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(43) Modernist Poets in America.

(R. Frost, C. Sandburg, E. L. Masters, V. Lindsay, H. Crane, W. C. Williams, W. Stevens, and e. e. cummings).


A m e r i c a n  M o d e r n i s m

[See "Background for Topics 41-44..."]


R o b e r t  F r o s t  ( 1 8 7 5 – 1 9 6 3 )

L i f e :

- his life = a Gothic chronicle of disasters

- the death of his father, the death of his 1st child in infancy, the suicide of his only son, the death of his daughter in childbirth, the mental illness of another his daughter, and the refusal of his wife on her deathbed to admit him to her room

W o r k :

< T. Hardy: his suspicion of the universe being governed by a malevolent God, or, worse, not governed at all

< W. James: his scepticism and pragmatism

< W. Whitman: his intimate lyricism and patriotism – the ‘You come too’ line from his “The Pasture”

- a link to the Br. Georgian poets (E. Thomas, & oth.) rather than to the new movements (imagism, & oth.)

- content: simplicity of subject matter, seemingly easily accessible x but: very complex

- setting: nature, farm a favourite location (a hobby farmer on the farm his grandfather bought him in New Hampshire)

- form: the traditional rhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse [= unrhymed iambic pentameter] x the modernist free verse

- an uncanny feeling for the ‘sentence sounds’ natural to the Am. language

=> modernist / modern poetry: sceptical, questioning, and settling for no easy answers

- critical essays on poetry: aphoristic, pithy, and profound

- a vein of Am. humour also in his poetry (more likely to be found in prose like M. Twain’s)

(a) long blank-verse poems: “Home Burial”

(b) short rhymed lyrics: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

< W. Shakespeare’s songs, P. B. Shelley’s choruses, and J. Keats’s odes > his song-like quality

(c) philos. rhymed sonnets: “Design” and “The Oven Bird”

< Lat. poets > his use of hendecasyllabics [= 11-syllable lines]: “For Once, Then, Something”

(d) pre-Christian nature poems: “The Most of It”, enigmatic; “For Once, Then, Something”, elusive; “Time Out”, unreadable; “Home Burial”, unmerciful

(e) dramatic monologue poems [= one imaginary speaker addressing an imaginary audience]

A Boy's Will (1913):

- his 1st coll.

- the title: from H. W. Longfellow’s line: ‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will’

- displaced L., the regional poet of New En., by his own regional poetry of New Hampshire

North of Boston (1914):

- his 2nd coll., left for En., and publ. the coll. with the help of E. Pound

- incl. “Mending Wall”, “Home Burial”, and “After Apple-Picking”

New Hampshire (1923):

- returned to US, and found himself pop. x unlike E. Pound


C a r l  S a n d b u r g

[see S. under ‘42 Followers of Whitman…’]


E d g a r  L e e  M a s t e r s

[see M. under ‘42 Followers of Whitman…’]


V a c h e l  L i n d s a y

[see L. under ‘42 Followers of Whitman…’]


H a r t  C r a n e ( 1 8 9 9 – 1 9 3 2 )

L i f e :

- a difficult life, uneasiness about his homosexuality, and uncontrollable alcoholism resulted in his suicide

W o r k :

< the modernist Fr. poets A. Rimbaud and S. Mallarmé

< himself claimed his indebtedness to W. Whitman, E. Dickinson, and H. Melville

< also called ‘the Shelley of our age’: contrasted hope and love x scepticism and irony

- content: turned away from the instructional twd the associational

- form: used a compressed syntax, periphrases, and transferred epithets [= a phrase expressing an attribute characteristic of a person / thing]

- produced a poetry texture rich with music and light

- also wrote aesthetic theories, essays, and letters

White Buildings (1926): his 1st coll.

The Bridge (1930):

- a sequence of poems, each in a different form: the 1st person monologue, the 2nd person colloquy, or the 3rd person description

- the title: from the monumental Brooklyn bridge

(a) = the symbol of the machine age

(b) = the symbolical span over the past, present, and future

- aspired to epic ambitions: constructed the present upon the past, not upon the East (Eur.) x but: upon the West (the Am. frontier)

- incl. political events (C. Columbus’s voyage), historical events (Pocahontas’s dance), aesthetic events (W. Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, E. A. Poe, and W. Whitman), and personal events (his hoboism, New Yorkers in the subway, etc.)


W i l l i a m  C a r l o s  W i l l i a m s  ( 1 8 8 3 – 1 9 6 3 )

L i f e :

- b. in a cultured family

- read the Af.-Am. poets (P. L. Dunbar), E Romantic poets (J. Keats), and E Victorian poets

- followed 2 full-time careers: a New Jersey physician and a poet

- suffered underestimation as a poet

W o r k :

- associated with ‘objectivism’ = a post-imagist group

- insisted no symbolism should be allowed to hide the purpose of poetry

- sought to elevate the world of senses to make it equal to imagination

E a r l y  P o e t r y :

- used a simple language, and direct realistic images

- concentrated on the rhyme

Poems (1909):

- his early coll.

