Modernism and the Murder
of the People’s Poetry and Art

In Response to “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago this Month”
by Matthew Walther in the New York Times


by Phillip Whidden

First, let’s have a sonnet about the difficulty imposed by Modernism as regards literature:


A Sonnet about Modernism

Perhaps we wish that we could be as wise
And knowing as this man. He seems to grasp
A lot. He gets the academics’ cast net prize
For picking up a range of thoughts to clasp
The failure caused by modernists in verse,
Their change, reductionism in extreme.
“Let’s strip it down to make it bald and terse.
Admit as little as can be. Omit supreme
Ingredients that served past poets well.
Instead let’s deal alone with form, or shape
As basic as a square or line. Compel
Mere meaning to die off and sprawl agape.
_A scribble on the page will be enough.
__If readers want carved beauty—that’s just tough.


In “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago this Month” written by Matthew Walther, published in the New York Times in December, Walther misses the point by making too many excellent points about Modernism and modernists. He had only to say that they wanted, crudely, to experiment no matter what had to be abandoned along the way. A car crash was fine so long as it wrecked from then on what had gone on before.

Let’s cut to disgrace.

Arthur Rimbaud (may his lice-ridden soul smoulder in Dante’s Inferno for something like forever) and Walt Rhetoric Rhetoric Rhetoric Whitman were very early drivers (read: sinners) in this smash. The kindest that can be said of either of them is what Whitman himself said of his rhetoric, which he thought of as poetry, calling it in his “Song of Myself” his “barbaric yawp.” Now it is true that Whitman’s idol in Concord, Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, penned little trinkety rhyming poems should never have been written, much less published. Probably Rimbaud and Whitman wouldn’t have even left Emerson his surname if they could have abandoned it to formlessness, some snot slurred round the world.

The modernist attitude shared by Rimbaud and Whitman was “So art and poetry and music should have form? Destroy that outdated notion or at least replace it with a form that fleers at form.”

Let’s have masterpieces, modernists said, that are nothing more than rectangles or squares. (Think Piet Mondrian)—unless we can make this garbage even worse by slinging in some slops of paint over it. (Think Jackson Pollock’s MASTERPIECE: NUMBER 5, 1948. Should I refrain discreetly from using the British slang word for testicles which rhymes with “Pollock’s”?)

We’d use defecation and urine if we could get away with it. (Think Andres Serrano’s “Immersion,” which is often called his “Piss Christ.” By the way this “sculpture” isn’t even a sculpture. It was an extant plastic crucifix, a found sculpture, Modernism might say, but hijacked and allegedly held in a container of urine. This piece of Modernism art is a photograph of a sculpture. Minimalize, minimalize, minimalize. . . a far cry from the meaning of Thoreau’s Simplify, Simplify, Simplify). Since Wikipedia remarks in passing that Piet Mondrian is “regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” I should probably just end this article here, but some people will want more evidences of my overarching point…

Voila: As Pablo Picasso famously stated, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”

So, there you have it.

You don’t have to curry comb through the hide of modernism and find all its examples of its kinks and knots of destruction to make the point. It was neighed—one might say “nayed”—from the very horse’s mouth. (Think: the braying horse’s mouth in Pablo’s “Guernica.”) We could call Pablo and his ilk the great neigh-sayers. One other neigh/nay sayer can suffice to clinch the point. Marcel Duchamp. Once these two modernists, Picasso and Duchamp, are thrown into the mix of this article, the point of this essay is more than proved. Their 666,000 followers don’t need to be stampeded from the Stable of Destabilization to underscore the nature of their horse dung. (I discreetly hold back from using the common phrase for such horse dung.)

Here’s how two academics put it in their rather heavily elite manner:


The impact of Duchamp’s Fountain changed the way people view art due to his focus upon “cerebral art” contrary to merely “retinal art”, as this was a means to engage prospective audiences in a thought-provoking way as opposed to satisfying the aesthetic status quo “turning from classicism to modernity”.[54]


Duchamp became a cultural icon in the world of art, exemplified by a “deluge of publications”, as Camfield noted, “an unparalleled example of timing in which the burgeoning interest in Duchamp coincided with exhilarating developments in avant-garde art, virtually all of which exhibited links of some sort to Duchamp.” His art was transformed from “a minor, aberrant phenomenon in the history of modern art to the most dynamic force in contemporary art.”[10][39]


Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain” sculpture was a so-called found artwork but with a twist. It was a urinal turned on its side and put on a pedestal as a sculpture for a modern art exhibition. Gee WHIZZ, eh??? “Piss Christ,” Gee WHIZZ.

But, hey (!), don’t think I will refrain from giving other proofs of this merde, if I may revert to Rimbaud’s mother tongue word for this substance.

Music? For the torture and destruction of music by Modernism, you need listen only for a few minutes to Jean Barraqué’s supposed Serialism piece for soprano and instruments, Séquence (1955). You might as well suffer through a Beijing opera performance. And how Modernistic would that be? Someone should have told the Modernists that there’s nothing new under the sun—or preferably told them just to shut up.

Poetry? Well, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine (his companion in slime) took on the artistic challenge of composing a sonnet, alternate lines by each, about the anal hole. (I hold back discreetly from using the usual term.) And why not trot out such a sonnet, if we’re degrading everything that’s classic? Any intelligent critic could have seen where Teenybopper Arthur (with pendiculi) was careening to when he proposed the rejection of the Alexandrine line in French poetry. This teenage thug could well have used a real brass neck, not a metaphorical one. Such brass would have kept the lice from biting him there.

