Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry

View Transcript

Amidst the chaos following World War I, Ezra Pound urged poets to “Make it New!” This call was heeded by a large range of poets, from T.S. Eliot to Jean Toomer. This episode explores the modernist lyrics of two of these poets: William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes. What is modernism? How did these poets start a revolution that continues until this day?

Instructor Overview

The opening decades of the twentieth century seemed to prove what Henry Adams and other historians had suspected: that technological change and social turmoil were propelling the West into unimaginable new territory, and that established ways of describing the human condition-including literary modes and strategies-were no longer appropriate. In 1903, modern aviation was little more than slapstick experiments with powered gliders on an empty beach; a dozen years later, in the middle of World War I, there were fleets of long-range lethal fighters in the air over battlefields where more soldiers would die than in any conflict in human history. Immediately after the armistice a pandemic of influenza killed millions more in their hometowns, and major American cities ran out of coffins.

In the United States, which had been spared the immense devastation inflicted in the European theaters of war, an economic boom brought heady hopes. Energized by new war-related technology, a pent-up demand for consumer goods, and an imperative to rebuild devastated landscapes in Belgium, France, and Italy, American heavy industry went to full throttle, offering high-paying jobs and setting off a migration of adventurous Americans, white and black, from small towns in the South to big cities in the East and Midwest. At the same time, disappointment, competition for work and for living space, and cross-cultural encounters brought new turmoil and violence.

In the summer of 1919, dubbed the Red Summer, race riots and lynchings erupted in many cities across America. Despite the optimism so evident in the music, fashion, and popular culture of the 1920s, racial tensions continued to fester, and starry-eyed investing and spending created an economic bubble, which burst in 1929. In that year, a series of bank failures overseas and a crash of stock markets all over the world brought on the Great Depression, which lasted nearly a decade and affected every industrialized country in the world. The bleak economic times brought about a renewed political and social awareness, as writers like Carl Sandburg, William Inge, John Steinbeck, and Genevieve Taggard brought special attention to the plight of millions. By the end of the 1930s, the threat of a new war loomed, and the vibrant 1920s seemed a distant memory.

Even before World War I, the artistic and literary communities of the West were haunted by a sense that new times required new ways of seeing and thinking. In Paris, the artistic practice of “cubism” appealed to many as a fresh way of representing the speed, diversity, and fragmentation of ordinary life. In the middle of the war, in a place called the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, experiments with “dadaism” challenged the arts and the individual mind to break free from the kind of logic that had carried European civilization into a storm of violence. During and after the war, American poets, from the aristocratic T. S. Eliot to the young African American Langston Hughes, looked to such experimental art for guidance in expressing the pace of modernity. The modernist poets strove to reinvent the fundamentals of poetry, to answer Ezra Pound’s challenge to “make it new.” Influenced by visual art, primitivism, orientalism, and jazz, writers searched for a distinctly American idiom. What should a modern American poetry sound like? What could white culture and African American culture learn from each other? How could American modernism become something unique and fundamentally different from British and European experiments?

The video for Unit 10 chronicles the different paths modernist poets took as they responded to the political, social, and economic changes shaping American life. As the video suggests, modernism was not a monolithic movement with one core idea and strategy. For modernist authors, the early twentieth century seemed to be a cultural and historical turning point. Their work is characterized by questions about objectivity and subjectivity, about conflicts between psychological or inward time and the relentless ticking of the mechanical and historical clock. They searched-often fruitlessly-for objective truth and a renewed sense of belonging in a secularized world, one without moral definition.

The prose and poetry they created offer very different strategies and aesthetic choices. T. S. Eliot, who spent most of his career abroad, ultimately turned to the high culture of the classical world and the European Renaissance. Committed to developing an American idiom, William Carlos Williams built poetry from everyday speech. Langston Hughes was also interested in creating music from the vernacular and the everyday, but he paid special attention to the dialects of African Americans. Determined to portray black experience with honesty and dignity, Hughes looked to jazz, folk tradition, and history as the foundations for his verse.

