What was emerging at the turn of the twentieth century in poetry and the other arts was a growing sense of a unique perspective on modernity based on the expansive dynamism of American society. Pound famously charged American poets to “make it new,” but his dictum applies as well to the country as a whole, which put a premium on energy, innovation, and raw vitality.
Modern American poetry existed in a ceaseless contrapuntal relationship to the restless society of which it was a part. This was a literature that grappled incessantly with what it meant to be modern—and American modern at that. The root of being modern meant the acceptance of great, tumultuous changes, not just in how Americans lived but in the way they experienced and dealt with the new conditions of life.
William Carlos Williams captured the moment with his long poem “Paterson” (serially published from 1946 to 1958), in which he proclaimed, “No ideas but in things.” His poem struck a note in which the sheer materiality of American life—the sense that the nation hummed with power—was both a threat and an opportunity to those daring enough to accept the forces of modern life.
While poets like Hart Crane or Wallace Stevens sought to control these forces through art itself, Robert Frost led a counterattack that used the old world of pastoral New England as a lens through which he contemplated modern themes of alienation, ambivalence, and unbelief. Frost is the ultimate oxymoron as a poet: a completely modern traditionalist. And so it went throughout the century: a constant ebb and flow as poets responded to both the society and to each other.