The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 itself, saying that it has to “learn the speech of the place” and “think about war.” Poetry is then compared with an actor who is speaking into “the delicatest ear of the mind.” In turn, the actor is compared with yet another figure, a metaphysician, who is then presented as a musician. All these shifting comparisons are confusing if analyzed logically, but they serve to characterize a poetry that is itself shifting, grounded on uncertainty, and reflective of lived life rather than tradition or convention. That drama, metaphysics, music, and poetry are in some ways equivalent and that they can flow from and into one another is a part of the theme of the poem. The metaphors demonstrate what the poem explains.

That action is a necessary part of contemporary poetry is suggested by the flowing run-on lines and by the number of present participles and gerunds that appear throughout the poem, such as “passing,” “twanging,” “skating,” and “dancing.” The modern poetry that is the “poem of the act of the mind” reflects the particular actions which are contemporary life.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.