space holder space holder

MODERNISM, n: The use of nontraditional innovative forms of expression characteristic of many styles in the arts and literature of the 20th century. Thought by some to have been invented at the University of Pennsylvania circa 1906.
   
All right, so the second part is not in Webster's. And the notion does sound, at first blush, like a boosterish fiction, based on the coincidence of two of the movement's most important poets having crossed paths here. But start asking scholars about it, and a funny thing happens: When it comes to American poetry, they agree. Even those who feel that the claim may be a bit hyperbolic acknowledge that it has a good deal of basis in fact.
   "If you have Pound and Williams at the same place at a very formative time in their careers -- there's no parallel for that," says Hugh Kenner, author of The Pound Era and many other books and articles on modern poetry. "Between them, they define a good deal of modernism."
   By the time they were at Penn, argues Dr. Alan Filreis, professor of English, "both Pound and Williams were energetically modern, theatrical, exciting, already innovative personalities. I am sure they galvanized what must have been already pretty exciting, heady late-night student conversations in the various literary nooks and crannies. It does well to think of them very much together."
   Yet Pound was mostly writing overblown troubadour-style verse in those days -- "I think of him as a sort of American Pre-Raphaelite poet then," says Dr. Jean-Michel Rabaté, professor of English -- while Williams was trying to emulate Keats, and losing something in the emulation. Both knew they wanted to write great poetry; neither had figured out how to do it. And they didn't get any encouragement from the faculty.
   But they did get unique -- if very different -- educations at Penn that would greatly influence the style and content of their writing. And they met each other. That friendship -- and their friendship with another young poet, Hilda Doolittle, CCT'09, a student at Friends Central and Bryn Mawr who would become better known as H.D. -- would soon have a catalytic effect on poetry.
   "It is true that not a whole lot of modern poetry was getting written at Penn," says Jane Penner, a graduate student writing her dissertation on Williams. "Even Pound was doing pretty derivative stuff at that point. What was crucial was that network of friendships. For a long time, modernism was taught as something created by isolated individuals. In fact, a more productive idea of modernism was the idea of the group and the network of friendships. And in that sense, Penn becomes very crucial as a background for modernism."
   "They were not modernists when they were at the University," agrees Dr. Emily Wallace, former professor of English at Penn and author of numerous articles on Williams and Pound and H.D. "But they were embarking on that endeavor, without quite knowing what road they would take."
Continued...
April Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98