Modern American Poetry

As the United States transitioned from the late 19th century into the 20th century, American ideals, social norms, and core beliefs shifted. Buildings began to take newer, taller shapes, particularly in the city centers. Women were discovering a sense of freedom, self-expression, and sexual empowerment. Artists were exploring new ways to depict life and new mediums, and the American music scene was evolving to be more inclusive and reflect influences from around the world. 

Modern American Poetry Modern American Poetry

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    In a spectacular display of art imitating life, American literature, and particularly American poetry, also took on new shapes. Modern American poetry, poetry from the 20th century, reflects the time it was born in. It has form while rejecting formal structure and explores complicated emotions in simplistic ways. Keep on reading to learn more about the characteristics of Modern American Poetry and its poets.

    Modernism was an early 20th-century artistic and literary movement. It began in the early 1900s and lasted until the early 1940s. Society was seeking a change from the traditional modes of expression and looking for outlets of self-expression and representation that were more in line with the values, ideals, and experiences of the newly industrialized and modern way of life. This philosophical and artistic movement intended to break with the traditional values and the classical forms to reflect the changing society.

    Characteristics of Modern American Poetry

    Stemming from the national need to differentiate and reject the ideals of the prior century, modern American poetry represented a deliberate break from the poetry produced in the preceding century. Previously, poetry was marked by strict forms, traditional structures, and adherence to patterned rhyme and meter. American poetry was still largely connected to the poetry written in Europe. The modern American poetry movement, or 20th-century poetry, was born from a social, political, and cultural need to redefine the American identity. The poetry was "no longer colonial" but "native to the color and complexities of the American life." 1

    The early years of modern American poetry are considered by most to have begun with the founding of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1912. The magazine welcomed all types of poetry and placed no limitations on experimental work. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse stood for no political sides, but supported poets' and writers' rights to be heard, no matter their subject matter. The newly produced verse revealed poetry stripped of earlier conventions and dealing with life in direct and realistic terms. People, experiences, and emotions were not idealized or romanticized. There was an appreciation for the regular experience; the common person had found their voice, with their own values and experiences reflected in modern American poetry.

    Modern American Poetry  The contents page of the first edition of Poetry magazine in 1912 StudySmarterThe small magazine was founded by Harriet Monore in Chicago in 1912. Wikimedia Commons.

    Extremely focused on exploring the basics of life and existence, modern American poetry (and Modernist art) rejected the heavily ornate style of the century before and found new meaning in everyday language, simple structures, clean lines, and individual identity. Here are some central characteristics of modern American poetry.

    Modern American Poetry a picture of famous painting Still Life StudySmarterLike modern American poetry, the art of the early 20th century uses everyday pieces as inspiration. Wikimedia Commons

    Diverse Themes

    Modern American poets explored the fundamentals of death, the meaning and meaninglessness of life, and free will. They also took liberties and explored controversial subjects not broached before in poetry. They tackled the idea of national identity, racism, sexism, discrimination, and the loss of innocence.

    Alienation became a typical theme that evolved in the aftermath of World War I. People were disillusioned and felt alone while trying to navigate life in pursuit of the ever-elusive American Dream. With a society still suffering through segregation, discrimination, and gender inequality, modern American poets portrayed an American psyche that was sometimes fragmented. Poets like Langston Hughes grappled with what it meant to be both black and American, while T. S. Eliot attempted to find meaning through loss.

    Themes ranged from humankind's purpose on earth, family relationships, and national identity to freedom, opportunity, and the damages of things like segregation and discrimination.

    Focus on a New Language

    Modern American poetry was so new that many struggled to recognize it as poetry. The writing didn't sound like traditional poetry, with structured rhyme schemes and strict meter. The pieces were more fluid and flowed from structured to unstructured, from perfect rhyme to slant rhyme. There were no strong sentiments praising God, celebrating nature, or romanticizing life. The use of everyday language in poetry was a new frontier and unwelcomed by many who clutched onto traditional modes of poetic expression.

