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Of Modern Poetry

Of Modern Poetry


by Wallace Stevens

Lines 7-24 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 7-11

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage

  • Get ready for Stevens to slap you with a whole bunch of "has to." Mmmm, that's good anaphora. At line 7, he really gets going about what modern poetry must do if it wants to stay relevant. Number one priority? Modern poetry has to "be living." In other words, it has to be adaptable to changing times. 
  • Modern poetry has to understand the wants and needs of modern readers, and it needs to speak to them in a language they can understand by "learn[ing] the speech of the place." Ever tried going to a monster truck rally and telling people about mitochondrial myopathy? Neither have we, and we don't plan on trying it because it's important to speak the same language as the people you're talking to. Classic poetry uses really difficult language and expects the audience to adapt to it. But modern poetry needs to make the effort to meet readers half way. 
  • Modern poetry also needs to get to know its audience. Whatever time it's being written in, it has to get to know the men and women of that time. Stevens is specifically using these men and women as a symbol of normal people, not just the snobs of the past who read Homer and Dante. 
  • Further, modern poetry can't just talk about love and roses. It has to deal with things like war (which was a big deal when Stevens wrote "Of Modern Poetry"). It has to find some sort of meaning that will "suffice" or be good enough to make its reader feel good, even while it deals with unpleasant subjects. In other words, modern poetry has to offer satisfaction and fulfillment without papering over the more difficult aspects of life. 
  • If poetry succeeds in doing all the things Stevens maps out here, it will succeed in creating a "new stage" for itself in the modern world.

Lines 12-15

It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear,

  • If modern poetry creates a new stage for itself, Stevens uses simile to argue that poetry has to stand up on that stage "like an insatiable actor." In other words, poetry has to have a bottomless appetite for creating new things for people to read and enjoy.
  • Also, modern poetry can't do its work too quickly. It's meant to enter our minds "slowly and/ With meditation" (13-14).
  • We might all think of poetry as speaking words in our ear, but what does Stevens mean by saying that it should speak in "the delicatest ear of the mind"? Well, think about the part of you that poetry is supposed to affect. Is it the same part of you that makes you feel tough and strong? Probably not. 
  • Stevens thinks that poetry should speak to that part of us that listens (i.e., an ear) from deep within ourselves. It should speak to the most delicate part of us, or in other words, the part of us that is most easily upset or broken. In other words, poetry has to touch the part of us that's most vulnerable. 
  • And what should poetry say to us when it reaches our most delicate part? It should tell us "Exactly, that which it wants to hear." In other words, poetry should tell us something comforting. Something that we want and need to hear, especially when times look their bleakest. And trust us, it doesn't get much bleaker than 1942.

Lines 16-19

at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

  • What's one of the first things your teacher tells you about writing? Always keep your audience in mind. So Stevens gives us the same advice here when he says that modern poetry should always imagine itself speaking to a metaphorical "invisible audience." If you want to move people, you're going to need to know their inner thoughts and desires. You're going to need to know how to make 'em prick up their mind-ears and listen.
  • But modern poetry doesn't only want to make people listen to the literal words on the page (which Stevens compares here to the play on a stage). No, modern poetry needs to make an audience listen to "itself." In other words, a powerful modern poem needs to make people listen to what's going on inside their own heads. Their own thoughts and emotions have to merge with the thoughts and emotions of the poem. The poem and the reader's mind have to completely become the same thing, "as of two/ Emotions becoming one" (18-19).

Lines 19-20

The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark,

  • Buckle up. We're now entering the densest lines of this poem. So let's recap what Stevens has told us so far. A modern poem should be like a stage. It should always speak to a modern audience, and it should make the people in that audience feel the exact thoughts and emotions that the poem is describing. 
  • But now we're talking about some new thing inside the modern poem. We're talking about the poem as a metaphorical "actor" who goes beyond just making people feel certain emotions. 
  • Just as the actor is the person who delivers a play to you, the actor in Stevens' modern poetry is some sort of engine that's driving the entire poem. But we're not sure just yet what Stevens means by saying "actor." Let's take a looksee… 
  • Stevens' uses metaphor to describe the "actor" in modern poetry as "A metaphysician in the dark." Uh, okaayyyy. So before we know what a metaphysician is, we need to know what metaphysics is. Well it's tough to describe, but metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that asks questions like, "What evidence is there for God's existence?" or "How do we know if what our eyes, ears, and noses tell us about the world is actually real?" Metaphysics deals with the most fundamental aspects of human existence, stuff that you can't just figure out with a microscope. Basically, Stevens is saying here that modern poetry has to explore the basic questions of life.
  • So, if the poem is a metaphysician who makes us wonder about life's biggest questions, what does Stevens mean by saying that this metaphysician is "in the dark"? Well darkness here could mean several things. It could refer to the spiritual darkness of the modern age, since Stevens was writing this poem in the middle of World War II. It could also mean that poetry should be meditative and philosophical, working in a world where appearances don't matter because the poet is working "in the dark." 
  • In the end, though, the phrase "in the dark" could also mean that feeling lost is a basic part of writing modern poetry. Let's not forget that in the opening lines of this poem, Stevens says that modern poetry should be "The poem of the mind in the act of finding." In other words, modern poetry needs to be searching for something. The metaphysician in the dark, then, might refer to our own minds searching for some deeper meaning in life, and not quite knowing what it is yet.

Lines 20-24

An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.

  • Up to this point, the modern poem as a "metaphysician in the dark" might sound pretty high-brow and sophisticated. But Stevens follows this description by saying that the modern poem is metaphorically like "twanging/ An instrument." In other words, the modern poem might not be the most skillful thing ever written. Compared to Shakespeare, it might be like a clumsy guitar player plucking a string over and over, hoping to find something beautiful in it. This might be Stevens' way of saying that compared to the complexity of the universe, a modern poem is a pretty simple thing. But maybe that's why modern poets are so brave. They keep trying, no matter how crude or "twangy" their sounds might be. 
  • Now we hear that the guitar string gives off sounds "passing through sudden rightnesses." in other words, the modern poem makes us feel that something in our lives is "right." It comforts us somehow. It tells us something about ourselves and about the world that makes life a little easier to bear. These feelings of rightness aren't tiny things, either. They "wholly/ Contai[n] the mind." They take over our minds completely and express everything that we're feeling in our modern lives.
  • In the past, poems might have tried to describe things below the mind, like specific flowers or a nice vase sitting on someone's coffee table. Or these poems from the past would go the other way, talking about the glory of God and the horror of hellfire.
  • But in lines 23 and 24, Stevens insists that the modern poem doesn't want to "descend" below the mind or "rise" above it. 
  • For Stevens, modern poetry has to be about the human mind looking for something deeper in life. It can't be about flowers and it can't be about God. It has to be about a modern mind that looks for beauty in flowers or looks for fulfillment in the idea of God. But, at the end of the day, the poem has to be about the modern person's mind searching for something meaningful.

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