Modern poetry refers to the verse created by the writers and poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. The actual definition of “modern” varies, depending on the authority cited. Some people would define modern poetry to include the poets of the 19th century, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. Recognizable aspects of modern poetry include an emphasis on strong imagery and emotional content and less reliance on the use of rhyme. Modern movements such as Beat poetry and poetry slams also would be included.
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literary art. Preliterate societies used rhyming verse as a method to make stories and passages of history easier to remember. These verses were passed from one generation to the next as oral narratives. Some of these were eventually written down and have survived to this day. Epic tales such as Beowulf and The Odyssey were originally written in verse, influencing later poets such as Dante and John Milton.
American poet Walt Whitman, who published his influential book Leaves of Grass in 1855, is one of the founders of modern poetry. His disregard for traditional rhyme and meter led him to be called “the father of free verse” and made him an influence on later writers. Edgar Allan Poe, working a few years earlier, brought his own approach to traditional methods. Although he was a literary master who wrote short stories, novels and journalism, he is perhaps best known for a poem, The Raven.
In the early 20th century, T.S. Eliot fled the United States for England and produced a series of important poems. The Waste Land is considered one of the great works of English literature. It contains many aspects of modern poetry: strong imagery, obscure details of high significance to the poet and a lack of rhyming verse. William Carlos Williams was another American poet with a strong influence on the Beat generation that would follow him. Rainier Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda brought these modern influences to their own languages, German and Chilean Spanish, respectively.
The 1950s saw an explosion of modern poetry in the form of the Beat generation and the San Francisco Renaissance. Allan Ginsberg’s Howl caused controversy and won a devoted following, two surefire signs of a literary movement. As the 20th century ended, modern poetry took on new forms, including rap songs, spoken-word performances and poetry slams. Meanwhile, more traditional poets such as Tony Hoagland and Charles Bukowski brought their own sensibilities to an art form as old as literature itself.