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Some Twentieth-Century Poetic Movements

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Some Twentieth-Century Poetic Movements

Poetic movements such as Romanticism are staples of the English literature we study in schools. As the title implies, this is a narrow selection of a few poetic schools that were founded (and sometimes ended) in that time period, with brief explanations. Please use these write-ups first as points of further exploration! A list of references is provided below.

The Imagisms

Made up of strong personalities, Imagism was followed by poets that each had a unique take on the school’s tenets. Here we will discuss what some recognise as two ‘phases’: let us call them Pound-led Imagism and Lowell-led Imagism. They both shared an emphasis on presenting concrete and specific images. [25] Think ‘a big, fat cloud’ rather than ‘the weather of holidays’. Besides this, they made a conscious movement away from Victorian styles of poetry. [19]

In 1912, core Imagists Ezra Pound, H. D. and Richard Aldington, agreed on the following principles: [26]

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

This began the early phase of Imagism that was led and curated by Ezra Pound.

Pound-led Imagism

Ezra Pound was a modernist poet who took inspiration from Greek, Chinese and Japanese classical poetry, producing translations in English of the poems he read. What he thought was special about these traditions was their rhythms, in comparison to the meter-based rhythms of most English poetry at the time. [1] Seeing a lot of meter-based poetry as inauthentic, he concluded that it was not following meter, but something else, that made the rhythm of a poem. Hence, he used the term “musical phrase”.

The Imagists wrote for an “elite” audience. Pound tried to promote a kind of homogeneity among the poets in ‘his’ group. For example, ‘Des Imagistes’, the first Imagist anthology was edited by Pound. Lacking any kind of preface or explanation of its aims, it has been said to be driven by “Pound’s unstated logic”. [4] Pound chose the poets, the arrangements, and which of the poets’ work should be included. [4]

As can be seen in principle #2 above, Pound-led Imagists were particularly big on word economy. Imagist poems “give the impression of having been compressed”. [15] Instead of using more words, poets would use tone to imply narratives and information left literally unsaid in the poem. One example of this is Ezra Pound’s ‘Villanelle: The Psychological Hour’: [15]

    I had over-prepared the event –
    that much was ominous.

The event is never elaborated on in an explicit way, but the way the speaker speaks about it suggests something dreaded and regrettable. Pound initially did not add footnotes to explain his poems but started doing so later in his career. What made his footnotes different from others at the time was that they usually referred to lines within the same poem, or to other similar poems, to explain an image or point, rather than referring to the text or event it was alluding to. Some argue this forces the reader to do more active reading, perceiving their own meanings by comparing the lines or poems, as opposed to having an interpretation set out for them via reference to a traditional frame of interpretation. [20] For example, consider a footnote that takes you to three poems deemed similar in meaning by the author, as opposed to one that explains what a villanelle is and why the poem is called ‘Villanelle: The Psychological Hour’.

Some argue that Imagism was not a truly avant-garde movement, separating it from the others included here. It did not try to create something totally new, but rather tried to revive the ways of ancient poets. For example, in 1913, Pound wrote praising Euripides and the Greek lyric poets. [10] Nevertheless, as we will see later, Pound’s work inspired movements that did consider themselves avant-garde.

You may already know this, but Pound has been a controversial figure for his Fascism and anti-Semitism. Though initially a supporter of the English Social Credit movement, a different political ideology but with some similar ideas, Pound converted to Fascism after he moved to Italy in 1927, during the time of Benito Mussolini’s regime. [9] Whether these ideas have influenced his poetry is a point of debate.

Many poets, such as Robert Creeley, would disavow Pound’s political tendencies while still applying his principles to their work and making something new out of them. [6] Some would also argue that not Pound himself, but rather the poets he associated with, best embodied the poetry of early Imagism. H.D. is one such example. You can read her poem ‘Hermes of the Ways’, as an example of Imagism applied. Another Imagist poem from this time is Richard Aldington’s ‘Choricos’.

Lowell-led Imagism

Amy Lowell was born in 1874, growing up in a wealthy family. Lowell is said to have taken female lovers and encoded depictions of lesbian sexuality in her poetry. [13] She was a prolific poet, though she became more well-known for her publishing work and for writing a biography of John Keats.

She was significant in bringing together the Imagist poets after Pound began to diverge from the movement. [23] An internal divide led many former Imagists to desire a group that excluded Pound. Amy Lowell became their leader.

Lowell disagreed with Pound’s selectiveness in choosing poems. In fact, she even wrote a poem about it. You can read the piece here . In the anthologies published during Lowell’s time, poets were allowed to choose and arrange their own works. In fact, Lowell refused to be publicly listed as the editor. [4] In a way, the Imagists became a freer and more diverse collective.

