Modernist Free Verse (1920-Present)

The period you are reading about includes many poets such as T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and Gwendolyn Brooks. These poets wrote through a large span of time and during very different eras. As will be evident, the poets discussed in this section have some overlap with poets from other movements, including Second-Wave Feminism. Focus should be paid upon the introduction of free verse poetry and how best the above-mentioned poets carried out the free verse age. Looking at each poet and time in which they wrote may help with examining how these poets were influenced throughout time. Some may have influenced through the political and social turmoil the post 60s and Vietnam War. Gwendolyn Brooks for example wrote “We Real Cool” in 1959, centering upon the youth in that time who believed they were beyond rules.

A Block ILA 9 Honors Modernist Free Verse Movement
Jen Crilly: T.S. Eliot
Julia McNamee: Marianne Moore
Giordanna Rossini: Gwendolyn Brooks
Syd Tustin: Sylvia Plath

Modernist Free Verse (1920-Present) Historical Assessment

Origin & Philosophy

Modernist Free Verse poetry originated in the twentieth century with new, modern poets. “The poets are modern because they are American and they are American because they are modern,” (Unger 3). Although modernism was not strictly poetry, poetry took the lead before World War I. “Modernism was an international movement,” (American Modernism 14). The quote expresses the range of places where Modernism took place. The "movement" occurred all over the world, beginning in Europe. Since World War I was fought throughout countries all over the globe, cultures began to blend. Modernist poetry was one part of the European culture that caught on with the rest of the world. Modernist Free Verse was an entirely new type of poetry however, poets such as Walt Whitman helped the new "era" blossom. “The development of modernism in American poetry was nourished by such sources as Whitman, the English metaphysical poets…” (Unger 4).
A few definitions of Modernism according to the authors of The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, include, “a revolutionary movement encompassing all of the creative arts that had its roots in the 1890’s," and ,"a transitional period during which artists and writers sought to liberate themselves from the constraints and polite conventions we associate with Victorianism,” (American Modernism 14). Modernism was a revolt against the Victorian era. Poets wanted to go against previous traditions, and break away. They wanted to establish new ways of writing poetry. Also, “modernism can be seen as a reflection of, or reaction to, modernization in the Industrial Revolution,” ("A History and Overview of American Modernism" 15). In addition, Modernism was not only a revolt against the Victorian era, but it was also a revolt against “the established literary definition tradition, societal norms and cultural order,” (Howe 28). All in all, Modernism was a rebellion against the previous literary traditions in Europe. With the changes that came from the Industrial Revolution, poetry was included.

Significant Political History / Specific & Influential Cultural Events

Modernist Free Verse Poetry began in the 1920s and is still ongoing today. In the 1920s, an enormous stepping stone in history occurred when women voted for the first time in American in a presidential election. The election was between presidential candidates, Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. Another major feat was the first Transatlantic flight flown by Charles Lindberg on May 21, 1927. The repercussion of his flight, when the value of aircraft industry stocks increased and aviation became a huge interest among people, is called the “Lindberg boom” (Whitley). Finally, one of the most horrific things to happen in the 1920s was when the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929. This caused a state of panic and disarray on Wall Street and marked the beginning of the Great Depression.

The most significant event to happen during the 1930s was the Great Depression. It caused banks, factories, and shops to close, and halted production among farms. Millions of people went jobless and broke. Many people had depended on the government or charity for food. By 1930, consumer spending decreased immensely, and thousands of shareholders lost tons of money. Between 1929 and 1932 the income of the average American family was reduced by 40%, from $2,300 to $1,500 (Whitley). The Am erican people were questioning all the maxims on which they had based their lives - democracy, capitalism, individualism (Whitley). The only chance people really had in improving their lives was to move to California. The Dust Bowl was the region named from droughts and dust storms hit parts of the Midwest and Southwest. Many Dust Bowl farmers decided to venture to California in attempt to seek work in agricultural fields or cities. In addition to the Great Depression, World War II broke out during the 1930s on September 1, 1939 when Germany Invaded Poland.
Dust Bowl Farm In Texas (Lange)

