New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

A look at Modernism by Niamh Clarke

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Niamh Clarke is originally from Dundalk, Co.Louth. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from NUI, Galway. She is currently studying a Diploma in Journalism from The Irish Academy of Public Relations and has a FETAC certificate in Print Journalism from Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute. She is the writer at the blog The Essay Yeti. She has edited several books and has an ITEC certificate in Proofreading and Editing. Niamh is based in Louth and is working as a freelance journalist. She is also editor and writer for the newsletter at National Learning Network, Dundalk branch.





Like any artistic movement, be it in literature, or in visual art, or music, challenges can be made to the basis of any historical designation. But, this is just to say that the period of late 19th and early 20th century nonetheless saw a tectonic shift in how art, poetry and architecture was shaped and considered. ‘Modernism’ as a contemporary demarcation does indeed lend itself to characterisation. As Carter and Friedman state:

In the West, modernism was marked by the waning or weakening of certain pre-modern (Victorian) concepts  and institutions  — including duty, patriarchal structures, rigid class and gender constraints, environmental determinism, linear time, Newtonianism, Utilitarianism, materialism – and by a sense of historic crisis and rupture that coincided with the undermining of “progress,” which had been the culture’s dominant trope for several centuries. (Carter and Friedman, p. 2)

Modernist practice sought to make a daring prison break out of what it saw as dominant cultural tropes. Representation itself was reconfigured as artistic human voices awoke perceptions from their cultural drowning. Very often this break with the past burgeoned a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm but, as will be the focus of this essay, modernist practice can also be fundamentally understood as articulating a pronounced sense of disconnection, of alienation, and of dividedness1. By performing a close reading of Ezra Pound’s In the Station of a Metro and Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the article seeks to engage with two characteristics of modernist practice: to ‘make things new’ (including to de-familiarize things); to articulate the disunity and alienation of self in modernity.

Pound made things new, so much depended upon the precision of his language. Everything in the Imagist take on writing balanced perfectly upon the curt language of the image itself, and every word was recruited into the teleological service of image alone. The language creates a complete picture that is generated by movement of the entire poem itself.  Speaking on the epitomic of both the Imagist endeavour, and of the modernist practice of making things new, Paul Peppis describes In a Station of the Metro as ‘a free verse poetic of linguistic concision and metaphoric condensation’ (Peppis, p.33):

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

— Ezra Pound


Although the poem is a self-contained imagistic whole, ‘metaphorically condensed’ (to use Peppis’s above idea) it also as a whole conveys its own artistic isolation by virtue of this concentration and completeness. It de-familiarizes the common metro station, slows its passengers down into a single image, and turns the moment into an object worthy of aesthetic contemplation. This is a making things new!, and flies in the face of the dominant poetic traditions previous to it. Narrative is replaced by the image. The poem becomes immutable; the isolated image is the boiled-down focal-point; a pronounced newness in the appropriate subject of poetry emerges. The beauty of the poem is inescapable, and yet through the ambiguity of the isolated image, despair and alienation reach new heights: In A Station of the Metro showcases the beauty of the image alone, but it also displaces a sense of self and any connectedness to the other — both speaker and subject are disoriented and spread far apart. The use of a nameless station – a place where people scuttle across the floor of the Metro, going nowhere specified, induces further the idea of homelessness. People are nameless, unimportant, and legless in their walking; their faces operate as an imagistic whole, and faces are made surreal, reduced to apparitions – they dissolve into a singular crowd and they function only to pixilate the entire face the poem.

