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Oct 2017
Here is a primer on the history of poetry

Features of Modernism

To varying extents, writing of the Modernist period exhibits these features:

1. experimentation

belief that previous writing was stereotyped and inadequate
ceaseless technical innovation, sometimes for its own sake
originality: deviation from the norm, or from usual reader expectations
ruthless rejection of the past, even iconoclasm

2. anti-realism

sacralisation of art, which must represent itself, not something beyond preference for allusion (often private) rather than description
world seen through the artist's inner feelings and mental states
themes and vantage points chosen to question the conventional view
use of myth and unconscious forces rather than motivations of conventional plot

3. individualism

promotion of the artist's viewpoint, at the expense of the communal
cultivation of an individual consciousness, which alone is the final arbiter
estrangement from religion, nature, science, economy or social mechanisms
maintenance of a wary intellectual independence
artists and not society should judge the arts: extreme self-consciousness
search for the primary image, devoid of comment: stream of consciousness
exclusiveness, an aristocracy of the avant-garde

4. intellectualism

writing more cerebral than emotional
work is tentative, analytical and fragmentary, more posing questions more than answering them
cool observation: viewpoints and characters detached and depersonalized
open-ended work, not finished, nor aiming at formal perfection
involuted: the subject is often act of writing itself and not the ostensible referent

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Expressionism

Expressionism was a phase of twentieth-century writing that rejected naturalism and romanticism to express important inner truths. The style was generally declamatory or even apocalyptic, endeavoring to awaken the fears and aspirations that belong to all men, and which European civilization had rendered effete or inauthentic. The movement drew on Rimbaud and Nietzsche, and was best represented by German poetry of the 1910-20 period. Benn, Becher, Heym, Lasker-Schüler, Stadler, Stramm, Schnack and Werfel are its characteristic proponents, {1} though Trakl is the best known to English readers. {2} {3}

Like most movements, there was little of a manifesto, or consensus of beliefs and programmes. Many German poets were distrustful of contemporary society — particularly its commercial and capitalist attitudes — though others again saw technology as the escape from a perceived "crisis in the old order". Expressionism was very heterogeneous, touching base with Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, Dadaism and early Surrealism, many of which crop up in English, French, Russian and Italian poetry of the period. Political attitudes tended to the revolutionary, and technique was overtly experimental. Nonetheless, for all the images of death and destruction, sometimes mixed with messianic utopianism, there was also a tone of resignation, a sadness of "the evening lands" as Spengler called them.

Expressionism also applies to painting, and here the characteristics are more illuminating. The label refers to painting that uses visual gestures to transmit emotions and emotionally charged messages. In the expressive work of Michelangelo and El Greco, for example, the content remains of first importance, but content is overshadowed by technique in such later artists as van Gogh, Ensor and Munch. By the mid twentieth-century even this attenuated content had been replaced by abstract painterly qualities — by the sheer scale and dimensions of the work, by colour and shape, by the verve of the brushwork and other effects.

Expressionism often coincided with rapid social change. Germany, after suffering the horrors of the First World War, and ineffectual governments afterwards, fragmented into violently opposed political movements, each with their antagonistic coteries and milieu. The painting of these groups was very variable, but often showed a mixture of aggression and naivety. Understandably unpopular with the establishment  — denounced as degenerate by the Nazis — the style also met with mixed reactions from the picture-buying public. It seemed to question what the middle classes stood for: convention, decency, professional expertise. A great sobbing child had been let loose in the artist's studio, and the results seemed elementally challenging. Perhaps German painting was returning to its Nordic roots, to small communities, apocalyptic visions, monotone starkness and anguished introspection.

What could poetry achieve in its turn? Could it use some equivalent to visual gestures, i.e. concentrate on aspects of the craft of poetry, and to the exclusion of content? Poetry can never be wholly abstract, a pure poetry bereft of content. But clearly there would be a rejection of naturalism. To represent anything faithfully requires considerable skill, and such skill was what the Expressionists were determined to avoid. That would call on traditions that were not Nordic, and that were not sufficiently opposed to bourgeois values for the writer's individuality to escape subversion. Raw power had to tap something deeper and more universal.