Indeed, the Imagism of Lowell’s era was less homogenous than Pound’s. One place where poets notably diverged was on the concept of ‘compression’, or principle #2. Lowell wrote with a “prodigality," that is, a tendency towards excess in all aspects of her writing, including word count. [19] The Imagists of this era emphasized a kind of looseness in their association with each other as stated in the preface to ‘Some Imagist Poets’:

We wish it to be clearly understood that we do not represent an exclusive artistic sect . . .

The same preface declares that Imagists aim to create “new rhythms” and “new moods”. Imagists shared something in common with a lot of avant-garde movements, which was a disdain for what they thought were outdated, overused and banal ways to write poetry. Imagists in Lowell’s circle reaffirmed the need to present precise images. [16]

Lowell also promoted the use of the term ‘cadence’ to describe rhythm. This term has been defined as a unit of poetic rhythm that is non-metered. [2] This KB article about how to write in iambic pentameter shows what metered poetic rhythm is, in comparison. In her preface to ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’, which is quoted below, [17] Lowell explained that she used cadence to translate the French term ‘vers libre’. As compared to prose, poems in ‘unrhymed cadence’ contain more stress, and have strict rules, only that instead of following a pre-set meter, the line breaks must be determined by one’s natural pattern of pauses in speech.

Merely chopping prose lines into lengths does not produce cadence, it is constructed upon mathematical and absolute laws of balance and time.

‘The Letter’ is a poem typical of Amy Lowell. You could also read ‘Childhood’ by Richard Aldington and compare it to 'Choricos' linked in the previous section. You can find 'Childhood' on page 3 of this digitized edition of Some Imagist Poets.


The Noigandres movement emerged in the 1950s. It was formed in Brazil, by a group of artists and poets. [7] They viewed themselves in part as followers of Ezra Pound. [5] The name ‘Noigandres’ is one of Pound’s neologisms, which appeared in his Canto 20 as an invented Provençal word. [8]

Noigandres can be said to be one of the originators of concrete poetry, which is poetry that heavily incorporates physical spaces and uses elements such as colour and font to convey meaning. Poems can also be three-dimensional, or have accompanying audio. [3] Their manifesto was called the ‘pilot plan for concrete poetry’, in all small letters. It was published in the fourth issue of the journal Noigandres. An excerpt of it can be read here . The following are some quotes from the manifesto:

concrete poem communicates its own structure: structure-content. concrete poem is an object in and by itself, not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings.

Noigandres poets wanted words themselves to be the object of the reader’s gaze. Normally, we focus on the abstract function of words. For example, the word ‘apple’ is a representation of an apple in the real world. ‘apple’ is a noun and behaves like a noun within the framework of language. However, Noigandres poets wanted to take the word out of language and turn it into a multi-sensory experience of its own.Verbicovisual was the term they used to described many of their works, which tried to incorporate visual, auditory and abstract elements into one cohesive, simultaneous experience [8]This website has an embedded Soundcoud playlist of verbicovisual pieces by a few Noigandres poets.

Below is another quote from the Noigandres manifesto:

against a poetry of expression, subjective and hedonistic. to create precise problems and to solve them in terms of sensible language. a general art of the word. the poem-product: useful object.

Noigandres poets shared a trend towards a kind of ‘objectivity’ among the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. For instance, they did not write with a speaker or an ‘I’ voice in mind. [5] By removing the ‘subject’ from the equation, they aimed to make the poem more objective.

The Noigandres poets emphasized the physical aspect of the reading experience. [8] The lack of linearity in their poems expresses this. In speech and spoken word poetry, you can only listen to one word at a time, so you can only read in one straight line. On paper, though, through the use of the horizontal space, reading becomes non-linear. Unlike other schools of poetry, Noigandres emphasised this difference in their concrete works on paper. [8]

In an interview, Augusto de Campos described concrete poetry and his movement as “traumatic” for Brazil, “provoking passions and hatreds that survive even now”. He views this poetic group as a kind of challenge to the mainstream culture, [12] as are most avant-garde groups.

de Campos says about the Noigandres movement:

I believe it was born out of a critical reflection which must be associated with the revision and recuperation of the values of experimental art after the paralysis brought on by the catastrophe of World War II.

The Noigandres artists worked to restore these values, and this was their primary unifying characteristic, as opposed to having a particular audience base.

Augusto de Campos’s ’o quasar’ can be listened to at the link as an example of verbicovisual poetry.


