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Modernism by Craft: Poetry and Poetics in the Long Twentieth Century

Let me start with a debatable, if not terribly new, proposition: that we should conceive of and teach modern poetry as a set of texts with origins in the 1850s and aftershocks in the poems of the present day. I advocate inclusivity because I find it difficult to separate poets considered canonically “modern” from earlier or later poets whose breaks with tradition and formal innovations, whose newness and strangeness in their own time, give them as sure a claim to the ideals of modernism as many of the poets who were writing half-a-century before or after them. Like Whitman, Dickinson, Browning, or Hopkins, many living poets—Frank Bidart, Geoffrey Hill, just to name two—fit a trajectory that might be deemed modern despite their writing outside of standard period boundaries. Contemporary poets often write with modernist principles in mind (breaking tradition, experimenting formally, employing difficulty as an aesthetic), and many of them openly claim affinities with the movement and the writers within it. Hill readily identifies himself as a “high modernist”; Bidart cites Eliot as an early source and influence. We teachers and critics worry over historical and cultural distinctions partly because our careers require us to periodize and partly because of what historicism has taught us about the importance of context, but in my experience, students—and especially students new to poetry—are much more flexible when it comes to thinking about how this poem might relate to that one, much more amenable to the concept of overlapping movements. As a practicing poet, too, I am aware of how often I think and read beyond my own period for inspiration, and a long-century approach to modernism that takes into account not just historical factors but also continuities and ingenuities of craft feels closer to the way that I read and appreciate poetry myself.

Giving students this sense of historical continuity while also emphasizing what is innovative about a poet’s development of his or her craft has been one of my major aims in the modern poetry classroom. My most satisfying experience teaching modern poetry was in a summer course that included three centuries of writers, beginning with Walt Whitman and ending with Frank Bidart. This trajectory allowed me to talk about free verse at the beginning of the syllabus, before T. S. Eliot, and dramatic monologue, a throwback to Robert Browning, at the end. Starting with Whitman was liberating, in part because it allowed us to identify qualities of modernist poetry without having to do so in the context of extreme difficulty—that is, with Yeats, Eliot, or Pound (or Vorticism, Imagism, etc). My students, roughly half of them Yale University English majors and half of them high school or “gap year” students, found it easy to think about Whitman’s free verse as a kind of precursor to what modern poems look and sound like. The voice in “Song of Myself” provided a path to understanding the strange persona Eliot develops in “Prufrock.” Eliot’s much shorter poem searches and questions in a different way than Whitman’s does, but both poets’ speakers aim at self-definition and orientation.  Dickinson’s meticulous attention to form, image, and vocabulary, as well as her poetry’s extreme ambiguity, served as training for my students’ first encounters with William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and others. Teaching Whitman and Dickinson in the context of modernism also brought out different aspects of their verse. “Modernist” issues—autonomy, the recuperative power of the aesthetic, crisis, craft, personality and impersonality—felt at the heart of these two nineteenth century poets’ work.

Following this trajectory forward into mid-century developments in poetic style, we thought about the ways that poets writing in the 1950s and 60s looked not only to their immediate predecessors but also to earlier influences. Like Eliot and Pound, the Beat poets took a cue from Whitman; but students quickly ascertained that theirs was a very different cue, perhaps less concerned with Whitman’s “new free forms” than with his broad vision of democracy as it unfolds through poems.[1] Whether “cooked” or “raw,” the confessional poets, we realized, ask questions familiar from those posed by Williams and Wallace Stevens: how should we represent things in the world?[2] How should we represent ourselves? To what extent should a poem mediate personal experience? We could trace the range of answers to these questions back to Whitman and Dickinson (and sometimes even farther back, to the divide between the “cooked” manner of late Romantic poets and their “rawer” contemporary John Clare, to whom poets as different as Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery both claim a debt). Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and others offer students a contemporary version of that earlier drive to make it new (while still keeping an eye on modernist ideals in their rearview mirrors).[3]

I have noticed advantages and disadvantages to taking such an expansive view of modern poetics. If one challenge involves choosing between the plurality of “modernisms” that one finds even within a tightly defined field, I have also learned that a classic “modern” syllabus (and the tradition upon which it is based) looks different depending on which side of the Atlantic you are teaching on. Having recently switched shores myself, I find that I am freshly navigating a British curriculum whose poetic heroes are a little different from those I encountered in the United States. W. B. Yeats, Eliot, and Ezra Pound are still giants, but conspicuously missing from student conversation are American staples like Stevens, Moore, Williams, and Robert Frost. My own mid-century favorites, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop, are often displaced by the likes of W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Philip Larkin. My poetic culture shock has forced me to look a little more closely at my own biases as a reader and teacher of modern poetry.

