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Contemporary Poetry ~ My Thoughts and Observations

John is a contemporary poet who uses the rhyming styles of the classics to discuss current issues.

A poet’s desk

A poet’s desk

Modern Literature vs Contemporary Literature

You may ask, “What is the difference between Modern and Contemporary Literature (of which poetry is a part)?”

Well, ‘Modern’ was the name given to literature written in the Modernist period between the late 19th Century and the 1960s. The stream of consciousness was one technique modernist writers used as well as irony, satire, and interior monologues. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, William Butler Yeats, and Virginia Woolf were some popular writers during this period.

‘Contemporary’ literature commenced from World War II to the present day. Work in contemporary literature mainly includes believable stories and poems with a base in reality. It tends to be more character-driven than plot-driven, and the characters are strong and believable while the setting is the current era. Poetry, like most other forms of literature, evolved through each age of history, ultimately leading to the most recent one - contemporary poetry.

Some popular contemporary poets include Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Shel Silverstein, Ocean Vuong, Rupi Kaur, and Richard Siken.

A poet’s work … to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.

— Salman Rushdie

Contemporary Poetry

By definition ‘Contemporary Poetry’ is “a style of poetry that follows a specific series of traits and literary tools - inconsistent meter, variations upon standard rhyme.”

To me, this sounds like a contradiction. “inconsistent meter and variations upon standard rhyme” really sounds like anything goes, rather than following any rules. Maybe by using the word “traits” in the definition rather than “rules” allows for this, as traits can mean characteristics, peculiarity, or quirk.

To date, I have been somewhat an opponent of ‘contemporary poetry’ as being a lover of rhyme, I often felt that today’s poetry steered away from this and its ‘classical’ poetic roots to embrace more ‘free-form/verse’ or ‘prose poetry.’

But, once again, when I thought more deeply about it (I have to stop doing that or I’ll get a headache) I realized that I am writing ‘now’ and therefore I am classified as a contemporary poet despite what style I prefer to write in.

Some characteristics that define contemporary poetry are:

  • It is often written in free-verse
  • Readers know and can associate with the language
  • It is brief
  • It is laced with images and uses all the reader’s senses
  • Suggests ideas rather than blatantly stating them
  • Has common themes such as love, family, death

One of my secret instructions to myself as a poet is: ‘Whatever you do, don’t be boring.’

— Anne Sexton


Examples of Contemporary Poetry

One of my main bug-bears or criticisms of contemporary poetry is ‘prose poetry.’ To me, in many instances this appears to be just any writer of prose deciding that they can write poetry too, breaking their prose up into shorter lines, and calling it a poem.

I agree that not all good poetry needs to rhyme, but it does still need to have rhythm and flow. I also think each line needs a distinct start and end, not just have the text wrap over to the next line willy-nilly. I am putting a disclaimer here, as this is only my opinion. Other poets mentioned here are popular in their own right and probably have many more followers and acclaim than I do.

Here is an example by Tracey K. Smith, of who The New Jersey Digest (thedigestonline) says the following:

“Tracy K Smith is the author of four poetry books, all of which were written with the utmost passion for words and deep connections. Her personal and raw writing style is what draws readers into her world of literary creativity.”

“I thought I’d have more time! I thought

My body would have taken longer going

About the inevitable feat of repelling her,

But now, I could see even in what food

She left untouched, food I’d bought and made

And all but ferried to her lips, I could see

How it smacked of all that had grown slack

And loose in me.” (~ Tracy K Smith: Wade in the Water)

In my opinion, this could just have been written as a piece of prose, hence:

“I thought I’d have more time! I thought my body would have taken longer going about the inevitable feat of repelling her.

But now, I could see even in what food she left untouched, food I’d bought and made, and all but ferried to her lips, I could see how it smacked of all that had grown slack and loose in me.”

On the other hand, proving I am not opposed to all free-verse contemporary poetry, I do like the following piece by Richard Siken:

“You’re in a car with a beautiful boy

And you’re trying not to tell him that you love him,

And you’re trying not to choke down the feeling,

But he reaches over and he touches you,

Like a prayer for which no words exist.” (~ Richard Siken: Crave)

Writing poetry

Writing poetry

Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.

— Robert Frost

Poetry Readership Today

If I said that almost 12% of adults in the United States read poetry, what would you think? Well, at first I thought, “Is that all? How could anyone expect to become successful as a poet?”

But as I reasoned a bit more deeply it came to me that a lot of adults read very little other than the odd news story, social media posts, or some how to article, pertaining to something they needed help with, on Google. So, maybe 12% isn’t really that bad.

Well, according to a survey conducted by National Endowment of the Arts in 2017 - 11.7% of the adult population of the USA read poetry in the previous year. That was around 28 million people, and the highest yearly readership on record over the 15 year period of conducting the “Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA).” I would be interested in seeing more up to date figures, especially since COVID-19 began affecting our lives.

Reasons for this improved readership may be attributed to a few factors:

  1. People turn to poetry for comfort in challenging times.
  2. Poetry is a perfect fit for our social media-driven, mobile culture.
  3. Social media platforms enable poets to champion the art form.
  4. More visible mainstream poets e.g. US Poet Laureates
  5. Contemporary poetry is more relatable
“Best Poet” Hubby Awards 2021

“Best Poet” Hubby Awards 2021

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Instagram Specific Poetry

Social Media platforms generally, but Instagram in particular have become a very popular platform for contemporary poets to share their work, and some Instagram poets have acquired a huge following.

The perfect Instagram poem is short, often only one or two stanzas (or an excerpt from a longer poem) that can be read quickly while scrolling through or on the run. Popular topics may include love, sex, or nature. It may or may not rhyme.

Poems usually have the text edited over an image background or use simple typewritten text on a plain background. Most Instagram poets use a consistent theme that is specific to them, so their work is instantly recognizable.

Here are a few samples of Instagram poetry:


You and me

we’re supposed to be

as simple as this


~ Lauren Levi (13,000 + followers)

Beauty’s Curse

Her bow is drawn

to words of dark;

where arrows spring

and miss their mark.

She’ll turn their heads

but not their hearts.

~Lang Leav (531,000 followers)

Grecian Urn

Pompeii covered in lava’s wake,

A clay urn cracked and broke.

Vesuvius compassion-less

Just molten rock and smoke.

Statues made of flesh and blood

Where living beings wept.

None had time to flee or run,

The volcano no more slept.

~ John Hansen (95 followers)

Instagram Poem

Instagram Poem

What the world wants, what the world is waiting for, is not Modern Poetry or Classical Poetry or Neo-Classical Poetry — but Good Poetry. And the dreadful disreputable doubt, which stirs in my own sceptical mind, is doubt about whether it would really matter much what style a poet chose to write in, in any period, as long as he wrote Good poetry.

— G. K Chesterton

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 John Hansen

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