Modernist Poetry - Definition of Literary Term

The word 'modern' and even 'modernism' are very vague terms whose precise meanings are hard to pin down. In literary criticism, the 'trend' called modernism is associated with several features seen in the literature of the early twentieth century, after the First World War, and especially after the publication of Eliot's "The Waste Land" in 1922, untill the beginning of another equally versatile movement called post-modernism.

In general, modernist literature is characterized by the radical break with the traditions of literary subjects, forms, concepts and styles. In poetry, we can discuss the modernist elements in terms of four major subheadings: modern or new experiments in form and style, new themes and word-games, new modes of expression, and complex and open-ended nature of their themes and meaning.

The most striking element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new modes of expression. Modernism includes the many ‘-isms’ and therefore many different ways to express ideas and feelings. The different ways of expressing include the imagist way of presenting just concrete images for the readers to understand the idea and experience the feelings themselves; the symbolist way of presenting things in terms of deeply significant symbols of ideas and feelings for readers to interpret them intellectually; the realist way of truly reflecting the reality of the world; the naturalist way of going to the extreme of realism by showing the private, psychological, fantastic and the neurotic; the impressionistic way of presenting unrefined first impression of everything by the observer; the expressionistic way of probing deep into one’s own psyche and trying to express the hidden and deepest feelings, as in confessional poems; the surrealist way of imposing the mood of madness, intoxication and neurosis to excite the illogical ‘language’ of the unconscious; to name a few. Modernism includes all such experimentations in the technique of expression.

Another important element of modernist poetry is the use of new and wide range of subjects, themes and issues. Traditional poetry had to be limited to subjects of universal significance, general human appeal, and so on, even when the poems were romantically personal on their surface. But in modernist poetry, we read poems about just any topic and theme. We find poems about nature as well as eating plums, myth as well as satire of an old Christian woman, single characters as well as poor people, meaning of art as well as erotic memories of a woman, spiritual crisis as well as guilt of abortion, feminist movement as well as neurotic despise of a father, allegory of life-journey as well as the irony of death, and so on.

Besides being written on a large range of subjects and themes, modernist poems tend to be multiple in themes. It means that some single poems are about many things at the same time. For instance, Dylan Thomas’s poem “This Bread I Break” is at the same time about nature, about spirituality, and also about art. The poem “Jellyfish” is also about the fish itself, the nature of human emotions and desires, the nature of women, as well as poetic expression. The poet never fully says, as in traditional poems, what the one and precise meaning of the poem is. That is why the reader has to work with many ‘possible’ themes and meanings in the same poem. The best one can expect is to try and find logical support for the theme or themes that he ‘finds’ in the poem. So, in modernist poetry, the meaning of a poem is the ‘differing’ interpretation of different readers. There can be no single and fixed meaning of any poem.

Also, modernist poets have violated all the known conventions and established rules of the past. In the form, style, stanza, rhythm and such other technical devices of poetry, old traditions have been demolished and new experiments are tested. Cummings’ poems are good examples. There have been blank verse poems, pictorial poems, remixed rhythms, and so on. The old metrical systems, rhyme-schemes, and traditional symbols and metaphors are no longer dominating. Each poet makes his own rules. The multiplicity of styles is the characteristic of modernist poetry.