Though poetry played a comparatively minor role in this artistic movement, the playful and anti-elitist [27] poems produced by Fluxus are noteworthy. One interesting experiment of theirs was the following poem, which is also featured as the Fluxus answer in Question 7:

    a house of (list material) (list location) (list light source) (list inhabitants)

After a 1967 seminar by James Tenney, Alison Knowles wrote the above on a computer programming language called Fortran. The sections in the brackets were randomly generated. [28]

Fluxus’s core tenets were expressed by George Maciunas in his 1963 manifesto. The manifesto itself is a kind of artwork, a collage of dictionary definitions for ‘flux’ and Maciunas’s handwritten additions. ‘Purge’ is the first principle, meaning to flush away intellectual, overly abstract or elitist art forms – what he calls “Europanism”. Secondly, the manifesto championed a ‘tide’ of art that would be created by “all peoples”, meaning everyone, not just designated artists or people with a certain kind of education. The third principle is ‘Fuse’. This one generally reflects the aspiration of Fluxus as a collective, a big team, but also specifically shows Maciunas’s leanings towards revolution in culture and politics across borders. You can view the manifesto at this link as an embedded image.

For Fluxus, there is art in everyday life. [22] Fluxus artist Yoko Ono is known for a a music track composed from toilet flushing sounds. She has been called “the most famous Fluxus artist of all." [11] The Fluxus philosophy was also developed in works such as ‘Painting to Be Stepped On’. Ono placed a piece of canvas in a public place and wrote words on it that invited onlookers to step on it. [29]

Besides this, humour was integral to Fluxus works. This is demonstrated in another poem by Yoko Ono. (Warning: the full poem contains a swear.) This poem suggests every day, sometimes vulgar things that would not be displayed in the typical art museum. Nonetheless, Fluxus poets would argue that they can be genuine art. [27]

Black Mountain Poets

The Black Mountain poets took their name from an experimental college in North Carolina. [24] The people who lived and worked there, as well as those associated with them, became part of a movement of poetry that was fluid and rhythmic, with an aesthetic of ‘organicness’.

. . . one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception . . .

Black Mountain poets emphasized process rather than product. [18] One of their aphorisms is the above quote, first said by Edward Dahlberg and subsequently cited by Charles Olson in their first manifesto, Projective Verse Olson called this the “principle of kinesis”. [18]

Black Mountain poets emphasized the patterns of poetry, rather than specific words. For Denise Levertov, poetry was something that had an inherent form. Composing according to this form would be ‘organic poetry.’ Levertov believed poets entered a kind of spiritual experience when inspired, when they could perceive the inherent form of the poem they intended to write. Poetic devices, which are essentially patterns of rhythm and language, are the only way we can convey how we actually perceive this inherent form. She used the example of her son’s drawings. To convey the experience of a jousting tournament, he had to put down patterns of featureless grey circles. Though the people in those crowds were not actually featureless or grey in colour, the experience takes this inherent form. [14] They were featureless and grey because the individual features of strangers in a crowd were not important. They were circles because the general shape of the human head represented in masses could depict the idea of a crowd.

Meanwhile, Charles Olson’s concept of ‘energy’ and ‘breath’ in ‘Projective Verse’ placed the foundation of poetry in spoken word, as opposed to individual words on the page. To him, the smallest unit of poetry was the syllable. Olson called his ideal writing technique ‘composition by field’. The ‘breath’ would be balanced by ‘ear’, the poet’s draw towards the energy inherent to the poem had to be modulated by a sense for how the syllables were arranged to produce sounds. Non-linguistic symbols might also be used for printed poems, for example Olson supported using a slash to represent a pause that was lighter than that indicated by a comma. Olson’s preference for the ’smallest’ unit over something like a line was because arrangement by syllables made the poem more agile. Thus, good poetry for him was to be made using a spiritual sense and also a quick wit. [21] However, this did not necessarily mean that poetry became just like talking, like conversation. Robert Creeley expressed in an interview with Linda Wagner that he never thought of an audience while writing poetry. [6]

Many Black Mountain poets were influenced by Imagists. For example, Hilda Morley was actually named after H.D., who became a mentor for her. [18] The sentiment about Ezra Pound in the Black Mountain answer in Question 4 belongs to Robert Creeley. [6] In turn, Black Mountain thought influenced famous poets such as William Carlos Williams, whose autobiography quotes heavily from ‘Projective Verse’. [21]

The Black Mountain College historically was an androcentric (that is, male-dominated and centered) enterprise, despite many notable women working within it. Hilda Morley described sexist attitudes within the college that limited women’s roles nurturing and supporting men and children. [18] Recently, female poets from this movement have gained more attention. For example, one article focuses on Morley and cites a quote from Denise Levertov claiming that Morley more than other Black Mountain poets had embodied ‘composition by field’. [18]

Denise Levertov wrote a poem called ‘The Sharks’ that demonstrates the speech-like quality of Black Mountain poetry. Hilda Morley’s ‘That Bright Grey Eye’. shows the poet's unique painterly play with imagery and movement.