Hence the turn inward to private torments. Poets became the judges of poetry, since only they knew the value of originating emotions. Intensity was essential.  Artists had to believe passionately in their responses, and find ways of purifying and deepening those responses — through working practices, lifestyles, and philosophies. Freud was becoming popular, and his investigations into dreams, hallucinations and paranoia offered a rich field of exploration. Artists would have to glory in their isolation, moreover, and turn their anger and frustration at being overlooked into a belief in their own genius. Finally, there would be a need to pull down and start afresh, even though that contributed to a gradual breakdown in the social fabric and the apocalypse of the Second World War.

Expressionism is still with us. Commerce has invaded bohemia, and created an elaborate body of theory to justify, support and overtake what might otherwise appear infantile and irrational. And if traditional art cannot be pure emotional expression, then a new art would have to be forged. Such poetry would not be an intoxication of life (Nietzsche's phrase) and still less its sanctification.  Great strains on the creative process were inevitable, moreover, as they were in Georg Trakl's case, who committed suicide shortly after writing the haunting and beautiful piece given below

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SYMBOLIST POETS
symbolism in poetry

Symbolism in literature was a complex movement that deliberately extended the evocative power of words to express the feelings, sensations and states of mind that lie beyond everyday awareness. The open-ended symbols created by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) brought the invisible into being through the visible, and linked the invisible through other sensory perceptions, notably smell and sound. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), the high priest of the French movement, theorized that symbols were of two types. One was created by the projection of inner feelings onto the world outside. The other existed as nascent words that slowly permeated the consciousness and expressed a state of mind initially unknown to their originator.

None of this came about without cultivation, and indeed dedication. Poets focused on the inner life. They explored strange cults and countries. They wrote in allusive, enigmatic, musical and ambiguous styles. Rimbaud deranged his senses and declared "Je est un autre". Von Hofmannstahl created his own language. Valéry retired from the world as a private secretary, before returning to a mastery of traditional French verse. Rilke renounced wife and human society to be attentive to the message when it came.

Not all were great theoreticians or technicians, but the two interests tended to go together, in Mallarmé most of all. He painstakingly developed his art of suggestion, what he called his "fictions". Rare words were introduced, syntactical intricacies, private associations and baffling images. Metonymy replaced metaphor as symbol, and was in turn replaced by single words which opened in imagination to multiple levels of signification. Time was suspended, and the usual supports of plot and narrative removed. Even the implied poet faded away, and there were then only objects, enigmatically introduced but somehow made right and necessary by verse skill. Music indeed was the condition to which poetry aspired, and Verlaine, Jimenez and Valéry were among many who concentrated efforts to that end.

So appeared a dichotomy between the inner and outer lives. In actuality, poets led humdrum existences, but what they described was rich and often illicit: the festering beauties of courtesans and dance-hall entertainers; far away countries and their native peoples; a world-weariness that came with drugs, isolation, alcohol and bought ***. Much was mixed up in this movement — decadence, aestheticism, romanticism, and the occult — but its isms had a rational purpose, which is still pertinent. In what way are these poets different from our own sixties generation? Or from the young today: clubbing, experimenting with relationships and drugs, backpacking to distant parts? And was the mixing of sensory perceptions so very novel or irrational? Synaesthesia was used by the Greek poets, and indeed has a properly documented basis in brain physiology.

What of the intellectual bases, which are not commonly presented as matters that should engage the contemporary mind, still less the writing poet? Symbolism was built on nebulous and somewhat dubious notions: it inspired beautiful and historically important work: it is now dead: that might be the blunt summary. But Symbolist poetry was not empty of content, indeed expressed matters of great interest to continental philosophers, then and now. The contents of consciousness were the concern of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and he developed a terminology later employed by Heidegger (1889-1976), the Existentialists and hermeneutics. Current theories on metaphor and brain functioning extend these concepts, and offer a rapprochement between impersonal science and irrational literary theory.

