What Makes Modern Poetry “Modern?”


I have a handful of favorite poetry translators, two-talkers who get it right when midwiving poetry from one language to another and tell like it is instead of how they think it might sound better in the receiving language.  One is the great translator of French, especially Rimbaud, Wallace Fowlie.   The other is polyglot Michael Hamburger.  He wowed me with his translations of Holderlin– which managed to stay near word-perfect-true to the original while also — some-miraculously-how– giving us English speakers a sense of the rhythm, tone, and general feel of Holderlin’s poetry.  So intrigued was I by this master craftsman come speaking in tongues, that I looked up some of his other works, and ended up getting hold of his collection of essays on poetry entitled The Truth Of Poetry.

Hamburger, in this uneven collection of literary criticism and analysis, is most concerned with Modern Poetry, meaning specifically that Western poetry written during the first half of the twentieth century (that generation or so of critics was egotistical enough to take-over the word “modern” for good, as if no future generation might ever wish or deserve to call itself “modern”– hell, after suffering two world wars and the invention of the atomic bomb, they may well have figured that there wouldn’t BE any future generations of artistic men– just barbarians combing through the rubble of hubris and violence…).

I was curious to read what Hamburger thought separated Modern Poetry from what came before.  He was not shy about stating his thoughts upon this matter.

Following, are some of the things Hamburger has to say about Modern Poetry…

Modern Poetry contains a “high degree of self-awareness.”  This can sometimes appear as irony (I dare say that no century has been so full of irony as the twentieth); other times this self-awareness manifests in references to, and rebellion against, previous literature.

Modern Poetry specializes in the ability to “universalize the particular.”  Modern Poetry can, at its best, impregnate the inconsequential with consequence by giving “a new center to experiences which by all the classical criteria should be peripheral.”  As Hamburger quotes the Imagist Manifesto, “poets should render particulars exactly and not deal with vague generalities.”

Modern Poetry is “personal.”  Narcissism and Extreme Subjectivism is the name of the game.  Copernicus was wrong; the center of the solar system is Me; I’m the black hole at the center of the galaxy.  All else is but the extension of my milky arms spiraling as I dance my way across my personal universe.  (Note: all that’s my own view of the idiosyncratizing of Modern Poetry; Hamburger is actually much more sympathetic to modern trends than yours truly).  ”The Modern poem,” according to a Hugo Friedrich quotation Hamburger offers, “avoids acknowledging the objective existence of the objective world;”

 Modern Poetry is not very concerned with being “accessible.”  In other words, the transference of intended comprehension is not necessarily what the modern poet is after.  The most ambitious Modern poet may wish to transmit an image; the next most ambitious may wish to radiate a mood; as for the rest… well, if any reader doesn’t “get” it, then the poem obviously wasn’t meant for him;  Hamburger speaks of this as the switchover from the millennia of writing poetry intended for “public” broadcast to a new style of “personal” poetry– poetry, indeed, which may have a fully comprehending audience of one– if that.  In fact, as Hamburger quotes Friedrich as saying, the Modern Poets loathe to do something so boring and base as to “call a thing by name.”  Where’s the fun in that?  In this way, Modern Poetry has become a kind of game… What am I talking about?, asks the Modern Poet– he shrugs, You tell me.  Outright “descriptive or narrative elements” would take all the air of out of the elusive thing we call Modern Poetry, bring it down to earth.  And everyone knows that a balloon looks more magical floating toward the clouds instead of sagging on the sidewalk.

Modern Poetry isn’t aiming to be outstanding rhetoric.  Moderns, says Hamburger, want to produce “an imagery not subservient to argument.”  For me, this translates into more poems produced for tone and mood, and less poems attempting to present a cogent narrative or grand-scale epic.  To quote the over-quoted MacLeish statement upon the matter, “a poem should not mean but be.”