While a student at a university-level institution in Tennessee I once attended a meeting of the whole student body in the large college auditorium. On this particular morning, the academic dean delivered a presentation on what passed for poetry at that time (the 1960s so well into the mess caused by Modernism). In it he told the anecdote of a student who came to see him in his office. This budding writer read him one of his poems (to be declaimed with pregnant pauses at the end of each line):


Naked came I.
Naked came I into the world.
Naked came I into the universe.
Naked came I into the world.
Naked came I.


You can safely assume that the student body was rollicking with laughter well before the reading from the podium of the “poem” came to an end. Modern poetry, eh???

The dean went on with another modern poem. It is by Alfred Kreymborg, a very early Modernist. As you will see, he had jettisoned everything in poetry except the use of striking imagery. Here (I spare you more) is a bit of it:


Now I know
Where I have been eating apple-pie for breakfast
In the New England
Of your sexuality.


Yep, that day that one student body had been thoroughly inoculated against HIV (Human Inanity Virus).

Most readers here at the Society of Classical Poets will know that in the early twentieth century a poetry movement appeared called Imagism. The Imagists eschewed (blotted out) all the usual tools of poets and stripped their writing down to striking images only. Of course there were level-headed people in the literary world then and a few of them got together and published book of poetry purportedly by Imagists.

Here’s the method they used to compose the poems. Hats were placed on the table. Words or phrases were dropped into each hat. One hat had nouns, another verbs, another verb phrases, another noun phrases, prepositional phrases, etc. Then various normal sentence patterns were set out on the table, such as Subject, Verb, Direct Object, Indirect Object, Adverbial Phrase, etc. A blindfolded person walked beside the table and pulled a slip of paper from this and that hat. These selections were then laid out in the order of the sentence pattern. These sentences were then written down in the form of free verse poetry. These verses were then published in the book of “Imagist” poems. The book was sent to various editors of Imagist publishers, “little magazines,” poetry editors—all chosen because of their loyalty to the Imagist movement. The parody nonsense poems in the parody Imagist book got rave reviews from the duped (“dupèd” almost rhyming with “stupid”) audience.

Yes, there is a fine tradition of nonsense poetry, but it is supposed to be funny. This parodic nonsense was taken utterly seriously.

Yours truly once took a creative writing course in an American university (1970s, so even further into the abomination of Modernism’s effects on thinking and esthetics). The professor (yes, a fully promoted PROFESSOR) announced at the very beginning of the course that he would not be awarding grades based on the quality of the pieces of writing turned in by the students, but would instead award grades solely on whether all the pieces were handed in—and handed in on time. Clearly he felt society (Duchamp, Picasso) had whipped the carpet from under his considerably cultured mind and so he would not presume to tell a student, “This piece is horse dung.”) GO FIGURE. Total abdication.

Now this being in America, the course was an elective one that students outside the English department could take just to meet basic requirements for graduation. Two of the students this time around were in league to do as little as possible. What you need to know is that one of these two was an art student specializing in painting. (I hope shudders are already running through your limbs.) His slacking buddy was actually an English major, though I suspect they both majored and minored in alcoholism and drug-taking. Once a week during term time we students all turned in our pieces of creative writing ON TIME. They had to be turned in the day before the class meeting so that they could be photocopied for sharing around the table.

One day the painter’s slacking buddy turned in this piece of creative writing:


Never Again Blue

__Never Again



That was it. At this great distance in time (nearly fifty years) I can’t vouchsafe for that period at the end of the piece. It probably wasn’t there. I’ll let you decide why. The shocking thing about this submission was that it did have capital letters in it.

Later in the academic year the painter was accorded a Senior Year Exhibition in the brand spanking new art gallery of the university. In the days before the show he hung his paintings on the walls. They were canvasses affixed to stretchers and then smeared, slung, lobbed, dolloped with gesso. Nothing but gesso. Period. Full stop. Someone should have said, “Stop!” but it seems no one did. Viewers could see the raw canvas of each painting showing through the gesso lumps and thick smudges. It was as if a hugely generous amount of mildly colored snot had been painted onto the pieces. Each one was given a title such as “Composition I” and “Composition II.”

However, the night before the exhibition someone went in and, using Letraset, replaced each of those titles with “Never Again Glue I,” “Never Again Glue II,” etc. Think dried Elmer’s Glue.

You might think that the perpetrators of Modernism would not have had the gall to try to put themselves face to face with normal human beings. For instance, surely these Modernists would not set themselves up to be shouted at (or worse?) by an actual flesh and blood audience in a theatre while the perps tried to put on a stage production of stupidity. But, no—the idiocy is in the very name of their example of outrage: the Theatre of the Absurd.

They put on stage actors pretending to be characters and put words into their mouths and allowed them to make actions (though, yes, probably under the control of a Chief Stupidity, a diwrecktor). But the production is not allowed to make sense. Nope. The piece has only the most bare bones of what might be used to make a play (characters, words, actions) but the drama is prevented from being a drama. The actors move around, enter, exit, gesture and speak words but that is all. It all makes little or no sense to a normal human audience.

Instance: Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Despite the playwright’s given name, Eugene, there is not a shred of health anywhere in the “drama.” Even the title is an accident because one of the characters forgot his lines (and who could not forgive him?) and the incorrect line he spoke in the performance was then hoisted onto the front of the play by Ionesco as its title. Wait for it: I suggest that the play should have its title changed to an anagram of Eugene Ionesco: ice soon eugene. That would fit even more absurdly with the chaos of the so-called play. Come to think of it, let’s refuse to call it a play or a drama. It’s just a mess. For proof that it is the ultimate madness you need only to know that it is the longest-performed and most often performed production in one theatre in France (Gaul) even though it has been around only since 1950. Leave it up to the French, eh? Or shall I say instead . . . to the Modernistes?

