Modern Poetry

"Ezra Pound, whose famous exhortation 'Make it new' is rightly considered one of modernism's mottoes, was also urging writers to apply new energy to established forms" (PBS, "The American Novel," American Masters).

Modern Poetry (1915-1945)

from Adventures in American Literature, Heritage Edition, pages 626-627:

"Modern poetry has often been described as experimental [,that is,]...the bold search for new forms of poetic expression...Among American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson stand at the forefront of modern poetry...In addition to these native sources, modern American poetry owes a debt to the symbolist movement, a late nineteenth-century French movement that had a profound influence on poets writing in English. Symbolism is based on the assumption that all external objects are 'symbols' of deeper, truer reality. Things that seem altogether unrelated are connected by surprising, secret links. The symbolist poet tends to avoid any direct statement of meaning and instead attempts to evoke meaning by establishing a mood and focusing on highly suggestive symbols."

"Modern poetry embraces a great variety of styles...Many modern poems move quickly and unexpectedly from idea to idea, producing the sense of dislocation that some poets think is characteristic of modern life...[Other poets] were electing to rework traditional forms...Modern poetry is also characterized by certain pervasive themes...A feeling of anxiety about the world runs through much modern poetry. Extensive industrialization, rapid technological advance, new perceptions about human nature and the universe, and the general disillusionment produced by world war have contributed to changing the shape and tempo of modern life - seemingly for the worse...[As a result] some have written poems of protest; others have expressed the desire to escape form the modern world. Still others have responded to the challenge of modern life by affirming such universal values as beauty and love. [Finally,] Modern poets have been preoccupied with the nature and possibilities of human relationships, and the complex emotional and psychological elements that bear on them.

Ezra Pound

Imagism: Name given to a movement in poetry, originating in 1912 and represented by Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and others, aiming at clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images.

Imagist: A group of American and English poets whose poetic program was formulated about 1912 by Ezra Pound - in conjunction with fellow poets Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Richard Aldington, and F.S. Flint.

The Imagists wrote succinct verse of dry clarity and hard outline in which an exact visual image made a total poetic statement. Imagism was a successor to the French Symbolist movement, but, whereas Symbolism had an affinity with music, Imagism sought analogy with sculpture.

Imagist Manifesto

  • To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word
  • We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
  • Absolute freedom in the choice of subject
  • To present an image: We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous.
  • To produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite
  • Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

William Carlos Williams

Robert Frost: The Poetics of Robert Frost

(wonderful poetry tutorial - "The Poetics of Robert Frost" by Carole Thompson
Copyright 2001 The Friends of Robert Frost )

