Manifest Destiny: The Manifesto in Modernism
The manifesto in modernist poetry has been a key vehicle for displaying the ever-changing ideals of the genre. With the publication of Ezra Pound’s 1918 essay “A Retrospective” and his 1913 essay “A Few Don’ts” where he laid out the guidelines for Imagism and wider modernist poetic thought, the manifesto, along with Pound’s modernist ideas, became a mainstay in American poetic theory and practice, whose influence can be found even into the twenty-first century. In these texts, Pound predicts where his new poetic thought would lead, with uncanny accuracy. What he did not actively predict in these texts was the eventual abandonment of modernism in poetry. In conjunction with Pound’s manifestos written in the period of the high modernists, manifestos written in the late modernist and postmodernist periods can trace the birth, maturity, and abandonment of modernist ideals in American poetry.
Charles Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse” is second only to Pound’s essays in terms of influence on the American modernist poetic tradition. It is in “Projective Verse” that an evolution of Pounds ideas that leads to an explosion of creativity in the late modernist period can be seen. These ideas are directly related to Pound’s, and it is in Olson’s poetry that the poetics Pound predicted as much “nearer the bone…[that] will be as much like granite as it can be”[i] can be found. It is in Olson’s manifesto that Pound’s ideas come to fruition. Nearly sixty years after this, though, a series of eight Manifestos published in a 2009 issue of Poetry illustrates the disregard, in some cases open rebellion, against the ideas set out by Pound. The series, with manifestos by contemporary poets Charles Bernstein, Mary Ann Caws, A.E. Stalling, and others, shows the fragmentary nature of contemporary poetry with so many fractions that a communal modernism seems impossible. Though there are aspects of these that tie the eight manifestos back to “Projective Verse” and even “A Retrospective” and “A Few Don’ts”. The form of these pieces, prose manifesto, ties these pieces into a radical tradition in poetry, one that tries to present new ideas. The radical energy, though, drops off in the manifestos of the twenty first century. The referential nature of the pieces ties them together, as well. Where Olson directly references and builds upon Pound, the postmodernists reference the late modernists, although not always to agree with them. But this sense of a generational passing down of a tradition binds these poets and their pieces even further. It is these threads of commonality that allows the life cycle of the modernist attitudes toward the use of rhyme, form, breath, rhythm, style, and economy of words to be traced from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day.
The attitude toward the use of rhyme was one of the most radical ideas that Pound proposed. Pound wanted to break away from the poetic traditions that came before him. He suggests, “A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure…it must be used well if used at all”.[ii] Olson intimates a reflection on this point when he suggests that “it would do no harm…to verse now written, if both rime and meter…were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable”.[iii] The opening poem of Olson’s Maximus Poems, “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You”, reflects this well when only four obvious rhymes can be found in the six hundred and thirty-seven-word poem. And none of those rhymes are used to maintain the energy or structure of the poem. Instead, they are secondary to the syllable and to the breath, as Olson suggests it ought to be. The lines, “that they be played by, that they only can be, that they must | be played by, said he, coldly, the ear!”[iv] shows both the syllable and breath in action. This idea evolved from the idea as seen in Pound’s two-line poem, “In a Station of The Metro”, which contains no rhymes, but instead relies on rhythm and its internal music. Scarcity of rhyme in favour of the syllable is an idea that pound suggested, that Olson took further, and that was disregarded in A.E. Stallings’s 2009 manifest, “Presto Manifesto!”, a piece fully dedicated to rhyme. The crux comes in her statement, “Rhyme is at the wheel. No, rhyme is the engine”.[v] This harkens back to pre-modernist forms, such as romantic ballads, and rhymed poetry written contemporaneously to, but outside of, the modernist tradition. This embracing of rhyme, through a manifesto, abandons an ideal that was held so dearly to a tradition that spanned the twentieth century.
This shift away from rhyme put the focus on the cadence of language which, according to early modernists, is responsible for the movement of a poem. Pound suggests that “if [a poet] can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence” he should be able to “dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short”.[vi] This sets up a new focus on the energy of the language itself and the use of the language through the poet. This is expanded upon by Olson, with the fury of the energetic syllable, when he says, “listening for the syllables must be so constant and so scrupulous, the exaction must be so complete, that the assurance of the ear is purchased with the highest…price. For from the root out, from all over the place, the syllable comes, the figures of, the dance”.[vii] Olson then goes on to suggest a path for the full fruition of this modernist ideal. Olson suggest that the syllable is born “of the mind and the ear”[viii] and the result of syllabic attention gives birth to the poetic line, where “the man who writes can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending- where its breathing, shall come to, termination”.[ix] And thus Olson internalises the production of poetic cadences in a way that Pound only hinted at when suggesting that the cadence of syllables is best found in foreign languages rather than the native throat, as Olson formulates. This attention to compositional detail is virtually absent from the eight twenty first century manifestos.