I’m personally ashamed to know about this piece, but then it was performed at my university in Michigan where I took my second degree and in my innocence I was there. Perhaps I should pit it against a film of Oedipus in his tragic stage mask with the gore dribbled out of its eye holes that was shown in the first degree-granting institution I attended on the way to my BA. Oedipus’s difficulty was that he was forced to choose between doing one right thing and another right thing. One was right but the other was a higher right. This option has in current American society been undermined by people not being allowed such a choice since they are shown so many wrong non-facts that it is hard for them to know the right facts. The oppositional difference between art and upstart non-art could hardly be more effectively juxtaposed in my mind than in these two stage productions.

Let’s move back to poetry. Probably I can’t be the only person to have noticed that The New Yorker has not published poetry now for several decades. I suspect that the “poetry” editor there has been kidnapped and brainwashed by an anti-poetry mafia (think “loco haram” or just plain “loco harm)” and then released upon the world as a zombie. The last time I read an actual poem in The New Yorker was “October Maples, Portland,” by Richard Wilbur.


New Yorker “Poetry” in Recent Decades

It’s been like cotton candy lacking sweet,
And tint, and taste.  Though there upon the page
It’s lacking form as well, more like a tweet
An adolescent sends out in a rage
Of haste, as meaningless as if the vowels
And consonants had been left out.  The verse,
So-called, is words omitting blood and bowels
But dribbled nonetheless on pages, worse
Than blankness would have been.  Lines ramble there
As soulless as a corpse across the sky
Sans anesthesia, yes, as modern, spare
And empty as a see-through Dali eye.
At least an Eliot or Ezra Pound
Attempts through snobbish culture to confound.


And then will come the final treachery of MODERNism: chatbots writing sonnets. A fellow colleague from back when I was teaching (and writing poetry) on the very edge of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya (think pink flamingos on African lakes) recently asked ChatbotGPT to write a Shakespearean sonnet about me. The sonnet was sent back to him about one minute later. It is puke-worthy in its overstated praise of me, and my poetry and my teaching, though the chatbot has never known me, my poetry or my teaching. Modernity is our doom, not to mention Modernism.

I do not want anyone to be able to say that I have nothing good to say about a few of the products of Modernism. For instance e e cummings’ free verse poem “l(oneliness a l eaf falls) one l iness,” is a perfect, perfect poem. The Surrealist painting, “The Empire of Light” (L’Empire des lumières) by René Magritte is disturbingly beautiful, if you get to stand in front of it in the Musée des Beaux Art in Brussels, though I hasten to add that it is one of the least Modernist pieces ever in Modernism. Dali’s draughtsmanship as a painter is second to none. Who could carp about Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight” or “Muse in Sleep”? But then…Brancusi rejected Modernism’s excesses. It’s highly unlikely, though, that any of these items just mentioned would have happened were it not for Modernism.

Some people in the world of the arts remain more sane than the Emperor Modernism.



54. Rescher, Nicholas (2015). A Journey through Philosophy in 101 Anecdotes. University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 223.

10.  Camfield, William A. (1989). Marcel Duchamp, Fountain. Houston, TX: Houston Fine Art Press. p. 183.

39. David M. Lubin, Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War, Oxford University Press, 2016.



Phillip Whidden is an American living in England who has been published in America, England, Scotland (and elsewhere) in book form, online, and in journals.  

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52 Responses

  1. Jonathan

    It may well be that Modernism started its fermentation in the Romantic Era, when that idiot excuse many of us hear from “modern poets” – “It is my personal esthetic” [their spelling, not mine] ~ when inquiring of their professional inspiration. A local poetaster (who has substituted for me in my English classes) is feted for his invented ‘memoir’ of being deported to Mexico and having to sneak back across when he was young. I bought his book (an NPR Best Book of 2018, of course) and could not find a memorable line or a coherent thought in it.

    Here is his own choice of his “personal esthetic” from his website:

    Because the bird flew before
    there was a word
    for flight

    years from now
    there will be a name
    for what you and I are doing.

    I wish I could make this stuff up to spoof it, but you have to be a craftspersonofnospecificgender to do so.

    Whidden is on point and the final word should belong to the New York Times (and it speaks volumes and provides examples to support Professor Harry Frankfurt’s seminal work on hooey:

    The New York Times

    “Castillo embraces an expansive ambiguity — of language, of gender, of nationality — that can sound celebratory and mournful at once.”

    Take a few minutes. Read it again. And know we are in the trenches of a Cultural War on Stupidity. Fight On! Toss that Word Salad out!!

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Whidden is correct in pointing out that contempt for form and structure, and neglect of coherent meaning, are indispensable facets of modernism in the arts. But there is something else as well, and that is an obsessive fixation on personal feeling, on actual experience, and on boring quotidian trivialities. And all this is expressed in an insufferable tone of gaseous pseudo-importance (see the lines quoted by Jonathan above).

    It should be kept in mind, however, that the original proponents of poetic
    modernism had among their number some persons who were well-versed in good literature. One cannot say that Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Crane, and Stevens were unfamiliar with traditional poetry, or unable to compose it if they chose to do so. It also should never be forgotten that Eliot was a scholar of the first rank.

    This background made it possible for them to impart to their modernist work a certain quality and value that it otherwise would have lacked. But those persons who followed them in the years to come did not have that advantage. All they knew was “modernism,” and not any of the aesthetic capital that these earlier men had possessed. So naturally the followers just produced garbage art, of the vapid kind of sniveling sentimentality one sees in the “Poetry in Motion” posters that blight our subway cars here in New York.

