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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


New Forms, New Ideas

Modern American Poetry

T. S. Eliot

Perhaps the best-known literary work of modernism is T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem that is as difficult and exciting today as it was when it was first published in 1922.

T. S. Eliot grew up in St. Louis, attended Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then settled in London during World War I. Both the British Criterion, which Eliot had founded, and the more widely-known American magazine Dial published The Waste Land in 1922. Many readers, still disillusioned by the death toll and destruction of the war, thought the poem's title, content, and style accurately reflected the low state of culture and individual experience at the time. Yet in the ways that it reflected this painful past, the poem also created a new kind of poetic language—one that profoundly shaped the work of poets for generations to come.

Eliot loaded The Waste Land with historical and literary references, merging high and low culture in one place. The poem includes snippets from Homer's Odyssey, Shakespeare, Ragtime music, and popular songs. Voices come and go from the poem unexpectedly, and the reader must struggle to find meaning in the gaps between fragmentary speeches.

Eliot and Ezra Pound were both deeply invested in transforming poetic language. Pound was the more forceful of the two, inventing movements, and writing manifestoes, and stating his credo ("Make it new!") throughout his writing. Eliot gave him a draft of The Waste Land, and Pound edited it ruthlessly. Cutting almost half of its text, he helped Eliot produce the poem as we see it today. Like a collage, the poem asks its readers to reconsider the nature of "realistic" writing and the act of perception itself. Together Pound and Eliot are considered to have defined the most enduring form of American literary modernism.

Ezra Pound and H. D.

Ezra Pound involved himself so much in the work of other early twentieth-century writers that one prominent critic, Hugh Kenner, has called the modernist period the "Pound Era." Pound was influential, sometimes crucial, in the success of such writers as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot.

Amid what they saw as a stagnant culture of poetry in the first decade of the twentieth century, these writers rejected the flowery, worn out, traditionalist Victorian verse of the immediate past. Striving to distinguish their work as modernist, Pound's later imperative "Make it new," repeated throughout Canto 53 and the title of his 1934 book, became the mantra for artists of the era.

Seeking models for this aesthetic revolution, Pound and his contemporaries reached deep into the past and into other cultures for poetic motivation. Italian troubadour poetry of the 13th century, old English epics from the Dark Ages, and the spare poetics of China and Japan all offered new formal challenges to innovative poets.

Hilda Doolittle's stark, even hieroglyphic, presentation of intensely perceived images—never explained, set simply on the page to speak for themselves—inspired Pound to invent the term "Imagism" and to make even her name an exercise in brevity: he christened her "H. D., Imagiste" in 1912. Pound helped H. D. get her poems published in 1913, and her innovation is now viewed as a beginning moment of modernism.

Vorticism

By 1914, Imagism had become the fashionable poetic mode; Pound, ever seeking innovation, felt that it had grown stagnant, and created a new movement, Vorticism, with Wyndham Lewis. In their magazine, Blast, the Vorticists argued for the "unfixability" of ever-changing reality and, therefore, the need for unfixed points of view in art. If reality could never be fully explained by one approach, then all approaches at all times must be entertained—until the next new moment.

Thus, all new ideas rushed into and out of the vortex of the human mind, and the true artist continually captured them and let them go. Pound's lifelong epic work, the Cantos, which he began in 1915 and continued working on for the rest of his life, reflects the Vorticist reaction to the War. In these poems, Pound juxtaposes pieces of his wide-ranging knowledge and quotations from works of history, economics, and political science to articulate his cry for renewal of western civilization. To make this cry passionate and moving, he situated these pieces of social reality against an imagistic mythological backdrop—the fall of Troy and Aeneas's escape from the burning city to found Rome.

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Poem "In the Station of the Metro" from The collected poems of Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound

Pound found that the clean, minimal aesthetic of traditional Chinese poetry could represent contemporary Western experience more successfully than Western models.

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