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AMERICAN MODERNIST

POETRY
Characteristic Features of
Modernist Poetry
• The shift of emphasis on the self-referentiality
of poetic language
• The notion of a crisis of language
• Search for the overall coherence of language
• Language as the preeminent cultural system
• Increasing doubt about the possibility of a
single, unified speaking subject

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The Great Variety of American
Modernist Poetry
• The dadaist and surrealist poems of
Gertrude Stein
• The Imagist poems of Ezra Pound, H.D.
(Hilda Doolittle) and Amy Lowell
• T. S .Eliot’s The Waste Land

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H.D. in mid-1910s

Ezra Pound in 1913


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The Great Variety of American
Modernist Poetry
• V. Lindsay’s doomed fantasy of a fully public,
participatory, democratic poetry
• The restrained and universalizing regional
poems of W. Carlos Williams
• The prolific Black poetry of Langston Hughes
and the other blues writers of the Harlem
Renaissance

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The Great Variety of American
Modernist Poetry
• The populist poems celebrating
American life (Little Red Song
Book,1909, IWW, Joe Hill)
• The socially and politically
engaged poetry to develop
especially throughout the late
1920s and 1930s

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Modernist Poetic Landmarks
• Alfred Stieglitz’s
Camera Work
Magazine
• Gertrude Stein’s essays
• Mina Loy’s
“Aphorisms on
Futurism”

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Harriet Monroe’s Poetry

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Gertrude Stein 1874-1946
“The Mother of Us All”

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Gertrude Stein
• Studied with William James at
Radcliffe College
• Studied brain anatomy at Johns
Hopkins Medical School
• Major preoccupations:
- characterization
- reader’s preoccupation with the text
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Expatriation
• In 1903 moved to France
• Met Alice B. Toklas
• Returned to the United States only once, in 1934 but
claimed America as her country
• Her career in Europe was that of an art critic
• Paul Cezanne was discovered by her brother
• She was called “the Mama of Dada”
• Pablo Picasso drew her portrait

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Writings
• Three Lives, written in 1904, published in 1909
• The Making of Americans, written in 1911-12,
published in 1925
• Tender Buttons (1914)
• Tender Buttons Two: Gertrude Stein and her Brother
and G. M. P.
• The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)

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Writings
• The Geographical History of America
(1935)
• Picasso (1938)
• The Mother of Us All (1946)
• Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces (1953)
• Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems
(1956)
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Features of Stein’s Works
• An attempt to achieve a kind of verbal
“after-image”
• To penetrate the reader’s conscious-ness
and evoke some genuine response
• Subversion of familiar literary techniques
• Use of deliberately unliterary language

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Features of Stein’s Works
• Writing should be about real characters, real
objects
• Real scenes from American life
• Forces the reader to complete the description
• Characters’ motivations are purely emotional
and unchangeable

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Features of Stein’s Works
• Draws emotional states but not their physical
presence
• Creates not visual characteristics of the objects
• Avoids labels (Tender Buttons)
• Wit and experimentation
• Use of “disguising” tactics

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Features of Stein’s Works
• Defies any genre-oriented classifications
• Defies any attempts to assign a humanizing persona to
the poetic voice
• Devoted to an exploration of how language works
• Anticipated most of the linguistic experimental strain of
modernism
• Anticipated as well much of postmodernism

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Ezra Pound 1885-1972
• Family background
• Education: University of Pennsylvania, met
William Carlos Williams, transferred to
Hamilton College
• Expatriation: 1908 settled in London, a
productive friendship with William Butler
Yeats

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Early Poetry 1908-1914
• Personae (1909), to be revised and re-
issued in 1926 as Personae: The
Collected Poems.
• Patria Mia (1912), essays on American
literature and society
• Indiscretions (1920), autobiographical
writing
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Early Poetry 1908-1914
• Reflects his struggle to achieve clarity and
precision
• In search of a direct conversational diction
• The notion of personae, or masks:
• To sustain a dialogue between past and present by
speaking through various historical personalities

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Poetic Philosophy
• The obsession with the literary past, his
desire to revive ancient ghosts: “The Spirit of
Romance” (1910)
• Anticipates T .S. Eliot’s argument in
“Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919)
• The modern poet can recapture the vitality of
ancient myths

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Poetic Dictum
• The language in his first poems - obscure and
antiquated
• Ford M. Ford: all poetry should have the
economy and precision of prose
• The concept of translation as a dynamic
act-“I gather the Limbs of Osiris” (1911-12)
• A translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem
Seafarer

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The Poet-Critic
• Criticism and poetry – inseparable
• Five types of fusion:
- Criticism by discussion
- Criticism by translation:
- Cathay (1915)
- Umbra (1920)

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The Poet-Critic
• Criticism by exercise in the style of a
given period
• Criticism via music and the importance
of “melopoeia’
• The highest form is criticism in new
composition

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Imagism and Vorticism
• Started around 1912; the first Imagist anthology,
Des Imagiste (1914)
• Based on the ideas of Hulme
• Pound’s imagism soon turned the doctrine, which
was heavily indebted to the Symbolist-
Impressionist way of thinking into an anti-
Symbolist and anti-Impressionist platform

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The Image
• A “direct treatment of the “thing”
whether subjective or objective”
• No words that do not contribute to the
presentation
• “To compose in sequence of the music
phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”

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The Image

• The Image is a fusion of spontaneity,


intensity and critical discipline
• An ‘equation’ for an emotion
• Not the verbal metaphor of a ‘thing’

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Vorticism
• The ‘permanent’ or ‘absolute’ image-
complex juxtaposition must be active rather
than static
• Vorticist images “swirl, whirl, flutter, strike,
fall, move, clash and leap, with a new
emphasis on conflict and distortion”
• A re-definition of the Image as Vortex

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Image/Vortex
• “The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or
cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a
VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into
which ideas are constantly rushing.”
• The image can be described as content conceived of
as form
• Provides a medium for exploration, rather than a
territory to be explored
• It is, in his own words, a new focus

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Hugh Selwyn Mauberley
• Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 1920, a
farewell to London
• To emphasize the plight of the
Odyssean artist in the modern world
• The prevailing atmosphere is one of
postwar disillusionment

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The Cantos
• Moved to Italy - a lifetime project, the
writing of The Cantos
• A Draft of XVI Cantos, 1924/25, published
in Paris
• A Draft of XXX Cantos, 1930
• XXXI – XLI (XI New Cantos), New York,
1934

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The Cantos
• The Fifth Decad of Cantos (Leopoldine Cantos), London, 1937
• LII – LXI (The China Cantos), 1940
• LXII – LXXI (The Adams Cantos), 1940
• LXXII – LXXIII, 1944- 1945, in Italian, posthumously collected
• The Pisan Cantos (74-84), 1948
• Rock-Drill (85-95), 1955
• Thrones (96-109), 1959
• Drafts and Fragments (110-117), 1969

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WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
1883-1963

William Carlos Williams, Self Portrait , 1914 33


WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
1883-1963
• The most self-consciously American
• Five major categories of works:
• Short, extremely laconic lyric poetry
• Paterson, 1946: five-book long
• Spring and All 1923: mixing of prose and
poetry

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Williams’ Work
• In the American Grain:
- Sketches and portraits
- the special quality of the american
imagination
• Autobiographical writings: Autobiography,
1951, I Want to Write a Poem: The
Autobiography of a Poet, 1958

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Williams’ Poetry
• Referential force
• An objectivist poet
• New technique of verse:
- triadic units of collocations – ‘variable
feet’
- a distinctive American poetry
-indebted to French symbolism, surrealim,
impressionism, cubism and futurism
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