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What Is Modern Poetry?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By anon953747 — On May 28, 2014

Can you be more specific about the time period when modern poetry was most popular? Great article!

By anon328311 — On Apr 02, 2013

I think that Charles Bukowski is one of the great American modern poets.

By indigomoth — On May 01, 2012

There are so many amazing modern poets. I find it especially exciting how many women were finally accepted as poets when this movement started.

Not only did they write amazing poetry, often in the early years of the 20th century they lived like celebrities and did wonders for the feminist movement.

Many of them are still alive today, which is really cool as I feel like I could still write a letter to someone who I consider a hero on the same level as, say, Wordsworth.

By umbra21 — On Apr 30, 2012

@browncoat - I personally think that Howl is amazing, although it is a really polarizing poem (which is what people want, really. It's better to be talked about than to be obscure).

It might be worth trying to find a decent audio file of it, as it is amazing to listen to, particularly when read by the original poet.

The whole point of it is to be an outpouring, and to be unrefined and raw. Concise just wouldn't cut it when you consider what he's talking about in the poem, which is basically everything, the whole of a life.

If nothing else I think it's important for people to read it once, whether they enjoy it or not, as it's extremely important as an example of modernism in poetry.

By browncoat — On Apr 30, 2012

We had to read Ginsberg's 'Howl' during my poetry class as an example of modern poetry.

It's filled with amazing lines, but at the same time I found it to be a bit tedious. I can definitely see why some people think of it as an amazing poem and how it could inspire such loyalty, particularly when it was released and nothing like it had ever been seen before.

But for me, it was too loose, too large, too unrefined. It felt like a chore to read it.

I guess I've gotten used to modern poetry being short and concise, and Howl is anything but that.

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