By definition of its namesake, contemporary poetry is considered poetry written within our lifetime, and includes poems written approximately from the mid-20th century to the present day. The various types of contemporary poetry do not differ so much from each other as they do from poetry of past eras, such as traditional poetry. Contemporary poems often share similar themes and writing styles. Still, contemporary poetry has gone in different directions, to an extent.
Readers can begin to differentiate between the types of contemporary poetry by looking at poetry within a certain region. For example, in the United States, contemporary poems seem to have branched out in two directions. The first is a sort of conventional poetry, which tends to include the kinds of poems published by big presses and includes poets such as Maya Angelou and Rita Dove. The second is a type of avant-garde poetry, which is favored by smaller presses and self-publishers and includes writers such as Frank O’Hara and Robert Grenier. The main difference between conventional poetry and avant-garde poetry is that conventional poems lean toward more widely accepted themes and styles, whereas avant-garde poetry is more experimental.
Perhaps the biggest differences lie not between the various kinds of contemporary poems, but between contemporary poetry and traditional poetry. Older, traditional poems, such as those by William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and John Donne, followed much stricter structure rules than do contemporary poems. For example, many kinds of contemporary poems are written in free verse and do not focus as much on rhyme as do traditional types of poetry. Most traditional poems adhered to the strict formats of sonnets, ballads, and odes. Also, contemporary poems usually are shorter than traditional poems, and use language that is more familiar to today’s readers.
Regardless of style, some of the most common themes of contemporary poems are those of love, family, and death. Still, much of contemporary poetry focuses more on suggesting an idea or image than on outright stating it. By doing this, the contemporary poem lives up to its characteristic of allowing the meaning to reside within the reader’s mind rather than within, and accessible from, the poet’s mind. In other words, a contemporary poet often leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions and meanings. For some, readers and poets alike, this level of suggestion and mystery is part of the appeal of contemporary poetry.
Many literature and poetry classes on both high school and college levels focus on contemporary poetry at some point during the course. These courses might concentrate on learning to read and analyze the poems, on writing contemporary poems, or on both. Depending on the coursework, these classes might also help students distinguish between the different kinds of contemporary poems and poets. Some of the more well-known examples of contemporary poets include Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. For people interested in learning more about contemporary poems, but who are not enrolled in such classes, reading poems by these writers is a good place to start.