Study Guide

Of Modern Poetry Themes

  • Literature & Writing

    "Of Modern Poetry" is about one thing: what poetry is supposed to be doing in the modern age. For that reason, Stevens uses the phrase "has to" quite a lot in this poem. The thing is sort of like a manifesto for Stevens' beliefs. In that sense, the entire thing is about the role of literature and writing in society, and what literature should be doing for its readers. For Stevens, the answer's pretty clear. Now that people's faith in religion and science has been shaken, it's now poetry's job to make people feel good about the world and their place in it.

    Questions About Literature & Writing

    1. Do you think that poetry is important enough to take on the role of religion in people's lives? How can you see it succeeding?
    2. How can you see it failing? How would the speaker answer this question?
    3. What do you think the role of literature and writing should be in people's lives? What does the speaker think it should be? Why?
    4. What does Stevens mean when he says that modern poetry should be the "poem of the act of the mind"? What parts of the poem support your answer?

    Chew on This

    It's crunch time. For Stevens, modern poetry has pretty much run out of options. It's going to have to take desperate measures if it's going to reach people.

    According to "Of Modern Poetry," classic poetry was pretty much worthless (in your face, Ovid). Now modern poetry has to pick up the slack and start being relevant to normal people.

  • Spirituality

    You can't really talk about Wallace Stevens without talking about spirituality. Whenever the speaker of "Of Modern Poetry" says that modern poetry has to find something that's good enough ("will suffice") for modern people, he means good enough in a really deep way—as in good enough to make life seem like it's worth living, good enough to make you think the world might actually care about you. The world doesn't always make us feel that way, especially the modern world. So for Stevens, it's up to poetry to fill the void and make us feel spiritually better about our lives.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. Do you think poetry is actually capable of becoming a substitute for religion in the modern world? Can you ever see yourself turning to poetry for spiritual comfort? Why or why not? How would the speaker answer these questions?
    2. Where does this poem most strongly hint that modern poetry should offer spiritual comfort? Is it only in one place, or several? What examples from the text support your answer?
    3. Spiritually speaking, what's your idea of "good enough"? What's the speaker's idea here? What do you think every person needs to make life worth living, in a spiritual sense? Can poetry give it?

    Chew on This

    Hallelujah! For Stevens, poetry is the new religion. People can't live without a sense of meaning in the universe, and there's no way science can give it to them.

    Thanks bunches, Wallace. "Of Modern Poetry" gives us an exact blueprint for how we can start to find deeper spiritual meaning in our lives.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Where there's lack of spiritual fulfillment, you're almost always going to find dissatisfaction. After all, why would Stevens write a poem about finding what's "good enough" in life if there wasn't some sort of dissatisfaction underlying it? In short, the dissatisfaction Stevens talks about in "Of Modern Poetry" is the dissatisfaction of modern life in general. There seems to always be a war going on, global poverty is at an all-time high, and the planet is melting. It's these kinds of concerns that should make us turn to poetry to find some sort of hope in what we're experiencing.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. What kind of dissatisfaction do you think might drive people to start reading poetry today? Does poetry still have the power to take away our dissatisfaction? Did it ever? How would the speaker answer these questions? 
    2. In your opinion, what could poetry do to be more satisfying? What would the speaker recommend? 
    3. Where does this poem seem to be most dissatisfied? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    Deep down, our man Wallace Stevens is a very dissatisfied poet who wants poetry to make everything better for him.

    In "Of Modern Poetry," Wallace Stevens suggests that the work of poetry is never finished (like, ever), which means there must always be some sort of dissatisfaction driving people to write it.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    When it all comes down to it, Wallace Stevens doesn't want to write about beautiful things like flowers and love. He wants to write about how human consciousness goes about finding beauty in the world, which is a different thing. Different people will find different things beautiful. But there are similar processes that happen in our minds when we find pleasure in a poem or in an experience. In "Of Modern Poetry," Stevens wants to talk about this common denominator. He wants to talk about the process of finding beauty, not beauty itself. And that means he wants to talk mostly about how the human mind works and how we perceive the things around us.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. In your opinion, what's the difference between a normal poem and a "poem of the act of the mind"? How would the speaker answer that question? 
    2. Why is Stevens so concerned with writing about human consciousness instead of things like God, glory, and love? What's might he be looking for in his poetry? What parts of this poem give you your ideas? 
    3. Do you find that this poem is effective in the way it tries to make you think about your own mind and your own perception? Why or why not?
    4. Do you agree with Stevens' approach to modern poetry? Why is it important to think about the role that poetry can play in our daily lives?

    Chew on This

    For Stevens, some things are more worthy of being called beautiful than others (we're looking at you, rainbows). It's not all subjective.

    In "Of Modern Poetry," Wallace Stevens shows us that the nature of human consciousness has totally changed in the modern world. We need new poetry that can speak to our new collective nature. So get right on that, why don't you?