A review of Reading Modernist Poetry by Michael H. Whitworth

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Reading Modernist Poetry
Michael H. Whitworth 
ISBN: 978-1-4051-6731-4
Hardcover, 256 pages, April 2010, AUD $120.00

Literary criticism is a strange beast to read. It’s referential, so can’t really be read for entertainment unless you’ve thoroughly read the work to which it refers. Of course a book like Reading Modernist Poetry is written primarily with the literature student in mind, aiming to provide a guide to understanding poetry by some of the 20th Century poetic giants such as TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, WB Yeats, HD, and William Carlos Williams. Many of the poems in this book are referred to repeatedly, and are so well known in the Western literary canon, that the modern reader will have at least come across them. Indeed, poems like Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” or Yeats’ “The Second Coming” are poems that many modern readers (myself included) will have committed to memory. So reading a book that delves into these works in the context of a broader and expansive look at the techniques and tools used by the modernist giants, including the influence of earlier giants, can be useful in helping to interpret the poetry and gain a deeper understanding.

The book looks at the works from a range of perspectives, including the subject matter, the techniques and tools used, the form, structure and how to evaluate it. The book isn’t too didactic, and aims to guide readers towards a range of possible interpretations rather than suggesting one exact one. Of course modernism lends itself to multiple meanings, so the open approach is ideal. Readers who are coming to these works fresh will need reminding that the meanings are never pat or simplistic with modern poetry. As a means for tracking trends, and looking at a range of characteristics that constitute the poetry of the early 20th century, particularly in contrast to the work that preceded it, this is a good workbook, providing sophisticated and in-depth looks at such relevant concepts such as reflexivity, the use of landscape and setting, sounds, allusion, dialogue, the use of imagery, mythology, deliberate obscurity, and even how we judge value – an interesting analysis of a complex topic.

Throughout the book the language is clear and crisp, and relatively easy to follow, but because each chapter contains a mini thesis, it tends to jump around between the poems in a way that can be disorienting, and can distract a bit from the power of each individual poem, especially the longer poems (“The Wasteland” being an example). In order to make this book work in the context of each individual poem, you need to have that poem open from some other book so that the entire piece can be seen and worked with. It is possible that students might read this book and take the ideas and techniques, evocative as they are, as the primary subjects in this book, rather than viewing this as a series of tools towards deeper reading of the poetry. So it’s important to keep the actually poems present in their entirety when using this book. That said, Reading Modernist Poetry will probably be used as addendum to a class that is studying these works, and in that context it works well. Whitworth clearly has an excellent knowledge of the work of Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and to a lesser extent HD, WC Williams, Hugh MacDiarmid, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and a touch of Marianne Moore. There were, as there will always be in any compendium, some notable omissions, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Although Hopkins is just on the edge of modernism, his impact was so dramatic and important, that I felt he deserved more of a mention in terms of influence at least, than the Romantics. Other omissions included Auden, Spender, and Robert Frost, all of whom are often considered part of the Modernist movement, although it is true that their forms tend towards the traditional (though many of Yeats’ poems also lean towards the conservative).

One exploration I enjoyed particularly was the way in which the authors take poets’ published aesthetics and apply them to their reading. This is important with poets like Eliot and Pound, whose criticism had as much impact as their work. For example, Eliot talks about the idea of the “auditory imagination” (p. 73), and the way in which poetry communicates in an inchoate, deep way: “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Looking at this notion in conjunction with the metaphor rich opening of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a helpful way to tackle the work – to try and feel the helplessness of the evening against the progression of the two characters, before analysing it. Between Eliot and Pound there are many such examples that help tie the conception and the realisation together in the reader’s mind in a way that can significantly improve both reading and interpretation.

It is possible to work through each chapter progressively, working hand in hand with each cited poem (in its entirety, as stated earlier), to receive a complete course on the nature of modernism, exploring the way in which poems are created, shaped, and used to signify during this period. Although the price is rather steep, even for a textbook, this isn’t a book you can just read through, put back on the shelf and forget. For those that want an insight, both as reader, and perhaps more valuably, as writer, into the techniques of poetry in general, and those specific to the giants of poetry that make up the ultra-influential modernist movement, this is a book that can be returned to regularly. It is well structured, well researched, clearly written, and full of innovative insights.

First published in M/C Reviews.