  3. Paul Buchheit

    Thanks for this informative rant, Phillip. It took a while to digest, and to look up some of the offending matter.

  4. Jonathan Kinsman

    The Eliot and Pound tags bring up something else. Something I believe those poetasters (and they write in many languages. . .) are blind to: that Tradition is the Individual talent.

    We who work hard to lay out a well-turned phrase in line with the Canon (not afraid to write this or claim it) continue a correspondence across the veil. The poem is of the moment and that moment is repeated endlessly in our memories and in our allusions and in our literate lives.

    Those poems lead us to (as Pound so famously put it, “make it new”) take it to the newer generation to “teach and delight,” to impress upon others our shared amino acids, as it were, of Metaphor, Language, Idea and Thought. These are our poetic ideals shared with all poets, all peoples of all times. The Randomeers do not get this. We weave these forms and these thoughts into the greater fabric of our nature (here it comes, and I own it), made in the image of our Creator, and connect to that moment that is always now.

    Or, as my wife’s favorite poet put it, our poems must

    show throughout a restrained grace
    in the patterns it puts in place,
    in sounds that truly animate
    your soul to stir about, to leave
    the ease and contours of her room;
    to seek the source of that aural perfume
    enchained in the enchanting airs
    of a pursed O and bilabial b. . . (Entwined like Bindweed)

    Mr Whidden: wit is what the world lacks, keep up the wit and keep at it. I enjoyed your essay “thoroughly throughout.”

  5. Joshua C. Frank

    Phillip, this is spot on. Don’t even get me started on what passes for “poetry,” “literature,” and “art” these days, let alone “Piss Christ” (I’m a Christian, which tells you my opinion of that one in a single sentence). I find it especially galling that the poetry we write isn’t welcome with most of the poetry world, while they love woke or even meaningless prose with random line breaks (Michael Burch, I’m looking at you). I agree with you that “Modernity is our doom, not to mention Modernism;” that could fill a book of its own.

    I love the humor in your essay, reminiscent of Dave Barry (especially Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs). Well done!

  6. C.B. Anderson

    I used to read the New Yorker for the express purpose of reading new poems by Richard Wilbur and a few others. Now that Wilber has passed on, I don’t bother anymore. For several years they have been publishing some of the worst “poetry” you will ever read.

  7. Paul Freeman

    I hate to be a party pooper,
    But some free verse I find quite super.
    When you have a go at he
    or she who writes bad poetry,
    it’s just that more poor stuff’s free verse
    an emo-teen derangement curse
    proliferating morbid thoughts,
    while us traditionalists are sorts
    who fancy rhyming words and meter –
    and want their stanzas looking neater.

    Phillip, I do a lot of short stories, and writing free verse focuses me on making my prose more lyrical. It also helps me to infuse my work with metaphor, alliteration, etc.

    Anyhow, I have enjoyed your humour and will be submitting to the NYT – unfortunately I can’t use the poem above since it’s technically already published now… and not that brilliant!

    • Phillip Whidden

      As you saw, Paul Freeman, I praised a free verse poem by e e cummings, so in a sense we agree. Of course that cummings poem is far from free since it is full of repetition, a key element of a lot of traditional verse, not to mention the extreme subtlety of the form. Note that word “form.” What at first appears to be a dribble of letters on the page turns out to be a form, in fact a cleverly meaningful FORM. Do you know exactly what I mean about the meaning of that form?

      • Paul Freeman

        Yep! Brian Bilston writes both form and free, and a mixture of both.

      • Phillip Whidden

        Paul Freeman, I don’t understand how your response answers my question about the subtle meaning of the form of that one cummings poem. Sorry. Instead your response refers to another poet. Maybe I’m too easily confused. Please help.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Phillip, you’re right about e.e. cummings. I should have included him among the masters of early modernism who actually produced some excellent work.

        The problem today is the fact that the entire cultural apparatus of poetry (academia, the publishers, the critics, the mainstream press, the workshops, the little magazines) has been infiltrated and hijacked by the offscourings of a later generation of modernists and post-modernists who lack all the learning and background of modernism’s founders. Kip Anderson mentions the collapse of The New Yorker. Has anyone examined a recent copy of Poetry?

        Yeah, sure, Paul — some free verse is super. But most of it leaves you in a stupor.

      • Phillip Whidden

        Joseph S. Salemi, I’m glad we seem to agree about at least some of e e cummings’ poems. Thank you.

        Yes, the main reason I felt I needed to write my article and see it posted was because of the fact that the poetry establishment, at least in the USA, has been weaponized against traditional poetry–or so you and I seem to think, if I have not misunderstood you.

        Please forward the link to my article to all and sundry in your acquaintance. If you have contacts in the weaponized establishment, please send it to them. Thanks. Will you?

      • Joshua C. Frank

        No, not all free verse is bad. Good free verse uses everything traditional poets use except rhyme and meter. The problem is that once you drop these, especially meter (not all formal poems use rhyme), poets feel free to drop everything else until you have crappy prose with random line breaks praised as “poetry,” just as once the West did away with the feudal system (and especially the Church’s position at the top), people felt free to abandon more and more of what was good all the way to the moral free-fall of the modern world.

  8. Phillip Whidden

    I mentioned that e e cummings poem as a sterling example of the fact that some free verse, so-called, is good or even excellent. In my short-ish article I could mention only a few examples of the pernicious effects of Modernism in the various fields of arts. In this instance, one good one has to stand for the whole of such good verse/poetry.

    By the way I find it difficult to call “free verse”…”free verse.” If a poet is in control of it, then it is not free. It is controlled.

