Modernism case Essay


Modernism is a broad term covering numerous small artistic movements that took place from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. Though the term “modernism” covers a synthesis of ideas from different groups, there are certain characteristics of the overall movement that can be viewed as specifically modernist.  In this essay I will examine and define modernism, then discuss Marianne Moore’s “To a Snail” and “Poetry” in reference to my definition’s usefulness.

Modernism was largely a reaction to previous movements and the changes brought on by the rapid modernization of daily life. The time period known as modernist, roughly 1890 to 1940, saw rapid changes in technology, science and art. World War One further spurred the evolution of modernism as artists and thinkers reacted to the brutality and dehumanization of war. Critic Christopher Beech explains the beginnings of modernism : “The changes in consciousness brought about by these new technologies, by a devastating world war, and by crucial developments in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and the natural sciences challenged many of the underlying assumptions of nineteenth-century thought” (23). Artists began to feel the need for a new style of art that would reflect these rapid changes and new viewpoints. The old tenets of style and form had to be sacrificed to make way for a new, more realistic worldview.

Beech analyzes the modernist drive for a new style: “Poetry needed to undergo the same kind of transformative process that was taking place in the other arts: cubism and collage in painting, chromaticism and atonality in music, and functionalism in architecture” (23). Modernism was not only a literary trend. It had its roots in music, sculpture, architecture and painting. It embraced all arts and left a mark on all of them.

In literature and poetry, artists developed certain tenets that reflected the need for a new modernist style.  The most basic tenet of modernism is the need for innovation and change. According to critic Paul Poplawski, modernists saw the need for change both in life and in art:

On the one hand, we have modernism’s . . .rejection of the conventions, assumptions, procedures, and perceptions of the classical and realist art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries . . . On the other hand, we have its ideological critique . . . of modernity  and of the complex social developments             associated with industrialization, urbanization, and democratization(ix).

Modernism dealt both with art and society and saw the need for change in both. It criticized the new mechanized culture and rejected the old Victorian and Romantic ideas of society and art. Both the need for innovation in arts and the criticism of the new modern industrialized culture are distinctly modernist ideas.

Writers such as Pound laid the groundwork for experimentation with style and form that was distinctly new and different. Pound’s “Imagism” was an early form of modernism. His theories formed the basis of the new style and influenced writers decades later. Beech describes Pound’s artistic theories: “The first of these was that the poem should always involve a “direct treatment of the thing, ” as opposed to the romanticized or symbolic treatment favored by nineteenth-century poets” (25). Clarity and vividness are two important aspects of imagist and modernist literature. Images should be concrete and clear and the poem itself should be direct.

According to Critic Norman Cantor, the modernist emphasis on clarity and concreteness was part of a larger idea of the importance of  every small detail: “Modernist thought adhered to the notion that the small was more and beautiful. . . Focus on a minute particle– of human experience or art as well as nature–conditioned all of Modernist culture”(36). To the modernists, no detail or subject was too unimportant to write about. Integral to this idea was Pound’s theory of diction. He pioneered the modernist idea of brevity and exactitude in word choice. He stressed that writers should use no unnecessary words (Beech 25).  The modernist idea of the importance of every small experience or detail led to the artistic tenets of brevity, vividness and conciseness.

Modernists also experimented with form. Like cubist painters, modernist writers attempted to break out of old points of view and rigid forms. Thus followed a vast array of experimentations with forms old and new. Some modernists rejected outright the use of traditional forms, concentrating instead on free verse, while others focused on re-creating traditional forms with a new twist. Beech examines the duality present among modernist women poets: “While the experimentalists engaged in formal and linguistic innovation. . . the traditionalists made use of more conventional forms such as the sonnet, within which they could explore their personal experiences”(73). Within modernism itself there was a broad range of experimentation with form, from Gertrude Stein’s use of unrhymed repetition to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s reinterpretation of the sonnet.

In general, however, modernism was concerned with the rejection of old forms and the formation of new. It disregarded the idea of history to focus on the present. Cantor succinctly defines modernism’s attitude towards history : “Modernist anti-historicism concentrated upon immediate understanding, direct analysis, or upon what is later termed “close reading,” the intensive examination of the object removed from historical sequence” (36). Modernist experimental form focused on depicting clearly, concisely and with immediacy, and creating art that needs no other reference than itself.

