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Differences between modernism and postmodernism

In England, this outbreak of modernist experiment influenced a loosely interrelated network of groups and individuals, many of them based in London. In anglophone literature, “modernism” more nearly describes an era than a unitary movement. But what connects the modernist writers—aside from a rich web of personal and professional connections—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature. Influenced by European art movements, many modernist writers rejected realistic representation and traditional formal expectations. In the novel, they explored the Freudian depths of their characters’ psyches through stream of consciousness and interior monologue. In poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images. Ironically, the success of modernism’s initially radical techniques eventually transformed them into the established norms that would be resisted by later generations.

Among the earliest groups to shape English-language modernism were the imagists, a circle of poets led initially by the Englishman T. E. Hulme and the American Ezra Pound, in the early 1910s. Imagist poetic doctrine included the use of plain speech, the preference for free verse over closed forms, and above all the creation of the vivid, hard-edged image. The first two of these tenets in particular helped to shape later modernism and have had a far-reaching impact on poetic practice in English. Shaped by Asian forms such as the haiku, the imagist poem tended to be brief and ephemeral, presenting a single striking image or metaphor (see “An Imagist Cluster” in NAEL). Pound soon dissociated himself from the movement, and the imagists—including the poets H. D., Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher—continued to publish their annual anthology under the leadership of the American poet Amy Lowell.

Boxers Poster, Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri Pound, meanwhile, went on to become a literary proponent of vorticism, an English movement in the visual arts led by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis. The vorticists championed energy and life over what they saw as the turpitude of European society and sought to tap into or create the concentration of energies they dubbed a “vortex.” After having published only one issue of their now notorious journal Blast, the vorticists suddenly found their often violent rhetoric and their ambivalence about English national identity at odds with the real violence of World War I and the wartime climate of patriotism. The second issue of Blast—published behind schedule and dubbed a “war number”—declared the vorticists’ loyalty to England in the fight against German fascism on aesthetic grounds. It also announced the death in the trenches of one of the movement’s leading lights, the French-born sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. This loss and the general dispersal of the vorticists mark a major turning point for English modernism.