Following World War II, with the bombing of Japan, the cohesive center disappeared for Americans. People began to move outward from the cities and into newly created suburbs. Women did not wish to return to the world of housekeeping after tasting the freedom of war-time employment. Minorities also felt the impact of a newly found freedom. We split the atom, the center of everything, and in so doing we created chaos. The Contemporary Poets reflect this chaos.
The characteristics of Post-Modern Poetry include many modernist themes and many modernist themes taken to new levels. The largest indicator of Post-modern poetry is the “absence of a single dominant style” (Norton 2649) . Other characteristics include, “Mix of image with narrative, mix of image with discursive, precise observation, philosophical reflection, open-ended juxtaposition, multiple stories, alterations in Point of View, digressions, no coherence or closure, and unexpected jumps & disjunctive thinking” (Norton 2647). There is also “an apprehension of the invisible world, fragmentation” (Norton 2646) , and a style that appears to be a “poetic diary or journal” (Norton 2646).
The contemporary poets see language as a means of reaching the inner self and the emotion that is difficult to give voice to. The twentieth century ushered in many new discoveries, most importantly the discovery of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. The advent of psychoanalysis gave people the means of accessing the individuals inner self. Modern poets sought to explore the inner workings of the individual as a human being, giving a concrete language to emotion.
One of the most recognized poets of this time, T.S. Eliot, brought to the world of poetry an aesthetic form that was full of complex twists and turns, fragmented language, and a sense of alienation and loss. The Modern poets viewed their art as more than a venue to affect change in society and the individual, they began to focus on language itself and how it relates to the individuals perception of the world. As the world rapidly changed around them, poets like Eliot sought to capture the sense of chaos and fragmentation with the written word.
In his most famous poem, “The Wasteland”, Eliot manages to lament (and celebrate) the chaos of modern culture. The poem is chaotic and fragmented, embodying the very nature of modern society. As the world careened out of control around the individual with the advent of World War, fractured societies, and multiple religions, Eliot’s poem whirls through time and space, capturing the insanity and loss in the very language he uses. “The Wasteland” encompasses a myriad of characters undergoing extreme stress and anxiety, “Speak to me. /who do you never speak. Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think” (Eliot 495). These characters personify the complex ideologies of the time period.
Different poets used similar ways of conveying emotion into language. Paul Celen calls his poetry, the “poem, the noem” In German this means “gedicht, das genicht”, which translates to ‘poem, not poem’; in other words, “poem negated” (Mitchell). Language can name the pain but it can’t be the pain, language cannot reach the actual individual feeling. How do you articulate the nothing? Something is there and then suddenly it is gone. Language is not strong enough to convey the intense emotion. What needs to be conveyed is so horrific and deep that it is difficult for the average person to comprehend or if they can comprehend it they draw back from the intensity of it. The contemporary poets seek to use language to reach that intense emotion.
Wallace Stevens believed that the reality you are experiencing is your emotional state at any given time. We respond to our interpretations of what happens, not what has happened. This gives you an emotional state, an emotional state that reinforces and affects interpretation which in turn affects emotions. As we translate the material world into words we change the material world (Mitchell).
Gwendolyn Brooks uses irregular lines and sudden rhythm to convey the emotion of anger and indifference. Her voice is one of passionate observation that expresses love and rage. In “a song in the front yard”, Brooks explores the class distinctions of the ghettos. The poem illuminates the human condition of presenting a polished aspects of our personality to the masses while harboring a wild, untamed personality on the inside. Note that the front yard is tended carefully, while the back yard is left wild. “I ant a peek at the back Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows. A girl gets sick of a rose” (Brooks 2780). The outside nurtures something wild within. Creating a dyad, Brooks makes what is unfamiliar inside, what is familiar is outside.
It is interesting to note that Modern Poetry laments loss and fragmentation, while Post-Modern Poetry celebrates it. There are notions of whole fragments that don’t link to any conclusion. Anne Lauderbach suggests that as our lives are made up of strings of fragments, so is post-modern poetry. Coherence is the falsehood. If we insist on neatness we will leave out something of significance - too neat is false, you experience nothing. Fragments create variety (Lauderbach).
In interpreting Modern Poetry it is not necessary to understand the poets exact meaning. It is sufficient that the reader take from a poem what they need to take, which may not be what the writer intended. But that is okay because the reader takes the feeling, they get in touch with the emotion. To paraphrase John Ashbery, “You, the reader, add the flowers to the field with your interpretation” (Mitchell). The poet creates an openness, an empty field and the reader connects with the emotion and fills the field with fragments, creating a whole. The Modern Poets are teaching us to see the world in different ways than we are used to. Readers have to learn to dance to the new music.
Finally, modern poetry creates a mythology of human psyche and culture by delving into how language works, as well as exploring subject and content. A poem is not a puzzle to be solved but an experience, an event to take part in. The modern poets created metapoems, which are poems about how poems and language operate. They have no fixed center, it is “a hymn to possibility” as John Ashbery says. The modern poet, Anne Lauderbach says, “Depart from the tune - breaking the form is the form. We explore the world through forms” (Lauderbach). By breaking traditional form and exploring the complexities of language itself, the contemporary poet embarks on an adventure of self-discovery, forging new roads into the inner workings of individuals and their societies.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “a song in the front yard.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Sixth Edition, Vol. E. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 2780-2781.
Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland.” Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. 2nd Edition, Ed. Ellmann, Richard and O’Clair, Robert. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. 491-504.
Lauderbach, Anne. Notes from Lauderbach’s lecture at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, 1/30/01
Mitchell, Susan. 2001. LIT 3021 Modern Poetry. Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida.