‘Of Modern Poetry’ by Wallace Stevens was published in his third volume of poetry, “Parts of a World” published in 1942. The work was republished in 1951. “Of Modern Poetry” could be considered as half a poem and half a theory, for Wallace Stevens being a modernist poet tells us how to write poetry. The poet using “has to” and “must” when talking about modern poetry, clearly express how he perceives modern poetry.
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Summary of ‘of Modern Poetry’
In his poem ‘of Modern Poetry,’ Stevens shares his rules or theories on how “modern poetry” should be. According to him, it must be something new, something set upon real places, people, and events. It should not have inhibitions to address unpleasant subjects. Further, he wants Modern poetry to focus on the acts of the mind itself and expects it to help people find satisfaction in their lives itself. It further describes the new demands made on poetry by the complicated and skeptical age. The poet concludes by stating the possible subjects for poetry.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure of ‘of Modern Poetry’
Stevens ‘of Modern Poetry’ does not follow any form, which indicates his theory of modern poetry being free from the prefixed forms or structure. Being written in the form of “free verse”, the poem neither has a rhyme scheme, nor a metrical structure. The lines range from ten to fourteen syllables. The twenty-eight lines are arranged in no set pattern. The poem is divided into two sections by a blank line. Each of the two sections contains a broken line, resembling the structure of a paragraph. The first section with five lines explores the issues of modern poetry and compares the poetry of past and present. The second section consisting of 21 lines deals with the new expectations and the burden cast on poetry by the new age. The section concludes with the poet listing possible subjects for poetry.
Analysis of ‘of Modern Poetry’
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
( . . . )
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
In the first section of the poem, the poet complains how poetry writing is a hideous one, especially to find the right word, the right scheme, or the right time tort change. He says, “The poem of the mind in the act of finding,/What will suffice” for it is not so easy to conjure the idea and the words sufficient in the mind Comparing to the past he says this wasn’t the situation previously for they were writing to a set pattern. But now the situation has changed for modern poetry. Poets of the time, who the poet compares to an actor, repeated what was ‘in the script’ on the preset stage. It is not the same case for modern poets. They must sprightly compose their poems.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
( . . . )
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
The poet continues with his rules in the second section of ‘Of Modern Poetry’. He insists that the poem “. . . 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”. In the lines following, he presents an extended simile, comparing modern poetry to “an insatiable actor,” who will be speaking into the “ear of the mind,” especially what it wants to hear. The actor is then described as a “metaphysician”, who sings in darkness, using poetry as an instrument with the power to make sense within the listener’s mind, for nothing descends or rises beyond the mind.
( . . . )
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
In the last three lines, beginning with a broken line, Stevens, iterates that modern poetry must allow people to find “satisfaction,” in everyday life. Particularly, in the simple acts “a man skating,” “a woman dancing,” “a woman combing” for anything could inspire to write a poem. Which, he reassures in the final line, stating the poem to be an “act of the mind.”
Literary/poetic Devices in ‘of Modern Poetry’
Literary or Poetic devices employed in a work convey the emotions, feelings, and ideas of the poet to the readers. Wallace Stevens has used a few literary devices, substantiating his view of modern poetry.
Use of Personification in poetry gives an emotional connection between the reader and the subject. In ‘Of Modern Poetry’ the poet has employed personification giving “modern Poetry” human attributes of an actor and a philosopher. He imagines poetry to “be on that stage, like an insatiable actor” and “A metaphysician in the dark” and a person who speaks “With meditation, speak words that in the ear.”
The poet uses the figures of speech ‘simile’ to compare poetry to an actor. Modern poetry “like an insatiable actor,” never satisfied with its performance. Similarly, Modern poetry is also of a demanding nature, always looking out for new ideas to write. It never limits itself to a particular style or form.
Onomatopoeia words represent the sound it is related to. Stevens in this poem uses the sound “twanging” while symbolically referring modern poetry to a musical instrument to express philosophy: “twanging An instrument, twanging a wiry string.”
Enjambed sentences do not come to an end at a line break. The entire ‘Of Modern Poetry’ poem could be taken as an example of the use of enjambment. For, the sentences end only in the middle of another line. The following lines from the poem best explain the poet’s use of enjambment: “To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,” “Emotions becoming one. The actor is,” and “Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.”
The whole poem is an extended metaphor for modern poetry. All metaphors in this poem attempt to describe modern poetry in such a way as to justify “Of Modern Poetry” both in explanation and example. Traditional poetry is compared to a theater where “the scene was set” and the actor repeats “what was in the script.” Whereas modern poetry uses a new stage and inspires many new ideas.
The poet uses imagery to well present the demanding nature of modern poetry. The poetry is an ‘insatiable actor’ and “A metaphysician in the dark” bring in the image of poetry performing on stage with vigor.
About Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879. His first attempt to publish poems refers to his “Phases“, sent under the pseudonym “Peter Parasol” in 1914. Though he did not win the prize, Monroe published his work in November. His first book of poems, Harmonium was published in 1923 written in an original style and sensibility. In spite of him being considered one of the major American poets of the century, he did not receive this recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems a year before his death in 1955. His other works include Ideas of Order (1935), The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937), Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1942), and a collection of essays on poetry, The Necessary Angel (1951).