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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, “twanging an instrument,” creating a music that is “sounds passing through sudden rightnesses.” These vibrations are the mind’s own pulsations made audible to it.

The poem concludes by returning to the subject matter of modern poetry, which can be any action in which the self is expressed: It “may/ Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing.” The subject is not the important issue, however, for the real poem is the act of creating poetry; modern poetry is finally “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” This poem twists and turns in an attempt to catch a glimpse of its own creation. It is about itself: Modern poetry, and this work defining it, are self-reflexive. The poem is the creation of poetry and not the product.

This poem contains germs of the ideas that Stevens would develop and elaborate in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” in which he claims that poetry must be abstract, must change, and must give pleasure.