Rather than focus on technique, these contemporary manifestos focus more on conceptual themes. Charles Bernstein’s “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links”, with its many references to contemporaries of Olson, takes a different path that illustrates a very different attitude to what a manifesto should be, when compared to Pound and Olson. With a structure and mood reminiscent of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s manifesto, “Poetry as Insurgent Art”, and the ghost of Robert Duncan in its fourth line, “I’m the derivative product of an originality that spawns me as it spurns me”,[x] it would not be a leap to think this manifesto would be bound to a more entrenched stance on modernism and its style of most influential manifestos. This manifesto, though, embodies, with its collage of references and influences, the “anything goes” attitude of postmodernism and this attitude is only compounded when the other seven manifestos are taken into consideration. Rather than an authoritative, energetic manifesto that lays down the rules, like the Olson and the Pound, it is a relaxed manifesto, the power of which lies in its abstractness.
While “A Retrospective” and “Projective Verse” frame themselves as an outline “merely to get things started”[xi] or as a set of “fixed points of departure”,[xii] the postmodern manifestos read much more like poets adding to the already vast mix of ideas, rather than announcements of a new era of poetics. The closest any of the postmodern manifestos comes to using the past as a point of departure is Ange Mlinko’s “The Eighties, Glory of”. She is “building [her] own manifesto out of the bones of another’s”.[xiii] She is building her manifesto out of two manifestos by Frank O’Hara, a contemporary of Olson’s, but she is doing so in the spirit of a collage, rather than of the referential, generational spirit of twentieth century manifestos. In this, she is breaking the lineage of ideas, instead mixing the old with the new to create a separate contemporary style.
Mary Ann Caws introduction to the eight manifestos, “Poetry Can Be Any Damn Thing It Wants”, which serves as a manifesto in its own right, displays the irreverence of the postmodernists. This is in direct contrast to the heavy, law laying attitudes of Pound and Olson. Caws, when saying, poems and manifestos can “do any damn thing they want: They can run on and on, stop short, be fragmented or in order, or in an order which they themselves mock”,[xiv] which contradicts, and thus abandons, the first two principles of Pound’s “A Retrospect”. In doing so, this piece, along with the others in the 2009 set, sets up a divide. On one side of the divide are the contemporary poets that reach past modernism, back to romanticism, with its emotional, romantically artistic ideals, rather than the surgical modernist approach that rests on the other side of said divide. It reverses the process that Johanna E. Vondeling describes as “an evolution from romantic critic, who saw his artistic role as a…calling, into the more aggressive modernist critic, who asserted his role as a professional, one who publicly declared his position”.[xv] The contemporary poets, by using these manifestos as vehicles for artistic and conceptual expression, abandon modernist ideas, just as the Modernists abandoned the ideas of the Romantics before them. These manifestos lay the poetic groundwork for a return to the poet as occupying a romantic calling, rather than a crafting profession.
This modernist crafting is evident in the cutting away of the poetic fat that Pound establishes in “A Few Don’ts”, especially regarding the use of abstractions. Abstractions “dull the image…it comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol”.[xvi] The goal of producing a pure image, as opposed to producing emotional monologues as poems, is what separates the High Modernist from the Romantic. Olson then takes the Poundian thought and converts it into his own high charged concept. To Olson, the abstractions of metaphor and simile are “to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem”.[xvii] These ideas cut down the material deemed unnecessary to allow for a more energetic, pure poetics that influenced most modernist writers throughout the twentieth century. The twenty first century, however, sees a rejection of this streamlined writing. The very existence of “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links”, with its non sequiturs, jokes, and surreal lines, is at its core an abstraction. That is an existence that is seemingly explained by a line within itself that also invalidates the high and late modernist manifestos in their attempt at a pure crafting of art; “The work of art ‘itself’ does not exist, only incommensurable social contexts through which it emerges and into which it vanishes”.[xviii] This piece abandons both the modernist attitude that a manifesto is a presentation of radical new ideas for the practice of poetry and the modernist attitude of restricted use of abstractions, allowing, according to Pound, unacceptable material.
The most concrete evidence of a furthering or a process of perfecting ideals form the high to late modernists would be the treatment of music in the Pound and Olson manifestos. In one of the three principles laid out in “A Retrospective”, Pound urges poets to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome”.[xix] This is a major modernist break with tradition as Pound suggested the rhythm of a poem be driven by musicality, rather than pentameter or any other type of meter. This is a major rewriting of poetic practice and it is one that is further perfected by the late modernists. The adapted attitude of the late modernist toward music is one that encapsulates the evolving modernism of the twentieth century. Olson’s contemporaries; Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Robert Duncan, incorporated the rhythms of orchestral, jazz, blues, folk, and pop music into their poetic phrases, expanding the musical phrase pertaining to classical music used by Pound. In addition to the expansion comes the incorporation of technology, a major modernist triumph.