So why has the Symbolism legacy dwindled into its current narrow concepts? Denied influence in the everyday world, poets turned inward, to private thoughts, associations and the unconscious. Like good Marxist intellectuals they policed the area they arrogated to themselves, and sought to correct and purify the language that would evoke its powers. Syntax was rearranged by Mallarmé. Rhythm, rhyme and stanza patterning were loosened or rejected. Words were purged of past associations (Modernism), of non-visual associations (Imagism), of histories of usage (Futurism), of social restraint (Dadaism) and of practical purpose (Surrealism). By a sort of belated Romanticism, poetry was returned to the exploration of the inner lands of the irrational. Even Postmodernism, with its bric-a-brac of received media images and current vulgarisms, ensures that gaps are left for the emerging unconscious to engage our interest

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IMAGIST POETRY
imagist poetry

Even by twentieth-century standards, Imagism was soon over. In 1912 Ezra Pound published the Complete Poetical Works of its founder, T.E. Hulme (five short poems) and by 1917 the movement, then overseen by Amy Lowell, had run its course. {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} The output in all amounted to a few score poems, and none of these captured the public's heart. Why the importance?

First there are the personalities involved — notably Ezra Pound, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams {6} {7} {8} {9} — who became famous later. If ever the (continuing) importance to poets of networking, of being involved in movements from their inception, is attested, it is in these early days of post-Victorian revolt.

Then there are the manifestos of the movement, which became the cornerstones of Modernism, responsible for a much taught in universities until recently, and for the difficulties poets still find themselves in. The Imagists stressed clarity, exactness and concreteness of detail. Their aims, briefly set out, were that:

1. Content should be presented directly, through specific images where possible.
2. Every word should be functional, with nothing included that was not essential to the effect intended.
3. Rhythm should be composed by the musical phrase rather than the metronome.

Also understood — if not spelled out, or perhaps fully recognized at the time — was the hope that poems could intensify a sense of objective reality through the immediacy of images.

Imagism itself gave rise to fairly negligible lines like:

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch…  (Storm by H.D.)

Nonetheless, the reliance on images provided poets with these types of freedom:

1. Poems could dispense with classical rhetoric, emotion being generated much more directly through what Eliot called an objective correlate: "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." {10}

2. By being shorn of context or supporting argument, images could appear with fresh interest and power.

3. Thoughts could be treated as images, i.e. as non-discursive elements that added emotional colouring without issues of truth or relevance intruding too mu
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PROSE BASED POETRY
prose based poetry

When free verse lacks rhythmic patterning, appearing as a lineated prose stripped of unnecessary ornament and rhetoric, it becomes the staple of much contemporary work. The focus is on what the words are being used to say, and their authenticity. The language is not heightened, and the poem differs from prose only by being more self-aware, innovative and/or cogent in its exposition.

Nonetheless, what looks normal at first becomes challenging on closer reading — thwarting expectations, and turning back on itself to make us think more deeply about the seemingly innocuous words used. And from there we are compelled to look at the world with sharper eyes, unprotected by commonplace phrases or easy assumptions. Often an awkward and fighting poetry, therefore, not indulging in ceremony or outmoded traditions.
What is Prose?

If we say that contemporary free verse is often built from what was once regarded as mere prose, then we shall have to distinguish prose from poetry, which is not so easy now. Prose was once the lesser vehicle, the medium of everyday thought and conversation, what we used to express facts, opinions, humour, arguments, feelings and the like. And while the better writers developed individual styles, and styles varied according to their purpose and social occasion, prose of some sort could be written by anyone. Beauty was not a requirement, and prose articles could be rephrased without great loss in meaning or effectiveness.

Poetry, though, had grander aims. William Lyon Phelps on Thomas Hardy's work: {1}

"The greatest poetry always transports us, and although I read and reread the Wessex poet with never-lagging attention — I find even the drawings in "Wessex Poems" so fascinating that I wish he had illustrated all his books — I am always conscious of the time and the place. I never get the unmistakable spinal chill. He has too thorough a command of his thoughts; they never possess him, and they never soar away with him. Prose may be controlled, but poetry is a possession. Mr. Hardy is too keenly aware of what he is about. In spite of the fact that he has written verse all his life, he seldom writes unwrinkled song. He is, in the last analysis, a master of prose who has learned the technique of verse, and who now chooses to express his thoughts and his observations in rime and rhythm."

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OPEN FORMS IN POETRY
open forms in poetry

Poets who write in open forms usually insist on the form growing out of the writing process, i.e. the poems follow what the words and phrase suggest during the composition
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