World War II, which began towards the end of the 1930s, continued into the 1940s. Throughout the war, Germany conquered Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France with dictator Adolf Hitler leading them the throughout the entire conquest. During June of 1940 both the United Kingdom faced Germany alone, and Italy became alliances with Hitler’s army. The fighting further continued into Greece and northern Africa. Then in June of 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Up until December 7, 1941, the United States tried to stay isolated from the war that engulfed the rest of the world. On that fateful day though, America joined the fight because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. After a series of grueling battles in the Pacific, Germany finally surrendered on May 7, 1945 and Japan followed a few months later on September 2, 1945. Once World War II officially ended, the Great Depression slowly but surely withered away due to Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and the great increase in production of war materials that provided many new jobs. The United State's unemployment rate fell to about 1 percent by 1944 (Mitchener).

The Modernist Free Verse Poetry "movement" carried on into the 1950s during which, new laws were created and previous traditions continues to change. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act was formed. The act restructured the immigration law so that the racial and ethnic obstacles to becoming a U.S. citizen were removed. Another cultural event occurred when the Supreme Court deemed racial segregation unconstitutional in 1954 (Whitley). This meant that people of all races would be treated equally, and everyone could sit in the same places that white people could. The change took place after the famous Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (Whitley). The case was decided with several others that dealt with the same issue. However, the name of the Brown case is usually used in referring to the decision. This new law was a huge point in history, which has lead to the America of today because it helped to desegregate the country. In addition, the decade, as well as parts of the 1940s and 1960s, is referred to the time period of the “baby boomers” because so many children were born.

The Civil Rights movement occurred throughout the 1960s. Some leaders of the movement were Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael who organized peaceful protests, and Malcolm X who preached Black Nationalism. After the assassination of Malcolm X, a group called the Black Panthers was formed. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. presented his “I Have A Dream” speech, which was very inspirational. he hoped that one day, everyone would be treated equally, no matter what race they are. Due to the unequal treatment towards women, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written. The act banned discrimination in public places, and called for the integration of schools and other public facilities. The act also made employment discrimination illegal. Another major change was when both abortion and artificial insemination became legal in some states in 1967 (Whitley). This time period focused on “hippies” and youth rebellion too. Respect for authority diminished, Marijuana use rapidly increased, and the Woodstock Festival took place. Two events which marked huge events in history happened in 1963. The historical events discussed refer to the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, by Lee Harvey Oswald, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The assassinations took the country by surprise, as people never for saw anything as extreme as the president and the famous liberal being killed, especially not both in the same year. At the end of the 1960s, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk onto the moon in 1969. The outerspace journey was very momentous for the United States because it ment that they had won the race to the moon against Russia. The 1960s was certainly an eventful decade in America.
Martin Luther King Jr. Presenting His "I Have A Dream" Speech (Martin Luther King Jr.)
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream
Modernist Free Verse poetry continued to be written into the 1970s. During the dacade, the Vietnam War, which began in the 1960s, was still ongoing. The war continued to divide the United States even after the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 17, 1973. The agreement ended the United States military’s involvement. Also, crime continued to rise despite the fact that president Nixon said that he would make law a main concern. In 1965, another Immigration Act was formed since many people from Third World Countries were coming to America in search of economic betterment or to escape political repression (Whitley). Also, women, minorities, and gay people ordered full legal equality and privileges in society. The first Gay Pride march was held in New York City on June 28, 1970. It commemorated the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, and is considered to be the beginning of the modern Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transexual (GLBT) movement (Whitley).
First Gay Pride March (First Gay Pride March)

Science and technology made numerous advancements during the 1980s. Many people started to use computers in schools, homes, and offices. New studies in treatments for heart, cancer, and other diseases began to take place. In 1988, the Human Genome Project located an approximately 80,000 genes contained in human DNA (Whitley). For the first time in history, a black person, Jesses Jackson, was a presidential candidate. Also, in the year of 1985, Rock Hudson died of AIDS and prisons overflowed due to crack usage. From 1985 to 1990 the use of cocaine addiction rose 35 percent, though the number of users had declined (Whitley). Family life was another significant change throughout the 1980s. Divorces, unmarried couples living together, single parent families, college degrees for women, and families with fewer children grew increasingly common (Whitley).

