Experimenting with New Styles to Create a New Aesthetic:  Cummings, Stevens, Eliot, and Other Modern Poets
by
Robert Clark

Modernist poets such as E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot changed the face of American poetry by destroying the notion that American culture is far inferior to European culture. These and other American poets accomplished the feat of defining an American poetic style in the Modern Era by means of a truly American idea. That idea is the melting pot. Just as American culture exists as a mixture of races, beliefs, and ideas, the new American style of poetry exists as a mixture of old English styles with a new concept of the international style. Modern poets experiment with language, theme, and convention to "cleanse language and culture of old and worn-out meanings, and introduce to poetry what is American in thought, sensibility, perception, observation, and diction [. . .]. [T]hey become exemplary of the modern endeavors of consciousness itself" (McQuade 1241).

An important event that caused so many Modernist American poets to invoke the international style was the "expatriate immigration." Many American writers, artists, and musicians left for Europe, looking for new inspiration and fresh starts. Among those emigrating were Eliot, Pound, Hughes, Cummings, and Frost. Once in Europe, there writers were exposed to the new avant-garde art and poetry taking place there. At this time, the writers began to draw inspiration from and to imitate European writers. T. S. Eliot began to imitate the topics and tones of the French poets Charles Bauldelaire and Jules LaForgue, the latter for his bourgeoisie satire. Eliot’s poetry written while in Europe displayed a satire that was foreign to American readers. Such is seen in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in which he mocks the shallow conversations about Michelangelo that are taking place among the wealthy women of the social gatherings. Pound was showing influence from the fourteenth-century Italian poets such as Guido Cavalcanti. In their works that follow their time in Europe, both Eliot and Pound display a hybridization of English and French and Italian ideas. Cummings began to imitate French Modernist poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Stephane Mallarmé. He also adopted an aesthetic based on the manifestos of French Surrealists and Dadaists, who "detached literature from referential meaning and linked it to experimental play" (McQuade 1235). Such experimental play is seen in Cummings’ poem "[she being brand]" in which the creatively formed words and syntax give the image of a young man’s thoughts, feelings, and actions upon driving his new car: "again slo-wly; bare,ly nudg. ing" (Cummings 15). The use of punctuation gives a vivid image of his thoughts as he carefully puts the stiff transmission into gear. Into another Cummings poem, "[in Just-]," we see more experimental play with the words to create the impression of the way excited children talk: "and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and its spring" (Cummings 6).

Wallace Stevens was influenced by French poetry and art. Stevens often intertwined French and English in sentences, as in the line from "The Plain Sense of Things": "We had come to an end of the imagination / Inanimate in an inert savoir" (Stevens 4-5). Stevens’ style seemed to imitate the French symbolists—abrupt, nonchalant, sometimes serious, sometimes philosophical, sometimes satirical, and sometimes humorous. Such mood swings can be observed in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," in which Stevens explores thirteen contrasting perspectives of looking at a blackbird.

The key ingredient with which Modernist American poets experiment is theme. The addition of the international influence gave American poetry a wider perspective on the world. However, the common American reader did not stand ready to address those new themes. Rather, the common reader had inherited the tradition of poetry as a moral and instrumental tool as opposed to having aesthetic value. (That is not to say that there was no aesthetic quality in poetry with a moral or educational value.) As Modernist poets began to address many new themes in new ways, the gap was widened between the poet and the common reader. Longfellow, a household name and fireside poet for years, had never littered his poetry with vague allusions and elevated language such as the Modernist poets did. In fact, Longfellow had always been careful to explain any allusions that he might have made in his poetry. Yet, new styles in poets such as Eliot and Pound arose with vague and obscure allusions. They [. . .] scattered bits of literary and historical past over the page and expected the reader to act as archaeologist, piecing together the fragments of a ruined culture" (McQuade 1238). Common readers seemed to identify more with Frost and Cummings, whom they viewed as more accessible, brief, and explicit. "Yet the public simplified both poets, seeking the sage more than the skeptic in Frost and preferring the sentimental to the satiric Cummings" (McQuade 1238). Some poets did dissent to this heady style of addressing new themes. William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane strove to treat American scenes in colloquial language. However, Modernist American poetry at this time becomes almost exclusively for the educated.

