Study Guide

Of Modern Poetry

by Wallace Stevens

Of Modern Poetry Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

One of the most frequently anthologized of Stevens’s poems, “Of Modern Poetry” is another work that attempts to define art for a fragmented world in constant flux. Poetry is now a search, whereas it used to be a method. In the past, “the scene was set; it repeated what/ Was in the script.” That is, convention and tradition defined poetry, and each poem was a modification of a pattern. Now, Stevens says, the conventions no longer apply.

The poem must reflect the world, speak its speech; it must “face the men of the time and . . . meet/ The women of the time.” War, the contemporary state of affairs, must have a part in it. Most important, it must find “what will suffice,” a phrase repeated twice in the poem. The search for “what will suffice” amounts to a search for satisfaction, a solace for the mind’s pain of isolation. It must, in fact, express the mind to itself, so that it becomes the internal made visible. The actor must speak words that “in the delicatest ear of the mind” repeat what it desires to hear.

The imagery so far has been of the theater, but when the method of this new poetry is described, philosophy and music are interwoven with theater images to give the impression of an art that is plastic and fluid. The actor becomes “a metaphysician in the dark,” suggesting a thinker concerned with first and final causes but lacking the light of any received structure for his meditations. He is, moreover,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)