Lyric modernism Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane

This chapter focuses on the work of two poets - Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane - who exemplify the mode of what I am calling "lyric modernism." The title ofthe chapter brings together two concepts that we might normally consider to be polar opposites: "lyricism" and "modernism." Both Stevens and Crane were centrally important figures in the development ofAmerican poetic modernism; yet at the same time they were poets working within the tradition of post-Romantic lyric poetry in a way that experimental modernists like Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams were not. Stevens and Crane represent, in very different ways, the twentieth-century synthesis of post-Romantic lyricism and modernist innovation.

Modernist poetry, as we have seen in the work of Pound and Eliot, involved a rejection of the inherited models of traditional English poetry. The nineteenth-century lyric, the modernists felt, had too often relied on the beauty and melodiousness of its language rather than on the depth or complexity of its thought. With the Imagist movement of the 1910s, poets began to move away from a reliance on musicality and sonic richness and toward a greater precision and directness oflanguage. Further, the Romantic and post-Romantic lyric was chiefly concerned with the expression of the poetic self, either celebrating that self (in relation to nature, a loved one, or some other aspect ofthe world), or questioning the isolation, victimization, or failure of that self. The language of late-nineteenth-century lyric was assumed to express in its intensest form the subjectivity and personality of the poet himself. This focus on the poem as a reflection ofits author's personality or as an expression of his personal emotions was anathema to Pound and Eliot, who felt that such a focus would do nothing to advance poetry as art or technique. As Eliot put it in his influential essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1921), poetry "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." Eliot's statement may seem to exaggerate the modernist requirement that poets avoid emotionalism and sentimentality, but it was an important corrective to the excesses ofthe post-Romantic lyric. It was only through the process of"depersonalization," Eliot argued, that poetry could approach "the condition of science." The analogy with science was a telling one: the modernists believed that the practice of poetry could be improved only by continued and methodical experimentation. Just as the scientific method involved developing new techniques that in turn could lead to new kinds of knowledge, the experimental method of poetry could lead to new ways of using language and new ways of describing experience.

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