Jazz Age poetry was marked by the modernist aesthetic that dominated music and the visual arts as well as literature. In poetry, this meant innovation in both content and form. Modernist poetry represented a departure from Victorian and Romantic certainties about the poetic “self.” Eschewing the mantle of a well-defined narrator speaking to an idealized reader, modernist poets conveyed uncertainty, challenged established ideas, and rejected Romantic notions of the ideal in nature and humanity. Many wrote about social anomie, cultural banality, and the dehumanization of modern civilization. Modernist poetry also moved away from strict meter and rhyme to explore the possibilities of free verse. Yet modernists also emphasized precision in language and imagery.
European antecedents to modernist poetry included John Donne and the other English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, as well as Charles Baudelaire and the French symbolists of the late nineteenth century, the latter exploring the dreams and imagined reality below the surface of daily life. In America, the leading precursors of modernist poetry included Walt Whitman, for his expansive free-verse celebrations of everyday life, and Emily Dickinson, whose linguistic compression and precise imagery stood in stark contrast to the lush verbiage of the late Romantics. While Whitman's poetry would find parallels in the longer poems of the high modernist period of the 1920s and 1930s, Dickinson's influence could be found in the tight, lyrical poetry of the Imagists, whom literary scholars sometimes refer to as protomodernists.
The Imagists of the first two decades of the twentieth century were the first to reject what they considered the poetic artifice of the Romantic and Victorian poets, insisting on the precise connection between the words on the page and the imagery they conveyed, achieving this connection through startling juxtaposition of form and content. In this, American-born Imagists including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Hilda Doolittle (writing under the pen name H.D.) were inspired by the lyrical simplicity of the ancient Greeks and the poetic compression of Japanese haiku, as in Pound's “In a Station of the Metro” (1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
True modernist poetry, according to literary historians, emerged from roughly 1915 to the early 1920s. The two elements that marked this poetry—the questioning of the poetic self and innovations in structure—were intimately connected. For modernists, the poet's authority to convey ideas was called into question by the poets themselves. At the same time, the standard poetic structure was discarded as modernists explored linguistic collage—a sampling of voices and allusions, often from the press or popular song, but also from other languages and eras in human history.
Perhaps no poet adopted the questioning narrative and the linguistic and imagistic juxtaposition better than American expatriate poet T.S. Eliot, whose lengthy poem “The Waste Land” (1922) marks the transition from the compressed lyrical poetry of the Imagists to the more extended explorations of the high modernists of the 1920s. In that poem and others, Eliot invokes ancient Greek verse, press headlines, children's doggerel, and other collage elements to explore the alienation of modern society. The narrator seems to be personally addressing the reader at one moment, lost in his own consciousness the next, and speaking with a God-like authority after that. In adopting different narrative voices within the same work, Eliot was creating the poetic equivalent of cubist painting, a modernist style that questioned the meaning of perspective in the same way that Eliot undermined the standard narration of traditional poetry.
Other poets of the period are known for the ways in which they explored different aspects of the modernist aesthetic. E.E. Cummings employed unorthodox punctuation and syntax to convey the disjointedness of modern life. Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and others, introduced the language of everyday African American speech and the rhythms of jazz and blues, predominantly black musical forms, into their verse. Wallace Stevens offered the most startling juxtaposition of all, suggesting in his work that imagination coexisted with reality.
Not all poets of the Jazz Age, however, were modernist in their outlook and approach. Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Edwin Arlington Robinson, three of the most popular poets of the period, adopted some of the linguistic precision and compression of the modernists, but they nevertheless maintained links to the nineteenth-century traditions of narrative certainty. Sandburg celebrated the common folk of the American working class, most notably in the 1920 collection Smoke and Steel, and Frost wrote dark and earthy explorations of everyday life in New England, perhaps best represented by the 1923 collection New Hampshire.
Robinson seemed the least influenced by modernist trends. His Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes about Arthurian England—Merlin (1917), Lancelot (1920), and Tristram (1927)—were lush historical character studies evocative of the poetry of the late Romantics. Critics lambasted the works’ sentimentality and purple prose, or overly ornate style. However, Jazz Age readers of the best sellers found Robinson's poetry accessible, a sharp contrast to modernist poetry that was difficult to understand and alien to many readers—in short, a jarring departure from poetic traditions.
Beasley, Rebecca. Theorists of Modernist Poetry: T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme, and Ezra Pound. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920–1930. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
Young, David. Six Modernist Moments in Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.