Do-It-Yourself Primer on Modern American (more or less) Poetry

A poet just starting out asked about the contemporary scene in poetry. This requires a far more complex answer than I can actually give. However, I can give a nudge--probably more unbiased than most although people will take exceptions here and there. I wish more speculative poets were aware of what has happened in poetry since the Romantics (or hell, even the Romantics). I might suggest a couple or three books for mimicking (in your own way, of course), but see other, older editions which are far cheaper:

Introduction to Poetry (by any of these semi-famous poets):

X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia's
Donald Hall's (To Read a Poem or To Read Literature)
John Frederick Nims' (Western Wind)

For a sense of the direction that poetry has been heading in, see

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry

(They've got a Modern & Contemporary edition split into two now, but I haven't read it. It includes a section at the back of each with classic essays of poetics.)

An abbreviated version of the above anthology with an additional essay on "Reading Poems" is Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction

Both editions have a great essay on the history of modern poetry (it's the introduction to the fat one & the conclusion to the skinny).

If you have an afternoon and want to graduate from novice poetry, visit the public library to read the imagery chapter in an Introduction to Poetry book, as well as any on bad poetry:

Nims: 1 & 5
Kennedy: 5 & 16
Hall: 1 & 3

Modern: Read the history section and all of the Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson sections to get a sense of the tradition that modern poetry has been moving in--almost no two poets could be more perfectly contrasted in how they deal with lines and what goes in them.

Viola! You are now a semi-modern poet--in education at least. Of course, there is much else to master, but it's a start. Just knowing this much, however, can be enough to appeal to the contemporary poetry markets.

For mainstream poetry markets, just go here.


If you hate playing tennis with the net down (i.e. you're into rhyme & rhythm), Lesson 2 of a Modern Poet education would probably include:

Hall: 8 & 9
Kennedy: 8 & 9 & 10
Nims: (last part of 8) & 9 & 10 & 12

Modern: the sections on Hardy, Hopkins, Housman, & Yeats. Extra credit (more contemporary players): Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin (my favorite of all these guys), Anthony Hecht


Lesson 3: Focus on tone and the words themselves

Hall: 2 & 7 & 8
Nims: 6 & 7
Kennedy: 2, 3 & first part of 8

Modern: the sections on Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot. Extra credit: Lawrence, Pound, H.D.


Lesson 4: Metaphors and other ways of meaning: Approaching a contemporary poetry

Hall: 4 & 6
Kennedy: 4 & 6 & 12
Nims: 2, 3, 4, & 11

Sections on (people will differ widely, so here's a wide selection) W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Richard Hugo, Maxine Kumin, A. R. Ammons, W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Gary Snyder, James Wright, etc.


Lesson 5: Jazzing around: the branch of poetry for those who like tennis with the net down

Hall: ?
Nims: 13
Kennedy: 11

Modern: the sections on Lewis Carroll, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Samuel Beckett, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Imamu Amiri Baraka


Lesson 6: Contemporary poetry: build your own lesson

Read any missing chapters: on race, gender, translations, revisions, song, myth, etc.

Modern: The richest tradition is probably African American: Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Michael Harper, etc. The reason I think Baraka belongs with the Jazzercizers is that the AA tradition is much more clear and musical.


Modern: Gender as an identity and an issue: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, etc.


whoever trips your triggers.

Contemporary experimental poetry (descendants of jazzing around) may be what many consider the present status of contemporary poetry. Others lament this turn. It often does seem to be beating a dead horse. Perhaps a joining of branches will help revive and add life (i.e. you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!).

Some poets I like but I'm not sure how they would fit others' canons or where they would fit in with others: Karl Shapiro, David Wagoner, Diane Wakoski, James Dickey. Albert Goldbarth is doing his own damn thing, and that alone makes him the coolest damn poet out there. He mind-melds so many ideas and forms, it's mind-blowing.

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