The English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change "on or about December 1910." The statement testifies to the modern writer's fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.
"On or about 1910," just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life, and Einstein's ideas were transforming our perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavor. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the most influential banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Matisse and Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.
The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war's end in 1918, the centuries-old European domination of the world had ended and the "American Century" had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. But it was also a time when the avante-garde experiments that had preceded the war would, like the technological wonders of the airplane and the atom, inexorably establish a new dispensation, which we call modernism. Among the most instrumental of all artists in effecting this change were a handful of American poets.
Ezra Pound, the most aggressively modern of these poets, made "Make it new!" his battle cry. In London Pound encountered and encouraged his fellow expatriate T. S. Eliot, who wrote what is arguably the most famous poem of the twentieth century--"The Waste Land"--using revolutionary techniques of composition, such as the collage. Both poets turned to untraditional sources for inspiration, Pound to classical Chinese poetry and Eliot to the ironic poems of the 19th century French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue. H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) followed Pound to Europe and wrote poems which, in their extreme concision and precise visualization, most purely embodied his famous doctrine of Imagism.
Among the American poets who stayed at home, Wallace Stevens--a mild-mannered executive at a major insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut--had a flair for the flashiest titles that poems have ever had: "Peter Quince at the Clavier," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle." Stevens, the aesthete par excellence, exalted the imagination for its ability to "press back against the pressure of reality."
What was new in Marianne Moore was her brilliant and utterly original use of quotations in her poetry, and her surpassing attention to the poetic image. What was new in E. E. Cummings was right on the surface, where all the words were in lower-case letters and a parenthesis "(a leaf falls)" may separate the "l" from "oneliness."
William Carlos Williams wrote in "plain American which cats and dogs can read," to use a phrase of Marianne Moore. "No ideas but in things," he proclaimed. In succinct, often witty poems he presents common objects or events--a red wheelbarrow, a woman eating plums--with freshness and immediacy, enlarging our understanding of what a poem's subject matter can be. Unlike Williams, Robert Frost favored traditional devices--blank verse, rhyme, narrative, the sonnet form--but he, too, had a genius for the American vernacular, and his pitiless depiction of a cruel natural universe marks him as a peculiarly modern figure who is sometimes misread as a genial Yankee sage.
Of the many modern poets who acted on the ambition to write a long poem capable of encompassing an entire era, Hart Crane was one of the more notably successful. In his poem "The Bridge," the Brooklyn Bridge is both a symbol of the new world and a metaphor allowing the poet to cross into different time zones, where he may shake hands in the past with Walt Whitman and watch as the train called the Twentieth Century races into the future.
Born in 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio, Harold Hart Crane was a highly anxious and volatile child. He began writing verse in his early teenage years, and though he never attended college, read regularly on his own, digesting the works of the Elizabethan dramatists and poets—Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne—and the nineteenth-century French poets—Vildrac, Laforgue, and Rimbaud. His father, a candy manufacturer, attempted to dissuade him from a career in poetry, but Crane was determined to follow his passion to write. Living in New York City, he associated with many important figures in literature of the time, including Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, E. E. Cummings, and Jean Toomer, but his heavy drinking and chronic instability frustrated any attempts at lasting friendship. An admirer of T. S. Eliot, Crane combined the influences of European literature and traditional versification with a particularly American sensibility derived from Walt Whitman. His major work, the book-length poem, The Bridge, expresses in ecstatic terms a vision of the historical and spiritual significance of America. Like Eliot, Crane used the landscape of the modern, industrialized city to create a powerful new symbolic literature. Hart Crane committed suicide in 1932, at the age of thirty-three, by jumping from the deck of a steamship sailing back to New York from Mexico.
E. E. Cummings
Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894. He received his B.A. in 1915 and his M.A. in 1916, both from Harvard. During the First World War, Cummings worked as an ambulance driver in France, but was interned in a prison camp by the French authorities (an experience recounted in his novel, The Enormous Room) for his outspoken anti-war convictions. After the war, he settled into a life divided between houses in rural Connecticut and Greenwich Village, with frequent visits to Paris.
In his work, Cummings experimented radically with form, punctuation, spelling and syntax, abandoning traditional techniques and structures to create a new, highly idiosyncratic means of poetic expression. Later in his career, he was often criticized for settling into his signature style and not pressing his work towards further evolution. Nevertheless, he attained great popularity, especially among young readers, for the simplicity of his language, his playful mode and his attention to subjects such as war and sex. At the time of his death in 1962, he was the second most widely read poet in the United States, after Robert Frost.
Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1886. She attended Bryn Mawr, as a classmate of Marianne Moore, and later the University of Pennsylvania where she befriended Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. She travelled to Europe in 1911, intending to spend only a summer, but remained abroad for the rest of her life. Through Pound, H. D. grew interested in and quickly became a leader of the Imagist movement. Some of her earliest poems gained recognition when they were published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry.
Her work is characterized by the intense strength of her images, economy of language, and use of classical mythology. Her poems did not receive widespread appreciation and acclaim during her lifetime, in part because her name was associated with the Imagist movement even as her voice had outgrown its boundaries, as evidenced by her book-length works, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. Neglect of H. D. can also be attributed to her times, as many of her poems spoke to an audience which was unready to respond to the strong feminist principles articulated in her work. She died in 1961.
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Missouri on September 26, 1888. He lived in St. Louis during the first eighteen years of his life and attended Harvard University. In 1910, he left the United States for the Sorbonne, having earned both undergraduate and masters degrees and having contributed several poems to the Harvard Advocate. After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914. The following year, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and began working in London, first as a teacher, and later for Lloyd's Bank.
It was in London that Eliot came under the influence of his contemporary Ezra Pound, who recognized his poetic genius at once, and assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Poetry in 1915. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, now considered by many to be the single most influential poetic work of the twentieth century, Eliot's reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world.
As a poet, he transmuted his affinity for the English metaphysical poets of the 17th century (most notably John Donne) and the 19th century French symbolist poets (including Baudelaire and Laforgue) into radical innovations in poetic technique and subject matter. His poems in many respects articulated the disillusionment of a younger post-World-War-I generation with the values and conventions—both literary and social—of the Victorian era. As a critic also, he had an enormous impact on contemporary literary taste, propounding views that, after his conversion to orthodox Christianity in the late thirties, were increasingly based in social and religious conservatism. His major later poems include Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1943); his books of literary and social criticism include The Sacred Wood (1920), The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), After Strange Gods (1934), and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1940). Eliot was also an important playwright, whose verse dramas include Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, and The Cocktail Party.
He became a British citizen in 1927; long associated with the publishing house of Faber & Faber, he published many younger poets, and eventually became director of the firm. After a notoriously unhappy first marriage, Eliot separated from his first wife in 1933, and was remarried, to Valerie Fletcher, in 1956. T. S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and died in London in 1965.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. He moved to New England at the age of eleven and became interested in reading and writing poetry during his high school years in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was enrolled at Dartmouth College in 1892, and later at Harvard, but never earned a formal degree. Frost drifted through a string of occupations after leaving school, working as a teacher, cobbler, and editor of the Lawrence Sentinel. His first professional poem, "My Butterfly," was published on November 8, 1894, in the New York newspaper The Independent.
In 1895, Frost married Elinor Miriam White, who became a major inspiration in his poetry until her death in 1938. The couple moved to England in 1912, after their New Hampshire farm failed, and it was abroad that Frost met and was influenced by such contemporary British poets as Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves. While in England, Frost also established a friendship with the poet Ezra Pound, who helped to promote and publish his work. By the time Frost returned to the United States in 1915, he had published two full-length collections, A Boy's Will and North of Boston, and his reputation was established. By the nineteen-twenties, he was the most celebrated poet in America, and with each new book—including New Hampshire (1923), A Further Range (1936), Steeple Bush (1947), and In the Clearing (1962)—his fame and honors (including four Pulitzer Prizes) increased.
Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England, and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time, Frost is anything but a merely regional or minor poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony. Robert Frost lived and taught for many years in Massachusetts and Vermont, and died on January 29, 1963, in Boston.
Born near St. Louis, Missouri, on November 15, 1887, Marianne Moore was raised in the home of her grandfather, a Presbyterian pastor. After her grandfather's death, in 1894, Moore and her family stayed with other relatives, and in 1896 they moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr College and received her B.A. in 1909. Following graduation, Moore studied typing at Carlisle Commercial College, and from 1911 to 1915 she was employed as a school teacher at the Carlisle Indian School. In 1918, Moore and her mother moved to New York City, and in 1921, she became an assistant at the New York Public Library. She began to meet other poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, and to contribute to the Dial, a prestigious literary magazine. She served as acting editor of the Dial from 1925 to 1929. Along with the work of such other members of the Imagist movement as Ezra Pound, Williams, and H. D., Moore's poems were published in the Egoist, an English magazine, beginning in 1915. In 1921, H.D. published Moore's first book, Poems, without her knowledge.
