Of Modern Poetry
by Wallace Stevens
Stage, Script, Audience, Actor
The motif of poetry as a theatre is the most consistent one Stevens uses in this poem. As early as line 3, he writes that old poetry didn't need to search for meaning the way modern poetry does, since "the scene was set" for it, and poets just "repeated what/ Was in the script" (4). In other words, poets in the past knew exactly what they were supposed to do. Grab a piece of paper, think about two star-crossed lovers, and write a sonnet talking about the glory of their love.
For Stevens, though, the motif of the "theatre" allows him to talk about how things have changed for the modern world. Modern poetry has to "construct a new stage" for itself. It can't assume the world is a meaningful place anymore. It has to show how the human mind can search for and find meaning through poetry.
Continuing with the theatre motif, Stevens says that the modern poem (and poet) is like an actor who is "insatiable" (12) in his desire to perform for an audience. But it is not only the actor's job to show things to the audience. The poem has to make the audience think and feel the exact same things that it's thinking. It needs to make readers take a long look at their own minds and help them find new forms of satisfaction.
- Lines 3-4: Old poets and poems didn't have to think as hard as modern ones do. Classical forms of poetry were pretty clear-cut. All the poet had to do was write a sonnet about glorious lovers and audiences would gobble it up.
- Line 5: Maybe the biggest shift in this poem comes when Stevens writes, "Then the theatre was changed." In other words, something has happened in the modern world that has forced poets to find a new way of writing poetry.
- Line 11: Now that the theatre has changed, Stevens says that modern poetry has to "construct a new stage for itself." In other words, it has to totally overhaul its approach to its audience. It has to rethink everything about what it's trying to say, how it's trying to say it, and whom it's trying to say it to.
- Line 12: Modern poetry not only has to to construct a new stage for itself, but also has to become "insatiable" as an actor or performer. Modern poetry has to never ever lose its appetite for making its audience feel something meaningful.
- Line 16: While modern poetry is doing its thing on the stage (or on the page), it has to speak to an "invisible audience." This invisible audience is probably the poet's reading audience. The reason they're invisible is because all of Stevens' readers aren't actually sitting in the room with him when he's writing the poem. But even before the poem reaches them, Stevens insists that the poet has to always think about his/her audience when writing.