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Modernist poetry has many distinct characteristics, these characteristics include invention. The word “invent” has quite an ambiguous meaning. Guy Rotella states that for modernist poets the word ‘invent’ means to “to create or construct by original thought or ingenuity; or, to contrive something false or fictitious, to fabricate, feign, or make up”. In other words, it can mean to discover something that is already there or to create something new, like fiction. He also argues that:
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“both current senses of ‘invent’ locate the meaning in men and women, but with different emphases. The first definition is confident, even celebratory: liberated from the tyranny of the absolute, we become creators ourselves, free to make multiple truths. The second definition is marked by fear: without guarantee of an absolute, our creations may be mere contrivances, ungrounded impositions of will or desire. Modern and postmodern American poets react to these matters in a variety of ways, anxious or otherwise. In doing so they continue to turn to nature to address their epistemological and esthetic questions”.
This statement basically one of the main features of modernist poetry. This anxiousness that Rotella speaks of is the poets’ worries and fear of their “impositions of will or desire”. In other words, they fear that they are projecting their own subjective ideas on reality. This is one thing to keep in mind. The poetry analysis essay will be discussing five poems, all from Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. The essay will argue that these five poems operate as modernist poetry based on this concept of invention, the cultural-historic context and its poets.
The first poem in this poetry analysis is from Robert Frost called “Mowing”. This sonnet was first published in 1913, which was a year before the first World War started. It is important to note that Frost believed that “poetry is identical with metaphor”. Therefore, his poems must be read with a metaphorical mindset. Frost can also be read in different ways. The poem’s title, “Mowing”, already gives you an instant image of someone mowing something. The question is, does the poem’s theme stick by the title? Frost starts the poem of with an image of a wood that was silent, apart from one sound. This sound is coming from a scythe, which is something used for mowing grass. Frost does not describe the sound of the scythe as one normally would, he describes it as “whispering to the ground”. Although, it is probably normal for Frost, because it is as I mentioned earlier, he sees poetry as metaphors. We can assume that the scythe is whispering because the woods are so silent; it is something humans do as well when the space they are in is silent. The poet wonders who or what the scythe is whispering about, because he is also uncertain. The poet measures a list of options, such as “the heat of the sun” or “the lack of sound”. There comes a point when reading the poem where one wonders about the theme. It is quite hard to identify what the theme is here, because one must look at what stands out in the poem. The poem speaks mostly about the labour of mowing and the whispering of the scythe. The one thing that stood out is the “earnest love” he mentions. The poet also speaks of “the sweetest dream that labour knows”. He feels a sincere love towards the practice of mowing and the scythe. And because the scythe whispers, one gets this feeling of gentleness from the scythe. This is almost an oxymoron, because the scythe is anything but gentle. It is used to cut down plants and it “scared a bright green snake”, thus it was not a gentle, whispering object, despite how the poet sees it. This reminds me of the concept of invention used in modernist poetry. In the poem, Frost sees the scythe as something it is not, almost as if he is blinded by his sincere love for it and mowing. As mentioned by Rotella, he uses nature to tell his story and raise epistemological questions. He also mentions that because poetry is metaphorical, like Frost believes, then poetry contains “epistemological and educational value”.
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The next poem that will be analysed is “Of Modern Poetry”, by Wallace Stevens. This poem was published in 1942, during the second World War. This poem was written in a time where science and technology became more prevalent, but where modern poets, such a Stevens and Williams, were more concerned with “subjective experience and moral issues”. This ties in with what Rotella argued, that modern poets focus on their subjective ideas of reality. The poem “Of modern Poetry” is the most important poem to analyse – the title gives this away. The first line already conjures up a plethora of ideas. When Steven says that “the poem of the mind”, I think of poetry that poets invent in their heads. The rest of the poem seems to discuss the change in poetry during the 20th century, when World War 2 happened and modern poetry began. This is the theme of the poem, which we could already conclude from the title itself. When Stevens talks of the poetry being “in the act of finding / what will suffice”, he speaks of the adaption that poets had to make during the change. This idea is supported when he says that the poem never had to find, “the scene was set”. Before this change happened, there was already a set of rules of how poetry should look like. He describes this change as if a “theatre has changed”, this means that the environment for poetry changed. This environment refers to the world, specifically during the World War. He states that poem “to think about war / and it has to find what will suffice” and it has “to learn the speech of the place”. Basically, any poet during that time of the war had to learn and adapt to the change. This is how modern poetry came to be. Furthermore, after the change and adaption happens, poetry must “construct a new stage”. This means that it must make up its own set of rules of how modern poetry looks like, just as the older poetry did, as mentioned previously. It is interesting how he explains this process of modern poetry and how it is, by using a theatre stage with actors on it. Acting and poetry are both dimensions of art that expresses the creator’s imagination and own subjective ideas. Just like how poetry is metaphorical and metaphors stem from imagination. Similarly, modern poetry contains the invention of the poet’s ideas and questions in it, as discussed in the introduction, and this links with imagination. Thus, I feel that this poem, besides focusing on modern poetry, how it came to be and is, also focuses on the imaginative side of it. Like in the last few lines, where Stevens states that poetry “must / be the finding of a satisfaction”. What is this “satisfaction” he talks of? This depends on the reader of the poem to use their own subjective imagination to find this satisfaction. This what we as students do, I think, where we analyse the modernist poem and supply our own interpretations of it. In the last line, we come back full circle to the beginning of the poem. Stevens mentions the “poem of the act of the mind”. Like in the first line, where he speaks of poets, the last line may speak of the reader.