Moore was widely recognized for her work; among her many honors were the Bollingen prize, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote with the freedom characteristic of the other modernist poets, often incorporating quotes from other sources into the text, yet her use of language was always extraordinarily condensed and precise, capable of suggesting a variety of ideas and associations within a single, compact image. In his 1925 essay "Marianne Moore," William Carlos Williams wrote about Moore's signature mode, the vastness of the particular: "So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events." She was particularly fond of animals, and much of her imagery is drawn from the natural world. She was also a great fan of professional baseball and an admirer of Muhammed Ali, for whom she wrote the liner notes to his record, I Am the Greatest! Deeply attached to her mother, she lived with her until Mrs. Moore's death in 1947. Marianne Moore died in New York City in 1972.
Ezra Pound is generally considered the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry. In the early teens of the twentieth century, he opened a seminal exchange of work and ideas between British and American writers, and was famous for the generosity with which he advanced the work of such major contemporaries as W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H. D., James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and especially T. S. Eliot. His own significant contributions to poetry begin with his promulgation of Imagism, a movement in poetry which derived its technique from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry--stressing clarity, precision, and economy of language, and foregoing traditional rhyme and meter in order to, in Pound's words, "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome." His later work, for nearly fifty years, focused on the encyclopedic epic poem he entitled The Cantos.
Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885. He completed two years of college at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a degree from Hamilton College in 1905. After teaching at Wabash College for two years, he travelled abroad to Spain, Italy and London, where, as the literary executor of the scholar Ernest Fenellosa, he became interested in Japanese and Chinese poetry. He married Dorothy Shakespear in 1914 and became London editor of the Little Review in 1917. In 1924, he moved to Italy; during this period of voluntary exile, Pound became involved in Fascist politics, and did not return to the United States until 1945, when he was arrested on charges of treason for broadcasting Fascist propaganda by radio to the United States during the Second World War. In 1946, he was acquitted, but declared mentally ill and committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. During his confinement, the jury of the Bollingen-Library of Congress Award (which included a number of the most eminent writers of the time) decided to overlook Pound's political career in the interest of recognizing his poetic achievements, and awarded him the prize for the Pisan Cantos (1948). After continuous appeals from writers won his release from the hospital in 1958, Pound returned to Italy and settled in Venice, where he died, a semi-recluse, in 1972.
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard as an undergraduate and earned a law degree from New York Law School. Admitted to the U.S. Bar in 1904, Stevens found employment at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. in Connecticut, of which he became vice president in 1934. In November 1914, Harriet Monroe included four of his poems in a special wartime issue of Poetry, and Stevens began to establish an identity for himself outside the world of law and business. His first book of poems, Harmonium, published in 1923, exhibited the influence of both the English Romantics and the French symbolists, an inclination to aesthetic philosophy, and a wholly original style and sensibility: exotic, whimsical, infused with the light and color of an Impressionist painting. More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life. Though now considered one of the major American poets of the century, he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems, just a year before his death. His major works include Ideas of Order (1935), The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937), Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1942), and a collection of essays on poetry, The Necessary Angel (1951). Wallace Stevens died in Hartford in 1955.
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883. He began writing poetry while a student at Horace Mann High School, at which time he made the decision to become both a writer and a doctor. He received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and befriended Ezra Pound. Pound became a great influence in Williams' writing, and in 1913 arranged for the London publication of Williams's second collection, The Tempers. Returning to Rutherford, where he sustained his medical practice throughout his life, Williams began publishing in small magazines and embarked on a prolific career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. Following Pound, he was one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement, though as time went on, he began to increasingly disagree with the values put forth in the work of Pound and especially Eliot, who he felt were too attached to European culture and traditions. Continuing to experiment with new techniques of meter and lineation, Williams sought to invent an entirely fresh—and singularly American—poetic, whose subject matter was centered on the everyday circumstances of life and the lives of common people. His influence as a poet spread slowly during the twenties and thirties, overshadowed, he felt, by the immense popularity of Eliot's "The Waste Land"; however, his work received increasing attention in the 1950s and 1960s as younger poets, including Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, were impressed by the accessibility of his language and his openness as a mentor. His major works include Kora in Hell (1920), Spring and All (1923), Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), the five-volume epic Paterson (1963, 1992), and Imaginations (1970). Williams's health began to decline after a heart attack in 1948 and a series of strokes, but he continued writing up until his death in New Jersey in 1963.