    Some people on “our side” seem to be hung up on rhyme and rhythm, until one of us points out that, say, the rhythm in a “traditional” poem has very irregular “rhythm” at least here and there. If I, for instance, point this out, my correctness in the matter is dismissed out of hand, especially if the poem being considered by me is a famous one usually considered excellent and by a famous poet, usually considered excellent. I find this situation amusingly or maddeningly (choose freely which of those you ally with) incoherent and hypocritical. In such moments I am in effect called out for being hypercritical. Well, someone has to speak truth, so . . . why not me?

    I do not know how often poets in other languages make a big deal out of using rhyme and rhythm. Experts, please weigh in.

    I have been told that the ancient Greeks knew well what rhyme is but they found it a crude device, crude at least in their sphere of poetry. I have been told the Greeks did not use what we call rhythm either. They used different lengths of the production of a syllable, not different stresses on syllables (some stressed, some not stressed). Would I be attacked if I started trying to follow the ancient Greek example (if indeed that example existed back then) and started to write English poems with patterns of “long” syllables and “short” syllables? If so, how humorous would that be if my attackers were supporters of the Society of Classical Poets? I think I might end up choking on sneering giggles.

    I will not enter into a discussion of the history of Western Civilization per se (as in the history of feudalism and Roman Catholicism, etc.). I presume you know about Flannery O’Connors’ position in this matter.

    Is anyone going to take up my implied challenge about the subtle trick veiled in plain sight in that e e cummings poem?

    Please forward the link to my article to all and sundry in your acquaintance. If you have contacts in the weaponized establishment, please send it to them. Thanks. Will you?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The attempt to compose English verse using the quantitative methods (“long” and “short” vowels) was attempted in the Renaissance by several poets, and it was a disaster. Do not try to resuscitate it. Quantitative measures work for Latin and Greek poetry, but not for languages like English which are heavily stress-based.

      As for the traditional patterns of English verse, absolute regularity has never been required, especially in iambic pentameter. All sorts of substitutions in the meter are acceptable, allowed, and expected. Just read a Shakespeare sonnet, and see how often he uses a trochaic inversion in the first foot, or has a feminine ending.

      A little over a year ago we had a guy come here who tried to convince us that this sort of traditional and long-standing practice of permitted irregularity was not proper, and that we should all adhere to his precise system of rules. He didn’t get a good reception, and has since disappeared.

      • Phillip Whidden

        You are incisive enough to have noted, Joseph S. Salemi, that I did not actually propose to revive that attempt. I was only making a point about how narrow some people’s ideas about what “classical” are. You will have taken that in.

        I am just about as sure as I can be that I am not as full of knowledge as you. I’m very pleased you entered as the expert I called for. Thank you.

        For what it’s worth, I taught Shakespeare at the university level. I know a bit about his work.

        Although I very, very seldom break the iambic pentameter in my sonnets, I do, sometimes. I like to tell myself that almost always these variations from the strictness of that meter fit with the actual subject matter being dealt with at that moment–especially if that subject matter is disruptive. One of his most famous lines, “Friends, Romans, Countryman…” is completely out of whack as regards iambic pentameter. The line is instead composed so that the phrases leading to the clause are each progressively longer (in length of syllables) instead of sticking to iambic pentameter. Of course, Mark Antony is producing rhetoric, not blank verse iambs. That he can master the horrible situation imposed upon him at all is wonderful. And (DUH) Shakespeare is famous for letting his characters speak in their own idioms, not his.

        I feel like I’m trying to teach you how to suck eggs. Forgive me, please.

  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    Here’s a famous quote from one of the best high modernists, T.S. Eliot —

    No “vers” is “libre” for the poet who wants to write well.

    Eliot was intelligent and educated enough to know that no good poem is created without conscious craft and careful deliberation. Even “free verse” is controlled. That why so much stuff from the early modernists is quite fine.

    • Phillip Whidden

      I seem to be in agreement with you and Eliot on this point. Thank you, Joseph S. Salemi. I don’t know why anyone would not see his point…and ours, unless that someone was deliberately blind.

    • TimT

      Yes, I can’t remember if Eliot actually had a sonnet in ‘The Waste Land’ but there is certainly an extended passage of Shakespearean blank verse. Similarly, his comrade Joyce was incredibly erudite; knew Latin, Greek, Irish, several contemporary European languages, and had deep classical music knowledge withal; all of this went into ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. The sort of modernism that came from Joyce was not minimalistic or stripped back to the bare essentials of form at all (not the ‘Gertrude Stein’ style of modernism); it was vast, ambitious to the point of megalomania. Joyce probably aspired to create a new language for both writer and reader; I think the problem he encounters now is not just that knowledge of the classical languages has declined amongst everyday readers – it is that everybody who writes according to Joyce’s ambitions now attempts to create a new, personal language for themselves, and the results are so obscure that it ends up not being a language at all.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Phillip, thank you for a most engaging essay with the added treat of two remarkable sonnets to highlight your points. You make so many significant observations with passion and humor – a wonderful combination to get a serious message across. It’s words such as yours that encourage me to explore every classic form there is and to change every free verse poem I’ve written to a classic version. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ensuing conversation. I am ever grateful for the lessons I have received at the SCP, lessons that are invaluable to my poetic endeavors. Thank you!

    • Phillip Whidden

      I gingerly and unwillingly accepted your wonderful comments and praise, Susan Jarvis Bryant, and sent off the response, but I don’t see it in this string of messages. Sorry. I also praised you for embracing everyone else in this conversation.

