Does Twentieth Century Poetry Constitute an Incontestable Break ...

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Does Twentieth Century Poetry Constitute an Incontestable Break with the Poetry that Preceded it?

The answer to this question is rather complex. While it is true that modern poetry is a great change from the poetry of a few centuries ago; is it really an ‘incontestable break’ with the work that preceded it? There is strong reason to think it is not. Of course, there is a difference between modern poetry and the poetry of, say, the 19th century; but though they may be different, this does not mean that they are not similar in a number of ways. There are a number of different approaches and styles in modern poetry, some have evolved directly from these earlier forms; while others are different from past poetry in a more fundamental basis, but still carry many of the same, or similar ideas.

Modern poetry comes from - and was mostly inspired by - the Modernists, of which the most famous poets were working during the inter-war years (1918 – 1938) with writers and poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemmingway however, Modernism can still be considered to be present in modern poetry, however, I will return to this later.

The Modernists were writers who took an interest in more modern forms of art, such as television and radio and film, and took influence from them. It is this expanse in cultural influences that – and with no accident – seen new ideas and concepts introduced to poetry; such as free verse, and new ideas were bought into the changing art of poetry, in a reflection of the changing world. The influence of Modernism on newer poets is plain to see: their subjects and themes of isolation and disillusionment are shared by poets such as Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas. Where is the influence of the earlier poets? Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse (1971) is an example of very traditional form in modern poetry. It is set into quatrains of strict metric length, with a fixed rhyme scheme. This example shows that even in modern poetry the pre-modernist conventions are still alive and respected by poets.

T.S. Eliot is another example of a Modernist, poet using old-fashioned poetical conventions in poems such as The Hippopotamus and Burbank with a Baedeker. This is not restricted to Modernist poets either: James Fenton’s The Kingfisher’s Boxing Gloves (1980) for example also has a fixed rhyme and metric scheme, and uses nature, and animals in the natural world as a theme. This is showing these poets have taken influence from earlier eras, while other works show these same poets challenging the conventions of these earlier movements; with works such as Eliot’s The Hollow Men and Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro - this challenge to the previous poets comes most notably in the form of free verse. In Shamus Heaney’s work (another notable modern poet) we can see influence from earlier poems too. Heaney, though there is no rhyme or strictly metered stanzas in most of his work, does use a very idealistic view of country life – like the poetry of the romantics – and very pastoral images in poems such as Churning Day and Anahorish. Pastoral imagery is a depiction of an idealized, simplistic, Sheppard life, commonly depicting an idyllic life in ancient Greece, which John Milton used to good effect in his elegiac poem Lycidas.

An elegy is a poem that moans the passing of a person who is presumably close to the poet. Elegiac poems are, too, still found today. W.H. Auden is one poet who still writes elegies; and elegies - in one form or another - are maybe always going to be present in poetry, as people and ideas keep dying, and it is not unheard of to write an elegy for an idea. For example there were many elegiac poems about the collapse of Communism written during the 1990s.

Mention has been made of free verse. This style of poetry arose in the early 20th century and it is unmetered and unrhymed – a specific rebellion against the poetry that presided it. This style can be found in many modern poets work; T.S. Eliot being the most famous for it, and poets such as D.H. Lawrance, Ezra Pound, and Christopher Reid to name a few have used free verse to good effect. Does this mean, then, that poems in Free Verse do not share anything with their versed counterparts? Ezra Pound’s poem The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter discuses the life of a woman who marries her childhood love, only for him to leave at sixteen and not return. This poem not only has a narrative, like earlier poems (especially literary ballads such as Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner) but the way in which the life of the two characters in the poem is depicted is almost an idyllic form of childhood; and with the many references to nature in this poem; the Romantics clearly have an influence here.

This is not to say that at the turn of the 20th century there was a big rebellion against older forms of poetry either; but this rebellion seems to have been present in the poetry of the 1800s too – only in less obvious ways. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, sometimes broke the conventions in his poetry. Poems such as Dream-Land and The City in the Sea show what could be considered to be the seeds of Modernism. For example, Dream-Land features uneven stanzas and lines, and also has two lines spaced out of place; effectively being their own stanzas; also (unlike the rest of the poem) spaced away from the side of the page. The City in the Sea also features uneven lines and stanzas – while this may not seem so revolutionary today, it was at the time, considering other poems by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Matthew Arnold, Rudyard Kipling and Rufus Griswold generally stuck to strict stanzaic form.

In 19th century French poetry we see a rebellion against conventions too, perhaps most clearly in the form of the work of Arthur Rimbaud, who with his short literary life and rather small amount of work has been a notable influence on many modern poets, and especially the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. This rebellion is also more interesting as, unlike English poetry – which was more accepting of new ideas and forms – French poetry was much stricter in its view of how a poem was written and composed. Rimbaud also employed free verse (or vers libre) such as this example from Illuminations:

This would have been, at the time, very shocking, and a great departure from what the other French poets were doing. However, free verse – which was not to be popularised for another fifty years – can also be found in English poetry as far back as the 1700s, with Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart.

We can be in little doubt that the world and zeitgeist has changed dramatically since the time of Poe and Rimbaud. Modern poetry then, conforms to this change, and be a part of it at the same time. One of the great events that signaled this big change in the world was The First World War. It is during this conflict that many new poets found notoriety.

Much of the poetry from this period is more pessimistic in tone; showing a fractured world, and dealing with the bitter conflict in verse. These war poets: such as Wilfred Owen, Wilfred Gibson, and Siegfried Sassoon: were famous for taking old clichés and turning them into new, and more interesting metaphors. An example of this is Wilfred Owen’s Greater Love which begins thus: “Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.” Wilfred Owen also used unconventional stanzas in his work (such as Dulce et Decorum Est), which not only reinforced the theme of the poem, but also clearly influenced the Modernists who came to prominence just after WW1.

The work of T.S. Eliot was clearly influenced by the War Poets, and it is thought that the first part of The Waste Lands could be talking about the effects the war had on the minds of the populous, people who say this often point to these lines as an example:

T.S. Eliot was interested in everyday life, and used rather dark and ugly imagery in his poetry and this darkness was influenced by the tone of the work of the War Poets, and also influenced the work of more recent poets as well.

So really, modern poetry is far from an ‘incontestable break with the poetry that preceded it’, but it is rather the result of a long evolutionary line of different poets and different styles; all having their influence on the poetry of today, and the changing face of poetry as an artistic form - in one way or another. And since today there is more access to poetry, such as the internet, and through songs, this increasing speed in the development of poetry seems likely to continue; as, like during the Dark Ages, a lot of poetry is now passed around as song. And with the great number of different styles and genres of music, like the great number of different styles of poetry (with more and more emerging and developing all the time) poetry then seems to have a way of developing, challenging and expanding the way no other artistic expression can.

So it is true that there are differences between the standard poem of today when compared to 200 years ago – but this is really missing the very many similarities, and not just in form, but in what poetry means to us. Ted Hughes once said ‘Poetry is the voice of spirit and imagination and all that is potential’ and this seems to be exactly the same attitude that the poets of previous ages had held.
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