Carl Sandburg

Wallace Stevens

Robinson Jeffers

Marianne Moore

T. S. Eliot

John Crowe Ransom

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Archibald Macleish

E. E. Cummings


Richard Eberhart

Robert Penn Warren

Theodore Roethke

Elizabeth Bishop

Robert Hayden

Randall Jarrell

John Berryman

Robert Lowell

Gwendolyn Brooks

James Dickey

Anne Sexton

  • acrostic: a poem that spells out a word.
  • alliteration: the repetition of initial identical consonants sounds or vowel sounds (usually at the beginning of a word
  • anaphora: repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of the line
  • ssonance: matched vowels are the same, but the consonants are not the same
  • beat poetry: may be confessional; often a "howl of protest" against conformity and conservatism of the 1950's
  • blank verse: metrically traditional, but without rhyme
  • closure: how does the poem bring things together at the end?
  • confessional poetry: a school of poetry where the poet may expose personal, taboo, difficult things about themselves
  • dramatic monologue poetry often does this, but the poet is confessing from within another persona's mind
  • concrete/conceptual poetry (also called language poetry): a school of poetry that often focuses on the visual aspect of writing (concrete); the visual shape of letters and their placement on the page rather than the content or meaning of language is often foregrounded; some concrete poets do collages of language and drawings, colors, photos etc. Some play with the sound of words rather than their meaning (conceptual)
  • consonance: the repetition of ending consonant sounds, but the vowel sounds are different
  • couplet: a two line stanza, or the same rhyme pattern in two conjoined lines
  • dramatic monologue: a poem that dramatizes someone's thoughts and actions; the persona of the poem talks directly to "us" or an unseen other
  • end rhyme: rhymed sound at the end of the line
  • endstop: the line ends with a period or the feeling of a period
  • enjamb: a run-on at the end of the line; can lead to added meaning and interestingly interrupted rhythms
  • exposition: often more abstract explanations or philosophical ruminations (usually in narration)
  • foot: a group of 2 or 3 stressed and unstressed syllables
  • formalism: following traditional, given poetic forms like sonnets, villanelles
  • found poem: some odd and interesting language/visual artifact the poet lifts from a sidewalk, bus seat, horoscope, graffiti, cliché etc. The poet may merely pick it up off the street, or they may construct a piece from found items. Also called a "readymade" during the dada visual art period (Duchamp's "Fountain"). A purposeful slap in the face of traditional definitions of what art should be.
  • free verse: less structured, more organically
  • haiku: a 3 line, one stanza poem; traditionally Japanese and about nature; usually has a syllable count of 5, 7, 5 and lacks rhyme and metaphor
  • iamb: a foot with an unaccented syllable and an accented syllable
  • imagery: any kind of concrete (sensory) image whether literal or figurative
  • internal rhyme: rhymed sound before the end of the line
  • metaphor: same as simile, but without "like" or "as"; creates a more surreal effect (makes the figurative almost literal); comparison of things that are not necessarily alike (unlike metonymy). Made of two parts, the tenor, or the literal thing/abstraction, and the vehicle, the non-literal, usually very concrete, comparison
  • meter or metrics: the use of patterns of stressed and unstressed rhythms (or beats) in a poetic line sometimes following strict, traditional forms (or violating those forms in free verse)
  • metonymy: part of imagery; as opposed to metaphor, a comparison of similar things; naming something by it's attribute--where one thing stands for something larger; i.e. we often say Washington when referring to the US Government.
  • minimalist poetry: a focus on simple, concrete images using less metaphor, less adjectives and adverbs, and less exposition (William Carlos Williams)
  • modernist poetry: a school of poetry that moved away from the emotions, the focus on coherent notions of the self of the romantics; often experiments with form (or focuses on form) to examine the fragmentation of subjectivity or selfhood; begins in 1914 with WWI
  • narration: descriptions of what is happening, of setting, of scenes of action (or lack of action)
  • neo-formalism: following traditional forms but with a new, 21st century, twist (often violating form more, or violating the subject-matter of traditional forms
  • new criticism: a literary reading theory that looks at the parts of a piece of writing (usually a poem) to see how they all fit marvelously together to create a beautiful, organic whole with cohesive symbolic moves.
  • ode: a poem that commemorates or celebrates; written for an occasion; contemporary odes (neo-formal) are likely to be about contemporary more cynical or popular culture subjects; Classic Odes have three parts
  • pentameter: a line with 5 feet; iambic pentameter therefore has 10 syllables (often used by Shakespeare)
  • persona: the eyes or voice or speaker or attitude or vision of the poem; like a narrator in prose
  • personification: when an object/animal is given figurative human attributes
  • postmodernist poetry: a more extreme, more avant-garde extension of modernist poetry (often comprised of anything after 1945); may focus on collage, pastiche, sexuality, humor, or form dominating or erasing content; the meaningless or difficulty or imposibility of being a subject (of constructing a self) in a world that could end at any moment
  • prose poem: a poem that has more grammatical or longer sentences and/or more of a narrative
  • refrain: a repeating line/verse in a song or a poem
  • rhyme scheme: a repeated pattern of end rhymes; usually marked with letters of the alphabet (ABBA would mark a rhyme scheme in the first stanza of, say, dog/man/plan/fog; CDDC would mark a rhyme scheme in the second stanza of, say, map/press/dress/slap)
  • romantic poetry (romantic poet): a specific "school" of poetry (or a grouping of poets doing similar things; a movement) that focused on celebrating the energy and beauty of nature; nature as spirituality, as more "real"
  • scansion: scanning the rhythm of a line by locating patterns of feet with stressed and unstressed syllables
  • scene: when place and time are specifically described; may involve dialogue or narrative (chronological action/plot)
  • sestet: a six line stanza (not usually the same rhyme pattern in each line, however)
  • sestina: a 7 stanza poem with 6 six-lined stanzas and an ending three-lined stanza; rhyme scheme is a difficult rotating repetition of the same end words rather than true rhyme
  • similes: imagistic comparison of a literal idea or image (referent) with a figurative concrete image (vehicle) using "like" or "as"
  • slant rhyme (off rhyme): substitution of assonance or consonance for true rhyme
  • sonnet: 14 line poem; Shakespearian sonnet has one stanza (usually in iambic pentameter, 10 syllables in each line), other English Sonnets may have 4 stanzas (rhyme scheme--ABABCDCDEFEFGG); Italian sonnet has an octave (8 lines; ABBABBA) and a sestet (6 lines; CDECDE)
  • stanza: a grouping of lines in a poem (much like a paragraph); the number of lines can follow a strict form, or be organically chosen as in free verse
  • stressed syllables: use ¯ or / to mark it when you're trying to find the pattern of a line's rhythm (as opposed to merely reading the poem for meaning or enjoyment)
  • symbol: something that is itself and also stands for something else
  • tension: a poem (or any piece of writing) needs sense of conflict
  • true rhyme: the last syllable rhyme sounds (and is usually spelled) exactly the same
  • typographical rhythms: the way white space in front of, in the middle of, or after lines creates rhythmic pauses and variations in meaning and emphasis
  • unstressed syllables: use "u"to mark it
  • villanelle: a 19 line form using only two rhymes and repeating two of the lines according to a set pattern.