Canaday Center

What is Modernism?

Cover of a book called Images by Richard AldingtonModernism is a period in literary history which started around the early 1900s and continued until the early 1940s. Modernist writers in general rebelled against clear-cut storytelling and formulaic verse from the 19th century. Instead, many of them told fragmented stories which reflected the fragmented state of society during and after World War I.

Many Modernists wrote in free verse and they included many countries and cultures in their poems. Some wrote using numerous points-of-view or even used a “stream-of-consciousness” style. These writing styles further demonstrate the way the scattered state of society affected the work of writes at that time.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are thought to be the mother and father of the movement because they had the most direct influence on early Modernists. Some time after their deaths, the Imagist poets began to gain importance. The University of Toledo’s Canaday Center has a rich collection of poetry and critical work from that era.

Imagist poets generally wrote shorter poems and they chose their words carefully so that their work would be rich and direct. The movement started in London, where a group of poets met and discussed changes that were happening in poetry. Ezra Pound soon met these individuals, and he eventually introduced them to H.D. and Richard Aldington in 1911. In 1912, Pound submitted their work to Poetry magazine. After H.D.’s name, he signed the word "Imagiste" and that was when Imagism was publicly launched. Two months later, Poetry published an essay which discusses three points that the London group agreed upon. They felt that the following rules should apply when writing poetry: 

  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.

In the following month’s issue, Pound’s two-line poem “In a Station at the Metro” was published. In addition to the previously published works of Aldington and H.D., it exemplifies the tenets of Imagism in that it is direct, written with precise words, and has a musical tone which does not depend on a specific rhythm:

In a Station at the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Over the next four years, four anthologies of Imagist poetry were published. They included work by people in that London group (Pound, F.S. Flint, H.D., and Aldington), but they also contained the works of Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Marianne Moore.Cover of a book of poems

World War I broke out soon after the height of Imagism. Some poets, like Aldington, were called to serve the country, and this made the spread of Imagism difficult—as did paper shortages as a result of the war. Eventually, war poets like Wilfred Owen grew in popularity as people shifted their attention to the state of the world. 

After the war ended, a sense of disillusionment grew, and poems like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” showed the way poetry had shifted. This infamous poem contains various narratives and voices that change quickly from one topic to another. This style of poetry differed greatly from the slow and focused poetry of the Imagists. Visit this link to read the poem in its entirety.

Within a few years, many Modernist writers moved overseas. There was an exciting expatriate scene in Paris which included Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein,and Mina Loy. These writers held and attended literary salons. Poets such as E.E. Cummings, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams also attended these salons at times.

Not all Modernist poets followed the writers who were making revolutionary changes to the world of poetics. Marianne Moore, for example, wrote some form poetry, and Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was "like playing tennis without a net." Additionally, writers who had gained popularity toward the end of the Modernist era were inspired by less experimental poets such as Thomas Hardy and W.B. Yeats.  

By the 1950s, a new generation of Postmodern poets came to the forefront. Adding “post” in front of the word "Modern" showed that this new period was different than the one before it, yet was influenced by it. The Modernist ideas of Imagism and the work of William Carlos Williams, for example, continue to have a great influence on writers today.

Last Updated: 6/27/22