The next poem is also by Stevens, “’Tea at the Palaz of Hoon’. The poem was published in 1923. This poem especially, is very subjective for the speaker through the constant use of personal pronouns. A “hoon” is typically used to describe a hooligan or a reckless person. When reading this poem, there is a sense of loneliness in the speaker that one can pick up, even without the speaker mentioning it in line 3. When the speaker says that his descends “in purple”, there can be many interpretations. There are many meanings to the colour, but I will focus on the meanings of creativity, peace, pride and wisdom. In line 3, he alludes to the fact that he is lonely, but despite that, he was not less of a person. I think that this speaks to the wisdom that purple represents. The wisdom to understand that feeling lonely is not entirely wrong and to accept that part of yourself. The speaker questions himself and everything around him in the second stanza, which speaks to how personal and subjective this poem is. Despite questioning himself, he also states that he is “the compass of that sea”. The meaning of “compass” in this context is a traveller and symbol for guidance. This line contains a tone of certainty and pride in it. One can also see the poem as the speaker wandering around his own mind and imagination. For example, the speaker says that he “was the world in which he walked”, meaning that he walked around his own imaginations. Everything that “he saw / or heard or felt came not but from himself”. The speaker has created or invented his own world in his head and finds pace in that, because he says that he found himself “more truly” there. Stevens did a god job in inventing this world where the speaker is free in his own imagination.
The fourth poem to be analysed is by William Carlos Williams, “The Wind Increases”. This poem was published between 1922 and 1935, the period between World War 1 and World War 2. Based on Williams’ other poems I have read and the Poetry Foundation, he is quite an honest writer. He gets straight to the point and does not overuse metaphors. When we look at the poem, the form looks different from the previous poems. This how we know that the form plays a significant role in this poem. The form makes the poem harder to read, but it does add an aesthetic value to it. As the title suggests, the poem has to do with nature, particularly with wind. The words of the poem look like they are being blown around by the wind, which makes the poem look very artistic. It is as Rotella states, modernist poets like Williams “turn to nature to address their epistemological and esthetic questions”. Thus, Williams uses the form of the poem to emphasise the theme. As in previous poems discussed, Williams uses his own ways of describing poetry. Unlike Stevens, who used other forms of art, Williams uses nature to speak of poets and poetry. He speaks of “the tulip’s bright / tips / sidle and / toss-”. Like the tulips that are being carried by the wind, so are the words. Williams uses words like “flow”, “blow!” and “motion” to refer and compare things in relation to the wind. This makes up the theme for the poem. What or who is it that he relates to the wind? It seems that he relates the wind to poets. The image comes to mind of a poet losing himself to writing and getting caught up in the theme of it. A poet that gets caught up in his own imagination and escaping reality also comes to mind. This is because I noticed that with modernist poets, they see nature as inherently better than the reality we live in. This idea seems very plausible, because many of modernist poets like Williams, Stevens and Frost wrote their poems during the time of the two World Wars. Williams invents his own reality to escape our own reality. Another theme of this poem is the question of “what is / a poet?”. Stevens asks whether a poet is someone “whose words will / bite / their way / home”. This means that, a poet may be someone whose words will force their way into your heart and mind. A poet is someone who leaves a significant impact on you with their poetry. Their words grip “the ground / a way / to the last leaftip”, which means that they also leave a lasting and effective impression on the reader.
The last poem we will discuss in this poetry analysis is also by Williams, “A Sort of Song”. The poem was published in 1944, a year before the second World War ended. It is quite fitting to end the analysis on this poem, because it mentions the concept of invention here. And, like Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry”, this poem links poetry to another form of art, which is music. This is a poem that is actually very easy to read, unlike “The Wind Increases”. The title already suggests that poetry is like a song. I get the idea that he sees the words in a poem as “slow and quick, sharp / to strike, quiet to wait, / sleepless”. One can also link his own words to this specific poem, because of how short and easy to read it is. It is “sleepless”, because despite being a shorter poem, it still serves as a poem full of meaning. The punctuation of the poem is a bit strange, for a sample, the poem contains a hyphen at the beginning of line 7 and there are two sentences within line 9, in which the first sentence consists of one word and the second sentence begins with a bracket. This one-word sentence is clearly meant to stand out, because a song gets “composed”. Williams connects the composing of a song to the writing of a poem. He invents his own perspective about the writing of a poem here, which is very modernist-like. That is why he wrote “invent!” with an exclamation, to emphasise the importance of this concept. The poet also chose this style of punctuation to emphasise how the usual writing process of a song and poem goes. It is quite a cluttered process at the beginning, and it is far from perfect. This brings a sense of reality to the poem, which is very characteristic of Williams.
In conclusion, the mentioned poems clearly operate well within the realms of modernist poetry. As Rotella stated, the invention of ideas plays a significant role in modernist poetry, and these four poems does it well in their own ways while also enduring to the framework for modernist poetry. They do well regarding having their own subjective imaginations of certain topics and the poems contain their own epistemological questions. Poems like “Mowing” and “The Wind Increases” focus more on nature and its relation to reality. Meanwhile poems like “Of Modern Poetry”, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” and “A Sort of Song” focus on the artistic and imaginative side of modernist poetry. What ties them all together, however, is the invention of ideas and subjectivity each poet creates in each poem. The historic context also plays a huge role in the development and writing of these poems, which comes across in the poems through close inspection.
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