A hundred years ago Ezra Pound was busy creating modern poetry in London. He helped Yeats to write more directly and more symbolically, then set about “breaking the pentameter” by following T E Hulme and others to create imagism and, a bit later, vorticism. He recognised the originality of Eliot, Joyce and Lawrence and published the first two, worked with William Carlos Williams (a friend from university) and as Foreign Editor of Poetry (Chicago), permanently influenced the writing of Marianne Moore, E E Cummings and Wallace Stevens. In less than ten years, poetry had changed unrecognisably through the work of a small group of very different people who saw the need for change.
I’m wondering whether poetry is due for another radical change, perhaps starting in cities like London again. It’s fascinating how English poetry changes by conforming to or reacting against the dominant language mode – printed prose – often under the influence of ideas from France. The growth of regular newspapers and journals in the late 17th century, written in correct ‘classical’ style, led to a century of tightly metric, tightly rhymed verse dominated by the heroic couplet, a ‘classical’ import from France. Eventually Wordworth and Coleridge led a reaction against this, complexly inspired by the French Revolution, but the formality of Victorian prose squeezed the life out most of the century’s English poetry – French symbolism didn’t take hold here and two of the three great radical poets (Hopkins and Emily Dickinson; the third is Whitman) were unpublished in their lifetimes.
The modernist poets of 1914 were responding among other things to the flood of cheap newspapers, the jingoistic ‘yellow press’, which the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus saw as dangerously simplifying the way people saw the world and therefore could feel about it. Popular poets like Kipling, Newbolt and Masefield were boisterously simplistic. Pound and Eliot took several French ideas – Baudelaire’s flâneur poems, symbolism, Laforgue’s adaptations of Whitman – created imagism (originally called imagisme to make it sound French) as a short-term expedient and by 1922 had created modern poetry.
Today we have iPads and smartphones which quite a lot of writers believe are changing the way we think, both simplifying and complicating the way we see the world so that people’s ability to concentrate is impaired. Will this affect poetry? I think it already has, and for the better. The rise of interconnected electronic media since the mid 90s has paralleled a rise in reading and writing poetry – a huge increase over the same period of poetry magazines, websites, pamphlets, books, courses, degrees and competitions. I think this is because reading and writing poetry is something we can’t do quickly or interruptedly.
As with cheap newspapers in the early years of the last century, poetry is responding to an electronically connected world. (Interestingly the other electronic media – radio, cinema, television – have had almost no effect on poetry; it’s words that are read which count.) I think we shall have no more great poets like Seamus Heaney whose formative years were spent in a small rural community. I sense that poetry will increasingly express feeling in a world of instant communication through new versions of the artifice that poems have always used – perhaps sound-based, formalist in new ways, Oulipian (the influence of France again; Oulipo – Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle – devises ways of stimulating creativity by restricting the choices available to writers, as in Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition which is written without the letter ‘e’. It’s perhaps poetry’s most exciting new idea.)
I’ll be exploring these ideas and others in Magma 58 which comes out soon and tracing the development of modern verse in Make It New! how poetry became modern, a course at London’s City Lit which starts shortly – for details see here www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/Humanities_and_social-sciences/Literature/