Literary modernism is difficult to define as it encompasses a wide variety of movements and as many writers who are termed as modernists were not affiliated with these movements. Broadly, modernist literature is characterized by a radical break with traditional ways of writing in favor of new forms of expression. Ezra Pound captured the essence of Modernism with his famous dictum, “Make it new!” The First World War is critical to modernist literature and it is the point around which it evolved while World War II is considered by many as the end of the movement. Modernist poetry favors the intellect over emotion, is impersonal and values themes like isolation. Moreover, it doesn’t aim to provide an answer and is instead open to interpretation. Modernist poets also experimented with form and their works usually don’t have a set structure or a recognizable pattern. Instead, Modernist poems often seem fragmentary or disjointed. Here are the 10 most famous poems in Modernism literature. We have excluded works of poets whose status as modernist is questioned like those of W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and others.
#10 This Is Just To Say
Poet: William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was a Puerto Rican-American poet closely associated with Imagism, a poetic movement that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. This is a famous short imagist poem which appears like a piece of found poetry. It can also be seen as a note left on a kitchen table for a person with whom the speaker is living. The speaker simply says that he ate the plums which were in the icebox and asks for forgiveness from his mate; as his mate had been probably saving them for breakfast. Though a very simple poem, This Is Just To Say is a very popular short poem and one of Williams’ most famous works.
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
#9 September 1, 1939
Poet: W. H. Auden
Along with Yeats and Eliot, Wystan Hugh Auden is ranked among the three greatest 20th century British and Irish poets. Moreover, his legacy as one of the most important poets of Modernism is indisputable. Auden wrote this poem at the outbreak of World War II when Poland was attacked by Hitler led Germany. Consisting of 99 lines, written in trimeters, it describes how the cultural problems, racial biases and regional conflicts from the time of Martin Luther in the 16th century to the time of Adolf Hitler in the present, have made war inevitable. September 1, 1939 is an exemplary example of Modernist poetry. Among other things, its pessimistic poetic style is in stark contrast to Victorian optimism, which was dominant before the Modernism moment. Though Auden himself didn’t like the poem, September 1, 1939 is one of the most famous works of 20th century literature and it is still widely read.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
#8 The Hollow Men
Poet: T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot was a British writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. The Hollow Men, the narrators of this poem, are trapped in a go-between world, a sort of twilight world between “death and dying“. Eliot perhaps uses them to personify the spiritual emptiness of the world. The poem is regarded by critics to be primarily about post-World War I Europe and the difficulty of hope and religious conversion. In keeping with Modernist poetry, it uses very short lines, is open to interpretation and doesn’t have a recognizable story progression. The Hollow Men contains some of Eliot’s most famous lines, most prominently its concluding lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper“, which have been called “probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English”.
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
#7 In a Station of the Metro
Poet: Ezra Pound
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was the most influential and prominent figure of the influential Imagist movement. He rejected Victorian and Edwardian grammar and structure; and instead created a unique form of speech, employing odd words and jargon. This poem is an early work of Modernist poetry as it attempts to “break from the pentameter”; incorporates the use of visual spacing as a poetic device; and does not contain any verbs. Ezra Pound was inspired to write it while seeing the faces of individuals in a metro station in Paris, which he believed would be best put in a poem not with a description but with an “equation”. The poem thus expresses the rare emotion that Pound experienced at the time. In a Station of the Metro contains of only 14 words and it is considered a quintessential poem of the Imagism movement.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
#6 The Red Wheelbarrow
Poet: William Carlos Williams
Originally published without a title, this poem is the best known poem of William Carlos Williams. It was originally published in Spring and All and was titled “XXII”; its order in the collection. The Red Wheelbarrow was inspired by an old African American named Marshall whom Williams knew. According to Williams: “In his (Marshall’s) back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.” The Red Wheelbarrow is regarded as a prime example of Imagism. Though the poem is very short, it has been much analyzed with some critics believing that “‘so much depends upon’ each line of the poem“.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
Poet: Allen Ginsberg
Howl can be divided into three sections. In the first, the speaker talks about the destruction of “the best minds” of his generation in an oppressively conformist and materialistic era. He asks the question “who” in this section and identifies these minds as poets, artists, political dissenters, musicians, drug addicts and psychiatric patients. In the second section, the speaker asks the question “what” destroyed these minds. He identifies the destroyer as the Biblical God “Moloch”, who is associated with child sacrifice. For the poet, Moloch represents war, government, capitalism and mainstream culture. The central question of the third section is “where”. It is addressed to Carl Solomon, a close fried of Allen Ginsberg, who is admitted at a psychiatric hospital. Howl is regarded as one of the great works of American literature and it is among the most famous poems of Modernist literature.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
#4 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Poet: T. S. Eliot
Commonly known as just Prufrock, this work was the first professionally published poem of T. S. Eliot and he wrote most of it at the age of 22. Prufrock is a dramatic monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment”. The speaker is a sexually frustrated and indecisive middle aged man who wants to say something but is afraid to do so, and ultimately does not. At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered outlandish and was berated by critics. However, it is now considered the first masterpiece of Modernism in English, a poem which marked a monumental literary shift between 19th-century Romantic poetry and 20th-century Modernist poetry.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
#3 Funeral Blues
Alternate Title: Stop all the clocks
Poet: W. H. Auden
In Funeral Blues, the speaker laments the death of someone close to him. He begins by calling for silence and for all to mourn. He then describes how the person who died was everything to him and concludes in despair by indicating that there is nothing that matters to him now. Though the poem has been written in the form of an elegy, it uses informal language and objects of everyday life such as a telephone. Funeral Blues is perhaps Auden’s best known poem and it has featured in popular culture many times, most famously in the 1994 British romantic comedy film Four Weddings and a Funeral. A sculpture build to commemorate the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, in which 39 people died, features this poem to symbolize the sorrow felt for the victims.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
#2 i carry your heart with me
Poet: E.E. Cummings
E.E. Cummings is considered one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century and this poem is his most famous work. The poetry of Cummings is radical for its unconventional punctuation and phrasing. This poem can be compared with a sonnet due to its similar structure but Cummings does add modern twists to it. It begins with the speaker describing the ubiquitous influence of his love in his life and goes on to touch several themes including oneness, and love as the originator of life. Its popularity can be gauged from the fact that its opening line is still often tattooed by people and that its lines have been used by several artists, including in the song Ion Square by English indie rock band Bloc Party. E.E. Cummings is renowned for his love poetry and i carry your heart with me is one of the most famous love poems of all time.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
#1 The Waste Land
Poet: T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land is divided into five sections: The Burial of the Dead; A Game of Chess; The Fire Sermon; Death by Water; and What the Thunder Said. The style of the poem is marked by hundreds of allusions and quotations from other texts of the Western canon, Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads. The poem shifts between voices of satire and prophecy featuring abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time. It is notable for its seemingly disjointed structure, indicative of the style of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Waste Land is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century and a central work of modernist poetry. In fact, Ezra Pound once commented that it “is… the justification of the ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment”. While not considered as Eliot’s masterpiece by some, The Waste Land is undoubtedly his most famous poem and also the most famous poem of the Modernism movement.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.