Analysis of the Best Exemplifications of Modernism in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Wallace Stevens has considered himself a modernist poet and have boosted wide array of significant modern works. Modernism can be defined as the literary movement that occurred post World War I era, and is the “reflective distinctive character of the modern world.” (Shmoop) During the Modernism era, two sub-genre were heavily prevalent among the poets with one being “Imagism”, and the other being “Cubism”. Imagism “favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.” (Wikipedia) while Cubism was focused on “bringing different views of subjects together in the same picture, resulting in a final work that appear fragmented and abstracted.” (Wikipedia) In fact, Wallace Stevens works were the epitome of that sub-genres. And at one point somehow, he created a poem that best exemplifies what modernism is all about.

Contemporary critics would suggest that Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-cream”, in Harmonium, is the best exemplification of modernism. Others would argue that his work “The Snow Man” is rather a better support to that claim with the poem criticising Keatsian aesthetic, which was made popular by the Romantic poet, John Keatsian. I beg to disagree. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,a poem from Wallace Stevens first book, Harmonium, has achieved the nearest representation of modernism in terms of both content and form.

First and foremost, the form of the poem was rather free and distinct, opposing the very strict form that early poets followed, rhyming pattern or words, meters or limited to forms such as sonnets, odes, ballads and limericks. And as says, it is a prime example of the experimental modernist free verse. Instead, Stevens was inspired by Japanese haikus, where seasons and contrasting images of nature are the popular ideas, much similar to Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’s importance on this essence. The atmosphere of haikus was the area that captured Stevens, prompting him to make a similar one. Stevens made sure that he highlighted the concept of freedom of expression and made sure it was nowhere near the romantic era concepts.

Not only that, the subject of the poem itself was screaming contemporaneousness. Each stanza represents independent thoughts and were seen from various perspectives although some stanzas does share the same first speaker. Each section shift and gives readers new angle of the blackbird. Overall, although on the surface, each stanza are not interconnected and were presenting its individuality, when put together it gives off mysterious vibe and uncertainty as to what Wallace Stevens was really referring to. Hence, was upholding the genre of “Cubism” in the poem. As for “Imagism”, there’s no denial that Wallace Stevens depicted quite a number of imagery throughout the whole poem within a few words. The best example of imagery from Steven’s poem is found in stanza six, “Icicles filled the long window With barbaric glass The shadow of the blackbird Crossed it, to and fro…”, the icicles portraying jail bars giving off a sense of entrapment. Thus affecting how we see the blackbird. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird showcase Stevens’ in depth understanding of modernism and incorporated techniques and styles that could best represent the literary movement.

Another of Wallace Stevens’ poems Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock can be used to compare why Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird was the best exemplification of modernism. In comparison, Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock rather follow a more structured form although it is a free verse which is more on the contemporary side. There was an exhibition of modernism however its form wasn’t as peculiar as Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and could be concluded as to why it wasn’t the nearest representation. As for content-wise, Wallace Stevens focus was more on highlighting the juxtaposition between those who were boring and those who have creative minds, thus limiting the perspective with only two. Furthermore, Stevens’ overall message was not ambiguous and was clear on how important the creativity of our minds.

Another poem for candidate is Wallace Stevens’ Earthy Anecdote.The poem is a shot of Stevens’ post-modern experimentation. There was a sense of rhythm, form and order, displayed in the poem, presumably as an attempt of Stevens to introduce his idea of the era after modernisation, which supports the idea of Earthy Anecdote not being Stevens’ best representative work of modernism. In terms of content-wise, the imagery produced by the poem is based on one perspective only even though there was a hint of abstractness with what the “firecat” and “herd of deer” do represent. It isn’t the best evidence of one of the most important sub-genre in the course of modernism.

All in all, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is the modernism representative work with its heavy involvement of the two sub-genres that define modernism, and its form that move away from traditional poetry with its lack of restriction and its uniqueness on its own. Wallace Stevens other two poems, Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock and Earthy Anecdote displayed some aspect of modernism in terms of their form and content. Albeit, the two poems couldn’t reach the standard as Wallace Stevens’ best exemplification of modernism.


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