Characteristics of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Literature/Reading Section of Notes), Page 1
Although many scholars argue that the eighteenth century is the beginning of what we would call the Modern Era,
Modernism as a literary movement begins in the early twentieth century and ends shortly after World War II. (Some visual arts
scholars argue that Modern Art actually begins in the late nineteenth century, and it is important to realize that Movements like
Impressionism in the Visual Arts started in the nineteenth century when most American literature was still immersed in Realism. It is
also important to recognize that not all literature written in this period exhibit the characteristics of Modernism.) Modern writers
were known for their interest in experimentation with subject matter, form, and style. Such experimentation is particularly true for
the poetry and drama during this period, and to some extent the same can be said of fiction. However, some of the American fiction
of the period is decidedly realistic and like some of the drama focused on showing up the necessity for facing the harsh reality of life.
Modernism can be defined as ―an international literary/art movement lasting from the turn of the century to around 1950. The
movement involves a rejection of tradition and a hostile attitude toward the immediate past‖ (Unit 5 Study Guide: Twentieth
Century American Literature: Modernism, Post-modernism, and Contemporary,
The Modern Period: The Imagist Movement (1909-1917 – One Movement in Modern Poetry)
Although technically before the advent of the Modern period, Imagism (a movement in poetry) was Modernistic in that it rebelled
against the maudlin poetry of much nineteenth century poetry.
Characteristics of Imagist Poetry
hard, clear expression rebels against the overly emotional (maudlin)
concrete sensory images Romantic poetry of the 19th century (this rebelling
language of everyday speech against tradition is part of what makes Imagism a
rarely rhymes Modernist movement)
Influences on Imagist Poets
Emily Dickinson’s short, compressed poems of someone might see something if they just caught a
short lines and concrete images glimpse of it. Impressionist paintings contain very
everyday language and free verse of Whitman and bright, bold colors, and tend to have very little
Realism detail‖ (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-
late 19 th/ Early 20th century French symbolist poets impressionism.htm). This movement in the visual
whose used images as symbols arts soon influenced writing: ―Writers and poets also
embraced Impressionism, and began to use imagism
Japanese poetry (haiku, tanka: short imagistic poems)
and symbolism to convey their impressions, rather
ancient Chinese, Greek, and Roman poetry than the objective characteristics of certain events
possibly Impressionism (a movement in panting that and objects. The impressionist style of fiction writing
began in the late 19th century and was a reaction often centers around the mental life of the
against Realism in its focus on ―the conveyance of characters, by observing his impressions or
an overall impression of a particular scene, usually sensations instead of interpreting experience.
outdoors, using primary colors and short Impressionistic poetry often implies a response to an
brushstrokes to represent the appearance of event or subject rather than describing the actual
reflected light. The desired result of impressionism feelings evoked‖ (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-
was to capture the artist's perception of the subject is-impressionism.htm).
rather than the subject itself. Artists of this
movement desired to portray images as though
Influences of Imagists on Modern and Contemporary Poetry
Some of the Imagist poets continue writing Imagist poetry throughout the first half of the 20th
Other Imagist poets continue using Imagist techniques but branch off into other Modernistic strategies.
Almost all poetry of the 20th and 21st century continues to use concrete images as the cornerstone of
Characteristics of Modern Poetry
Focus on concrete, sensory images (influence of Imagism, Dickinson)
Use of everyday language (Imagism, Realism, Whitman) even when poetry uses traditional rhyming verse forms.
With few exceptions, tends to be free verse rather than traditional verse forms that rhyme and have regular meter.
Most tend to reject traditional values (conservative societal and religious views) and conventions (ways poetry has
traditionally been written: free verse and experimentation with language, punctuation, visual arrangement).
Some of the poems have very simple images and may communicate very simple messages; however, many—if not
most—are deliberately difficult to understand, emphasizing the Modern view that life is at best difficult and
sometimes ambiguous, incomprehensible, or even meaningless. (Note the negative impact of WWI and the
Depression on Modern poetry.)