Because I was taught modern poetry mostly by New Critics in New England while taking poetry workshops taught by some of these same teachers, I have an approach that is both craft-based and American-focused. But I have begun to think that poetry and Modernism have always had more to do with one another in the US than they have in the UK, where some of modernism’s other heroes—James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf—tend to take up the lion’s share of the syllabus.  One of my new questions for students (and for myself) is whether modern poetry could ever really be taught without American poetry. Or, to turn the question around: might we consider, and teach, modern poetry as, at least in part, an American phenomenon? Most of the major poets of the period besides Yeats—Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Moore, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Hart Crane, Amy Lowell—are American-born, and their interactions with many of the non-American modern poets were decisive influences on those careers (i.e. Pound on Yeats, Frost on Edward Thomas). These are poets whose work fits right in with modernism’s internationalism, but they are also poets who claim an inheritance left to them by decidedly American nineteenth century precursors.  Adding a few of America’s earliest modernist poets to the syllabus underscores this inheritance.

Would identifying and teaching English-language modern poetry as a largely American movement (with a few notable exceptions) change anything about our practice in the classroom?  Well, for one thing, it might realign the modernism syllabus. On a syllabus that encompasses Joyce, Proust, and Woolf, American poets like Frost, Hughes, and Moore can seem like outliers. A trajectory that starts a little earlier and runs a little later puts these poets on firmer footing. Likewise, such a syllabus recasts Eliot slightly, forcing us to read him as one of many poets in a varied tradition rather than as the leading poet in a narrow one. Eliot, in particular, can be polarizing: he is the be-all, end-all poet for some students, but the beginning of the end of comprehension for others. Placing him in a line of poets, rather than at the center of a circle of poets, may help those students who are skeptical (especially if they keep friendlier-seeming practitioners of free verse like Whitman in mind). Or, to recast my mathematical metaphor: by beginning with nineteenth century American innovators, we turn Eliot into the median poet of modernism, rather than the mean. He arrives in the middle, and in a way comes to define that middle, but he is certainly not the average poet of the period.

Even a view so broad has limits. For example, it is hard for me to think of modern poetry without Yeats, or even Hardy, yet these poets are more difficult to teach in relation to Whitman or Dickinson, and an American-centric approach would also make it harder to include British World War I poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke. There are certainly British analogues to the American precursors that I decided to take on with my syllabus: Clare, Browning, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s work is central to much poetry that comes after them, including poems being written today.[4] One potential solution to this dilemma of over-inclusion as well as exclusion would be to change the parameters of such a course slightly. In teaching modern poetry as a transhistorical and continuing field of innovative poetics, one perhaps distinct from modernism itself, we could organize a syllabus based not on particular authors and their works, but rather on modes of craft—reinventions of, and innovations on, received forms. Units of such a course might include the modern sonnet (from Hopkins to Frost to Merrill); the modern elegy (from Whitman to Bishop to Berryman); the modern translation (from Pound to Heaney); the modern epic (from Eliot to Walcott); the modern dramatic monologue (from Browning to Lowell to Bidart); and so forth. Such a course (versions of which I have taught as a creative writing workshop and as an introductory series for first-year students at Oxford) does not necessarily replace a probing seminar on high modernism, but this way of approaching the field—by craft as much as by person—may allow us to introduce our students to a way of reading that is every bit as exciting as the period-based model on which most of us cut our teeth.


  1. ^ Walt Whitman, “Preface” to Leaves of Grass [1855], Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, (New York: The Library of America, 1982), 14.
  2. ^ Robert Lowell used these terms in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in 1960 (for his volume Life Studies).
  3. ^ Susan Howe, in particular, reveals modernist principles while simultaneously demonstrating her inheritance from Emily Dickinson in My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley: North Atlantic Book, 1985).
  4. ^ In addition to Bidart’s, for instance, one thinks of Richard Howard’s debt to Browning. Such precursors can be useful not only in the teaching but in the critical accounts of modern poetics in America. Angus Fletcher’s A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), for instance, begins—after an introduction considering Whitman—with a chapter on Clare.