    Perfect rhyme is typically where both the vowel and consonant sounds in words are identical. Some examples include "bear" and "share" or "shoe" and "true." Although the words are spelled differently, the ending vowel and consonant sounds are the same.

    Slant rhyme, or imperfect rhyme or near rhyme, is when the vowel sounds are similar but not exact. Examples of this include the word pairs "load" and "ground" or "lids" and "lads."

    A Reimagined Form

    Early 20th-century poets aimed to define and understand the present by creating a "usable past."2 This meant modern American poets had to make use of the readings that influenced and informed their own craft while creating something new. Using the past as inspiration to grow and develop, modern American poetry became accessible to a wider audience. The poets rejected Victorian and Romantic traditions while using them to reinvent their own forms. E. E. Cummings famously experimented with words with multiple meanings, punctuation (or a lack thereof), and capitalization. Marianne Moore used broken syllabic verse, and John Ashbery toyed with multiple meanings of words.

    Much to the chagrin of critics, modern American poets toyed with traditional forms, reinventing form and style. Poets left the sonnet form incomplete, broke pentameter, used imperfect rhyme, or favored alliteration over structured rhyme schemes. Poets played with meaning, left abstract notions, and invited the reader to question existence, society, life, and the self.

    A sonnet is a traditional form of verse consisting of 14 lines and is typically written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme varies but is usually either ABAB CDCD EFEF GG or ABBAABBA CDCCDC.

    Alliteration is the repetition of the consonant sound within a series of words near each other. The alliterative sound is typically at the start of the word within the stressed syllables in the words.

    Themes in Modern American Poetry

    The themes found in modern American poetry are as varied as the American public, but some themes surface more frequently and are more pervasive. Here are the major themes in modern American poetry.


    Modern American poets rejected an idealized portrayal of life in favor of more vivid and realistic descriptions. Wanting to appeal to the general public and separate themselves from the restricting forms and topics in earlier poetry, modern American poets described experiences, events, emotions, and concepts in relatable terms. Life and relationships in modern American poetry are not romanticized and are portrayed from a real and sometimes matter-of-fact perspective. Often offering close and honest observations of the outer world, poetry during this period celebrated the reality of how things are.

    Realism was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement that began in the mid-19th century and favored realistic depictions of life and people. It was in response to the age of Romanticism that exaggerated emotionalism and could be overly dramatic. Realism opened the doors for writers to explore themes that were important and relatable to the general population and expanded the reading audience. What other characteristics of modern American poetry do you think were influenced by realism?

    A Focus on Nature

    Modern American poetry focused on nature and humankind's relationship to it. Many modern American poets used nature as a source of inspiration and a means to express their ideas. For 20th-century American poets, nature was not mystical and separate from humankind. Rather, nature, and being in nature, was seen as a fundamental part of life.

    Many poets, such as Robert Frost, preferred to be secluded and away from the modernized society when writing. Nature was not a spiritual awakening but brought joy. Birds, trees, lakes, and the outdoors are often used to represent more abstract ideas, as in Frost's "The Road Not Taken" (1916), where a forked pathway in the woods represents choices in life.

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth;"-"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost (lines 1-5)

    Modern American Poetry The cabin of Robert Frost in Vermont StudySmarterRobert Frost's cabin, known as the Homer Noble Farm, in the woods in Ripton, Vermont where he wrote from 1935 to 1963. Wikimedia Commons


    Focus on the Individual

    Modernist writers were extremely concerned with consciousness. Many focused on their speaker's internal thoughts, almost becoming inner monologues. For some, like Langston Hughes, the speaker is nearly the same entity as the poet. However, even when there are similarities, the poem's speaker is a mere projection, a portion of the poet. Modern American poets used details and experiences to show a connection between the individual and the world.

