Ever sat down with an old Wordsworth or Coleridge poem and felt like you just couldn't relate to it? Beautiful gardens and sheep are all well and good, but do they really speak to your everyday life? Well according to Wallace Stevens, it's about time we all started writing and reading poetry about our lives and the way we live them every day.
When you get down to it, "Of Modern Poetry" is half a poem and half a theory about how we're supposed to write poetry. For that reason, you'll notice that Stevens uses words like "has to" and "must" quite a bit when talking about what modern poetry needs to do. Whenever it's written, a poem "has to face the men of the time and to meet/ The women of the time" (8-9). In other words, it has to have a direct impact on normal people. So, before we can figure out how Stevens' poem does that, it's important to find out a little bit about what was going on when Wally published this poem in his collection Parts of a World in 1942.
World War II—that's the biggest thing you need to know. Stevens wants poetry to speak to its time, and in 1942, the one thing on everyone's mind was the fact that the U.S. had entered the war right after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. While this was happening, the modern world was seeing some crazy changes. Apart from two world wars killing tens of millions of people, traditional religious values were on the decline, and the invention of insane new bombs and killing technologies made people wonder if scientific progress was such a good thing.
In short, people didn't really know where to look for a sense of deeper meaning in human life. With people's belief in religion and scientific progress on the fritz, Stevens thought that poetry and art could step up and try to fill the void in people's lives. When it comes to finding something that can fill our sense of emptiness, Stevens says that modern poetry has to be about finding "What will suffice" (2). In other words, poetry has to find out what will make life more bearable. Today, we tend to think that antidepressants, booze, and iPhones are the best way to go. But hey, poetry was a nice option in Stevens' time. Maybe it still is today. Just make sure to give Stevens a read before you decide either way.
Ever asked yourself, "What's the point of it all"? Ever wondered if there's more to life than wearing cool clothes and finding your next boyfriend/girlfriend? If so, then "Of Modern Poetry" might be right for you. According to Wallace Stevens, poets have no excuse for making their poetry hard to relate to. Poetry is supposed to give us a natural high and make us see more meaning in the things around us. Sheesh, Stevens even wrote a whole poem about the beauty of a jar sitting on a hill.
The fact is that many of us don't fare very well when we don't have something to do. Boredom makes us anxious, so we fill our lives with one distraction after another. But wouldn't it be great if our distractions also gave our lives a deeper sense of beauty and meaning? Well, according to Stevens, that's exactly what poetry is supposed to be. Poetry needs to comfort us. It needs to show us that it understands our loves, our fears, and our deepest secrets, and it needs to make us feel better about our lives.
"Of Modern Poetry" is a call to arms for modern poets to get off their high horses and start giving people the pleasure and comfort they deserve. There's only one catch. Stevens definitely does not believe in filling our heads with easy answers. Poetry should offer us spiritual comfort, but finding that comfort should also take a little bit of work on our part. If not, then how is poetry different from sucking on a Life Saver? So for that reason, make sure to give this poem (and these Shmooperific notes) a fair shot, and maybe—just maybe—you'll feel like poetry can affect your life for the better.