Introduction to Modernist Poetry

The English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change "on or about December 1910." The statement testifies to the modern writer's fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.”
—from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American PoetsThe Modernist Revolution: Make It New

Modernist poetry often is difficult for students to analyze and understand. A primary reason students feel a bit disoriented when reading a modernist poem is that the speaker himself is uncertain about his or her own ontological bearings. Indeed, the speaker of modernist poems characteristically wrestles with the fundamental question of “self,” often feeling fragmented and alienated from the world around him. In other words, a coherent speaker with a clear sense of himself/herself is hard to find in modernist poetry, often leaving students confused and “lost.”

Such ontological feelings of fragmentation and alienation, which often led to a more pessimistic and bleak outlook on life as manifested in representative modernist poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” were prompted by fundamental and far-reaching historical, social, cultural, and economic changes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The rise of cities; profound technological changes in transportation, architecture, and engineering; a rising population that engendered crowds and chaos in public spaces; and a growing sense of mass markets often made individuals feel less individual and more alienated, fragmented, and at a loss in their daily worlds. World War I (WWI), moreover, contributed to a more modern local and world view.

Understanding the context of literary modernism (specifically, modernist poetry) is important for students before they analyze modernist texts themselves. To that end, this three-lesson curriculum unit begins with Lesson One: “Understanding the Context of Modernism Poetry,” followed by Lesson Two: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which features “warm-up” exercises to give students initial bearings for reading and analyzing modernist poetry. The curriculum unit ends with T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; this lesson requires students to analyze modernist poetry in more depth and detail. You may extend the unit by teaching additional modernist poets such as Marianne Moore, Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.

Guiding Questions

What are several historical, social, and cultural forces that prompted the modernist movement? What were the effects of these influential factors?


What are the primary characteristics of modernist poetry?

Learning Objectives

Students will understand the literary context of modernism.

Students will be able to define and understand in context common poetic devices.

Students will be able to analyze several modernist poems.


Students will understand the historical, social, and cultural context of modernism at large.