English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change “on or about December 1910.” The statement testifies to the modern writer’s fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.
“On or about 1910,” just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life and Einstein’s ideas were transforming our perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavor. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the most influential banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.
The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war’s end in 1918, the centuries-old European domination of the world had ended and the “American Century” had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. But it was also a time when the avant-garde experiments that had preceded the war would, like the technological wonders of the airplane and the atom, inexorably establish a new dispensation, which we call modernism. Among the most instrumental of all artists in effecting this change were a handful of American poets.
Ezra Pound, the most aggressively modern of these poets, made “Make it new!” his battle cry. In London Pound encountered and encouraged his fellow expatriate Eliot, who wrote what is arguably the most famous poem of the twentieth century—“The Waste Land”—using revolutionary techniques of composition, such as the collage. Both poets turned to untraditional sources for inspiration: Pound to classical Chinese poetry and Eliot to the ironic poems of the nineteenth century French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue. H. D. followed Pound to Europe and wrote poems that, in their extreme concision and precise visualization, most purely embodied his famous doctrine of imagism.
Among the American poets who stayed at home, Wallace Stevens—a mild-mannered executive at a major insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut—had a flair for the flashiest titles that poems have ever had: “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Stevens, the aesthete par excellence, exalted the imagination for its ability to “press back against the pressure of reality.”
What was new in Marianne Moore was her brilliant and utterly original use of quotations in her poetry, and her surpassing attention to the poetic image. What was new in E. E. Cummings was right on the surface, where all the words were in lowercase letters and a parenthesis “(a leaf falls)” may separate the “I” from “oneliness.”
William Carlos Williams wrote in “plain American which cats and dogs can read,” to use a phrase of Moore. “No ideas but in things,” he proclaimed. In succinct, often witty poems, he presents common objects or events—a red wheelbarrow, a person eating plums—with freshness and immediacy, enlarging our understanding of what a poem’s subject matter can be. Unlike Williams, Robert Frost favored traditional devices—blank verse, rhyme, narrative, the sonnet form—but he, too, had a genius for the American vernacular, and his pitiless depiction of a cruel natural universe marks him as a peculiarly modern figure who is sometimes misread as a genial Yankee sage.
Of the many modern poets who acted on the ambition to write a long poem capable of encompassing an entire era, Hart Crane was one of the more notably successful. In his poem “The Bridge,” the Brooklyn Bridge is both a symbol of the new world and a metaphor allowing the poet to cross into different periods, where he may shake hands in the past with Walt Whitman and watch as the train called the Twentieth Century races into the future.