In general, modernists saw themselves as looking back to the best practices of poets in earlier periods and other cultures. Their models included ancient Greek literature, Chinese and Japanese poetry, the troubadours, Dante and the medieval Italian philosophical poets (such as Guido Cavalcanti), and the English Metaphysical poets.
Much of early modernist poetry took the form of short, compact lyrics. As it developed, however, longer poems came to the fore. These represent the main contribution of the modernist movement to the 20th-century English poetic canon.
The questioning of the self and the exploration of technical innovations in modernist poetry are intimately interconnected. The dislocation of the authorial presence is achieved through the application of such techniques as collage, found poetry, visual poetry, the juxtaposition of apparently unconnected materials and combinations of all of these. These techniques are used not for their own sake but to open up questions in the mind of the reader regarding the nature of the poetic experience. These developments parallel changes in the other arts, especially painting and music, which were taking place concurrently.
Another important feature of much modernist poetry in English is a clear focus on the surface of the poem. Much of this focuses on the literal meaning of the words on the page rather than any metaphorical or symbolic meanings that might be imputed to them. This approach to writing is reflected in Ezra Pound's advice to young writers (in his 1937 book The ABC of Reading) to "buy a dictionary and learn the meanings of words" and T. S. Eliot's response when asked the meaning of the line "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day" from Ash Wednesday (1927): "It means 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day'," he replied. Also pertinent is William Carlos Williams's 1944 declaration: "A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words".
In setting these criteria for poetry, the Imagists saw themselves as looking backward to the best practices of pre-Romantic writing. Imagists poets used sharp language and embrace imagery. Their work, however, was to have a revolutionary impact on English-language writing for the rest of the 20th century.
In 1913, Pound was contacted by the widow of the recently deceased Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa, who while in Japan had collected word-by-word translations and notes for 150 classical Chinese poems that fit in closely with this program. The grammar of Chinese offers different expressive possibilities than English, a point that Pound subsequently made much of. For example, in Chinese, the first line of Li Po's (called "Rihaku" by Fenollosa's Japanese informants) poem The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter is a spare, direct juxtaposition of 5 characters that appear in Fenollosa's notes as
mistress hair first cover browIn his resulting 1915 Cathay, Pound rendered this in simple English as
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
Between 1914 and 1917, four anthologies of Imagist poetry were published. In addition to Pound, Flint, H.D. and Aldington, these included work by Skipwith Cannell, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Upward, John Cournos, D. H. Lawrence and Marianne Moore. With a few exceptions, this represents a roll-call of English-language modernist poets of the time. After the 1914 volume, Pound distanced himself from the group and the remaining anthologies appeared under the editorial control of Amy Lowell.
The war also tended to undermine the optimism of the Imagists. This was reflected in a number of major poems written in its aftermath. Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius" (1919) uses the loose translations and transformations of the Latin poet Propertius to ridicule war propaganda and the idea of empire. His "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (1921) represents his farewell to Imagism and lyric poetry in general. The writing of these poems coincided with Pound's decision to abandon London permanently.
The most famous English-language modernist work arising out of this post-war disillusionment is T. S. Eliot's epic "The Waste Land" (1922). Eliot was an American poet who had been living in London for some time. Although he was never formally associated with the Imagist group, his work was admired by Pound, who, in 1915, helped him publish "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which brought him to prominence. When Eliot had completed his original draft of a long poem based on both the disintegration of his personal life and mental stability, and the culture around him, he gave the manuscript, provisionally titled "He Do the Police in Different Voices", to Pound for comment. After some heavy editing, "The Waste Land" in the form in which we now know it was published, and Eliot came to be seen as the voice of a generation. The addition of notes to the published poem served to highlight the use of collage as a literary technique, paralleling similar practice by the cubists and other visual artists. From this point on, modernism in English tended towards a poetry of the fragment that rejected the idea that the poet could present a comfortingly coherent view of life.
Although many of the Imagists were Americans, they were essentially a London-based group. By the end of World War I, they had effectively ceased to exist as a movement and a number of them had more or less stopped writing poetry altogether. By 1920, Pound and Joyce were both living in Paris and participating in the vibrant expatriate writing scene. This scene centred around the salons hosted by Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, both of whom wrote poetry; Stein was to go on to become one of the most formally and linguistically innovative of modernist novelists. Many modernist poets and writers, including Pound, Joyce, Williams (on a trip to Paris) Mina Loy, Robert McAlmon, Djuna Barnes, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, and Ernest Hemingway attended these salons. Both Stein and Barney were openly lesbian and Barney, in particular, actively encouraged women writers.
