Elmo and Zoe are wearing capes. Elmo has what looks like a mesh fruit container tied to his head, and Zoe wears a metal colander on hers. The little red and orange monsters swivel and pop in excitement. The scene is Sesame Street, but these two are pretending to be “explorer friends” arriving in the land of Lilliputty (no apologies to Jonathan Swift):

Zoe asks Elmo what it could be they’re looking for.

ELMO: We’re searching for the lost . . . [straining here as his imagination gropes for the words] for the lost . . . [eyes circling in their sockets] the lost . . . ahhh . . . Googaplitz!

ZOE: The Lost Googaplitz? What is the lost Googaplitz?

ELMO: Nobody knows. It’s lost.

Jack, our 20-one-month-old monster connoisseur, holds his oatmeal spoon in mid-air, considering. But I’m practically electric. I need to scribble this down. Can I find this on You Tube? Do we have a VHS tape anywhere, those boxy anachronisms? If I play it back on Tivo, could I somehow . . . ?

My eruption of Elmo mania has to do with the “Modernist Poetry” class I’m teaching this semester at Washington College. I want the students to understand the way that poets of that movement had to construct their own imaginative worlds, their own myths. I was planning this week to give the students the following quote from R.P. Blackmur: “So it is with most of our serious poets. It is almost the mark of the genuine poet of merit in our time . . . that he performs his work in the light of an insight, a group of ideas, and a faith, which together form a view of life most readers cannot share.” But this Sesame Street scene would be much better.

Like Blackmur’s poets, Elmo and Zoe have a group of ideas and a faith that few around them can share. Each time they encounter other characters, caught in the routines of quotidian and commercial life, they have to insist upon their new identities. Like the famous modernists, they seem aware of the temptation of escapism in this project: although “explorer friend” sounds like an elite title, nevertheless, far from cloistering themselves away, Elmo and Zoe ply their way down the thoroughfare. And they exhibit prime aspects of modernism that Blackmur doesn’t touch on in that passage. They envision their work as a journey vexed with difficulties, something like Pound’s “periplum.” Even their costumes (which could be garbage assemblages by Mina Loy!) suggest that, while their endeavor might be driven by the imagination, they’re not after Romantic transcendence so much as a reconstruction of the given.

Okay, okay. Maybe it’s a good thing I won’t be showing that clip to the students after all. But one of my convictions in coming to teach this class is that we can’t avoid modernism: it’s everywhere. For example, it was all over the ads during last night’s Super Bowl (don’t get me started.) A provisional definition of modernism could be: any reaction to what the great social critic Marshall Berman has called “the experience of modernity.” Often this reaction takes an adversarial form. If you hate the consumerist glut of the Super Bowl, chances are you’re taking a modernist position too.

I want to use this five day journal to ask how modernism still suffuses our lives and our poems. I don’t have any big plans for this, and will probably stray from the topic. But I hope the journal helps at least to explore some fundamental questions about art and modernity. As T.S. Eliot once didn’t write, “Young monsters should be explorers.”

Originally Published: February 5th, 2007

Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...