- marred by derivations and well-meant clichés

- later called it ‘bad Keats’, and broke with traditional forms and subject matters

Al Que Quiere! [= ‘To Him Who Wants It!’] (1920): an imagist coll.

Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920): an experimental montage of passages written ‘automatically’ (to reveal subconscious funds of poetic energy) and commentary on them

S e l f - c o n s c i o u s l y  A m e r i c a n :

The Great American Novel (1923)

Spring and All (1923): an intermixture of prose and poetry

In the American Grain (1925): a personal revision of Am. history and culture

Paterson (1946):

- a modern epic for the industrial-age Am.

- a response to E. Pound’s fragmentary Cantos x but: an attempt of unification

- the title: from Paterson = an actual town in his country


W a l l a c e  S t e v e n s  ( 1 8 7 9 – 1 9 5 5 )

P o e t r y :

< Br. aestheticism (W. Pater’s dandyism) > his earliest poetry

- a new way for Am. poetry: no regionalism, no patriotism, no use of vernacular x but: an adaptation of E lit. to the Am. language

Harmonium (1923):

- his 1st coll., together with T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations and M. Moore’s Observations used to define the Am. modernism

(a) odd poems with odd titles: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

(b) seemingly conventional poems with odd titles: “The Comedian as the Letter C.”

(c) seemingly conventional poems with conventional titles x but: unconventional themes: “Sunday Morning”, a bold declaration of the death of God

(d) “Anecdote of the Jar”, a witty reversal of J. Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: the Br. poet’s illustr. marble urn in the Br. Museum x the Am. poet’s bare grey stoneware jar in the TN wilderness

(e) “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”

The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937):

- continues in establ. a style peculiar to him:

(a) seriousness of subject x gaiety of treatment

(b) laconic wit x sceptical, ironic, and whimsical humour

(c) a non-mimetic repres., bizarre subjects (clownish people), and a great imagination

(d) a language play: challenges the reader’s expectation, delights in obscure and strange words, and concentrates on the word

Owl's Clover (1936) and Parts of a World (1942):

- examines social issues, incl. the war in Ethiopia, WW II, etc.

- achieves no stylistic success

Collected Poems (1955):

- consid. this coll. ‘the planet on the table’ = the whole world in a reduced form

- by the end of his life recognised as a major poet, won the Pulitzer Prize

P r o s e :

The Necessary Angel (1951), Opus Posthumous (1957, posthum.):

- a coll. of essays outlining his theory of poetry:

(a) = a means to transfer imagination to reality: fictional elements introd. by poetry become real by the very fact they are given names

(b) = a substitute for God in the world where God was already dismissed

- philos.: his poems abound in abstractions of ‘imagination, ‘reality’, and ‘poetry’


E ( d w a r d )  E ( s t l i n )  C u m m i n g s  ( 1 8 9 4 – 1 9 6 2 )

P o e t r y :

- a modernist poet and painter > his visual gifts clearly discernible in his poetry


- scorned the mediocre values of the ‘most-people’ against the bohemian tastes of the artist: celebrated an individual against the mass society

- scorned the conventional verbal traditions, political pieties, and conventional standards of behaviour: delighted in the bohemian culture

- preocc. with the themes of childlike egotism, irrepressible impudence, and untroubled sexual pleasure

- his love poems often sexually explicit x but: his belief of all desires being simple ones often led him into a conventional sentimentalising of the erotic life

- retained his eagerness to admit and express in a tender lyricism the traditional emotions of love, sadness, etc.

- asked provocative and still relevant aesthetic questions: What is a poem? Is all language material suitable for poetry? Is the sonnet dead or can it be resuscitated? Etc.


(a) Early Poetry:

- < the Pre-Raphaelites and Metaphysical writers: his intricate stanza patterns

(b) Mature Poetry:

< G. Apollinaire and S. Mallarmé: his clever formal innovation

< R. W. Emerson, H. D. Thoreau, and W. Whitman: his flexible immediacy of style

- paid attention to the visual form of the poem: experimented with capitalisation x lack of it, with punctuation, line breaks, hyphenation, and verse shapes

- used common speech and elements of pop. culture

- perceived the life as being always in process: wrote untitled poems lacking beginnings / endings, and consisting of fragmentary lines

- aspired less to reshape poetry than T. S. Eliot, E. Pound, W. Stevens, or W. C. Williams

- wrote poetry simpler in thought and technique than the major modernists: felt a greater continuity with the Am. past

=> a capacity for language play, humour, and vivid satire of Am. and its institutions

Tulips and Chimneys (1923)

P r o s e :

The Enormous Room (1922):

- his own experience as a prisoner of his own side in a Fr. prison camp during the WW I

- an ironic and absurd celebration of the ordinary soldier x an attack on the bureaucratic insensitivity

Eimi (1933):

- an account of his travels in Rus. after the rise of Stalin

- irrepressibly energetic in style, and rich in rapidly noted sensory detail


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Other Sources

Flajšar, Jiří. Semináře: Americká literatura 2. ZS 2004/05.


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