One of the most active of these women, Mina Loy, was born in Britain, where she studied art, and first moved to Paris in 1902 to continue her studies. She soon became a regular at Stein's salon and exhibited her paintings both in Paris and London. In 1905, she moved to Florence where she mixed with the expatriate community and the Futurists, and had a relationship with their leader Filippo Marinetti. Her first poems, published in 1914, showed her familiarity with the work of other modernists and an advanced sense of formal experimentation. Her work was greatly admired by both Pound and Williams, amongst others. In a 1917 review of her work, Pound coined the term logopoeia, which he defined as 'a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas' to describe her poetry.
These writers found themselves exposed to a general culture of artistic ferment in their adopted city, particularly in the visual arts and music. Artists like Picasso, Georges Braque and Constantine Brancusi and musicians including Igor Stravinsky and George Antheil were part of their same social and artistic circles, and a high level of cross pollination between these arts and artists urged the poets towards ever greater levels of experimentation.
The Parisian expatriate community provided an environment in which literary experiment was encouraged and served as a major source of modernist writing in all genres, including poetry. This concentration of activity in one city also helped support a thriving small press publishing industry, with presses like Robert McAlmon's Contact Editions and William Bird's Three Mountains Press publishing many of the key modernist texts of the period.
The U.S. modernist poets were concerned to create work in a distinctively American idiom. Williams, a doctor who worked in general practice in a working-class area of Rutherford, New Jersey, explained this approach by saying that he made his poems from 'the speech of Polish mothers'. In this, they were placing themselves in a tradition stretching back to Whitman.
After her initial association with the Imagists, Marianne Moore carved out a unique niche for herself among 20th century poets. Much of her poetry is written in syllabic verse, repeating the number of syllables rather than stresses or beats, per line. She also experimented with stanza forms borrowed from troubadour poetry.
Wallace Stevens' work falls somewhat outside this mainstream of modernism. Indeed, he deprecated the work of both Eliot and Pound as "mannered." His poetry is a complex exploration of the relationship between imagination and reality. Unlike many other modernists, but like the English Romantics, by whom he was influenced, Stevens thought that poetry was what all humans did; the poet was merely self-conscious about the activity.
In Scotland, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid formed something of a one-man modernist movement. An admirer of Joyce and Pound, MacDiarmid wrote much of his early poetry in anglicised Lowland Scots, a literary dialect which had also been used by Robert Burns. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I and was invalided out in 1918. After the war, he set up a literary magazine, Scottish Chapbook, with 'Not traditions - Precedents!' as its motto. His later work reflected an increasing interest in found poetry and other formal innovations.
The economic depression, combined with the impact of the Spanish Civil War, also saw the emergence, in the Britain of the 1930s, of a more overtly political poetry, as represented by such writers as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Although nominally admirers of Eliot, these poets tended towards a poetry of radical content but formal conservativeness. For example, they rarely wrote free verse, preferring rhyme and regular stanza patterns in much of their work.
A number of Irish poets and writers moved to Paris in the early 1930s to join the circle around James Joyce. These included Samuel Beckett, Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin. These writers were aware of Pound and Eliot, but they were also Francophone and took an interest in contemporary French poetry, especially the surrealists. Indeed, Coffey and Devlin were amongst the first to translate the works of Paul Eluard into English. Around the same time, a number of British surrealist poets were beginning to emerge, among them David Gascoyne, George Barker and Hugh Sykes Davies. Like the Objectivists, these poets were relatively neglected by their native literary cultures and had to wait for a revival of interest in British and Irish modernism in the 1960s before their contributions to the development of this alternative tradition were properly assessed.
One of the most influential of all the modernist long poems was Pound's The Cantos, a 'poem containing history' that he started in 1915 and continued to work on for the rest of his writing life. From a starting point that combines Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Divine Comedy to create a personal epic of 20th century life, the poem uses materials from history, politics, literature, art, music, economics, philosophy, mythology, ecology and the poet's personal experiences and ranges across European, American, African and Asian cultures. Pound coined the term 'ideogrammatic method' to describe his technique of placing these materials in relation to each other so as to open up new and unexpected relationships. This can be seen as paralleling techniques used by modernist artists and composers to similar ends.
