Worksheet 5: Modernist Experiments (Pound, Millay, cummings, Stein)
As you know by now, Modernist literature as a whole was experimental in two distinct registers: in its content it challenged conventional beliefs and assumptions about the world, and in its style it challenged conventional (“realistic”) modes of writing and representation. The following set of exercises is designed to help you start to get the hang of Modernist poetry’s array of challenges to convention, and to get you more comfortable reading and analyzing experimental work.
Please read the directions carefully for each part of this assignment.
1. Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”
This poem avoids the convention of using poems to express insights or moral lessons, and instead focuses solely on poetry’s ability to convey vivid images. A metro station (aka a subway station) is a place of habit—its where commuters come and go day in and day out on their daily trip to the office. It’s exactly the type of space that a person might, as Shlovsky says, “recognize” but no longer be able to “see.” Pound is trying to make us see this metro station crowd by startling us with an unexpected and surprising image of it—an image that compares the industrial space of the metro station to a wet tree bough. He hopes the shock of the comparison will help us to actually see the metro station—to be surprised into using our senses to perceive it directly again, to see its colors and contrasts with fresh, de-habituated eyes.
Please pick an object in the room that you’re habituated to, that you never really think about or look closely at any more. Now please write a two-line poem. The first line should name a feature of the thing (as Pound names “the faces in the crowd”) and the second line should describe something very different that nonetheless shares some likeness to the feature you’ve just named and that helps us to see that feature of the habitual thing with fresh eyes.
2. Millay, “[I being born a woman]”
Millay is either the best or the worst one-night-stand you’ll ever have. In this poem she talks about the difference between making out with someone and liking them: against conventional wisdom—and still shocking for a woman of her day to admit—she insists these two things do not have to go together.
Part of how Millay manages to illustrate the difference between sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy is by choosing her words for describing sexual intimacy very carefully. Please go through the poem and copy out here all of the words or phrases you can find that she uses in this poem to refer to a sexual act. When you’ve done that, read them over and then write a sentence that tries to explain what’s so unusual about these descriptions.
In “1(a” cummings uses not just words but font style, unusual punctuation, line breaks, and white spaces to make his poem mean. A “realist” version of this poem might read:
A leaf falls: loneliness.
But this Realist rendering only conveys a tiny fraction of what cummings expresses in his experimental Modernist poem. So what are we missing if we read this as a poem that describes loneliness by comparing it to the image of a single leaf falling? We’ll talk about answers to that in class, but as preparation I want you to first look at the poem and see how many examples of the word “one” or number “1” you can find here. Please describe each instance you see in a list on this page. Eg: “the word one appears in line 7 of the poem”
Gertrude Stein studied psychology under William James (quoted in the “Guide to Modernist Experimentation”) at Harvard and then went on to study medicine and the brain at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before quitting med school to go live and write in France (she was rich, b$tches! And France was a safer, more tolerant place to live if you were an early 20th-century lesbian like Stein).
But Stein never really left her scholarly studies of psychology and cognition behind. Instead, her early experimental writings were, themselves, the record of cognitive experiments Stein set herself. In writing Tender Buttons, she describes her process like this:
“I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object, and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen…. Looking invariably… forced me into recognizing resemblances, and so forced remembering and in forcing remembering caused confusion of present with past and future time.”
For this exercise you’re going to conduct your own experiment in cognitive association/stream of consciousness, resulting in your own original “tender button.” This is an exercise (as it was for Stein) in free association—examining the unconscious links your mind makes. So be sure to write the first word that spring to mind for each word you write. Take no more than 2 seconds to think up each new word. Write them below.
Pick an ordinary, familiar object to look at. Its name is your title: ______________
Consider its texture: what image springs to mind? _________________
What is a word or memory you associate with the image you just wrote down? _______________________________________________________________
What feeling do you associate with that word or memory, and what is the color of the feeling: _________________________________________
What is an object you associate with that color? _________________________
What’s the first sound you think of when you think of that color: _______________________
What is a word that sounds kind of like the word in the line above this one? ________________
What is a word/image you associate with the word in the line above this one? _____________
What is one feature or aspect that the word in the line above and your original object have in common? ________________________
Now take one minute and write 2-3 sentences using the words and memories you’ve just collected, more or less in this order. The point is not to reconstruct them into realistic, grammatically correct sentences: this is not a communication to another person, this is a stream of consciousness you’ve just enacted—a map of the network of associations your brain makes. At the same time, the result should be pleasing or nonsensically-meaningful to you—in other words, connect the words up in a way that produces something you like to read, even if you couldn’t say why. Please type your tender button below:
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