Subject Material

American Poetry - From Traditionalism to Modernism

Published: 18.06.2013, Updated: 05.03.2017
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Chrysler-bygningen

The European trend of modernist writing did not catch on in America until some decades into the 20th century, at least not in poetry. Until then American poetry seemed to lean on a more traditional concept of verse. 

The Traditionalists

Robert FrostRobert FrostThree of the most prominent American poets of the late 19th century were Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), Carl Sandburg (1869-1967) and Robert Frost (1874-1963). Their poetry was realistic and locally coloured, and their poetic language was colloquial and comprehensible, which is probably why they are three of America’s most read and cherished poets.

The European trend of modernist writing did not catch on in America until some decades into the 20th century, at least not in poetry. Until then American poetry seemed to lean on a more traditional concept of verse. Three of the most prominent American poets of the late 19th century were Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), Carl Sandburg (1869-1967) and Robert Frost (1874-1963). Their poetry was realistic and locally coloured, and their poetic language was colloquial and comprehensible, which is probably why they are three of America’s most read and cherished poets. Follow the links below for more information about Robinson, Frost and Sandburg, and examples of their poetry.

Edwin Arlington Robinson  

Carl Sandburg 

Robert Frost

A Different Approach

Reading modernist literature – and poetry in particular, may seem both confusing and difficult. The structure, language and enigmatic allusions become obstacles that will often make the reader give up and put the book down. However, a modernist text or poem may need a somewhat different approach than conventional literature. With a modernist text the reader is left without the usual aids of a logical plot and comprehensible composition. For example, what happens when parts of a narrative are told through a character with no sense of time? (William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 1931) Modernist literature may take more effort from the reader, but on the other hand, the reading experience is more personal and there is no key answer as to how the text should be understood and appreciated. The point is what the text gives you of associations and emotions, and not primarily how the writer has meant it to be understood. It is, for example, perfectly alright to read "The Waste Land" without knowing the precise explanation of all T S Elliot’s strange allusions, as it is quite possible to enjoy a modernist text without “understanding” it. Follow the link and read part one and two of "The Waste Land" by T S Elliot. (Read it first without checking the notes, and see if you enjoy it without the explanations.)

"The Waste Land" (Part One and Two) 

Three American Modernists

American Poet Ezra PoundAmerican Poet Ezra Pound
Fotograf: The Granger Collection
The interwar period was an extraordinarily rich period for American poetry. Various magazines and periodicals appeared as a scene for new poets whose poetry radically broke with the poetic style of the late 19th century. The new American poetry was experimental and original both in language, theme and composition. One of the most remarkable poets in this new wave of poetry was Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who became one of the leaders of the anti-romantic movement called Imagism. His innovative poetry presented visual everyday images in a concentrated and precise poetic context. Pound’s oral, speaking-voice language also broke with every convention and traditional criteria of what poetic language should be like. His poetry brimmed with allusions and references to classic mythlogy and literature. Pound worked with and inspired T S Elliot, and Elliot's famous poem "The Waste Land" is dedicated to Ezra Pound - ("For Ezra Pound - il miglior fabbro / the better craftsman").

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams William Carlos Williams' (1883-1963) poetic project was to see the extraordinary in ordinary and everyday observation. Like Pound he wrote in a spare and boiled down style, and rejected all traditional features of a poem, such as meter, stanza form and rhyme. In the beginning he was influenced by Ezra Pound and his Imagism, but gradually distanced himself from Pound’s (and Elliot’s) extensive use of classical allusions and what he saw as unneccesary use of German and Italian in their poetry. Williams' method was to express the poetic potential of “no ideas, but in things”. See for example "This is Just to Say" on the link below.


e.e. cummingse.e. cummings
Fotograf: Bettmann
Another of the new American poets was e e cummings (note the lack of capitalization), who took the concept of modernist poetry a step further. His poetry holds a clear visual element as the typographical arrangement of the poem and the unpredictable punctuation were often more important than the actual meaning of the poem itself. Cummings was also a painter, a fact that may explain the strong visual aspect of many of his poems. The poems "Ta", "One!", and "I Will Be" are good examples. Find them on the link below.

 

 

 

These links will give you access to the poetry of the three American modernist poets mentioned in the article.

Ezra Pound 

William Carlos Williams 

e e cummings