“Of Modern Poetry” attempts to redefine poetry for a world with no stable structures or values. Its form approaches blank verse, but it is not close enough to that form to be so labeled. The form is flexible, with five stresses in most lines but six or four in others. The loose form is appropriate for this poem, as a part of its argument is that modern poetry refuses labels, designations, and categories of all kinds.
The poem begins with its basic definition: Modern poetry is “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” Contemporary poetry must be self-descriptive; it must look at itself searching and must observe its own invention. Thus, poetry is not so much a product as an act or activity. In the past, the speaker continues, the “scene was set”: Poetry was formerly a matter of following the conventions. Everyone knew what was considered poetic material and what the acceptable forms of poetry were. This is no longer the case. The new poetry must be written in today’s language, and it must reflect changing times and shifting concerns. It must include a consideration of war, for example. (The poem was published during World War II.) It must make use of the materials that are currently available to create a representation of those who will read it.
The poem then compares the poet with other types of artist for whom performance is a major part of their artistry. These comparisons help communicate the point that poetry must be activity if it is to speak to the present. The poet becomes an actor, a musician, and a “metaphysician in the dark” in his attempt to portray the time period as it is, for those who live in it. Elements of other arts and disciplines are attributed to poetry.
The concluding lines add to the previous definition, stating that poetry must be “the finding of a satisfaction.” The earlier quest is identified as a search for “what would suffice.” These two words, “suffice” and “satisfaction,” suggest that poetry has as its goal a kind of consolation. The suggestion looks forward to Wallace Stevens’s major statement of his poetic theory, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” in which he develops a substantial argument concerning poetry: “It Must Give Pleasure.” In the conclusion to “Of Modern Poetry” he also offers possible subjects for poetry—“a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing.” His subjects are all actions, activities which might be considered celebrations of the present by those who feel enough at home in it to move with its movements. Flux and flow are a necessary part of “the poem of the act of the mind.”
Forms and Devices
The form of the poem as a whole reflects its insistence that form not be prescribed for modern poetry. The twenty-eight lines are arranged according to no set pattern, but the suggestion of blank verse underlies the poem and gives a feeling of coherence to it. The poem is broken into sections which provide its major propositions. It is not a syllogism or formal argument, but it makes three main points. It begins by introducing the issue of modern poetry and the difference between past and present poetry. In its most extended section, it then describes the new demands made on poetry by a complicated and skeptical age. Finally, it comments on possible subjects for poetry.
The metaphors in this poem all point in the same direction; they are all attempts to describe modern poetry in such a way as to make “Of Modern Poetry” both explanation and example. Traditional poetry is described as a theater in which “the scene was set.” Past poets could repeat “what was in the script”: Their powers of invention were not taxed in the same way that those of poets now are. To introduce the new poetry, the poem personifies or animates poetry...
(The entire section is 950 words.)