Of Modern Poetry
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William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were not just romantic poets, but also well-known literary theorists. These men changed everything for the generations that came after them and their ideas still permeate modern literature. The modern poet Wallace Stevens is one example of a writer to carry on some of the traditional romantic ideas. He expands on the thoughts of his predecessors by merging Romanticism with modern literary concepts. Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry” is both poetry and theory brought together in one poetic form.
"Of Modern Poetry" by Wallace Stevens
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.
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.
Analyzing the poem
“Of Modern Poetry” embodies the self-conscious aspect of modern writing as it lays out what it means to be poetry. The diction is simple as is the form. Ordinary language and repetition help Stevens to emphasize things such as the mind. The repetition of sentence structure also stresses the actions and characteristics required of poetry: “It has to be…It has to face…It has to think…It must / Be.” The two breaks in the form coincide with the message of the poem. One break marks the changes in the literary world and the other marks the transition to a concluding sentence on what the changing times require from poetry. Mixed within these many elements is Stevens’ unique imagery. From “the delicatest ear of the mind” to “twanging a wiry string that gives / Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses,” “Of Modern Poetry” includes images that force the reader to push deeper in for Stevens’ meaning.
Correlation with Wordsworth's theory
Stevens uses ordinary language, which Wordsworth stresses as vital for poetry. The use of common language comes out of the Romantic focus on nature and everyday experiences. Wordsworth's role for simple language coincides with Stevens’ requirement that poetry “be living…learn the speech of the place… [and] face the men of the time.” With this ordinary speech Wordsworth wanted to write in a way that “ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way.” Following Wordsworth's lead, imagery and other characteristics seen in Stevens’ poem present the qualifications for modern poetry in a unique way while using plain language. Along with valuing common people, the Wordsworth began placing emphasis on the role of history. The changes caused by time are key in Stevens’ work and are connected to the theatre imagery that goes throughout the poem. Stevens’ ideas as expressed in “Of Modern Poetry” clearly align with Wordsworth’s view of poetics. [This is simplistic and fails to take account of Stevens' body of work, which includes a more nuanced relationship with Wordsworth. See, for example, Of Hartford in a Purple Light. It also ignores Stevens' delight in using the OED and decidedly uncommon words throughout his poetry, as well as his deliberate selection of common words for their uncommon secondary or derivative definitions. Stevens' poems, including this one, and his method and intentions are seldom so straightforward as this section suggests.]
Correlation with Coleridge's theory
Coleridge agrees with Wordsworth’s emphasis on nature by calling for organicism in the poem itself. Form loses it importance as a means of mimicry, but has new value as something arising naturally out of the poet’s expressiveness. “Of Modern Poetry” has a unique form that contributes to the poem’s purpose, which is exactly what Coleridge called for in contrast to the structure that previously typified poetry. Imagination also played an important role for Coleridge as a literary theorist. Coleridge saw the imagination as two divisible, but dependent parts. The primary imagination deals with our experience of God’s creation around us, while the secondary imagination is a person’s ability to recreate that experience in a new form. Alternatively, Stevens sees the imagination as “not a divine effulgence but a constructive power, a labour." This can be seen in the poem as poetry is called to “construct a new stage” and then is depicted as “an insatiable actor, slowly and / With meditation” taking action. Stevens shows the hard work of poetry, not a divine or superhuman guiding light. Coleridge also put a great emphasis on the ability of art to supply a secular Christian experience through its internalization. Rosenthal says “Stevens… is an American Romantic for whom poetry is a form of secular salvation,” which somewhat matches the religious affiliation that Coleridge attributes to poetry. Stevens’ theories as presented in “Of Modern Poetry” stray from tradition Romantic thought through their emphasis on the self-reflexive nature of poetry and the hard work that accompanies imaginative art.
