Navigating the Labyrinth of Modern Poetry

Posted on Apr 1, 2024

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In a world of constant change, advancement, and regression, poetry has acted as the mirror of “modern” society, no matter the era. It evolves with the people and world around it. If you want to understand a certain span of time, look at the poetry written within it.

The longer we have poetry as an art form, the more shapes we mold it into. It moves like a living being, a dynamic testament to the human capacity for creativity and evolution. From the rise of spoken word and slam poetry, to experimental digital poems, to visual literary amalgamations, modern poetry journeys into the depths of current human experience.

What is modern poetry?

Modern poetry refers to the diverse body of poetic work produced in the 20th and 21st centuries, as opposed to the more traditional forms of poetry that came before. Modern poetry encompasses a wide range of styles, themes, and techniques, and it reflects the changing social, cultural, and artistic landscape of that particular time.

Some people might call modern poetry “experimental poetry.”

Artists are always pushing the boundaries of norms, experimenting, and inventing their own rules—that’s nearly the definition of art. And poetry is no different!

Poems act as tiny time-capsules, preserving a certain person’s perspective of a certain space and place in the universe. I think that’s pretty cool! Let’s look at some different styles of modern poetry.

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Modern styles of poetry

“Modern poetry” encompasses a wide array of styles and movements, each with its unique characteristics and approaches to expression. It’s constantly evolving by nature, so we couldn’t possibly create a full list of every style. But here are a few popular types of modern-style poetry.

Free verse

Free verse is a style of poetry that does not adhere to a specific meter, rhyme scheme, or any rules at all. It allows for maximum freedom in expressing ideas and emotions, relying on the poet’s choice of line breaks and wordplay to give it structure. Removing the guardrails of rhyme scheme gives the writer full freedom to create unique wordplay, imagery, and sounds.


Imagism is a movement that emerged in the early 20th century and emphasizes the use of vivid, concise, and evocative imagery in poetry. Here is an example from Ezra Pound, a prominent early poet of this genre:

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Surrealist poetry, like the general art movement of surrealism, explores the irrational and dreamlike aspects of human experience. It often incorporates fantastical and unexpected imagery, drawing inspiration from the subconscious.

Here is an example of a surrealist poem from Antonin Artaud.

Dark Poet
Dark Poet, a maid’s breast
Haunts you,
Embittered poet, life seethes
And life burns,
And the sky reabsorbs itself in rain,
Your pen scratches at the heart of life.
Forest, forest, alive with your eyes,
On multiple pinions;
With storm-bound hair,
The poets mount horses, dogs.
Eyes fume, tongues stir,
The heavens surge into our senses
Like blue mother’s milk;
Women, harsh vinegar hearts,
I hang suspended from your mouths.

Antonin Artaud

Confessional poetry

Confessional poetry is characterized by the poet’s personal and often autobiographical revelations. It’s the “over-sharer” of modern poetry styles. Sylvia Plath comes to mind, particularly her poem entitled Daddy. Here’s an excerpt:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.   
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.   
Every woman adores a Fascist,   
The boot in the face, the brute   
Brute heart of a brute like you.

Sylvia Plath

Spoken word poetry

Spoken word poetry is meant to be performed, emphasizing the oral and auditory aspects of poetry. It often includes elements of storytelling and can be highly emotive. Sound matters more in this form than any other, and it often relies on delivery to reach the full potential of impact. Spoken word is a combination of written and performance art.

Here’s an example from Nelle Divine called “Don’t Fall In Love With A Healer”

Prose poetry

Prose poetry was my personal default form for many years. Prose poetry and flash fiction are often indistinguishable art forms. They are a tiny piece of prose or a paragraph-formatted poem that focuses on poetic language and imagery. It might contain a narrative arc—or it might not! Some prose poems act to convey a moment, an image, or a theme. Here’s an example of a prose poem from a collection I wrote as a teenager:

Qui Vive
Chestnut brown fur is matted down by old blood and exposure. Yellowed ribs, strips of meat still hanging, reach like needy fingers. The head would be indistinguishable if broken whiskers didn’t poke from the scraps, but his tail is unmarred and flutters when the wind changes.

