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.
The Wallace Stevens Society
Here's the homepage for the official Wallace Stevens Society, which also publishes an entire journal dedicated to… you got it.
Stevens' Bio on Poets.org
Those grey-hairs over at the Wallace Stevens Society think they've got the goods. But Poets.org has a cornucopia of Stevens stuff.
Stevens on BrainyQuote.com
Check out these great quotes from Stevens, which you can Tweet or Facebook with the click of a button.
Bill Murray Reads Stevens
You might think that he makes up the title "A Rabbit as The King of the Ghosts." But Murray's not kidding.
Harold Bloom Reads "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"
Yes, Stevens has weird titles for some of his poems. Yes, this is a good poem.
Reading of Stevens' "The Snow Man"
It ain't "Of Modern Poetry." But it's creepy and interesting.
Great Three-Way Discussion of Stevens' Work
Some think he's good; some don't. Maybe this will help you decide for yourself.
Stevens Getting his Think On
For the guy who wrote "Of Modern Poetry," you can't be surprised that Stevens liked to spend his time staring into the distance and thinking deep thoughts.
Stevens and Hemingway
Here's a pretty good side-by-side of the two men who squared off in a fight in Florida's Key West.
It's not always easy to get a young shot of a guy who got famous in his 60s. But we dug it up.
NY Times Interview with Wallace Stevens
Stevens in '54, kicking it with an interviewer. Strangely, neither of them mentions how tough the New York Times crossword puzzles are.
"What Mitt Romney Might Learn From Wallace Stevens"
An interesting look at Wallace Stevens' politics, and how the guy didn't respond all that well to criticism.
"The Sovereign Ghost of Wallace Stevens"
Critic William Logan tries to lay it all out there and say what Stevens means, in general, to the history of American writing.
Wallace Stevens: Rage for Order
Sure, Stevens might not sound like the most rage-filled guy. But when it came to making sure the world made some kind of sense, he was all the rage.
Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things
When you're finished hearing about Stevens' "rage for order," why not curl up and read about his "plain sense of things." Sound exciting?