Spoiler! :

[1] Academy of American Poets. (n-d). About Ezra Pound. Poets.org. https://poets.org/poet/ezra-pound

[2] Allen, C. (1948). Cadenced Free Verse. College English, 9(4), 195-199.

[3] Aube, C. & Perloff, N. (2017, March 23). What Is Concrete Poetry? Getty. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/what-is-concrete-poetry/

[4] Bellew, P. B. (2017). At the Mercy of Editorial Selection: Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and the Imagist Anthologies. Journal of Modern Literature, 40(2), 22–40. https://doi.org/10.2979/jmodelite.40.2.02

[5] Clüver, C. (2007). The Noigandres Poets and Concrete Art. Ciberletras, 17, 57-117. https://www.lehman.cuny.edu/ciberletras ... SSUE17.pdf

[6] Creeley, R. (1993). Tales out of school: selected interviews. The University of Michigan Press. https://archive.org/details/talesoutofs ... e/mode/2up

[7] Eppley, C. (2015, 21 January). Concrete Poetry of the Noigandres, 1958-1975. Avant.org. http://avant.org/event/noigandres/

[8] Erber, P. (2012). The Word as Object: Concrete Poetry, Ideogram, and the Materialization of Language. Luso-Brazilian Review, 49(2), 72–101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23359005

[9] Ferkiss, V. C. Ezra Pound and American Fascism. The Journal of Politics 17, no. 2 (1955): 173–97. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2126463

[10] Firchow, P. E. (1981). Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the Tradition. Comparative Literature Studies, 18(3), 379–385. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40246277

[11] Goldsmith, K. (Host). (2010, June 2). Sounds of Fluxus [Audio podcast episode]. In Avant-Garde All the Time. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcas ... -of-fluxus

[12] Greene, R. (1992). From Dante to the Post-Concrete: An Interview With Augusto de Campos. The Harvard Library Bulletin, 3 (2), 19-35. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/42663103

[13] Lauter, P. (2004). “Amy Lowell and Cultural Borders”. In Amy Lowell, American Modern. Munich, Adrienne & Bradshaw, Melissa. (eds). New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press. https://books.google.com.my/books?id=u5 ... er&f=false

[14] Levertov, D. (1965). Some Notes on Organic Form. Poetry. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articl ... 249032078f

[15] Longenbach, J. (2011). Poetic Compression. New England Review (1990-), 32(1), 164–172. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23053377

[16] Lowell, A. (2009, October 13). Preface to Some Imagist Poets. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articl ... gist-poets

[17] Lowell, A. (1997). Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1020

[18] Mullenneaux, L. (2015). Hilda Morley: Lost on Black Mountain. New England Review, 36(4), 83–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24772681

[19] Munich, A. & Bradshaw, M. (2004)Amy Lowell, American Modern New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.

[20] Nichols, J. G. (2006). Ezra Pound’s Poetic Anthologies and the Architecture of Reading. PMLA, 121(1), 170–185. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25486295

[21] Olson, C. (1950). Projective Verse. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articl ... tive-verse

[22] Phillpot, C. (n-d.) FLUXUS: MAGAZINES, MANIFESTOS, MULTUM IN PARVO. George Maciunas Foundation. http://georgemaciunas.com/about/cv/manifesto-i/

[23] Poetry Foundation. (n-d). Amy Lowell. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/amy-lowell

[24] Poetry Foundation. (n-d). Black Mountain Poets. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/ ... tain-poets

[25] Pound, E. (1913). A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetry ... n-imagiste

[26] Pound, E. (1918 ) A Retrospect. In Pavannes and Divagations, republished by Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articl ... -few-donts

[27] Reed, M. (2021, September 14). What Is Fluxus?. Getty. https://www.getty.edu/news/what-is-fluxus/

[28] Taylor, S. (2009, September 10). Alison Knowles, James Tenney and the House of Dust at CalArts. California Institute of the Arts. https://blog.calarts.edu/2009/09/10/ali ... t-calarts/

[29] Wilmott, F. (2016). Yoko Ono. The Museum of Modern Art. https://www.moma.org/artists/4410

— Carina