Squirrels have their own language. They communicate with chitters and barks and tail twitches. They have names.
A squirrel with a dark red streak down her back chirps across the road. She scampers up and down a tree, then another joins her.
I toe at the corpse until it loosens from the pavement, leaving a smear on the concrete, and kick it into a storm drain. Maybe they’ll think he ran away.

Hannah Lee Kidder

This could be considered a prose poem, rather than flash fiction, because it doesn’t tell a full narrative. It conveys the idea that squirrels are family-oriented, and for some reason that fact resonates with the narrator—we can only guess why. (JK, I can tell you: this was originally the beginning of a short story about a woman returning to her hometown after her sibling shockingly took their own life.) 

Found poetry

Like the film genre of “found footage,” found poetry is composed of some other bit of non-poetry writing—normally non-literary writing. A receipt, a court transcript, letters, journal entries—it is taking some bit of prose and repurposing it as a poem. One example is Savannah Brown’s “Alive Girl,” from her collection Closer Baby Closer, where she constructs a poem out of text messages Jeffrey Bezos sent to his mistress. This is unique, creative, and extremely hilarious.

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Another example of found poetry is Rihannan McGavin’s entire collection called Grocery List Poems.

Digital and multimedia poetry

With the advent of digital media, many modern poets have embraced multimedia elements, combining text with visual art, sound, and interactive elements to create immersive poetic experiences. For example, Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit combines a written piece with a graphic design from a visual artist to create posters that they then print out and post around town. As technology advances, so do our art forms, poetry included.

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These are just a few of the many styles of modern poetry. Contemporary poets often draw from various poetry styles and movements to create unique and innovative forms of expression, resulting in a rich and diverse landscape of modern poetry.

5 Modern Poets

If modern poetry sounds like your style, here are five great poets to get you started in the genre!

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Danez Smith

Danez Smith wrote three books, one of which titled [insert] Boy, “remarkable for its nervy, surprising, morally urgent poems.” Smith has won multiple literary prizes and grants with their insightful, raw representation of their life and experiences as a queer, Black artist.

Savannah Brown

Savannah Brown has three published collections, Graffiti, Sweetdark, and Closer Baby Closer. Her poetry ranges from free-verse to found poems, untangling the web of modernity, sexuality, feminism, and the transition from girlhood. Savannah is also a novelist.

Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur is the OG “Instagram poet”. She writes simple, accessible poems and found mass success after her first publication, Milk and Honey. Her ascension also sparked the rise of many other non-traditional poets to share their similar pieces. Rupi Kaur’s work is often a topic of debate, but many praise her for the impact she’s had on modern poetry.

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Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown is a Pulitzer-winning poet and author who covers topics like police brutality, mass shootings, and other atrocities he no doubt witnessed first-hand growing up in Louisiana. Brown invented his own form of poem called the duplex, which takes the best of the sonnet and the ghazal with the rhythm of blues.

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Kaveh Akbar

Kaveh Akbar is an Iranian-American poet, author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Akbar’s style is set apart with a sharp attention to language. He plays with both language and the absence of it. The New Yorker says “his practice of taking language apart, and harnessing the empty space around it, makes even the most familiar words seem eerie and unexpected.”

Creative freedom in modern poetry

The best thing about writing poetry, particularly modern poetry, is that it has no rules or confines. You can work with the tools and shapes provided by your ancestral writers, or you can pen your own journey entirely. Whether you’re a seasoned poet, set in your ways and comfortable in your routine, or you’re a brand new writer with no idea where you fit, pursuing something new can stretch and challenge your creative mind. Poetry is always changing, and we should too!

What are you gonna try next?

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