Characteristics of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Literature/Reading Section of Notes), Page 2
The Harlem Renaissance (a Modernistic Movement among African American Artists)
A literary, artistic movement among African-Americans in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s.
o Writing and thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the African-American magazine The Crisis from 191
to1930; called for educated Blacks to lead other Blacks to greater freedom and social equality by teaching
Black racial pride by emphasizing African cultural heritage.
o Great Black Migration from 1890-1970s: African-Americans left the South for the North for a variety of
Southern white mob violence Aggressive recruitment by
Economic discrimination in Northern industrialists for
the South black labor at wartime wages
Labor vacuum in the North
Not a school whose artists shared a common purpose, but did share a common bond: focusing on Black life from
a Black perspective.
Some of the major writers: Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolph
Fisher, James Weldon Johnson, and Jean Toomer.
Characteristics of Some of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance
Allusions to African-American spirituals
Uses structure of blues songs in poetry (repetition); influence of jazz music on poetry
Superficial stereotypes of African-Americans revealed to be complex characters
Use of African-American folk traditions
Use of African-American dialect
Common themes: alienation, marginality, identity, and the notion of "twoness", a divided awareness of one's
identity, introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP).and the author of the influential book The Souls of Black Folks (1903): "One ever feels
his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in
one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
The Fugitives [Excerpted from Wikipedia]
The Fugitives were a group of poets and literary scholars who came together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville,
Tennessee, United States, around 1920. They published a small literary magazine called The Fugitive from 1922-1925 which
showcased their works. Although its published life was brief, The Fugitive is considered to be one of the most influential
publications in the history of American letters. The Fugitives made Vanderbilt a fountainhead of the New Criticism, the
dominant mode of textual analysis in English during the first half of the twentieth century.
The Agrarians [Excerpted from Wikipedia]
The Agrarians evolved from a philosophical discussion group known as the "Fugitives" or "Fugitive Poets". Many
of the Southern Agrarians and Fugitive poets were connected to Vanderbilt University, either as students or as faculty
members. Davidson, Lytle, Ransom, Tate, and Warren all attended the university; Davidson and Ransom later joined the
faculty, along with Wade and Owsley. They were moved to respond by their studies of poetic modernism and by H. L.
Mencken's scathing critique of Southern culture. They were offended not so much by his widely publicized essay "The
Sahara of the Bozart", with which they tended to agree, but by his subsequent bitter attacks on aspects of Southern culture
that they valued, such as its agrarianism, conservatism, and religiosity. They sought to confront the widespread and rapidly
increasing effects of modernity, urbanism, and industrialism on American (but especially Southern) culture and tradition.
The informal leader of the Fugitives and the Agrarians was John Crowe Ransom, but in a 1945 essay he announced that he
no longer believed in either the possibility or the desirability of an Agrarian restoration, which he declared a "fantasy".
The most eloquent exponent of the Agrarian philosophy eventually proved to be Ransom's student Richard M. Weaver, a
friend of Donald Davidson. Unlike the others, Weaver taught at a Northern institution, the University of Chicago. Other
writers associated with the Agrarians include Caroline Gordon, Brainard Cheney and Herbert Agar.
The Southern Agrarians bemoaned the increasing loss of Southern identity and culture to industrialization. They
believed that the traditional agrarian roots of the United States, which dated back to the nation's founding in the 18th
century, were important to its nature. Their manifesto was a critique of the rapid industrialization and urbanization during
the first few decades of the 20th century in the southern United States. It posited an alternative based on a return to the
more traditionally rural and local culture, and agrarian American values. The group opposed the changes in the US that
were leading it to become more urban, national/international, and industrial.
Characteristics of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Literature/Reading Section of Notes), Page 3
Contemporary Literature (1945/1950 – Present): Trends, Movements, 2nd ½ of the 20th Century & opening of the
The period between 1945/1950 to the present is currently referred to as the contemporary period. Eight Trends:
Trend 1: Continuation of Realism in Fiction and Drama.
Trend 2: Continuation of Modernistic Techniques and Themes in Poetry, Fiction and Drama.
o Some writers of plays, poetry, fiction continue with the Modernist themes evident in the first ½ of 20 th
Life is harsh, difficult, a struggle and meaningless in itself, except for meaning individual creates.