Marianne Moore’s “To a Snail” is a succinct example of many modernist ideas and underlines the definitions of modernism set up thus far. The physical and figurative size of such a small, simple topic is typically modernist.  To modernists, no topic is too small to write about, and Moore flaunts this idea by writing about an often-overlooked, largely insignificant creature. Her minute examination brings the snail to life. In the first line she states one of modernism’s tenets : “compression is the first grace of style'”.  If brevity and “compression” are the characteristics of modernism, Moore is one of its most loyal followers. The poem is only a few lines long but contains a concise discussion of style as well as a vivid description of a snail.

Moore’s concern with style is also typically modernist: she is analyzing and deconstructing what is important and necessary in art. According to Moore it is “the principle that is hid” that we value in style- it is the ideas behind the poem, that we see by examining the text, that really matter(5). This idea of a piece of poetry as a self-contained world is definitively modernist. Her statement “in the absence of feet” could be read as a testament to the importance of using innovative forms not based upon tradition, the need for creating poetry not built upon ancient “feet”(5).

The form of the poem reveals other modernist tendencies. Her use of quotations creates the effect of a collage, borrowing from another typically modernist art form. She states her opinions using the words of others, revealing her perspective from the point of view of someone else’s. The style is both collage-like and distinctly Cubist- we hear her through the words of others. The poem is unrhymed and sounds simply like elegant prose. Her unrhymed form and use of quotations reveals her Modernist leanings towards new styles and forms of poetry.

“To a Snail” is a simple elegant demonstration of the ideals of modernism. Its adherence to modernist tenets such as clarity, conciseness and brevity make it a perfect example of the style. Its straightforward subjects-snail and style- make it easy to apply stock tenets of modernism to its analysis. In its uncomplicated accessibility, “To a Snail” lends itself well to my definition of modernism.

However, not all Moore’s poetry is so distinctly modernist. “Poetry” , though discussing many elements of modernism, in the end debunks them and defies the definitions of modernism set up thus far. Her first line seems to claim that she finds Modernist poetry unnecessarily complicated : “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”. She seems to say that the tenets of modernist poetry are simply “fiddle” and that poetry is more important than rules. But she does not completely debunk modernist poetry: “one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine”(2-3). She uses “genuine” as “real”, to stand for all the things in life that are minutely real : “Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate”(3). Her emphasis on tiny human biological reactions is typically modernist- no subject is too small, even hair or hands. Her list of possible poetic topics is also modernist in the sense that it includes “small” subjects: animals, critics, and schoolbooks.

But then she seems to claim that neither she nor her contemporaries among the modernists are really poets: “nor till the poets among us can be ‘literalists of the imagination'”(17).  According to Moore the poets around her have not yet reached the point of literally and perfectly representing everything in their imagination. To Moore a poet depicts the utterly real in the midst of the imagined: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”(19). She seems to say that all the modernist tinkering with form and content has not resulted in a complete fruition. She is a modernist bewailing the failure of her ideals.

While “Poetry” displays several modernist traits in form and subject, it rebuts previous definitions of modernism by directly debunking modernist ideals one by one. A poem such as “Poetry” is designed to make definitions elusive, and to make the reader question the sagacity of trying to define art at all. Why not be simply “interested in poetry” (22)?

Modernist artists were interested in creating new forms of expression better suited to their rapidly changing world. In literature, modernists valued brevity, conciseness, exact diction, innovative forms and vivid imagery. If they relied on historical forms, it was only to change and evolve them to better suit the needs of the time. Modernist literature and art often analyzes and criticizes the newly industrialized world. It is above all a reaction to the rapid modernization of daily life- an attempt to create a style as new as everything else around it.

















Works Cited


Beach, Christopher. The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American             Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <>.


Cantor, Norman F. Modernism to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.               Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <>.


Moore, Marianne. “Poetry”.Selected Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1935. 36-37.   Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <>.


Moore, Marianne. “To a Snail”. Selected Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1935. 99.              Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <                                            a=o&d=8902362>.


Poplawski, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism. Westport, CT:                           Greenwood Press, 2003. Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <                    PM.qst?a=o&d=102145069>.






Works Cited


1.Beach, Christopher. The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Questia. 26      Apr. 2006 <>.


2.Poplawski, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism . Westport, CT:                       Greenwood Press, 2003. Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <                    PM.qst?a=o&d=102145069>.


3.Cantor, Norman F. Modernism to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.            Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <                                            a=o&d=21033172>.


4. Moore, Marianne. “To a Snail”. Selected Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1935. 99.                  Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <                                                a=o&d=8902362>.


5. Moore, Marianne. “Poetry”.Selected Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1935. 36-37.           Questia. 26 Apr. 2006 <>.

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