Of Modern Poetry

Ask ten different educated, well-read people to define modernism, or the “modern” era [you know, the one right before our total disillusionment and our adoption of post-modern thinking] and you’ll likely get ten different definitions; or at least ten different sentiments about that period in our history as a nation, as a people. Certainly, going in to the modern era, we thought (or were at least were hopeful) that science would solve all our problems. There would be vast improvements in industrialization, medicine, peacetime, reduction in world hunger, and the advancement of the rights of man, woman and child. Then came World War I, the stock market crash, and World War II. We dropped a nuclear warhead on a Japanese city, instantly killing 80,000 people. The shock wave was felt for over 18 kilometers.

Novelists, poets, painters, and many other artists put their angst on display through the medium of their choice. I found the following poem by Wallace Stevens. Try reading it as if you were living in the early 1900s. Feel his emotion, his worry, his outrage, quiet as it may be in this piece. He comments that the poem of the mind had not always had to try so hard to find its scene. Its place. Things usually didn’t change so fast, so drastically. Stevens wrote this poem three years before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Many more horrific and inexplicable changes were yet to come…

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
©1942 Wallace Stevens
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