Wordsworth and Coleridge on the poet
Wordsworth sees the poet as “a man speaking to men,” but specifies that the poet is a man “endued with more lively sensibility” among other characteristics. This representation of the poet is as a man set apart and special in a multitude of ways. Coleridge seems to agree with this superhuman aptitude of the poet by considering him someone capable of bringing “the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity.” “Of Modern Poetry” never distinguishes between poem and poet, so there is a unity established between the two, and this melding appears in the mind’s role as the subject and acting power of the poem. The poem is attributed to “the mind in the act of finding” and is about “the act of the mind.” This is an interesting digression from the Romantic view that reason fragments our world and should therefore be left out of art. Stevens merges reason and emotion through the role of the mind in his poem. This replaces the sensibility attributed to poets by the Romantics with reason. The introduction of reason means “the artist is no longer simply the artist but also some sort of critic and a self-conscious one at that,” which is exactly what Stevens’ expresses in “Of Modern Poetry.” In order to create something written by and meant to affect a person’s entire being, mind and soul, the mind must be engaged and the poet must be more than merely extra-sensible.
Wordsworth and Coleridge on the poem
The poet plays an undeniable part in the creation of poetry, but once the poem has been released it becomes an independent entity. Romantic theorists have also established several ideas concerning what they believe a poem should be. Wordsworth’s definition is that a poem is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Coleridge says that the poem “to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power” and that “whatever lines can be translated into other words…without diminution of their significance… are so far vicious in their diction.” Coleridge’s definition goes beyond the mere exertion of feelings that Wordsworth accepts as poetry and calls for a lasting and uniquely crafted work. “Of Modern Poetry” coincides more with Wordsworth’s theory, saying that poetry “must / Be the finding of a satisfaction” and never sets down any stricture aside from the characteristics assigned to modern poetry.
The ironic part of Stevens’ poem is how much it coincides with the theories of Romantic poetry without actually being a Romantic poem. The poem even lists some events that you might find in a Romantic work, but “Of Modern Poetry” is ultimately self-reflective. Stevens’ work is reflecting on itself and what it means to be a poem. The poem reaches many Romantic conclusions. Then when comparing Stevens’ work to Wordsworth's definition of poetry it becomes apparent that it is not a spontaneous overflow of emotions, but a well thought out idea. While you might enjoy the poem, it also seems to fall short of having the return quality that Coleridge speaks of or the unchangeable diction. As a theoretic work “Of Modern Poetry” is fairly at home among Romantic thoughts, but as a poetic work it fails to meet the requirements set down by Wordsworth and Coleridge.
“Of Modern Poetry” is another step forward for literature, much like the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Coleridge was among the first to begin merging literary theory and criticism to bring about implementable ideas. In Stevens’ work we find an increased application of theory through its unison with literature. This analysis of “Of Modern Poetry” as Romantic literature shows how modern theory spawns from its predecessors. The poem contains many modern characteristics but in the end sides heavily with Wordsworth and Coleridge. “Of Modern Poetry” fails to fit in with other Romantic poems because it is a Romantic poem in theory and a modern poem in reality. The poem is “the act of the mind” and as such it only seems fitting that present day poets would develop ideas out of the remnants of the great poetic minds that preceded them.
- Stevens, Wallace (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". University of Virginia. Lines 7-9, 26.
- Stevens (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". Lines 14, 21-22.
- Stevens (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". Lines 7-8.
- Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 650.
- Rosenthal, Edna. Aristotle and Modernism: Aesthetic Affinities of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Virginia Woolf. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2008. 57.
- Stevens (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". Lines 11-13.
- Rosenthal (2008), Aristotle and Modernism, pp. 44-45.
- Wordsworth. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p. 655.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Biographia Literaria.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p. 681.
- Stevens (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". University of Virginia. Lines 1, 28.
- Rosenthal (2008), Aristotle and Modernism, 2008, p. 42.
- Wordsworth. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p. 651.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Biographia Literaria.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p. 675.
- Stevens (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". Lines 25-26.
- Stevens (1940). "Of Modern Poetry". Lines 28.