The video, archive, and curriculum in Unit 10 highlight early modernist intersections in America among art, politics, and culture. The key concepts covered include the Harlem Renaissance, orientalism, primitivism, the influence of radio, and the idea of the “New Negro.” The materials also suggest ways that students might relate the authors and works to one another. Other units that provide complements to this one include Unit 7, “Slavery and Freedom,” which offers background for the struggles and ideas explored by Harlem Renaissance writers; Unit 9, “Social Realism,” which explores the rise of a modern political and social conscience in America; and Unit 11, “Modernist Portraits,” and Unit 13, “Southern Renaissance,” which present other varieties of modernist writing between the world wars. Finally, Unit 15, “Poetry of Liberation,” and Unit 16, “Search for Identity,” illustrate the legacy of poets first interested in portraying the American vernacular and the black experience. These later authors also reflect an interest in formal experimentation, the mixing of literary genres, the introduction of shocking subject matter, an exploration of states of mind (as opposed to an emphasis on narrative), and a fascination with the everyday.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. describe at least two different varieties of literary modernism and discuss how black and white modernist experiments may have influenced each other;
  2. relate the historical and cultural developments and controversies of the time to poetry written between the world wars;
  3. discuss how these authors imagine American identity;
  4. analyze and compare basic poetic strategies such as the use of form, language, allusion, imagery, and rhythm in the poetry in this unit.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams

Who’s Interviewed:
Lisa Steinman, chair of the English department (Reed College); Pancho Savery, professor of English (Reed College); Jacqueline Dirks, associate professor of history and humanities (Reed College); Rafia Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies (Washington University); and Alice Walker, author and poet

Points Covered:

  • Many American poets between the world wars favored common speech and strove to make their verse accessible to a large public. Others developed a style that could seem obscure.
  • The historical, cultural, and economic events that shaped poetry of this period included the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, World War I, and the Great Depression. In addition, rapidly advancing technology made possible department stores, sky-scrapers, and public transportation; America was suddenly more urban than ever.
  • When Ezra Pound urged poets to “make it new” in 1912, he helped to launch modern poetry, which left behind traditional forms and style in favor of free verse and vivid language. Pound wanted poets to concentrate on language and rhythm, to bring poetry “closer to the condition of music.”
  • Modernism was moving in two very different directions. While T. S. Eliot and Pound found inspiration and subjects in arcane traditions of classical and medieval Europe and Asia, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes looked to their own neighborhoods and personal experiences for inspiration, subjects, and styles. Hughes drew on African American culture, particularly the blues, jazz, and oral story-telling, to create poetry with distinctive rhythms and innovative use of the vernacular, a poetry meant to be heard. His poetry also reflects his social awareness and commitment to activism.
  • In the 1920s, Harlem experienced a cultural and artistic flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance. While many African Americans took a great interest in the art and literature of the movement, white audiences were attracted to Harlem as well, to hear the music and experience the excitement of the popular culture.
  • Alain Locke popularized the concept of the “New Negro,” asserting that African Americans could achieve greater acceptance and social equality through art. He also believed that African Americans could use art to define their identity and create a sense of racial pride and community.
  • Williams and Pound were interested in the austere traditional poetry of China and Japan, in which ordinary objects can signify much beyond themselves.


  • Preview the video: The video offers historical background for Unit 10, focusing particularly on the effects of the Great Migration, urbanization, the rapid technological change of ordinary life, and racial prejudice. Centering on Hughes, Williams, and Eliot, the film shows how different strands of modernism developed and influenced one another. While Eliot wrote much of his poetry abroad, Williams and Hughes remained on American soil, both imaginatively and in the flesh. Eliot’s work reflects an interest in and respect for Western European tradition, and he wrote obscure, incantatory poetry for an elite audience. Williams and Hughes, however, strove to make their poetry accessible to a much broader reading public, and their inspiration came primarily from everyday experience. They used the American idiom, and they challenged conventional concepts of both America and American poetry. In addition, Hughes’s poetry is politically charged, and he incorporated elements of African American culture and history in his work. Despite their differences, all three influenced generations of poets to come.
  • What to think about while watching: What different kinds of modernism are discussed in the video? How do the featured authors, Williams, Eliot, and Hughes, differ from one another in aesthetic philosophy? How do these differences appear in their poetry? How did black and white modernism influence each other? What qualities are common to all the poetry? What cultural, demographic, and technological forces were changing American life? The end of World War I and the threat of World War II affected all these poets at various times in their careers. The population distribution shifted dramatically in the early part of the century, and technology was also rapidly changing the quality and pace of life. How did these changes influence art at the time?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Although the video focuses primarily on Williams, Eliot, and Hughes, it offers important historical background that brings the rest of the unit into focus. The portrayal of Harlem and the racial climate between the world wars connects the poetry of Cullen, McKay, and Brown, all of whom struggled with the problems of racial identity, equality, poetic tradition, and subject matter. Their political aims are shared in part by poets like Sandburg and Taggard, who are in tune with the struggles of working-class America. These poets all strive to represent lived experience honestly, and most of them rely on vernacular and dialect in their work. The effort to create an American identity was not limited to these poets. Indeed, Williams and Frost also did much to establish an American poetic identity by concentrating on American landscapes, language, and experience. Frost’s wry, countrified New England narrative voice was often praised as a fundamental voice of America, and his determination to weave poetry out of everyday experience aligns him to some extent with Williams, who also looked to the ordinary for inspiration. Frost, however, was a lifelong believer in metaphor; Williams saw metaphor as a kind of dishonesty in art and strove for a poetry that could present ordinary experience unadorned and unmediated.