The universe is alien and incomprehensible, God is absent or does not exist.
Antagonism toward traditional, conservative views of religion and society.
o Some writers of plays, poetry, and fiction continue with the same Modernist techniques:
Psychological realism: stream-of-consciousness and interior monologues in poems and fiction.
Expressionistic techniques in drama.
Continued experimentation with language and form.
Antagonism toward traditional techniques.
Trend 3: Explosion of Growth: Minority Writers (Diversity in Ethnicity, Religion, Gender, Sexual Orientation) &
Female Writers: Civil Rights and Feminist Movements
Trend 4: Explosion of Growth in Genre Fiction (Diversity in Types of Fiction)
Trend 5: Postmodernism: a literary movement that arose as both a reaction against and extension of Modernism in
Fiction, Drama, and Poetry (Second Wave of Experimentalism Going Beyond Modernism)
o Characteristics of Postmodernism:
reaction against an ordered, rational view of the world and emphasis on the absurd (the
condition or state in which humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe wherein people's
lives have no purpose or meaning).
Use of the anti-hero (a main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is
characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage).
eclectic writing style, often using detached irony, parody, bricolage, pastiche, fabulation or
magical realism, metafiction.
irony: a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to
their literal meaning. b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast
between apparent and intended meaning. c. A literary style employing such contrasts for
humorous or rhetorical effect. (Please note: this is not to say that irony is not used in
other periods and movements.)
parody: a satirical technique that is usually a ridiculous imitation of a known genre or
literary form (note parodies of television commercials as skits on Saturday Night Live
and Mad TV).
bricolage: Something made or put together using whatever materials happen to be
available: ―Even the decor is a bricolage, a mix of this and that.‖
pastiche: 1 : a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of
previous work; also : such stylistic imitation 2 a : a musical, literary, or artistic
composition made up of selections from different works b: hodgepodge
fabulation: the act of composing fables, or stories, especially those into which the
element of fantasy comes heavily into play
magical realism: a Postmodern technique that uses elements of science fiction or
fantasy from popular culture (fiction, film, comic books, etc.).
metafiction: Fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of
fiction or its conventions.
o avoidance of the Modernist distinction between high art (literature – the classics, canonical works -- and
low art (popular culture – comics, television, genre fiction)
o complete abandonment of linearity in the structure of fiction (Modernist novels, even though they
experimented with stream-of-consciousness techniques, that is, non-linearity, still followed a basic linear
plot structure); de-emphasis on plot and storytelling
o avoidance of traditional closure of themes and situations; keeps opening new possibilities
o severance of the artistic illusion (metafiction).
Characteristics of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Literature/Reading Section of Notes), Page 4
o the blending of fiction and nonfiction (nonfiction novels like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or the New
Journalism of authors like Tom Wolfe – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – that use techniques of fiction
writing alongside journalistic facts, reshaping the facts).
o Some Notable Postmodern Fiction Writers: Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Shirley Jackson,
Trend 6: New Regionalism in Fiction
Trend 7: Return to Form Poetry or Traditional Verse (Traditionalism Rather Than Experimentalism)
o While traditional form (regular metered rhyming poetry) never disappeared in the Modern era – even
among the Modernists, it has been the minority trend in the 20th and 21st centuries.
o The Fugitive (Anti-Modernist) poets in the 1920s fostered new generations of poets, who continue to
write in traditional forms.
Note, however, that traditional form does not necessarily mean a return to traditional themes.
Traditional poets will sometimes use more poetic diction than free verse writers, though that is
not always true.
Some representative traditional poets are as follows:
Earliest generation after Fugitives: John Hollander, Richard Howard, James Merrill,
Later: John Ashberry, Randall Jarrell and A. R. Ammons (North Carolina), Gwendolyn
Brooks, Adrienne Rich, etc.
Trend 8: Personal Experimentation, Idiosyncrasy, and Combination of Techniques (Poetry)
o Many poets who may have begun as traditionalists later abandoned this approach and began to
experiment with other forms.
o Many poets use a combination of different techniques: traditionalist, modernist, postmodernist.
o Many poets’ personal styles (idiosyncrasies) make it almost impossible to classify them.