You'd be hard pressed to find a more consistent sounding poet than Wallace Stevens. His modern, meditative brand of free verse is one of the main things people recognize about him. His poems sound like they're being spoken aloud by a snowy haired man who's lived a long and interesting life. In this poem, Stevens' language almost never clanks. Even when he talks about violence, the sound of his words stays measured and calm.
When talking about modern poetry, Stevens says that poetry must "think about war/ And it has to find what will suffice" (9-10). Notice how he doesn't say that poetry needs to picture "the stench of putrid corpses strewn across a bloody battlefield." No, Stevens keeps the sound of this poem very calm and very meditative, almost in a Zen sort of way. Even when he does play with sound, it's designed to soothe the reader's ear.
Check out the first six lines; maybe read 'em out loud to yourself. Go ahead. No one's looking. Hear something? It should be the soft sweep of a silvery stream of S sounds, slipping off your spoken syllables. That, folks, is consonance at work. The steady S sounds (in "suffice," "always," "scene," "set," "was," "script," "else," and "souvenir") set the scene with a calm and soothing undertone. Overall, Stevens keeps this poem calm because for him, the point of modern poetry is to help people find peace and "satisfaction" (26) in a world torn apart by conflict and grief.
If you look at all of Stevens' poetry, you'll find that he's a pretty big fan of this sort of title. Some of his other poems include "Of the Surface of Things," "Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb," and "Of Hartford in a Purple Light." The "Of" is a fancy way of saying that Stevens' is about to deliver a short talk about whatever subject comes after the word "Of." It's plain and straightforward, no nonsense—"Here's what I think modern poetry should be, and that's that."
According to Stevens, the setting of a poem like this is supposed to be inside the human mind. But he also throws us these images of a symbolic stage where the modern poem spends most of its time. From lines 3 to 24, you're looking at a symbolic stage where the modern poem struts its stuff.
All we really know about the setting itself, or the "stage" of poetry, is the fact that it has had to completely transform itself in modern times. Poetry has had to reshape itself in order to respond to the death and destruction of the twentieth century. After tens of millions of people die in back to back World Wars, it gets pretty hard to talk about roses and love.
It's not always a smart play to completely identify the speaker of a poem as the poet him/herself. But with Stevens, it's hard not to. After all, when you write a poem called "Of Modern Poetry," and the whole thing is a lecture about what poetry should be like, who else are we supposed to think the speaker is? The speaker definitely sounds like Stevens himself.
The one thing we should do to clarify this, though, is say that the speaker is Stevens at the time he wrote this poem. Let's not forget that people can (and probably should) change their beliefs, opinions, and emotions over time. So if Stevens is the speaker of this poem (and it's reasonable to say he is), he's speaking from a specific moment in his life when he felt and believed the things he says in "Of Modern Poetry."
For a guy who's famous for a poem called "The Snow Man," it's fitting that Steven's "Of Modern Poetry" sits at Shmoop's "Snow Line." A lot of the poem is fairly clear, using straightforward metaphors about stages and actors. But when you get into phrases like "metaphysician in the dark" or "poem of the act of the mind," it can take hours to puzzle out what Stevens is saying.
And the problem is that Stevens makes the meaning of the entire poem totally hinge on phrases like these. All the clues to figure out these phrases are there in the poem, but you'll probably have to check out a dictionary to figure out what Stevens means by "metaphysician." Don't worry, though, Shmoop is always here to help!
Look at almost any Stevens poem and you'll find almost the exact same voice you find in "Of Modern Poetry." Just for kicks, take a glance at "The Snow Man" or "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." See what we're talking about? Stevens isn't the kind of guy who'll use a lot of dissonance or harsh sounding words in his poetry. For him, the modern world is harsh enough as it is.
Another key Stevens-ism in this poem is the way Stevens will move along nicely with clear language, then drop a phrase like "metaphysician in the dark" on you. You try to move on and understand the rest of the poem. But Stevens won't let you off that easily. He ties the entire poem's meaning to the one most difficult phrase in the whole thing, and he'll make you spend the next hour thinking about that phrase.