Modern Poetry is neither poetry (in the old school sense) or prose (in the sense of being straightforward communication).  On the anti-poetry side, rhyme and meter are out.  Hamburger declares Metrical Freedom for the Moderns.  For them, stanzas are boring and quite frankly a bit confining.  And gimme a break– end rhymes?!  Really?  That’s sooo 19th century!  What Moderns prefer are witty or tricksy “acoustic values”– if such ear-pleasing aims are worried-with at all since the advent of the Age of poetry experienced more often on-the-page than on-the-stage.  Of course, even the sympathetic Hamburger thinks that sometimes a lack of structure can be used as an excuse for laziness;  speaking of some of Bertolt Brecht’s later work, he comments… “it as though the poet could not be bothered to turn his prose into ‘poetry’.”

On the anti-prose side, Modern poetry writers, says Hamburger, want to be “liberated from prose” (reserving the right to Stop Making Sense– at least using the most obvious, old-fashioned modes of sense-making).  Moderns are not choosing their phrases for the value of their “semantic exigencies,” but for other reasons… perhaps for “acoustic values,” perhaps for purposes of imagery, and perhaps for reasons arcane and “personal.”


 Modern Poetry is not attempting to convey Grandeur or Dignity– in fact, often quite the opposite.  Moderns don’t mind getting down and dirty with their poetry and rolling us readers around in the mud and grime of their own dirty little lives.  Rare, indeed, would be the Modern poem which attempts to entertain and enlighten us with tales of gods and heroes.  For Moderns, no event is too small, idiosyncratic, or detestable to turn into poetry.  They accept nothing less than absolute freedom in choice of subject.   Moderns would deride or pity the poet who was backward enough to actually attempt to write allegorically;  allegory went out with home butter-churning.  So too did window-dressing poetry.  The Modern Poet has no need to decorate his stanzas like Christmas trees with high-sounding phrases or learned allusion to classical mythology (although I have noticed a tendency to reference OTHER, less well-known or even quite obscure mythologies).  And though poets like Ezra Pound provide numerous exceptions to the rule, many Moderns, states Hamburger, purposefully choose to write poetry “without the technical terms, foreign phrases, literary, and vernacular borrowings” so commonly associated with old-school poetry and instead will adopt “a deliberate unpoetic idiom.”  Modern Poets “have no use for ornament.”  Hamburger himself seems to stand shell-shocked whenever he stumbles upon a Modern deigning to use a simile (gasp!).  And any Modern would disdain to nail pretty pictures to their poems; they want nothing that could be considered ornamental “in the sense of merely adding Grandeur or Dignity to their thoughts.”  Grand or dignified thoughts?  Puh-leez!  Don’t insult us.  As Hamburger quotes Lagorgue saying, “to indulge in eloquence seems to me to be in such bad taste.”  Brecht practiced what he called “language washing,” which, as Hamburger explains it, is Brecht’s way of “stripping his diction of ornamental and sentimental accretions.”

Modern Poetry is sick of the abstract.  You won’t find a lot of non-ironical gushing about Lady Liberty or Sophia The Goddess Of Wisdom in Modern poetry.  Moderns aren’t so much into “trailing clouds of glory” from eternity or from or to any indistinct place for that matter.  As stated in the Imagist Manifesto, a poet can “use the language of common speech,” but he must “employ always the exact word, not merely the decorative word.”  The ultimate goal is the production of poetry “that is hard and clear, never blurred and indefinite.”    Instead of speaking of the blessed childhood days of innocence, a Modern Poet would more likely flash us a verbal picture of a little red wagon and let us draw what surmises we will.

Modern Poetry is austere.  A decent Modern poet is trying to say the most with the least.  Again, from the Imagist Manifesto:  “concentration is the very essence of poetry.”  Hamburger speaks of “the plain, bare, minimal diction of the new anti-poetry.”  By labeling it “anti-poetry,” Hamburger is acknowledging the evident fact that Modern Poetry often finds itself disavowing almost everything that “normal” poetry (the poetry of the Ages) has for centuries striven to achieve.  Hamburger quotes Robert Bly as calling the “anti-poetry” of the Moderns a form of “vandalism.”


To see Hammering Shield’s other post on Hamburger’s The Truth Of Poetry click below:

What Is The Purpose Of Poetry


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