  11. Evan Mantyk

    In the New York Times piece that sparked this, Matthew Walther writes:

    The problem is not that Eliot put poetry on the wrong track. It’s that he went as far down that track as anyone could, exhausting its possibilities and leaving little or no work for those who came after him. It is precisely this mystique of belatedness that is the source of Eliot’s considerable power. What he seems to be suggesting is that he is the final poet, the last in a long unbroken line of seers to whom the very last visions are being bequeathed, and that he has come to share them with his dying breaths.
    I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.

    Phillip Whidden in the above essay, I think, has thoroughly demonstrated Walther’s basic flaw in reasoning. Modernism in general was fixated on destroying tradition, so yes that is the wrong track, just as suicide and opioid addictions are to be discouraged and are the wrong tracks. Eliot apparently created many works that people find compelling but his trajectory was off. For someone with so many Catholic affiliations, Walther seems to know nothing about resurrection.

    • Phillip Whidden

      Evan Mantyk, thank you for your incisive comment.

      According to Matthew Walther, Thomas Spurns Eliot is the Chief Priest of Modernism in poetry, the Highest NOet of them all. He just said NO. He spurned the poetic means of poetry of centuries before him.
      He is widely recognized as having a lot of knowledge about those centuries of poetry and literature. Perhaps the most troubling thing about this ball of wax is that he wanted to destroy what his NOetry depends on, i.e., to pre-destroy subsequent poetry. Maybe we could think of him instead as Mr. KNOWITALLETRY who despaired about being able to do anything new in poetry, instead of Mr. NOetry. Well, he did something new. He wrote NOetry.
      Most troubling (besides his cancerous effect on true poetry) is his nearly psychotic lashing out at beauty in poetry. He was a cannibal. According to Walther, he killed poetry. I say he ate its brains and turned them into poop. His NOetry comes directly from Toad of Toad Halletry Poop, Poop, Poop. Yes, perhaps high-class poop, of course, but poop nevertheless.
      Yesterday an alumna of mine from when I was taking my first degree in Massachusetts asked me to find for her some lines of poetry she was taught during her degree there. Unfortunately the five decades that separate her now from that experience have left her with only a simulacrum of this and that phrase she asked me to find for her. Yet I began googling. After my first search I reported to her that I’d found nothing of what she wanted. Then I tried some other search terms. Nope. Finally an item did pop up. It was Eliot’s “Gerontion.” Only GODKNOWSWHY, but there it was. I read through it hoping that at least one of the phrases she wanted me to séance-ify for her would be there. Nope. But that item did something telling. IT presented me with a sentence from the murderous pen of Eliot:
      “Unnatural vices
      Are fathered by our heroism.”

      I might call that nonsensical twaddle except that it is far worse. It is dishonest.
      At the moment I am writing a sonnet sequence about Siegfried Sassoon. To do that honestly I have been reading, reading, reading about him. I can say that one thing all this careful research has taught me about this war hero is that that sentence by Mr. NOetry is the exact opposite of the truth.
      While teaching Freshman Composition nearly fifty years ago I used the textbook chosen by the department. It was called Telling Writing. This book said that the single most important rule for good writing is that it has to be honest. And what do we get from the pen of NOet Eliot? “Unnatural vices
      Are fathered by our heroism.”

      He was so pathetically desperate to say something new that he could write that disgracefully dishonest sentence. I bet you aren’t surprised. Worse (?) still is the fact that it isn’t poetry. It’s NOetry tricked out on the page as if it be poetry.
      Don’t even let me get started on Ezra Poetryless Pound.
      Let me withdraw my earlier assessment of Eliot as the High Priest of Modernism. He was instead the Pope of Modernism pronouncing anathema and excommunication on real poetry, sending it into Purgatory at best–and then his acolytes sent real poets into Limbo.
      My sister in such situations asks, “What to do?”
      I ask, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
      The Good News Gospel is that we, the people and actual poets, will bring about the Reformation.
      Poetry is not dead. It does not need to be resurrected. Long before Thomas Spurns Eliot there was poetry. Long after his death there is poetry.
      We can be the latter day John Henry Newmans of the religion of true poetry. We can bring on the Second Spring.

      • Evan Mantyk

        Thank you, Phillip. Perhaps dead is not quite the right word. On its death bed would be more accurate. Consider that the leading professional positions, most prominent publication spots, and awards in poetry are almost universally given to poets whose poetry is disconnected from most poets’ writing since most poets actually prefer traditional meter and rhyme. Consider too that those three are even more severely disconnected from the main body of society who can’t understand their aesthetic or lack thereof. Those three are the brain in charge, but they’ve lost almost all connection to the body.

      • Phillip Whidden

        I agree with your main points in your response, Evan Mantyk.

        One of my former students at university level here in England who fancies herself as being a lot more hip about the web and all that, though, says that when young people decide to search for poetry there, their search term is more likely to be “modern poetry” that some other term. First, I don’t know if this claim is true. Second, even if it be true, they may well mean something like “recent poetry.” Almost certainly, in my opinion (and that’s all it is) they don’t mean Modernist poetry. There is everywhere and always a lot of ignorance and fuzsiness in “thinking.” As some people know, I am writing a substantial sonnet sequence about the life and works of Siegfried Sassoon. mostly about his life, not the works. Today’s sonnet fits into this discussion, at least a bit:

        There’s Mind and Then There’s Mind

        He somehow missed the plain reality
        That Whitman wasn’t quite traditional.
        (Sassoon rejected intellectuality.)
        Walt Whitman was at least transitional
        Between the type of poetry that Sieg
        Preferred throughout his writing life, the staid
        Old-fashioned waltz of rhyme and not the Sieg
        Heil chaos of the Modernists who played
        The parts of SS troops and blitzkrieg tanks
        Against millennia of beauty, stormed
        Cathedrals’ alexandrine lines, the ranks and ranks
        Of so-called poets forcing verse unformed.
        These trounced America’s and Europe’s mind
        Because the intellectuals were blind.