Stevens wrote "Of Modern Poetry" at a mature point in his career. By this time, he wasn't all that keen on using strict forms and meters. Instead, his poetry tends to sound the way someone would just say something to you in plain language.
That said, Stevens uses some really solid enjambment to lead you from one idea to another in this poem. In fact, it's tough to find a line in this moment that doesn't use enjambment. Why does Stevens do this? Well the very first line provides us with a bit of a clue. Stevens claims that his poem is about "the act of the mind finding/ What will suffice" (1-2). The first line falls off on the word "finding," which sets a searching tone for the entire poem.
The rest of the poem, then, mimics this movement of a mind that is searching for something, always about to get there, then falling into the next line. Stevens is interested in using specific images and memorable phrases to convey his ideas about modern poetry, and is more than happy to do this without the help of traditional forms. Let's not forget that the subject of this poem is how modern poetry should try to move beyond classical forms. So it makes sense that Stevens would go with the openness of free verse and write the lines whatever way he wanted.
Stevens' metaphysician in the dark is pretty darn complicated. But, at its heart, the image suggests that a modern poem is like a metaphysician—a type of spiritual philosopher who asks basic questions about what reality is and why human life exists.
The fact that the metaphysician-poem does its job "in the dark" suggests that modern poets need to think with their hearts instead of their eyes and ears. It also means that modern poetry has to respond to the spiritual darkness of the modern world with a message of hope.
Finally, the modern poet is in the dark because modern poetry, for Stevens, has to play out the process of searching for something. Modern poetry has to be about the human mind looking for some deeper meaning in life, which makes the image of a metaphysician wandering in the dark a pretty good one for conveying Stevens' point.
Line 20 is the only time the image appears in the poem. In the next few lines, though, Steven hands the metaphysician a guitar and gets him/her to pluck a string on it. For more info about the significance about this guitar, see the entry in this section for "Twanging Guitar."
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.
After Stevens calls the modern poet (or poem) a "metaphysician in the dark," it starts to sound like he's getting too grandiose about his role as a poet. So to take some of the starch out of his shirt, he says that his metaphysician is like someone just plucking a single string on a guitar. Modern poetry might not be the most sophisticated stuff. After all, Stevens is writing in total free verse, which would've seemed crude and barbaric to poets in the past.
In lines 20-21, the modern poet or poem is like a person "Twanging/ An instrument" in the dark, sending the note out into the darkness like a ray of hope. The note isn't anything complex. It's just a tiny symbol of hope that modern poetry keeps sending out to comfort us in dark times.
The important thing for Stevens is the hope that's symbolized by a single guitar note flying off into the darkness. Poetry will always be a pretty blunt instrument for capturing the complexity of the world. But the important thing is that poets keep striving to find something meaningful in human life.
Any fans of male figure skating or Dancing With the Stars out there? Anyone? Well luckily for you, these are only examples of what Stevens thinks we might be able to find satisfaction in. What's crucial for him is that modern poetry be about "the finding of a satisfaction." It's poetry's job to make us feel good and to help us find beauty in life. But the fact is that not all of us love skating men or dancing women.
That's why for Stevens, a poem should never be just about these things. A poem should be about the human mind's general desire to find beauty in life. Each of us could find beauty in totally different things. But modern poetry should help us realize some of the general ways to go about finding this kind of beauty. In this sense, the skating man and the dancing woman in line 27 are only examples of what some people might find beautiful.
Unless you find the image of a woman combing her hair too suggestive, this poem is as tame as it gets.
It's not totally clear what Stevens means when he says that the theatre of poetry changed. But he's probably referring to some major modern event that transformed the nature of poetry. In this sense, he most probably means the two world wars, considering that he was writing this poem just as the Americans were entering WWII. (5)