The changing cast of modernism
The history of who matters to modernist poetry is shaped like an hour-glass. It begins wide, when no one was sure what this new movement would become, and its artists found common ground where they could. If you are only used to the selection of modernists in well-trimmed compilations, it is an eye-opening experience to follow the long list of now-forgotten contributors to the various Imagist anthologies, or to magazines like Alfred Kreymborg's Others. By the time of Marianne Moore's 1926 survey ‘New Poetry since 1912’, on the other hand, modernism as we know it is beginning to take shape. As she attempts to summarise the new direction poetry has taken, Moore puts Stevens, Loy, Pound, H. D., Williams and Eliot now well to the fore, though her radar has a still wider sweep, picking up well-known not-quite modernists such as Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, and writers now almost forgotten such as Witter Bynner or Marjorie A. Sieffert. It was when academic critics tried to put together the really distinctive features of ‘modernism’ in the 1930s and 1940s, however, that the range began to contract more sharply, and to centre on Eliot and Pound as the poets most alive to their time. Part of the reason for this intense focus was the sheer quality of their poetry, certainly. Another was the growing conservative turn in American Cold War culture, which was suspicious of the left-wing tendencies widespread in 1930s poetry, and ignored many poets with socialist commitments. And a third was the story critics needed to tell about modernism to make it admirable in such a climate, which has been adroitly summarised as ‘the legend of the free creative spirit at war with the bourgeoisie’. Modernism was a heroic revolution against the Romantic self-deceptions of middle-class taste, the story went, which wanted art to be soothing or decorative, but not to tell the truth about its own hypocritical values of ‘civilisation’; values which the war or industrial degradation or aimless consumerism had shown to be bankrupt. So the ‘men of 1914’ were tellers of unwelcome truths, and their stylistic difficulty was the necessary result of being fully alive in a half-dead world. Unfortunately, this sidelined the poets who were not the ‘men of 1914’, or who had other enemies than middle-class taste, or other aims than heroic individual resistance. But the heroic story persisted, not least because of the subtle flattery it offered to the critics and their student readers. For it implied that working your way through the complexity of a modernist poem was an education in learning to think authentically and heroically, at the very time that ‘modernism’ was becoming an institution protected by the academy. It also suggested that the teacher helping his students see how the poem worked was closing the very gap between the modernist writer and the public which the poets had despaired of, making the university seminar or creative writing class a precious enclave of cultural unity. With so much culture at stake – but also so much culture on offer – it is hardly surprising that the poets whose writing seemed to reward the critics’ model got the lion's share of attention.