- For Teachers
The object of this essay is to discuss the differences between Modern poetry and the poetry that preceded it. Four main schools of poetry will be examined, Georgian, Great War, Imagist, and Modern. This essay will also present the argument that there are similarities as well as differences in traditional and modern poetry.
What is Modern poetry? To define it simply, it is a period of time in Poetic history, the early 20th century onwards; when Poetry began to display severe changes in subject matter and form, it moved away from the idyllic, pastoral imagery of Georgian poetry and began to show instead urban, industrialised, realistic imagery. Poets also began to move away from the traditional structure of Poetry and discarded line lengths, stanzas and experimented with language.
Georgian poetry, despite its idyllic viewpoint, managed to co-exist alongside the other three schools of poetry; as well as there being links to the old and new in Modern poetry, there are also links between Modern poetry itself. Therefore, it is important to define each school individually. Scott Brewster defines Georgian poetry:
A prominent pre-war mode of lyric, Georgian poetry offered an idyllic view of a pre-
industrial, pastoral England that was shattered by the carnage of the trenches.
The language of Georgian poetry demanded change to cope with such brutal imagery and the circumstance of the trenched demanded poems be wrought in different ways; with more urgency, as death always seemed so near to soldiers.
It can be argued another reason for change is there was a desire amongst Poets to seek out the new; in his lecture (Hammer, 2007) Professor Langdon Hammer points out, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock carries ‘an implication that what people claim is original and primary, is always in some sense, already scripted’. (Hammer, 2007) With both these reasons in mind, it was inevitable poetry would undergo a major change within this period.
Siegfried Sassoon is an interesting example because he belonged to both the Georgian and Great War school of poets. Sassoon experienced front-line warfare and yet in his poem ‘A Mystic as Soldier’ (1918) he provides an almost ethereal image of war and death:
I LIVED my days apart,
Dreaming fair songs for God;
By the glory in my heart
Covered and crowned and shod.
Now God is in the strife,
And I must seek Him there,
Where death outnumbers life,
And fury smites the air.
I walk the secret way
With anger in my brain.
O music through my clay,
When will you sound again?
The speaker seeks solace in music and religion, ‘Dreaming fair songs for God’. The language is soft and the use of apostrophe in the final line gives it a lyrical quality, ‘O music through my clay/When will you sound again?’ and also harks back to classical Greek poetry. Compared to a contemporary of Sassoon’s, Wilfred Owen who was also a poet and a Great War soldier, chose to use more graphic detail in his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, it is almost repulsive to read as Owen writes of ‘Vile, incurable sores.’ There is a similarity to Georgian poetry as Owen has chosen to retain structure.
Ivor Gurney, another Great War poet and soldier, had much more in common with the Imagist movement and simultaneously retained Georgian values in his poem ‘To His Love’, Scott Brewster explains the poem […] ‘laments the dead through a retreat to the pastoral’ (Brewster, 2009, p.97)
Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Things I must somehow forget
The austere language of this poem is also evident in Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound was a founder of the Imagist movement and defined Imagism via a set of rules in his essay ‘A Retrospect’ (Lodge, 1972, p.58)
1) Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2) To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation
3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Both these poems draw a further comparison to Matsuo Basho’s famous Haiku, composed in the 17th century:
an ancient pond -
the frog jumps in,
a splash of water.
There is a striking similarity between all three poems, both Gurney and Basho use a caesura in the form of a dash, and the obvious short lengths. Langdon Hammer observes the relationship between Imagism and traditional Japanese poetry by discussing ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
[…] Here the syntax is compressed in the service of rendering
what is, in effect, a new perception, a perception that is modern,
urban, ‘of the crowd’, momentary; but also as Pound conceives
it, timeless, pointing us allusively to historical and cultural
overlays. We’re in Paris, but this literary form draws on
Japanese verse models and Japanese pictorial aesthetics.
The time is now, the present, ‘these faces’. This is self
consciously an image or picture of modernity; but it’s also the
picture of an underground that inevitably recalls the Classical
underworld.’ (Hammer, 2007)
Professor Hammer’s contrast of the similarities and differences is an essential part of understanding Imagist poetry origins. The differences are just as striking as the similarities, the structure is different, the line lengths are different and the Haiku traditionally concerned itself with nature and the changing seasons, as Professor Hammer has explained, Pound’s poem is an image of the modern, and Gurney’s poem an image of war, the Haiku an image of the ancient, yet both are linked by language as Scott Brewster illustrates:
It can be argued that the clinical precision and emotional coolness
demanded by the Imagist movement was, in part, a poetic reaction
to the clamour and chaos of the trenches. (Brewster, 2009, p.96)
It seems odd then, that ‘emotional coolness’ would be displayed in dealing with war, perhaps this is evidence of soldiers distancing themselves from war. Another part of the ‘clinical precision’ of the language is that it is so similar in form to the Haiku.
The division of poetry movements this essay has been discussing is considered a part of Modern poetry as a whole. It is simple to define Modern poetry, Langdon Hammer describes it as […] A specifically historical category. It’s a historic way of naming what it is’. (Hammer, 2007)
A contemporary and friend of Ezra Pound, and one of the most important figures in the modernist movement, was T.S. Eliot, a poet who had his extraordinary ideas on the relationship between traditional and modern poetry in his essay ‘Tradition and the individual talent.’ (Lodge, 1972, p77). he writes:
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is
modified by the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing
order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after
the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly,
altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art towards
the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new […]
The argument Eliot has presented here is essentially the same argument this essay is presenting, there will always be a link to the past in current poetry, primarily because poets are influenced by poets. Eliot displays this relationship in his poem The Waste Land (1922) written in fragmented free verse, it has all the hallmarks of modernist poetry and was very different from the Georgian poetry that had preceded it; the poem uses colloquial language and urban, industrial imagery. However, the beginning of the poem, ‘The Burial of the Dead’ alludes to Chaucer’s prologue to The Canterbury Tales written at the end of the 14th century: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, we can see this repeated in The Waste Land: April is the cruellest month/breeding Lilacs out of the dead land.
In the second section, ‘A Game of Chess’ features a disjointed conversation concerning false teeth, it is set in a public house and features modernist language, however it contains a refrain reminiscent of the folk ballad ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ is insistent in the background and as the conversation and verse progresses, it becomes much more insistent, the use of the refrain in The Waste Land may signal that it’s time for change.
Eliot is proving his argument that traditional and modern poetry are reliant upon one another, modern imagery and a modern form but expressing as Professor Hammer explained ‘cultural and historical overlays’.
In conclusion, this essay has discussed the differences in Modern poetry and the poetry that preceded it. It has also examined different schools of poetry and provided evidence for the argument that there are similarities in poetry as well as differences. The links between the four different movements have been considered, in relation to the links between Modern and traditional poetry. A theory for why the Modernist movement came about and it can be agreed from the evidence that there is an essential relationship between traditional and Modern poetry.