Imagism here by making things new! accentuates the modern loss of individual faces, but ironically gives precedent to individualised artwork. The poem inherently achieves its own alienation: there is no reaching out to other texts, there are no explanations offered, the piece remains ultimately ambiguous, there is nothing but a pure and intensified scene (however beautiful) fleeing across a page. The faces are insignificant and indistinct, and yet the language of the poem is the opposite indistinct or insignificant. Ezra Pound states in his ‘A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste’

‘It is better to produce one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works’ (Pound, Modernism and Literature, p.446)


And the poem in itself becomes an objective ‘one Image’, but it also leaves enough room within to become a source of subjective consolation, because although the poem is not really telling a logically satisfying narrative, the way in which language is used amounts to a unique and poignant poem.  The depth of beauty conveyed mixes with an anonymity of the poet-conveyor. The crisis of modernity is thus showcased artistically in a moment of spilt-expression, where both the powerlessness and power of the poet conjoin. The architectural structure of the Metro houses the apparitions of faces within a controlled, modern environment, but this environment is ultimately a station-grave that breeds an illusory sense of purpose and journey. The artist capturing the moment immortalises no one subject but rather conveys the pointlessness of the modern setting. The overwhelming effect of the poem celebrates a new and succinct use of language, but it also questions aesthetic endeavours of both past and present. It is this questioning that becomes phrased within the entirety of the piece through the bold presentation of a completely new way of experiencing poetry. Imagism asks: is it the poem an artefact that can both articulate and simultaneously confuse the one Image in poetic time?

But Pound’s poem is not only remarkable in the sense of its breaking away from the techniques of the past — the poem itself represents the ethos of a wide but aesthetically-linked modernist practice. As Carter and Friedman state:

Underlying some of modernism’s numerous manifestos that sought to break with the past was the self-conscious Poundian behest to “Make it new” – and in a new, often obscure, way – and the term often morphed into, among others, the New Architecture, the New Dwelling, the New Photography, and the New Criticism. Artists with divergent aesthetic and political agendas practiced the ethos of Pound’s motto different.  (Carter and Friedman, p. 3)

We see a conflation of making of things new! and alienation in the modernist painting The Scream by Edvard Munch. This piece is comparable to Pound’s In a Station of the Metro; while the former de-familiarizes the metro station, and slows its passengers down to an imagistic compound, the latter de-familiarizes thefigure of a modern person, and slurs mental anguish out into the landscape.

The painting showcases a greying figure suffocated among an externally disturbing mix of a mind’s frightening colour. The figure is a singular apparition in a crowd of colour. The painting articulates the alienation characteristic of modernity; it voices the existential alienation of the individual. It is the pictorial thought of nihilism itself, the mind blanks at the glare. As Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris state of modernist practice:

‘Personal meaninglessness – the feeling that life has nothing worthwhile to offer – becomes a fundamental psychic problem …‘Existential isolation’ is not so much a separation of individuals from others as a separation from the moral resources necessary to live a full and satisfying existence’.  (Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, p. 22).

The human being is distorted irrevocably in The Scream. Like Pound’s poem the painting only works as a whole – it is not conveying an obvious narrative. But for the desperation of a scratched-out figure there is no clarity – there is only a sense of complete alienation: a figure trapped within the apparitions of their own mind, where the only language left is a scream that does not suffice. The figure bends in the same waves as the external colour on the canvas, and while this achieves a sense that there is no separation between the self or landscape, or between mind and canvas,  there is nothing  consoling in this – in fact it serves to further isolate the figure. The painting rejects a definitive meaning, it conveys only lack of escape, a stifled language, and a canvas of unbearable colour. It is a canvas with nowhere to go, with nothing to hope for;  the succinct use of colour is ultimately employed in creating something entirely hopeless and alienating. Like Pound’s In A Station of The Metro, the modern appearance is new and vivid but there is only remains a vividly alienating image with no real meaning: a barren scream. There is no pleasing conclusion.



Carter, Mia and Alan Warren Friedman. Modernism and Literature. New York: (2013) Routledge. Print

Frascina Francis and Jonathan Harris. Art in modern Culture. New York: (1999) Phaidon. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste” in Modernism and Literature. Eds. Alan Warren Friedman and Mia Carter. New York: (2013) Routledge. Print





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