Other Imagist-associated poets also went on to write long poems. William Carlos Williams' Paterson applied the techniques developed by Pound to a specific location and in a specific, American, dialect. H.D. wrote Trilogy out of her experiences in London during World War II and Helen in Egypt, a reworking of the Helen of Troy story from the perspective of the female protagonist, as a kind of feminist response to the masculine mind-set behind Pound's epic. Eliot's experiences of war-torn London also underpinned his Four Quartets. A number of Objectivists also wrote long poems, including Zukofsky's A, Charles Reznikoff's Testimony, and Basil Bunting's Briggflatts. Brian Coffey's Advent is the key long poem by an Irish modernist. All these poems, to one extent or another, use a range of techniques to blend personal experience with materials from a wide range of cultural and intellectual activities to create collage-like texts on an epic scale.
A number of leading modernists took a more left-wing political view. Hugh MacDiarmid helped found the National Party of Scotland and was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. During the 1930s, he was expelled from the former for being a communist and from the latter for being a nationalist although he rejoined the Communist Party in 1956. The Objectivists Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen and Carl Rakosi were all, at one time or another, committed Marxists and Oppen spent a number of years in Mexico to escape the attention of Joseph McCarthy's United States Senate committee. A number of the British surrealists, especially David Gascoyne, also supported Communism.
Other modernists took up political positions that did not fit neatly into the left/right model. H.D., Mina Loy and Nathalie Barney, for instance, are now seen as proto-feminists and their openness about their various sexualities can be read as foreshadowing the 1970s view that the personal is political. H.D., especially after World War I, came to view the goal of modernism as being the bringing about of world peace. However, she also displayed anti-Semitic views in the notebooks for her book Tribute to Freud. Basil Bunting, who came from a Quaker background, was a conscientious objector during World War I, but because of his opposition to Fascism, served in British Military Intelligence in Persia (Iran) during World War II. William Carlos Williams' political views arose from his daily contact with the poor who attended his surgery. He was another for whom the personal and political blended, an approach best summed up in his statement that 'A new world is only a new mind'.
As can be seen from this brief survey, although many modernist poets were politically engaged, there is no single political position that can be said to be closely allied to the modernist movement in English-language poetry. These poets came from a wide range of backgrounds and had a wide range of personal experiences and their political stances reflect these facts.
However, the 1950s saw the emergence, particularly in the United States, of a new generation of poets who looked to the modernists for inspiration. The influence of modernism can be seen in these poetic groups and movements, especially those associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, such as the Beat generation, the Black Mountain poets, the deep image group. Charles Olson, the theorist of the Black Mountain group, wrote in his 1950 essay, Projectivist Verse 'ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION', a statement that links back directly to the Imagists. Robert Duncan, another Black Mountain poet admired H.D. while a third member of the group, Robert Creeley did much to help revive interest in Zukofsky and other Objectivists.
Among the Beats, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg studied Pound closely and were heavily influenced by his interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry and the ecological concerns evident in the later Cantos. William Carlos Williams was another who had a strong impact on the Beat poets, encouraging poets like Lew Welch and writing an introduction for the book publication of Ginsberg's seminal poem, Howl. Many of these writers found a major platform for their work in Cid Corman's Origin magazine and press. Origin also published work by Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker and Wallace Stevens, helping to revive interest in these early modernist writers. The Objectivists, especially the strict formal experimentation of Zukofsky's later works, were also formative for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.
As the Beats and other American poets began to find readers in the UK and Ireland, a new generation of British poets with an interest in modernist experimentation began to appear. These poets, who included Tom Raworth, Bob Cobbing, Gael Fisher and others formed the nucleus of the British Poetry Revival. This new generation helped bring about a renewed interest in the writings of Bunting, MacDiarmid, David Jones and David Gascoyne. Current practice includes the enormously influential canon of Roy Fisher (also a major player in the Revival) and the more recent work of Mario Petrucci published through the innovative Perdika Press.
Contemporary poets associated with Irish modernism include those associated with New Writers Press and The Beau magazine; these include Trevor Joyce, Michael Smith, Geoffrey Squires, Randolph Healy, Billy Mills, Catherine Walsh, and Maurice Scully. New Writers Press also published work by Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin, introducing them to a new audience, and, in Coffey's case, facilitating a late flowering of new work.