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Triangular retro “modern” ashtray sold on bigashtrays.com

The idea of modern poetry has been “haunting” me for a while. What is “modern”? Does it define a period much like “art deco” or “fauvism”. Do we relegate it to the period from roughly 1895 to 1945? Or do we, who are writing poetry now, consider ourselves modern? My first college course in advanced poetry used Louis Untermeyer’s combined text titled Modern American & British Poetry. Untermeyer was much concerned with the criticism of his time and in his blurbs regarding each of the poets he presented, he passed judgment on each one’s “worthiness”. Some of his thinking has since been debunked; yet the poets and the poems he gave me in that book instilled in me a desire to write and write in a novel way. I wonder now if “modern poems” may be defined as those that are bound by the covers of that book.

The art world particularly during the period between the two world wars was fascinated by technology, communications, and the changing social structure of those times. I think the word “modern” was bandied about a good deal and modernism seemed the thing to strive for; a need to break from a past that was constrained by agrarian ideas, and Puritan ideals.

It seems to me, writing in the twenty-first century, there is a need to examine all sorts of styles and forms which we’ve been doing in this forum from the beginning. I believe the only way to be truly “modern” or novel is to find one’s own voice and experience. That is not to say one cannot use one’s imagination or write fantastically but those poems built on the fancies that lie in one’s own ideas are more likely to produce something unique.  Nevertheless, it is useful to know what others created to see if a particular form or set of forms suits our own imagination and voice, and to know we are not replicating ideas or expressions already invented by our predecessors.

The Triversen poem form was invented by William Carlos Williams. Williams considered himself a “modern” poet. He based a good deal of his manifesto regarding poetry on the ideas and ideals regarding poetry advanced by Ezra Pound. He believed the Triversen poem to be the “native” (not in the sense of American Indians) American voice. It certainly had an effect on writers of his time and since.

William Carlos Williams from WikiCommons

Lewis Turco states in his article regarding Des Imagistes 5/12/2007:

 “Of the five levels of poetry — the typographical, or visible level; the sonic, or level of language music; the sensory, or emotional level; the ideational, or thematic level, and the fusional, or architectonic level — it was the third that Ezra Pound in 1912 decided was primary. On the sensory level patterns of imagery — figurative language, tropes — come to the fore, and the five external senses of taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing are expressed, as is the internal “sense” of emotion. However, for this last “sense” would be substituted an “idea,” the “objective correlative” of T. S. Eliot, which was nothing more than the “vehicle” or object of a metaphor, for if one were to choose exactly the right “object” (read “image”) and place it in the perfect language context, that object would correlate with the “tenor” or subject of the metaphor, an idea or a thought which need not even be mentioned in the poem because it would be contained in the image itself.

To say that Ezra Pound and the Imagist poets were influenced not only by Walt Whitman’s prose poetry but also by Japanese poetry — especially the haiku — is to utter a truism, but the argument can be made that Williams deliberately invented an American accentual stanza in his “triversen” that is the equivalent of the Japanese haiku — or, more exactly, the three-line katauta. In effect, in his earliest poems — those to be found in the first volume of his Collected Poems — Williams adapted to American poetry the syllabic prosody of the haiku and katauta by transmuting it: syllables became stresses; the seventeen syllables of the haiku and the nineteen syllables of the katauta, arranged in three lines of 5-7-5 or 5-7-7 syllables, became a “variable foot,” to use Williams’ terminology, also arranged in three lines.”

The Triversen then is:

  1. Accentual. The rhythm of normal speech, employing 1 to 4 strong stresses per line.
  2. Stanzaic, written in any number of tercets. Each tercet is one sentence broken into independent clauses, a kind of natural breath.
  3. Grammatical. The sentence is broken by line phrasing or lineating or sense units. There should be 3 units. L1 is a statement of fact or observation, L2 and L3 should set the tone, imply a condition or associated idea, or carry a metaphor for the original statement.
  4. Unrhymed
  5. Alliterated. Alliteration contributes to stress.

I used a summary of this form from information found at Poetry Magnum Opus

“The prosody Williams developed from Japanese sources has become widely dispersed among American poets since its early appearances in short, haiku-like poems written by the Imagists. Williams himself soon used it as a stanza pattern. “In Williams’ work there are literally dozens of poems that fit this description. The triversen stanza first showed up in section VII of the 1923 Spring and All, and thereafter it occurred with increasing frequency in his work, though it cannot be claimed that it became his mainstay strophe.

“To list examples of the triversen stanzas and of pseudo-haiku in the work of other Imagists would be an endless task, but one other poet who did fine things in the Japanese tradition — was Wallace Stevens who not only wrote a poem in triversen stanza, he glossed Williams’ Imagist credo as well in his poem “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself”.


At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry–It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

© — Wallace Stevens

I’d be interested in what you consider “modern”, what defines poetry in your own constructions, and what you consider the “how” of poetry. You can respond in the comments. Feel free to write your own Triversen and link with Mr. Linky.