Contemporary Poetry

How experimental poetic forms have developed from the 1960s through to today’s “Instagram Poets”

Confessional poetry
Derek Walcott
Frank O'Hara
Women's Liberation Movement

The Beat Generation and the 1960s

The Beat Generation was a literary and cultural movement that emerged in the United States in the mid-1950s that rejected mainstream values and an embrace of alternative lifestyles, particularly those associated with drugs, jazz music, and Eastern spirituality.

Beat poets often performed their work in informal settings, using rhythm, repetition, and improvisation to create a sense of spontaneity and immediacy. The subject matter of Beat poetry was often personal and confessional.

For example, “Howl”, by Allen Ginsberg, is a long, free-verse poem that explores themes of madness, sexuality, and social injustice. The poem is structured in three parts – each of a different mood and style. The first part is a frenzied, stream-of-consciousness rant that captures the narrator’s sense of social dislocation and desperation:

*I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.*


Confessional Poetry and Personal Revelation

“Confessional poetry” – a movement associated with poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton – emerged in the mid-twentieth century, characterized by frank and autobiographical subject matter – often touching on mental illness, sexuality, and trauma.


Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” which refers to the biblical story of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, describe her own “resurrections” after multiple suicide attempts, framing her experience in terms of a kind of performance:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.*

The short, choppy lines create a sense of dislocation, reflecting the speaker’s own fragmented sense of self, as she struggles to reconcile the various forces that seek to shape her identity.

The Postcolonial Poetry Movement

Postcolonial poetry refers to the body of poetic work that emerged from countries and regions that experienced colonization, primarily in the 20th century. These poems often address themes such as identity, displacement, cultural hybridity, resistance to oppression, and the impact of colonialism on both the colonized and the colonizers.

Notable examples of postcolonial poetry include the works of Derek Walcott from St. Lucia, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. His poems, such as those found in the collection “Omeros,” blend Caribbean culture with classical mythology, exploring the complexities of postcolonial identity.

Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe, best known for his novel “Things Fall Apart,” also contributed to postcolonial poetry with his collection “Beware, Soul Brother,” which reflects on the Nigerian Civil War and the country’s post-independence struggles.


The Black Arts Movement and Racial Identity

The Black Arts Movement in poetry played a crucial role in the African American civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Poets like Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks explore themes of racial pride, self-determination, and social justice.

Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Art” (1965) called for a revolutionary art that reflected the black experience and inspired political change. The poem’s raw emotion and powerful language exemplified the movement’s spirit. Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego-Tripping” (1972) celebrated black womanhood through vivid imagery and cultural references, asserting her identity with confidence.


Gwendolyn Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Annie Allen” (1949) explored the complexities of African American life during times of segregation. Her poems combined traditional forms with innovative techniques to convey deep emotions about race relations. These poets used their creative voices to challenge societal norms while advocating for equality and empowerment within their communities.

The New York School and Avant-Garde Aesthetics

The New York School, an artistic and literary movement, emerged primarily during the 1950s and 1960s in New York City. The movement brought together poets and artists who were influenced by Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and contemporary avant-garde art movements, which included painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, and poets such as Barbara Guest.

One of the key figures of this movement was Frank O’Hara, whose work often captured the energy and spontaneity of everyday life in the city. His poem “A Step Away from Them” (1964) captures a casual lunch break in Manhattan:

*It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess.*


Another important poet of this movement was John Ashbery, whose experimental and enigmatic poetry, exemplified in his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” often explored the complexities of perception and language.

Feminist Poetry and Women's Voices

The women’s liberation movement of the 1960 gave rise to a wave of feminist poets, such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Marge Piercy. Their works address gender inequality, sexual identity, and women’s experiences to challenge societal norms.

Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” (1973) explores themes of self-discovery and female empowerment through an underwater journey. The poem serves as a metaphor for delving into one’s own history to confront patriarchal oppression.


Audre Lorde’s “Coal” (1976) combines her identities as a black woman and lesbian to create a unique voice that speaks against racism and sexism simultaneously.

Marge Piercy’s “The Moon is Always Female” (1980) examines various aspects of women’s lives while advocating for equality between genders. Her poems touch on topics such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, and economic disparities faced by women.

Performance Poetry and the Spoken Word

Performance poetry and spoken word have carved a unique niche in contemporary poetry, pioneered by, among others, Gil Scott-Heron, whose “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) showcases his powerful voice and rhythmic cadence while addressing social issues.

Spoken word poetry often places a greater emphasis on devices such as assonance, alliteration, repetition, and rhyme to create a musical quality and enhance the overall performance.


Additionally, the emergence of poetry slams in the 1980s helped popularize spoken word poetry. Poetry slams are competitive events where poets perform their work and are judged by the audience or a panel of judges. The popularity of these events has led to the rise of many talented spoken word poets, such as Andrea Gibson and Shane Koyczan, whose performances resonate with a wide range of audiences.

Language Poetry

Language poetry is an avant-garde movement in American poetry that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s which employed experimental forms and techniques, foregrounding the materiality and musicality of language itself.

Language poets often use parataxis, arranging words and phrases without using conventional grammatical structures or connectors, to create a sense of disjunction and encourage readers to find meaning in the juxtaposition of fragments.

Central figures of Language poetry include Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman.

Lyn Hejinian’s “My Life” (1980) exemplifies Language poetry by focusing on fragmented narratives and linguistic experimentation. The poem’s structure reflects its thematic exploration of memory and identity.


Similarly Ron Silliman’s “The Alphabet” (2008), a long-form work spanning over three decades, showcases his innovative approach to language usage by questioning linear narrative structures. These poets’ groundbreaking contributions have expanded our understanding of what poetry can be while encouraging further exploration into the power of language itself.

The Digital Age and Online Poetry

The Digital Age has revolutionized the way contemporary poetry is shared and consumed. Social media platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, along with online literary journals, provide poets with new avenues for reaching audiences.

Rupi Kaur’s success exemplifies this shift; her debut collection “Milk and Honey” (2014) gained popularity through Instagram before becoming a bestseller. Warsan Shire’s evocative work on themes of migration, identity, and trauma found an audience on Tumblr before being featured in Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade” (2016). Nayyirah Waheed uses social media to share her minimalist yet powerful poems that explore love, race, and self-care.


These poets’ widespread recognition demonstrates how the internet has broken down barriers between creators and readers while fostering diverse voices within the global community.

Ecopoetry and Environmental Concerns

Contemporary “ecopoetry” addresses environmental concerns and humanity’s connection to nature – a genre exemplified by poets like Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver.

Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” (2018) captures the solace found in nature amidst human anxieties, while his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” advocates for sustainable living and resistance against consumerism. Similarly, Mary Oliver’s poems such as “Wild Geese” emphasize self-compassion and our inherent belonging within the natural world.


These poets’ works inspire reflection on our relationship with the environment, urging us to consider our impact on ecosystems. By engaging with ecopoetry, readers are encouraged to cultivate an appreciation for nature’s beauty and fragility while fostering a sense of responsibility towards preserving it for future generations.

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