American Modernist Poetry and the New Negro Renaissance

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A Rage in Harlem:
The Redefinition of American Modernist Poetry Via the New Negro Renaissance

Though American modernist literature has been intensely scrutinized since the end of the first World War, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds the history of the literary movement—especially the movement’s origins. Like any other artistic era, it’s impossible to measure or neatly book-end American modernism with specific dates or years. Disagreements among literary theorists and writers as to when the movement really began and who pioneered such a movement prevent any kind of immediate consensus. The most surprising aspect about the study of this movement is the controversy concerning the very definition of the modernist aesthetic of American poetry. Indeed, Lost Generation member Archibald MacLeish and many of his colleagues (mostly white men) believed that “a poem should not mean but be”—that poetry is just a language effect with little or no direct reference beyond the formal arrangement of the words on the page. However, in the early twentieth century, the poetry of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, particularly the works of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer, debunked MacLeish’s renowned modernist dictum; though attentive to the modernist use of language, these three authors of the Harlem Renaissance proved, through their focus on either the African-American “double consciousness,” the black presence in America, or the horrid reality of American racial oppression, that American modernist poetry does indeed have material, political, and social consequences and implications.

Early in the twentieth century, the lack of a black voice in the American literary canon startled many African-American writers and philosophers. At this time, the poetry and literature of the white American male grew steadily popular, allowing many of these authors the latitude to define modernist poetry themselves. But soon a challenge to this white male...
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