Other authors in the unit, H.D., Pound, and Eliot, represent another strand of modernism that relied much more on the tradition of Western Europe. Their status as expatriates and their interest in classical traditions set them apart from the other authors in Unit 10. As the unit suggests, their work influenced these other writers, convincing them that their American rhythms were all the more important. In addition, Pound’s role as mentor and founder of the imagist movement affected many of the writers who chose to stay in the United States. His concept of poetry as something new, as grounded in the particular and ordinary, was central to the work of all these poets.

Suggested Author Pairings

Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg
Both of these writers were preoccupied with creating a distinctly American voice, and both believed that art and politics were intimately connected. Whereas Hughes wrote about the plight of black Americans, Sandburg portrayed the working class. Unlike the expatriate writers in this unit, Hughes and Sandburg wrote in the American idiom and treasured the history not of the elite, but of the oppressed. Compare the way these two authors treat historical and social events. What values do they perceive as fundamentally American? How do they define American poetry? What are the political goals of these authors?

Jean Toomer and Claude McKay
Though both of these poets are regarded as central to the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer and McKay left Harlem early in the movement. Toomer often used dialect in his work, while McKay’s poetry usually favors traditional European American poetic forms and diction. Yet both poets deal with radical subject matter in bold and original ways. The racial identity of both authors also provides rich fodder for discussion. Toomer, light enough to “pass,” circulated among both black and white social groups in Harlem and lived his later life as a white man. McKay, born in Jamaica, struggled with forging his identity in America. What do these poets suggest about the varied and complicated notion of American identity? Must American poetry be written by native-born Americans? Must it be written in the United States?

H.D. and William Carlos Williams
Both H.D. and William Carlos Williams wanted to pare down language to its essentials, and both believed that poetry should focus on the concrete rather than the abstract. Associated with imagism, H.D. was drawn to Greek literature and lived in Europe, while Williams grounded his poetry in American culture and history. These poets offer an interesting opportunity to explore not only varieties of imagism, but also what it means to be an American poet. How does the poetry of expatriate writers fit into the American tradition? Are poets like Williams, who write in the American idiom and who remained in the United States, more American than authors like H.D.?

Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot 
Frost and Eliot, both giants of modern poetry, enjoyed incredible acclaim and success during their lifetimes. Hailed as the most famous living poet, Frost gave the inaugural address for President John F. Kennedy, and his lectures and readings around the country made him a virtual celebrity. Similarly, Eliot’s role as poet, critic, and mentor cast a shadow of influence over the rest of the century. While both authors possess a wise voice, their poetry differs greatly. Associated with New England, Frost is a poet of the land, interested in the relationship between physical labor and reflection. His poetry is often narrative and usually meditative. He did not write in free verse, and his reflections are grounded in the American landscape, with its rugged beauty and pastoral associations. Frost’s poetry is often concerned with moral and philosophical dilemmas as well as with ordinary experiences like mending fences and picking apples. Though his work can seem as dark as Eliot’s at times, it also seems removed from modern society and historical events. In contrast, Eliot preferred to live and write in England. His expansive verse draws on many cultures, historical periods, religious traditions, and languages. His poetry, particularly The Waste Land, is difficult and allusive. In contrast to Frost’s American landscapes, Eliot’s poetry depicts society on the brink of radical, and perhaps destructive, change.

Genevieve Taggard and Ezra Pound
Both these poets sympathized with radical political philosophies, Taggard with socialism and Pound with fascism. These connections brought both authors under the scrutiny of the American government. While Taggard’s poetry reflects her political ties, Pound’s early work was written before his radical political leanings developed. How does Taggard’s work reflect her commitment to socialism? How does gender influence her sympathies? How does Pound’s poetry regard the common man or womanas a potential reader and as a presence in modern culture? How might his attitude toward lowbrow and middle-class audiences foreshadow a move to the radical right?


free verse – Poetry that does not depend on traditional form and meter. Some of the features of free verse include enjambment, visual patterning, and varying line lengths. With the exception of Frost, McKay, and Cullen, most poets in this unit wrote in free verse.

