What Is Modernism and Who Are the Modernist Poets?
If you’ve taken an English class, browsed a bookshelf of poetry anthologies, or done some of your own research on poetry’s most significant movements, you’ve probably heard of modernism. But understanding this school of thought and the impact it’s had on poetry can be challenging.
Simply put, modernism emerged around the early 20th century and marked a departure from traditional, highly realistic art. It aimed to counter earlier schools of poetry — which often focused on religion and elevated language – and instead give voice to an intellectual, sensory, and evolving world. Modernist poets believed in illustrating the dramatic, nuanced shifts occurring all around them — from war to new technology. They did this by breaking away from Romantic language, searching for fresh images and a completely new diction while remaining aware of, and even acknowledging, language’s limitations.
Ezra Pound, one of the key figures in modernism, summed up modernism’s main teaching as “Make It New” both the title of his 1934 essay collection and a cry to incorporate the most current, timely, and cutting-edge in one’s work. Additionally, modernism embraced the discontent and uncertainty of the era, resisting easy answers and surface-level depictions. Read these modernist poets to get a feel for the movement.
Ezra Pound was a central figure of the modernist movement, with writer Ernest Hemingway famously noting that for poets of the time period not being influenced by Pound would be “like passing through a great blizzard and not feeling its cold.” Pound published more than 10 collections of poetry, with the engrossing The Cantos being the most renowned. Pound is known for his stream-of-consciousness writing style, his poetry spanning both sprawling epics and minimalist single stanzas, He is also memorable for his devotion to Imagism, which upheld vivid imagery as the most important facet of poetry.
T.S. Eliot, a close friend and collaborator of Ezra Pound, had a similar leading role in establishing modernism. The poet is an example of the intellectualism, deep thinking, and academic rigor that defined the modernist movement. Known for his enrollment in a wide array of philosophy courses, his prioritization of learning multiple languages, and his interests in theater and dramaturgy, Eliot was famously an erudite. This scholarly side comes across in key works like The Waste Land, which contained many allusions and references, even delving into detailed footnotes. Eliot was also known for confronting the limitations of language and the hopelessness that can result from this, with the speaker in his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” noting, “That is not it at all. / That is not what I meant, at all.”
Gertrude Stein’s house in Paris was just as central to the modernist movement as the writer herself. Known for advancing the avant-garde, Stein’s house was also a literary and artistic salon, where she hosted iconic artists such as Matisse, Picasso.. Her work celebrated and investigated a connection between poetry and visual art, and strived to depict the imagery, interiority, and experimentalism of her favorite paintings in the written word. Stein’s work is known for its density, its rejection of plot and dialogue, and its commitment to process. Like many modernist writers, Stein saw herself as distinctly of the 20th century and charged with defining the period’s style and voice.
Mina Loy, most directly influenced and encouraged by Gertrude Stein, saw and advanced a clear connection between the modernist movement and a feminist political movement in poetry. Loy’s work draws a parallel between the female experience and art for art’s sake. She interpreted modernism’s appeal and embrace of disenchantment and disillusionment as a distinctly gendered call to action, expressing these ideas within the experiences of marriage, childbirth, and sex. For Loy, rejecting the language and poeticisms of the past could only be done through unabashedly dismantling long-standing expectations for women.
Want to learn more about some of poetry’s most influential periods and figures? Read our guide to the New York School poets.