rushed feeling begins to grow again only to have it

slammed to a stop by the end of the poem when he discovers her death (Ramazani et al, 365).

The disconnected stop throws the reader for a moment, just as the discovery of a celebrity or

friend’s death will cause a person to stop suddenly and be distracted or disoriented. O’Hara

used this lack of structure to create the rhythm he needed for his expressions of reality for his


The fact is that even though each one of these poets used different forms, many times

they are compared to William Carlos Williams, or contrasted because of how divergent the poet

is from the poets of the modernist era. The fact is that O’Hara is closer to Williams than any of

the other poets discussed in this essay. Both O’Hara and Williams use or do not use
punctuation to create the feeling on the page. Ginsberg and Lowell both prefer to write for the

speaker, and Creeley writes for the sound (Mattix, 688). Even with these differences, each of

these poets, modernist and postmodernist were true to their craft and their use of poetry to get

the reader to feel and experience the poem and not just read it.

When any poet or literary era or genre is analyzed, there is a history and a cause and

effect that can be found throughout the ages. The reactions to previous writers, the inspirations

from the same previous writers. The writers of today use those of the postmodern era as their

reactive and inspired muses. Whether fighting what the era set out for the poetry form, or for

taking it and making it new for the current times. Everything comes full circle and all parts of the

past eras of poetry have a home in the poetry of today and the future.
Works Cited

Mattix, Micah. “Periodization and Difference.” New Literary History 35.4 (2004): 685-697.

Project Muse 10 May 2009



Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern

and Contemporary Poetry. Vol 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.