Literary Modernism is notoriously difficult to define because it is not any one thing. Most identify Modernism with a particular set of techniques such as stream of consciousness or free verse or other modes of interiority and subjectivism. Another tendency is to identify Modernism with feelings of alienation in which the individual is estranged from a world suddenly without meaning. But these explanations tend to be descriptive and do not tell us what drove these radical divergences from traditional form.
I see Modernism as a set of reactions to the death of the aristocratic world in WWI and the betrayal by central authority that the war entailed. The loss of certainty impelled artists, in Ezra Pound’s words, to “make it new.” But Modernism was anything but a uniform reaction to that death. We can identify two poles of response that attracted Modernist poets, a reactionary response, best typified by Pound and Eliot, and a more progressive response, perhaps articulated best by William Carolos Williams.
The reactionary response resents the loss of the old order and seeks to create new sources of order. We can feel that resentment in Eliot’s “I have shored these fragments against my ruins.” Eliot wants to counteract what he perceives as the fragmentation of culture and resents the loss of wholeness. The poets of this stripe felt impelled to invent new methods of imposing poetic order, hence Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, for Pound, the ideogrammic method, for Eliot, the “objective correlative” and the “still point.” A number of this type of Modernist felt a profound attraction to fascism as a way of establishing a new order and a new foundation for meaning.
On the other hand, Williams, who called Eliot’s “Wasteland” a “great catastrophe in our letters,” celebrates the fragment, telling us “So much depends on the red wheelbarrow.” For Williams, the meaning is in the fragment, the fragment is capable of defining the world. Williams represents a more optimistic and democratic response to the loss of central authority.
Most academic depictions of Modernism see it primarily and importantly as a radical break from previous traditions, but in this, they mistake the role of tradition in the pre-Modernist world and fail to understand that all great art is a criticism of tradition in some way. Breaking with tradition doesn’t make art great. If Modernist poets can be considered great, they are so for the same reasons that poets of any era can be great.