Great Migration – The movement of thousands of African Americans from the South to the North. This mass relocation began at the turn of the twentieth century and continued through the 1920s, as black Americans left behind the racially divided South with its Jim Crow laws and enduring prejudices in the hopes that they would find equality and opportunity in the North. As the growing industrial section of the country, the North did offer more jobs, but dismal housing conditions, low wages, and racism made the North a disappointing destination for many blacks. Still, the steady increase in African Americans in the North, particularly in Harlem, made it possible for African Americans to build a sense of community and racial identity.

jazz – A style of music that developed in America in the early twentieth century in New Orleans and other southern cities. It is characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, extremes in pitch and dynamics, call and response, and experimentation. Jazz draws on traditional African American music, and swing jazz, which was popular in the 1920s, and has often been described as following the patterns of speech. Indeed, the instruments in a jazz piece often seem to be “talking” back and forth to one another.

modernism – A literary movement that reached its peak in the 1920s, modernism developed in two rather different strands. American modernism, as practiced by Williams and Hughes, is characterized by an interest in portraying ordinary subject matter in concrete, vernacular language. Modernist poetry written in Europe, as characterized by Eliot, tends to be highly allusive. The poems are nonlinear and often refer to the modern condition, particularly the city, in a deeply critical manner. This strand of modernism tends to use a disembodied voice and a collage-like method.

New Deal – Federal programs developed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (1933-45) to restore economic stability and prosperity. The government created and funded thousands of jobs, many of them in public works and the arts.

orientalism – A term coined by literary and cultural critic Edward Said to denote a fascination with Asian culture. For Said, it is this fascination, and cultural appropriation, which is real-rather than any actual image of Asian cultures. Modernist poets like Pound and Williams implicitly critique modern society by turning to Asian culture, which they see as foreign and exotic. Viewed as an escape from or alternative to the increasingly mechanized and alienating modern world, the Orient is used as a symbol of a more tranquil life. Modernist poets were attracted by particular characteristics of Asian art, including the affinity with nature, appreciation of the ordinary, and commitment to clean, economic language. Like primitivism, orientalism can often seem patronizing and even racist because it tends to view all Asians and Asian culture stereotypically.

primitivism – An artistic style that privileges “simpler” times or cultures over a more “advanced” or modern way of life. Primitivism idealizes earlier times and it looks to rural living as an answer to the problems of modern civilization. Many twentieth-century poets idealized classical times by using mythology in their poetry. Other writers turned to Africa and images of the noble savage as an antidote to modern life.

Red Summer – Term coined by James Weldon Johnson to refer to the period between June 1919 and the end of that year, during which twenty-five race riots erupted around the country. In addition, more than seventy blacks were lynched in 1925, and the Ku Klux Klan experienced a frightening revival in the South and Midwest. After serving bravely in World War I, many black veterans were understandably bitter and resentful when they returned to the United States and lost the respect that they had experienced as members of the armed forces.

Talented Tenth – A term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois to refer to the upper echelons of the black race who would use their education and talent to improve the situation for African Americans. See the context on “the Talented Tenth” in Unit 9.

vernacular – Language that sounds colloquial or imitates the everyday speech patterns of a group of people. Poets like William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost all write in the vernacular, but because they capture the conversational qualities of different groups of people, their verse sounds very different. In the modern period, many poets were interested in portraying characteristically American speech and language. They felt that through language they could capture and create a uniquely American poetry and, perhaps also, a truly American identity.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Boston: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.

Blount, Marcellus. “Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet.” Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism, ed. Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. 225-238.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty. New York: Noonday Press, 1995.

Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin, 1994.

—. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Levenson, Michael. A Genealogy of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Moy, James S. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1993.

Nicholls, Peter. Modernisms: A Literary Guide. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

North, Charles. ” ‘January morning,’ or What Will You Not Be Experiencing?” The Teachers & Writers Guide to Classic American Literature, ed. Christopher Edgar and Gary Lenhart. Teachers & Writers, 2001.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.

Qian, Zhaoming. Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Further Resources
Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance [videorecording]. Production of NJN; produced, written, and directed by Amber Edwards. [Alexandria, VA]: PBS Video [1994], 1993.

Alexander, Scott. The Red Hot Jazz Archive [electronic resource]. History of Jazz Before 1930.

Burns, Ken. Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio [videorecording]. Produced by Florentine Films and WETA-TV. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video: Radio Pioneers Film Project, Inc., 1991.

Cahill, Holger, et al. Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America. New York: Arno, 1966 [c. 1938].

Edwards, Justin D. Exotic Journeys: Exploring the Erotics of U.S. Travel Literature, 1840-1930. Hanover: UP of New England, 2001.

Ford, Edward R. The Details of Modern Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990-96.

Locke, Alain. The New Negro. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA 33rd Street at Queens Blvd., Long Island City, Queens. Phone: (212) 708-9400.

Patton, Sharon F. African American Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Siskind, Aaron. Harlem: Photographs 1932-1940. Ed. Ann Banks. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, 1990.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6