Modern poetry

  1. History of Modern Poetry
  2. Example Poem: "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot
  3. Additional Examples

History of Modern Poetry

Modern poetry emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as poets began to break away from the strict metrical and rhyming conventions of traditional poetry. Influenced by rapid social, cultural, and technological changes, modern poets experimented with new forms, themes, and language. The Industrial Revolution, World War I, and the advent of psychoanalysis were just a few of the factors that contributed to this period of literary experimentation.

One of the most significant movements in modern poetry was the "modernist" movement, which emerged in the early 20th century and included poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. These poets rejected the romanticism of earlier poetry and instead focused on themes of alienation, fragmentation, and disillusionment. Modernist poetry often featured fragmented imagery, nonlinear narrative structures, and a focus on the interior lives of characters.

The modernist movement was characterized by a sense of experimentation and innovation, with poets exploring new forms and techniques. Many modernist poets were influenced by developments in psychology, philosophy, and the visual arts, and their work often reflected the fragmentation and dislocation of the modern world.

Example Poem: "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot

The Waste Land is a landmark modernist poem by T.S. Eliot, first published in 1922. It's considered one of the most important poems of the 20th century and reflects the disillusionment and fragmentation of the post-World War I era. The poem is divided into five sections and draws on a wide range of cultural and literary references, including mythology, religion, and history. It is written in a fragmented style, with abrupt shifts in tone, setting, and voice.

Example stanza:

"April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain."

The Waste Land is a highly allusive poem, filled with references to works of literature, mythology, and religion. Its fragmented style reflects the dislocation and alienation of modern life, while its diverse range of voices and perspectives reflects the complexity of the modern world.

Additional Examples

1. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot

Another iconic modernist poem by T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock explores themes of alienation and existential angst. The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, with the speaker addressing an unnamed listener.


"Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question ..."

Meaning: The poem explores the theme of indecision and the inability to take action. The speaker, J. Alfred Prufrock, is paralyzed by his own self-doubt and insecurity, unable to make meaningful connections with others or to engage fully with the world around him.

2. "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound

This short imagist poem by Ezra Pound is a quintessential example of modernist poetry, focusing on precise imagery and economy of language. The poem describes a fleeting moment in a Parisian metro station, capturing the beauty and transience of everyday life.


"The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough."

Meaning: The poem captures the fleeting nature of human connection and the beauty of everyday moments. The faces in the crowd are compared to petals on a wet, black bough, suggesting the transience and fragility of human existence.

3. "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams

A concise and imagistic poem, This Is Just To Say is an example of Williams' focus on everyday life and language. The poem is written in the form of a note left on a refrigerator, apologizing for eating someone else's plums.


*"I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox

and which you were probably saving for breakfast

Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold"*

Meaning: The poem explores themes of temptation, desire, and forgiveness. The speaker confesses to eating the plums that were meant for someone else, but instead of expressing remorse, they revel in the pleasure of the experience.

4. "A Noiseless Patient Spider" by Walt Whitman

Though Whitman is often considered a transitional figure between the 19th and 20th centuries, his free verse style and focus on individual experience make him an important precursor to modernist poetry. A Noiseless Patient Spider is a short lyric poem that explores themes of isolation and connection.


"A noiseless patient spider, I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them."

Meaning: The poem explores the human desire for connection and the struggle to find meaning in a vast and indifferent universe. The spider's quest to create connections echoes the speaker's own search for meaning and connection in the world.

5. Langston Hughes

An influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes is known for his vivid depictions of African American life and culture. His poetry often explores themes of identity, race, and social justice.

Example Poem: "Harlem"

"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

Meaning: The poem explores the consequences of deferred dreams and the frustration and anger that can result from unfulfilled hopes and aspirations.

6. Marianne Moore

Known for her precise imagery and formal innovation, Marianne Moore was a leading figure in the modernist movement. Her poetry often featured unconventional structures and explored themes of nature, art, and language.

Example Poem: "Poetry"

"I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine."

Meaning: The poem reflects Moore's ambivalent relationship with poetry and the challenges of creating art in a world filled with noise and distraction. Despite her initial dislike for poetry, the speaker ultimately finds value in its ability to express the genuine and the true.

7. Wallace Stevens

A major figure in American modernist poetry, Wallace Stevens is known for his philosophical and meditative verse. His poetry often explores the relationship between imagination and reality, as well as the nature of art and perception.

Example Poem: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

"I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after."

Meaning: The poem explores the nature of perception and the way in which different perspectives can shape our understanding of the world. Through thirteen different vignettes, the poem examines the blackbird from multiple angles, suggesting that reality is subjective and mutable.

8. H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

An important figure in the modernist movement, H.D. was known for her experimental verse and her exploration of themes of gender, identity, and sexuality.

Example Poem: "Oread"

"Whirl up, sea— whirl your pointed pines, splash your great pines on our rocks, hurl your green over us, cover us with your pools of fir."

Meaning: The poem explores themes of power, desire, and the natural world. The speaker addresses the sea, asking it to cover them with its waves and to envelop them in its embrace.