Though the typewriter was almost one hundred years old in 1950, Olson introduced a new way of using that piece of technology to attain a more advanced poetics, similar to musician. Pound suggests to “behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern, as you are bound by no others”,[xx] Olson takes this suggestion into account and goes one step further by adapting the musician’s technology through the typewriter. Olson changes the page composition of poetics when he realises that “for the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had”.[xxi] He goes on to suggest, “for the first time [a poet] can, without the conventions of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader…to voice his work”,[xxii] just as a musician can read the voicings of a composer on the page without the composer being present. This is Olson’s most substantial contribution to a new poetics found in “Projective Verse” and is one of the reasons it is one of the most influential modernist poetic manifestos. This coalescing of multiple concepts; poetic theory, poetic practice, music, and technology, makes this breakthrough a distinctly modernist improvement to the Poundian musical ideals.
This moment of synthesis proves a unique one, though, as none of the eight manifestos mention any sort of music, let alone how to further apply it to poetic technique. Nor do they mention the adaptation of technology to further the art. In the frantic splintering of what became of the postmodern poetic landscape, music and advancement of the art within a manifesto has fallen through the cracks, replaced by urgings toward a return to traditionalism or slabs of think pieces on the purpose and potential of poetry in the present day.
The revolutions in rhyme usage, musicality, and abstraction avoidance all funnel into a new modernist form for the poetry to take. Pound believes that “there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content”,[xxiii] which leads some poems to “have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase”.[xxiv] This style of content leading to the determination of form is one that is stated, ironically, in a more Poundian way, when, from his conversations with Robert Creeley, Olson produces the line, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT”.[xxv] With Olson, the musical breath shapes the content and dictates the form. Olson’s statement is a crystallization of all that Pound put into his thoughts about form and it contains the granite like solidity that Pound predicted would come of continued and improved modernist thought. This idea is another true modernist improvement upon Pound’s initial ideas that takes the tradition to new heights in its late period.
This idea is embodied in an early poem of Robert Creeley, with whom Olson formulated his stance of form. Creeley’s poem “Love” is a poem where each word is placed on the page by the breadth of the poet, using the page as a musician’s score. The lines “to see | the cat & the squirrel |the one | torn a red thing”,[xxvi] contain spaces that allow the originating breath to be recreated when read by another. The measured spaces of the page act like a musician’s symbol for rests, and no word superfluous to the meaning of the poem as Pound suggests is proper. This poem embodies all the ideas that both Pound and Olson believe to be required of a good modernist poem. All these aspects of form are dictated by the content, which is dictated by the breath.
No discussion on poetic form is found in the eight manifestos of 2009. Focus is instead put upon the conceptual side of poetry. The closest thing that comes to a discussion on form is found in Hate Socialist Collective’s piece, “Leave the Manifesto Alone: A Manifesto”. Within it they suggest a resuscitation of the manifesto form, but “will first require the following thing: a century of revolutions”.[xxvii] Though it is possible that the trademark postmodern irony may have been burned off the piece by its incendiary attitude, it is highly unlikely. The calling for revolutions before the manifesto can be resurrected within a manifesto invites an irony loop, especially given that manifestos in general are one of the greatest aids of revolution in the west. Waiting for the manifesto to enter back into existence until after the process through which it shapes both its own existence and the existence of the revolutionary process is irony. Stating this in a manifesto elevates it to postmodern irony. And it is this attitude that lends the misuse, as Olson would say, of form. The postmodernist attitude of “anything goes” allows for the rise of things like concrete poetry and other ways where poets can bend and shape content into a form that they deem effective, rather than the form that organically rises out of the content, be it a manifesto stating the death of a manifesto or a poem in the shape of a shoe. This is the most glaring break away that the postmodernists made from the late or high modernists. It is ultimately this breakaway, though, that ties these contemporary poets to the tradition they seemingly abandoned at the turn of the twenty first century.
Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane suggest that modernism is an “art that responds to the scenario of our chaos”.[xxviii] This is what binds the high, late and post modernists together. Be it the chaos of multiple wars, the chaos of cultural explosions across countries, or the chaos of further globalisation. It is the response to the chaotic, ever changing social and political landscape of the present day that links the post modernists to the late and high modernists as a pseudo-continuation of a tradition, rather than a school that is completely unrelated. Breaking from the twentieth century ideas is what introduces them as “post” modernists.
