Of Modern Poetry Themes
by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Of Modern Poetry” is one of Stevens’s most frequently anthologized poems, and it may be the most commonly encountered poem from the collection that contains it, Parts of a World. Its popularity may be attributable in part to the relative clarity with which it presents its themes. The quest for “what will suffice” appears in other Stevens poems as well, including “Man and Bottle.” The search for a fiction that will be sustaining or nourishing to human beings in their uncertain lives is Stevens’s major theme. In this poem, the theme is not hidden or presented indirectly.

The poem explores what characteristics poetry must have if it is to “suffice”—that is, to be enough or to satisfy. It is the uncertainty of the time that places so many demands on poetry, because poetry, to satisfy, must not violate reality. Therefore, wartime demands poetry which confronts war issues rather than hides from them. As each age speaks its own language, so the speech of the poem must reflect and partake of the discourse of the time. Otherwise it will not satisfy. It is axiomatic in Stevens that building a romantic world which can serve as a shelter from the unpleasantness of reality is not the function of poetry. Some of Stevens’s early critics thought of him as an escapist, an ivory-tower poet who had little contact with the real world and little interest in it. He fought such dismissal vigorously in both poetry and essay, claiming that the poet must confront reality. The work of the imagination lies in its interactions with the real, not in disguises or evasions of reality.

The presentation of what modern poetry is actually like or should be like is more complex, presented as it is in a series of metaphors of actors, musicians, and metaphysicians. The substance of poetry is its sounds; these sounds ideally have all the dimensions that they could be given by those other art forms and disciplines.

Still more subtle is the description of the response to this ideal poetry. The audience is really listening “not to the play, but to itself.” If the reality of the present is adequately represented in sound, the reader will find himself or...

(The entire section is 563 words.)