  12. BDW

    as per B. S. Eliud Acrewe:

    The poetry I appreciate and admire most of the last 100+ years is that of T. S. Eliot. In this I may be nearly alone; for I have met no one who shares my enthusiasm. But I would never say his poetry was superior to that of, say, Shakespeare, or Vergil… In addition, I disagree almost entirely with Matthew Walther; for, among the Modernists and PostModernists, it is Eliot’s poetry that has most influenced my own poetic output (as disparaged as it is by this generation), and given me some of my most important insights and offered some of the best possibilities I can take for future prospects, as limited as they may be.

    In another instance, I also feel nearly alone, when I argue that his literary criticism is the best that has yet appeared in the English language. In this, I understand that one’s literary choices can often be extremely lonely, even too individualistic, as Gottfried Lessing cautioned centuries ago, and yet…

    • Phillip Whidden

      BDW, thank you for joining the discussion. Many people agree with you, just not on this website at the moment, it seems. Many people like Eliot as a writer. For what it’s worth, I think the single greatest piece of literary criticism in the twentieth century was SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY.

  13. Phillip Whidden

    I am not at all sure, Susan Jarvis Bryant, that I am anywhere nearly worthy of your praise, but I’m just wise enough to accept it, gingerly, now that you have expressed it. Thank you. And thank you for embracing the others who have been part of this conversation.

    Will you please forward the link to the article to others?

  14. Leland James

    An interesting essay. Thank you. A point, not a criticism, and this jumps off Mr. Salami’s comment. We, those of us in the valuing of traditional versification camp, must guard against a baby and bath water problem. Eliot, Stephens, even Whitman at times, echoing the Bible, can strike a chord. And, those who have educated themselves, one way or another, and dare experiment a little are not extinct. So yeah, I abhor the garbage presenting itself as poety–my essay available in SCP–makes that clear. But neither is a sterile template filled in, forgive me, like a Hallmark Card; much of what I see in new formalism. This is not the answer. There must be music, not just meter and rhyme. Just a caution.

  15. Phillip Whidden

    Thank you, Leland James. I just wrote part of a reply to you. As has happened before on this site in my earlier experience of it, suddenly all of the reply vanished. I can’t be bothered trying to find it levitating in cyberspace or trying to recover it. Please give me exact points in the essay that you feel are wrong and require you to write, “Just a caution.” I think you and I are in general agreement.

    • Leland James

      No criticism implied. My caution is to all of us on this side of the classical poetry fence. My comment aligns with Mr. Salami, just keeping in mind all modern poetry is not bad, just most of it.

  16. TimT

    This isn’t a very insightful critique of modernism I’m afraid. I am not fond of its legacy either, but where an article like this makes basic errors such as equating a post-post-modern work by Serrano with that of early or high modernism (which ended in the ’50s), or for that matter suggesting that the aims of the visual modernists were one and the same with the aims of those in music or poetry, then the wavering reader may simply go back to modernism.

    • Phillip Whidden

      Modern, Post Modern, Post Post Modern, SCHMOST Modern…who cares?

      The British monarchy had to reinvent itself with a new name, the house of Windsor, because of the Germanic roots of many of the earlier members of the family in Windsor Castle, and that not in the too distant past. (I am refusing to capitalize anything to do with this family’s titles, etc.) Think queen Victoria’s prince consort and thus the German sperm donor for all successive kings and queens of Great Britain. Then, LOW and behold, in the same century as that rebranding came along a Nazi-sympathizer house of Windsor king, self-deposed Edward. Think louse of Windsor. Some might be tempted to theorize that the real reason he was not allowed to marry “the woman I love” and had to abdicate instead was not because she was an American, a commoner, and a divorcee, but because she wasn’t a German enough. . Then whom did the late queen marry but the very Germanic prince Philip (who was disguised as Danish and Greek)? See: if you rebrand enough you can fool most of das Volk all of the time.

      I reject the mischaracterization of my clear mind in the word applied to it: “confused.” I did not confuse Modernism with those PPosts. I conflated them all since they are the ignoble descendants of Modernists and could no more have come into existence without their genetic progenitors than the current king in England could have come into existence without his German blood.

      Modernism and these PPosts are all of the same cloth: first the emperor’s nude clothes, then the emperor’s nude nude clothes and then the emperor’s nude nude clothes. Black ravens produce black ravens (Tower of London or not). We can of course hope that the ravens at the Tower of Modernism die out and the whole tower comes crashing down.

      I can hear the mumbling over there to the left. So I’d better be clear. It is academics who foist these terms upon us, Modern, Post Modern and Post Post Modern. One reason academics do this is to keep themselves in work with salaries in their Ivory Towers of Lookingdowntheirnoses. I’d better make a confession. I have taught the equivalent in the world of literature of these art history constructions: Literary Theory. To get a job in one particular degree-granting institution in England I had to agree to teach a course in Literary Theory. It is not as if I am unacquainted with money-grubbing bishbosh. I was one of the money grubbers. Here is a challenge to your fanciful mind: imagine a university requiring a humanities academic NOT to teach tosh nowadays.

      But for the sake of argument let’s say that it’s not all the academics’ fault, this confusion caused by attempts to categorize confusion. (Are you trying to get the Tower of Babel out of your mind?)