This arc of ideals in high, late, and postmodernism is accurately reflected in the manifestos discussed and serves a biography for modernism in poetry, from its birth with Pound to its maturity with Olson, and its eventually decay with the eight postmodern manifestos. The revolutions made my Pound and Olson in form, composition process, rhyme, abstraction use, among others, are ones that saw their high peak in the mid to late twentieth century before they were abandoned, in favour of a more romantic, free flowing ideology of poetry. The overarching modernist action of reacting to the chaos of one’s surrounding is one that ultimately betrays itself in its own fulfilling, as the reactions in the latest stage go against the reactions in the earliest stage.
The Manifestos discussed span almost one hundred years and chronicle an artistic ideology that shook the foundations of what it means to create art. This preoccupation with what it means to create is one that stayed in the forefront of modernist thought, like it has in past traditions. What makes the lifecycle of modernism unique is that the process through which it came about lead, ultimately, to a break with itself, a rebellion against its own essence, rather than a rebellion against a past tradition. It is the manifestos that clearly reveal that when a “perfect” modernism is what seemingly would come next, after its birth and maturity, it is shattered into multiple communities that present the ever-expanding experience of modern life. Which resulted in the postmodern, the most rebellious result of a most conformist modernist process.
[i] Ezra Pound, “A Retrospective”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[ii] Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[iii] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
[iv] Charles Olson, “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You” in The Maximus Poems, ed. George F Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
[v] A.E. Stallings, “Presto Manifesto!”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69202/presto-manifesto-
[vi] Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[vii] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
[x] Charles Bernstein, “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69198/manifest-aversions-conceptual-conundrums-implausibly-deniable-links-
[xi] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
[xii] Ezra Pound, “A Few Dont’s”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[xiii] Ange Mlinko, “The Eighties, Glory of”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69199/the-eighties-glory-of-
[xiv] Mary Ann Caws, “Poetry Can Be Any Damn Think It Wants”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69195/poetry-can-be-any-damn-thing-it-wants-
[xv] Johanna E. Vondeling, “The Manifest Professional: Manifestos and Modernist Legitimation” in College Literature, Vol. 2, No. 2 (spring, 2000), p. 129
[xvi] Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[xvii] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
[xviii] Charles Bernstein, “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69198/manifest-aversions-conceptual-conundrums-implausibly-deniable-links-
[xix] Ezra Pound, “A Retrospective”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[xx] Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[xxi] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
[xxiii] Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
[xxv] Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
[xxvi] Robert Creeley, “Love” in The Collected poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1950 (Berkeley: University of California, 2006) p. 19
[xxvii] Hate Socialist Collective, “Leave the Manifesto Alone: A Manifesto”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69203/leave-the-manifesto-alone-a-manifesto
[xxviii] Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, “The Name and Nature of Modernism” in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930, eds. Malcolm Bradbury, James McFarlane (London: Penguin, 1991) p. 27
Bernstein, Charles, “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, & Implausibly Deniable Links”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69198/manifest-aversions-conceptual-conundrums-implausibly-deniable-links-
Bradbury, Malcolm and McFarlane, James, “The Name and Nature of Modernism” in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930, eds. Malcolm Bradbury, James McFarlane (London: Penguin, 1991) pp. 19-55
Caws, Mary Ann, “Poetry Can Be Any Damn Think It Wants”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69195/poetry-can-be-any-damn-thing-it-wants-
Creeley, Robert, The Collected poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1950 (Berkeley: University of California, 2006)
Ellis, Thomas Sayers, “The New Perform-A-Form: A Page vs. Stage Alliance”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69201/the-new-perform-a-form-a-page-vs-stage-alliance-
Gifford, James, “Late Modernism’s Migrations: San Francisco Renaissance, Egyptian Anarchists, and English Post-Surrealism” in Textual Practice Vol, 29, issue 6, 2015
Hate Socialist Collective, “Leave the Manifesto Alone: A Manifesto”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69203/leave-the-manifesto-alone-a-manifesto
Hofmann, Michael, “Manifesto of the Flying Mallet”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69197/manifesto-of-the-flying-mallet-
Jones, Peter ed., Imagist Poetry (London: Penguin, 2001)
Mehigan, Joshua, “The Final Manifesto”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69196/the-final-manifesto-
Mlinko, Ange, “The Eighties, Glory of”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69199/the-eighties-glory-of-
Olson, Charles, “Projective Verse”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69406/projective-verse
Olson, Charles, “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You” in The Maximus Poems, ed. George F Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
Pound, Ezra, “A Retrospective” and “A Few Don’ts”, Poetry Foundation, 13 October 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69409/a-retrospect-and-a-few-donts
Powell, D.A., “Annie Get Your Gun”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69200/annie-get-your-gun
Stallings, A.E., “Presto Manifesto!”, Poetry Foundation, 30 January 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69202/presto-manifesto-
Vondeling, Johanna E., “The Manifest Professional: Manifestos and Modernist Legitimation” in College Literature, Vol. 2, No. 2 (spring, 2000), p. 127-145
Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.