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Does Modernist Poetry Have a Specific Structure?


Writing to fellow Modernist poet T.S. Eliot in 1934, Ezra Pound famously advised to "Make it new." Rarely has such a succinct expression summed up the spirit of an entire artistic movement. Indeed, practitioners of Modernist poetry, who flourished between World War I and the beginning of the Vietnam War, broke from Victorian and Romantic tradition and sought new, experimental ways to structure their work, including free verse and condensed lines.

Experimentation

More than anything else, Modernists experimented with the form and structure of their work. Whereas 18th-century Neoclassicists and 19th-century Romantics relied upon traditional methods of craftsmanship, such as iambic pentameter and consistent rhyme scheme, Modernists surprised their readers by reinventing the entire art form. American poet e.e. cummings' work challenges notions of rhythm and line breaks, such as in his "Buffalo Bill's":

Buffalo Bill's defunct who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat Jesus he was a handsome man and what i want to know is how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death

Free Verse

Up until the early 20th century, readers typically expected poetry to follow certain rules, such as being written in heroic couplets or quatrains or sonnets. The Modernists showed that poetry doesn't necessarily have to rhyme or be constrained to a prefabricated form, which might hinder the poet's creativity and progression of ideas. In "Musée des Beaux Arts," W.H. Auden writes:

About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position ...

Instead of structuring each line according to rhyme or meter, Auden exhibits a conversational freedom not ordinarily seen before his time.

Condensed Lines

Modernist poets often choose to use short, simple lines that prompt the reader to concentrate intently on the poem's images. Without the weightiness of lengthy lines and stanzas, a poem's theme can come into sharp focus. In American poet William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," for example, his use of condensed lines slows the reader down to reflect on the importance of the titular object:

so much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens

Various Stanza Lengths

Many Modernists weren't concerned with keeping stanza lengths consistent in their poems, unlike their predecessors who generally tried to achieve regularity within each work. Instead of breaking their poems up into arbitrary couplets or quatrains, Modernists such as T.S. Eliot used stanzas almost as prose writers use paragraphs, to unify a specific point. In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the speaker talks of hearing "the mermaids singing, each and each." This is followed by a poignant, single-line stanza that emphasizes Prufrock's despair:

I do not think that they will sing to me.

About the Author

Following a 10-year career in high school education, Joseph Guyer works as a marketing copywriter for a financial firm. He received a Master of Arts in English with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he teaches technical writing.

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