Modernism is defined by many things but here we will define it, in part, with poetry. Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is one of the most outstanding figures of this movement in poetry. He influenced poets including Robert Frost (one of my personal favorites), T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats. In fact, one of the defining poems of modernism, “The Waste Land” by Eliot is dedicated to Pound with an allusion to Dante’s “Purgatorio.” Eliot calls Pound “il miglior fabbro” or “the better craftsman”; which is what Dante said to tip the hat to Arnaut Daniel, who was a master troubadour poet of the time.
Pound had a slogan and call to action for his fellow poets “Make it new!” What he meant by this was that he felt romanticism had too heavily emphasized the emotional and individual excesses and that the popular free verse of the time had become too flaccid. Instead, he introduced a very short lived movement called Imagism. In it, Pound called for poetry to
- Make a direct treatment of the subject
- Use no unnecessary language
- Drive the rhythm by the inherent “music” of the poem rather than by meter
From this movement, poetry began to use ordinary language, avoiding words that could be seen or felt to otherwise bog down a poem. The use of language became very concise – specifically avoiding grammatical inversions. Perhaps the most memorable influence that was given to poetry was that concentrated images began to be used to drive the expression of the poem.
Pound felt that feminist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) wrote some of the best examples of this form of poetry. For example, here is perhaps her most famous poem “Oread”
Whirl up, sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us –
Cover us with your pools of fir.
The poem uses no excess of language and focuses only on the image of the sea crashing into the earth, refraining from talking about anything else. In this poem, Oread is the name of a mountain nymph commanding the earth and the sea to become one. In the image painted, the lines between what is earth and what is sea become blurred, just as the nymph ordered.
Pound’s highly experimental poetic Cantos can be said to have had as profound an impact on modern literature as T.S. Eliots “The Waste Land.” He modeled the Cantos after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass despite (or because of?) his belief that Leaves of Grass demonstrated everything that was wrong with poetry. Pound’s authentic language and snippets of classical allusion still managed to capture the despair of the times (World War I). Pound’s movement, however short lived, impacted future movements of poets, including Objectivist poets and the Beatniks, and continues to influence many poets of today.