Poets, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, have often sought increasingly new and radical ways of writing about the world. Modernists, Futurists, and postmodernists (among other schools and movements) have played around with language and form to create daringly original experimental works of poetry.
Below, we introduce ten of the greatest experimental poems produced in the last century or so. Our own Oliver Tearle, the founder of this blog, attempted to document the events of 2020 in an experimental poem – a sort of contemporary update of the modernist method – called The Tesserae, and his interest in earlier examples of experimental poems culminated in his own attempt to write one. This is, if you will, his ‘essential reading list’ for experimental poets.
1. Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘A Dice Throw’.
Alongside the vers libre experiments of Gustave Kahn, French poets at the end of the nineteenth century were playing around with verse form, and this example of free verse from Stephane Mallarmé is somewhat different, and can be regarded as an early example of concrete poetry. The poem was published in 1897, and uses much blank space between the words and lines of the verse. Follow the link above to read an excerpt from the longer (20-page) poem.
2. Mina Loy, Songs to Joannes.
Loy was born Mina Lowy to a Hungarian Jewish father and an English mother in London in 1882 (she changed her name to ‘Loy’ when she began submitting poetry). She studied art in London, Munich, and Paris, and her poetry reflects the continental avant-garde art that she encountered during her travels and studies.
Futurism is an important influence on Loy’s 1917 work Songs to Joannes, a long sequence that might be regarded as a modern, feminist take on the old Elizabethan sonnet sequence: here, the female poet addresses the male subject (Loy’s Futurist lover, Giovanni Papini), offering a frank and radically new take on the ‘love’ poem.
We discuss this poem in more detail here.
3. Hope Mirrlees, Paris.
The next two works on this list – also by female modernist poets – have both been likened to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, although this first poem, written in 1919 and published a year later, predates Eliot’s famous poem by three years. The poem is unavailable online but is included in the Collected Poems of Mirrlees.
Paris: A Poem also makes Eliot’s 1922 poem look almost traditional by comparison, so radical is Mirrlees’ use of French avant-garde techniques – learned from Apollinaire, among others, whom she knew while living in Paris.
This long(ish) poem focuses on one day in Paris, 1 May 1919, seeking to capture the sights and sounds of the post-war metropolis using collage, unusual typefaces and spacing, and other innovative techniques. Virginia Woolf, who published the poem, described it as a nightmare to typeset – and it’s not hard to see why!
Discover more about this remarkable poem here.
4. Marianne Moore, ‘Marriage’.
Published in 1923, a year after Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘Marriage’ is a long(ish) poem by one of American modernism’s greatest poets. And like The Waste Land, Moore’s poem is allusive, taking in Shakespeare and the Bible as the poet explores the obligations
and meaning of marriage (Moore herself never married). The poem is radical in both its form (modernist, free verse) and politics (we can label Moore’s treatment of marriage ‘feminist’).
5. T. S. Eliot, Sweeney Agonistes.
This unfinished work is amongst Eliot’s most daring, original, and experimental. Is it a dramatic poem, or a poetic drama? Only two scenes from the work were preserved, subtitled ‘Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama’ when Eliot published them.
Sweeney, a figure who had appeared in several of Eliot’s earlier poems, is a sort of modern-day Neanderthal, who talks about ‘doing a girl in’ in the most sinister manner possible, in a work which seems to be pushing the boundaries not just of verse but good taste …
6. E. E. Cummings, ‘l(a’.
Cummings (or perhaps that should be ‘cummings’, after the poet’s self-styled rejection of capitals) was one of the most distinctive American poets of the twentieth century, whose work built on the earlier modernists such as Williams.
A slender thing, this poem comprising a single sentence (if it can be called a sentence), with the phrase ‘a leaf falls’ placed parenthetically within the word ‘loneliness’. Probably inspired by the Japanese haiku form, this beautiful E. E. Cummings poem suggests a link between the eternal concept of loneliness and the fleeting motion of a falling leaf.
7. Ezra Pound, The Cantos.
Not so much a poem as a vast ‘ragbag’ of poems (to borrow Pound’s own word), The Cantos vary hugely in quality, although the Pisan Cantos, which Pound composed while a prisoner of the US in Pisa in 1945 just after the end of WWII, are the most critically acclaimed sections of this 800-page book.
Our advice is to begin with Canto I and wade through: Pound begins in medias res with a multi-layered poetic account of Odysseus’ journey into the underworld to seek counsel from Tiresias. Although the episode is from Homer’s Odyssey, Pound’s version of this story is told using a sixteenth-century Latin translation of Homer’s poem. You can read the opening canto by following the link above.
The poem thus immediately foregrounds Pound’s interest in multilingual poetry, the way such stories resonate for different cultures and eras, and the link between Odysseus’ summoning of the dead and Pound’s own use of dead poets’ words in his own work. We’ve analysed the opening canto here.
8. Edwin Morgan, ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’.
In this poem, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) gives us an unusual Christmas poem supposedly ‘written’ by a computer, and its attempt to produce the simple message ‘Merry Christmas’. A humorous poem from the 1960s about the early technology of the modern computer, it’s also a nice way into the experimental world of Morgan’s poetry.
9. David Jones, The Anathemata.
This is without doubt one of the most challenging experimental modernist poems of the last century – because Jones, a Welsh poet and painter, fuses poetry and prose, ancient British myth with modern poetic style, religious and secular themes, and much else.
It’s not as well-known as William Carlos Williams’s Paterson or Pound’s The Cantos, but it’s just as great an achievement in Anglophone modernist poetry. You can listen to Jones reading an excerpt from the poem by following the link above, or buy the whole book.
We discuss this poem in more detail here.
10. H. D., Helen in Egypt: Poetry (New Directions Books).
This 1961 poem is on a similar scale to Ezra Pound’s The Cantos – and H. D. had been an associate of Pound’s during his Imagist phase in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.
But this epic poem is on an altogether greater scale than the Imagist poem, and takes as its theme the alternative theory that Helen of Troy was not a Greek princess but an Egyptian woman. An important work of late modernism, and one of the great epic poems of the twentieth century, Helen in Egypt fuses the modernist novel with experimental poetry and even classical drama to create a work that is a true one-off.
Discover more about this fabulous work here.