      Let’s ask a very recent artist of the late twentieth century up till today. Tracey Emin, the enfant terrible (enfant intolerable) of recent British art says, “Modern art is merely the means by which we terrorize ourselves.”

      Is she the confused one?

      Well, I admit, she might well be. (I won’t go into the substance abuse question again. See my original article above.) I think just about everyone who thinks about the history of art can figure out that artists of course want to do something new and different. DUH. Like just about every educated person in the world I have done my bit of thinking about art (and literature and music……). I have a friend who took a history degree at the institution where I took my MA (mine in English language and literature, which included literature in English from various parts of the world). This friend like most people not in Ivory Towers doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about art since his degree was not in art and since his wife is a nurse. They have their own specialties. He and his wife have been all around the world partially because of his elevated posts in the American diplomatic service. They visited the Museo Picasso Málaga. There they saw his early works back when he was producing art, not traducing art. He was once a good artist.

      My late wife had a Ph.D. in the history of art. We trailed around art museums and galleries from Brussels to Boston to Beijing and we thought and discussed. Recently someone who saw the whole wall of books in one of my rooms exclaimed, “So many books!” (And those were just the books in one room.) So the Ph.D. and I had allowed elaborate brains to educate our minds. My wife wasn’t the only thoughtful influence in my thinking about the arts.

      Something different? Let’s return to Tracey Emin for a moment. She created her so-called artwork (more a fartwork) which was her bed (“My Bed”) in 1998 and it was exhibited (sexhibited) in 1999. It purports indeed to be her messy bed with filled up ashtrays, condoms, etc. strewn around. If you have a strong stomach, you can google it, I’m sure. However, in 1966 Lucas Samaras had already produced his bedroom with very similar decorations as “Room No. 2.” When I saw it decades later in the Whitney (well before 1998), it was presented in a large cube made of plexiglass walls. I think we can all agree that this piece of installation (assignation) art somewhat preceded Ms. Emin’s piece. At least one Modern, Post Modern, Post Post Modern (you choose unconfusedly) Fartist, it seems, despite the whorish need to do something different, can’t keep up with Modern art. Here’s bit of irony for you: an anagram of Tracey Emin is “My nice arte.”

      But artists are like unto me in that we are all human and messed up. (“The heart is . . . desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Jeremiah 16:12) This goes a long way towards (a) the phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism and (b) towards people accepting the existence of Abstract Expressionism as art, confusedly. I am not confused. I have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I have thrown the aborted fetus out with its amniotic fluid. I will refrain from elaborating that visual, but paintings by Jackson Pollock will suffice.

      In one English institution where I was privileged to teach, a wonderful institution, I was required later down the line to teach religious studies. Now the overwhelming majority of the students there were of religions other than Christianity (in its wide-ranging various flavors which exist pretty much because of the Reformation, all the way from High Church Anglicanism down to little congregations in red dirt Georgia who handle rattlesnakes, not to mention psychotic sects such as the one in Waco–which should be spelled Wacko). To the point: each unit in the religious studies course was required to be even-handed in its presentation of each separate and distinct faith. None of them (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc.) was allowed to be privileged above the others. The practical reason for this was that parents could not come in and complain about their specific child’s religion being slighted. But the actual philosophical (read: political) reason was to make sure that each pupil was to learn tacitly that his or her religion was not better than other religions. Very sly. The cause of such a course is exactly the sort of mindset that has led king Charles III, who is supposed to be the Defender of the Faith, to bruit his message that instead he wants to be the Defender of Faiths.

      Nope. I am not confused. I have merely conflated the sects which have been whelped from Modernism with the dog and bitch which produced it. Like Vater like Sohn.

      But probably I am being too hard-nosed about this conflation/confusion matter. Let’s say that TimT is right in this matter. Then that is a very encouraging way forward. Here’s why. That would mean that we don’t have to struggle to defeat the negative influence of Modernism for decades to come; it is already in the process of being ignored or defeated as time moves on past people like High Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) T. S. Eliot. I could say Amen to that.
      Then maybe not: since Siegfried Sassoon described Eliot as “a dried bean,” maybe we should be wary of someone reconstituting him in a soup for poets to slurp down at some later date, perhaps for Roman Catholic poets to swallow during Lent. Mind you, Sassoon, who was wonderfully juicy in his earlier life, turned into a dried bean later. ha Ha HA.

      • TimT

        This is obtuse. The artistic works of one generation are the impetus which the later generations react to, either positively or negatively. Victorianism reacted to romanticism, romanticism to Augustan poetry, and so on. Modernism in itself is in large part a reaction against sentimental Victorianism, certainly in literature and poetry.

  17. Phillip Whidden

    The word “obtuse,” besides being Juvenalian, tempts me to think you did not read the irenic passage in my previous comment in reply to your previous comment, TimT. Perhaps you did, though, and rejected the notion of being irenic (check your Classical mythology about the Horae) in this discussion. My point here is that I tried to bend over FLAKWARD to deal with your comment. (How silly of me to use wartime vocab while discussing peaceableness.) I’ll leave it at that while I sit here sipping Earl Grey tea from my Royal Crown Derby “Old Imari” (pattern 1151) loving cup. (Look that up on Google or ChatGPT or Bing’s newer chatbot.) By the way, my name is Phillip Whidden. I do not have to hide behind an obscured identity. May I suggest a therapy for your simmering anger, please? Thomas Jefferson of the Neo-Classical era suggested that when angry we should count to ten before we speak. I’ll go one better: I suggest you read 1,000 of my more than 3,000 sonnets on the web, and then get back to me. And…let’s get this discussion into perspective. There are billions of people on earth (just under eight billion) who don’t care about our internecine spat about poetry.


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