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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 22, 2020

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February 1922

February 1922
Scott Weiss

I’m intrigued by the notion that we can pinpoint modernity to a single moment (Stephen Greenblatt would place it in 1417 when Poggio Bracciolini discovered a lost manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura). The image of Rilke composing his sonnets to Orpheus at Château de Muzot offers another enticing candidate.  I don’t want to misrepresent Amir’s comment in class; I’m not sure if he was declaring February of 1922 as the moment in which modernity began (it’s also when Joyce published Ulysses), but certainly he emphasized the density of its presence on the poetic landscape.  Do other people find this selection of certain times and places appealing?


  1. I always get sucked into thinking about this question, Scott, and I like the way you pose it. It makes me think of a few things:

    1. I’ve recently been made increasingly aware of how much my WWI awareness is lacking–WWII and all its horrors seemed to overshadow it terms of what my history teachers thought was most worthy of attention. I bring it up because I am aware of the crisis of representation many felt after WWII, but I know too little about what the interwar period was like. If 1922 was when modernity began, what does that say about the world war that came a few short years before it? The connection between art and war?

    2. I also think it’s interesting to distinguish–are we talking about the beginning of modernity or modernism? From what I’ve read, modernism is often posed as a response to the “ills of modernity,” brought on by the Machine Age and subsequent innovation. In this narrative, modernity comes about sometime at the latter half of the 19th century, and modernism springs up as a response a few short years afterward. I read a book last week for my orals list, “Modernism’s Mythic Pose” by Carrie J. Preston, which pointed out that modernism’s obsession with novelty (see Ezra Pound’s “Make It New”) often obscured the way modernism as an art form was just as prone to romanticization of the past, and influenced by art from periods past–especially Classical art. Modern dance was really taking off in the interwar period as well, and Isadora Duncan was famous for her “Greek-inspired” tunic and poses inspired by her studies of Ancient Greek culture.

    3. Why does this question seem to matter?? What is at stake at saying “No, modernity began HERE, not THERE”? Moreover, what were we before we were modern? I have heard of Shakespeare’s era being referred to as the “early modern period,” and I have done a little research on a playwright from the Middle (nee Dark) Ages. It seems this label has some fear-driven need to narrate history a particular way attached to it.

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