Stripping the Veil—The Modernists

Poetry strips the veil of familiarity from things. ~Shelley

What is poetry? Poetry can be “prosey” (think of prose poems) and prose can be “poetic.” There’s an enormous range of mood and approach within each. So?

Definitions are as numerous as poets. I can think of several things to say to describe poetry, but in the end, poetry is words. Robert Frost defined poetry as “what gets lost in translation.” John Hall Wheelock put it well, “A poem will result when the genius of a language—its words, their sound and their sense—offers the genius of a poet an opportunity to perform a miracle. That masterpiece of coincidence, that achieved miracle, the poem, with its unique syllabic patterns, its unique consonantal and vowel music, its seemingly inevitable cadences (partly the result of skill, partly the result of sheer good luck), is not translatable.”

Some claim poetry is a way of knowing. Language is human’s greatest achievement. We can use words to symbolize, or stand in for, complex experience. A poem is a “constellation of such symbols, representing a poet’s rediscovery of some phase of reality.” (Wheelock) It’s a rediscovery because as we become familiar with things we lose sight of them; we take what we know and experience for granted. Poetry, like any of the arts, is a revelation. It gives the poet’s world back to the poet. Poetry reveals what we know to ourselves. However, poems often require imagination and familiarity with the conventions of the art to be understood. In fact, to some poets, the more obscure and erudite the poem, the better. They want to keep the reader in the dark. It isn’t surprising that poetry often has a bad rap. Goethe’s advice, “Don’t tell it to anyone except the initiated, because the multitude will only jeer at you.” More than obscure, modern poetry has been accused of being cerebral, and empty of feeling. Wordsworth might define poetry as “emotion recollected in anxiety with distaste.”

Poetry might be considered a form of communication, or better, communion within a universal fellowship. The poem doesn’t come as a desire to communicate, but is what happens when a poet rediscovers some part of her lost reality, because it has “been overlaid by the veil of familiarity.” (Shelley) The poem is part of the rediscovery—through it the poet learns what she has forgotten. You might say the poet is talking to herself, established communication with herself, and through that with others. “What was subject has become object. What was on the inside is now on the outside.” (Wheelock)

Poetry changed radically over the last century. T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s work began a revolution. They shifted focus from the  Romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Perception began to overtake emotion in poetry. Poetry shifted to a more observational style with less searching for meaning. Mid-century poetry has been described as analytic, precise, and emotionally uninvolved, rather a scientific method. Poetry left the realm of common knowledge and imagery and moved into a private system of reference, essentially: classical references have given way to intensely personal experience. This isn’t surprising as not all readers and poets share the same background of knowledge anymore, but some lament the loss of feeling. Elizabeth Jennings puts it, “We only move it through the mind…/Perhaps the deeper tragedy/ Is then the inability/ To change a thought into emotion.”

We’ve all heard the many opinions of modern verse. One complaint, it’s lost its music. Free verse can be “disjointed, episodic, and staccato.” (Wheelock) But look at the world that is producing modern poetry. If poetry has become more objective recording and less feeling, it has also become more accessible with the use of common speech.

Wallace Stegner nailed Modernist poetry in his:

“Of Modern Poetry”

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

The Modernists changed the definition of poetry for better or worse. The next post will look at  the further evolution of poetry: Postmodernism.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

(Don’t hesitate to comment with your definition!)

Adapted from What is Poetry?, John Hall Wheelock, 1963, Charles Scribner’s and Sons



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2 responses to “Stripping the Veil—The Modernists

  1. Great overview. Can you talk next about meter and scan?