America had been known as an isolationist country, not involved in the rest of the world’s affairs. Its artists began to become involved in the country’s affairs, though, which immersed them more into the culture. Many of the poets became politically affiliated at this time. Eliot declared himself a Royalist, Pound a Fascist, Frost and Stevens Republicans, and southern writers became Democrats. "All of the Modernist poets, by their interest in the social fabric and its intellectual base, enlarged the range of topics considered appropriate to poetry" (McQuade 1239). The increased interest in the affairs of their country and the plights of their people caused poets to question the country’s purpose, politics, and cultural mainstays such as religion. Stevens and Eliot use anthropological and archaeological methods to explore the Western sustaining myths in poems such as "Sunday Morning" by Stevens, and The Waste Land by Eliot. Pre-Raphaelite poetry often praised God for the earth’s beauty while being lyrical and inward looking. Now Eliot discussed scenes from a sordid low-class pub in The Waste Land and meaningless relations based on sexual encounters in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Williams documents scenes from the urban underclass such as in "To Elsie":

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky

on the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—
(Williams 1-10)

Cummings’ satire is strong in "[the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls]" as he complains about the shallow life these wealthy women are living: "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls / are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds." Stevens fills his poetry with philosophical questionings as to the value of progress and technology in "Anecdote of the Jar," in which the spreading ugliness of the expansion of human beings tamed and spoiled the pristine wilderness that had once existed in Tennessee—"It took dominion over everywhere / the jar was gray and bare" (Stevens 8-9). Stevens also questions the meaning of life and life after death in poems such as "A Postcard from the Volcano," where a man long dead from the eruption of a volcano wonders if anyone will ever know that he and his people once existed.

The structure of poetry began to imitate modern visual art by borrowing from the technique of collage, in which many fragments are glued onto a surface, and montage in which one frame is contrasted with the next. In the same way, poets created collages with words, using fragments of thought, and montage by using many contrasting ideas. An example of poetic collage is seen in Cummings’ "[r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r]" where the poet uses words and fragments of words in different formation to create the image of a grasshopper jumping around too quickly to be seen for detail.

The need to experiment with the themes treated in American literature came out of dissatisfaction with the current confinement of poetry to a lyrical rhyming scheme with moral or educational theme. There were too many questions to treat that could not be addressed in the "fireside" style. In the same way, the larger society was full of dissatisfaction with its inability to question conventional mainstays. It was a whole generation of poets that reworked language, theme, structure, and convention in poetry to address the social squalors around them. The poets’ taking responsibility to shock the society into considering the questioning of a traditional mainstay was not only the dream of Walt Whitman, but was, in a sense, these poets showing a sense of duty to their new poetic style—the American poetic style.

They look to an Emersonian natural transcendence but find that it fails to sustain them. They can settle on no doctrinal or communal form of belief. Each of them [. . .] constructs a world of which the individual is, necessarily, the center and in which human mortality defines a final horizon of expectation.[. . . T]he aesthetic of the poetry is on social, not supernatural, meaning. (McQuade 1242)

So, the end product of the efforts of the modernist poets is an American style of modern poetry, with a new attitude toward language, theme style and convention, and which has a new aesthetic. This new aesthetic eventually leads to the poets’ finding a sense of personal freedom, which imitates the overall goal of society at the time—to escape the expectations of a system which no longer works, to break free from the oppression of the social rank-and-file, and to gain true personal freedom.

Works Cited

           Cummings, E.E. "[in Just–]." McQuade, et al. 2: 1419.

            —. "[she being brand]." McQuade, et al. 2: 1421.

            —. "[the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls]." McQuade, et al. 2: 1420.

            McQuade, Donald, et al. Ed. The Harper American Literature. 2nd ed. 2 vols. New
                  York: HarperCollins, 1993.

            —. "The Literature of Modernism: Poetry 1912-1940." McQuade et al. 2: 1233-1242.

            Stevens, Wallace. " Anecdote of the Jar." McQuade, et al. 2: 1279.

            —. "The Plain Sense of Things." McQuade, et al. 2: 1286.

            Williams, William Carlos. "To Elsie." McQuade, et al. 2: 1304.

Robert Clark, a senior in Musical Education at the time of this writing, wrote this essay for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131class during Spring 2001 semester.