The 1990s have been called the Merger Decade (Whitley). Some major issues of the time included health care, social security reform, and gun control. The Tailhook affair, in which Navy and Marine Corps fliers were accused of sexually abusing 26 women, led to sex scandals flooding the media (Whitley). In other news, President Clinton was said to have cheated on his wife. That statement was later proven to be true. The white policemen assault on Rodney King sparked a riot in South-Central Los Angeles during 1992. One year later, a bomb was exploded in a garage under the World Trade Center. “Americans were glued to their TV sets during 1995 as the football hero, O.J. Simpson, was tried for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her male friend, Ron Goldman,” (Whitley). The O.J. Simpson incident was one of the most shocking events that occurred during that decade. All of the events discussed throughout this paper have affected the lives of Modernist poets in one way or another, and thus came the inspiration for their poems. Without such memorable events in history, our poets would be left nothing to write about.

Influence of Poetry Among Society

Modernist Free Verse poetry is original and innovative. Until this “new dawn” or poetry, there was nothing in the world like it. “At certain points in the development of a culture...writers find themselves affronting their audience... Such writers may not even be aware that they are challenging crucial assumptions of their day, yet their impact is revolutionary..."(Qtd. By American Modernism 29). Some would say that society could be offended by the thoughts and feelings of the Modernist poets. These poets didn't hold back in their writing, and received mixed feedback because of this.

“Culture now goes to war against itself, partly in order to salvage its purpose, and the result is that it can no longer present itself with a Goethian serenity and wholeness” (American Modernism 32). Culture and society were in a state of disarray due to the Modernist Free Verse movement. Poets were doing something different and people had mixed feelings about the honesty and feelings of the Modernist poets. Times were changing in the world as the 1900s progressed. The poets of the past were no more. People such as T.S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore are just a few of those worthy to mention as great Modernist poets. There’s no doubt that these new poets made history. At first people were a bit hesitant about the changes, but soon grew to love the poetry that is still being written today.
American Poet T.S. Eliot is Shown Seated in his London Office On Jan. 19, 1956 (American Poet T.S. Eliot)


American Modernism. Ed. Bruno Leone, Bonnie Szumski, and David M. Haugen. San
Diego: David L. Bender, 2000.

Leip, David. “US Election Atlas.” 1920 Presidential General Election Results. 2005. 18 Oct. 2008 <>.

Mitchener, Kris James. “Great Depression.” World Book Online Reference Center. 2008. World Book. 18 Oct. 2008 <>.

Murphy, Bruce Allen. “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.” World Book Online Reference Center. 2008. World Book. 18 Oct. 2008 <>.

Urger, Leonard. "Introduction." Introduction. Seven Modern American Poets. By
Leonard Urger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967. 3-8.

Whitley, Peggy. “American Cultural History.” The Twentieth Century. Nov. 2008. 16 Oct. 2008

Works Consulted
American Poet T.S. Eliot. Photograph. 19 Jan. 1956. 2007. 21 Oct.
2008 <

First Gay Pride March. Photograph. 28 June 1970. LGBT@NYPL. 2008. 19 Oct. 2008 <>.

Lange, Dorothea. Dust Bowl Farm. Photograph. June 1938. Argent Editions Historic Photographs. 2008. 19 Oct. 2008 <>.

Martin Luther King Jr. Photograph. 2008. 19 Oct. 2008

Critical Analyses