    Establishing an interconnected relationship between the individual and society, many modern American poets emphasized the importance of individual acts and expressed the influence one person can have on an entire society. In John Ashbery's "Some Trees" (1956), readers see an intimate account of how the speaker views humankind's connection with nature and with each other. The details are sparse, but the vague language and double meanings help give value and add nuance.

    And glad not to have inventedSuch comeliness, we are surrounded:A silence already filled with noises,A canvas on which emerges."

    -"Some Trees" by John Ashbery (lines 13-16)

    Change and National Identity

    Another important theme in modern American poetry was change and national identity. American society was in a period of flux. The poetry and art of the time attempted to define a national identity that would be more inclusive than other societies. Poets often used images of daily life, natural surroundings, and stream-of-consciousness writing to portray American life, deal with change, and learn through loss. The modern American poet was looking for ways to differentiate the American landscape and values from those of their European roots.

    Modern American Poets

    Many poets writing during the early 20th century in the United States contributed to the list of exceptional modern American poems. However, several poets made an indelible mark during this literary movement. The leading figures of this era were T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. While Eliot's epic poem, The Waste Land (1922), deals with loss, his social commentary and allusions to World War I make Eliot an important figure. Ezra Pound took liberty within his writing and implemented free verse with allusions. The experimental methods helped pave the way for some of the other modern American poets listed below.

    Free verse is poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter.

    Allusions are references in writing to well-known places, events, people, or things. They are often indirectly mentioned and serve to illustrate or expand on a subject.

    • Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
    • Robert Frost (1874-1963)
    • T. S. Eliot (1888 -1965)
    • William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)
    • Carls Sandburg (1878-1967)
    • Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967)
    • Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946)
    • E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)
    • Mina Loy (1882 - 1966)
    • Vachel Lindsay (1879 - 1931)
    • Edgar Lee Masters (1868 - 1950)
    • Countee Porter Cullen (1903 - 1946)
    • Amy Lowell (1874 - 1925)
    • James Wendell Johnson (1871 - 1938)

    Walt Whitman, often referred to as the "spirited grandfather"1 of modern American poetry gave birth to the voice of a new American identity. He rejected traditional topics, a trait frowned upon by his contemporaries, in favor of more common themes. Preferring the "divine average,"1 Whitman took his language and themes from the world around him and established a democratic form of poetry written for the people by a representative of the people. He didn't cloy his writing with references to Greek gods and goddesses of old but gave the American audience the right to use their own experiences as a source of inspiration. He freed readers from the past by grounding his pieces in the familiar.

    Modern and Contemporary American Poetry

    Modern and contemporary American poetry are two overlapping genres. While both refer to more current work in poetry, contemporary American poetry follows the modern American poetry period. Contemporary American poetry is typically poetry that dates from the end of World War II to the present. Many modern American poems are collected in anthologies.

    An anthology of poetry is a collection of poems gathered together by a poet or editor and published in one piece.

    Modern poetry deliberately broke with previous forms, standards, and traditional ideals, while contemporary American poetry focuses on bringing the genre of poetry as expression back to the people. It is a reviving of the poetic form rather than an expression of difference from other forms.

    Contemporary American poetry is often grounded in performance, with genres such as slam poetry serving as central forms of expression. Contemporary American poetry focuses on topics of political, social, emotional, and individual identity. A more inclusive form of verse, it is typically comprised of poets of all classes, races, and genders.

    Slam poetry is poetry written for the explicit purpose of performance. It combines elements of writing, performance art, audience participation, and competition.

    Examples of Modernist Poetry

    To better understand the breadth of modern American poetry and its defining traits, note these examples of Modernist poetry. They exhibit a stripping away of the previously established literary conventions and a raw expression of emotion celebrating the simple.

    This short poem by William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1938), uses simple and direct diction and rejects traditional rules of capitalization.

    so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens"

    -"The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

    William Carlos Williams uses simplicity in structure, syntax, and diction to highlight the importance of a singular, everyday object.

    Modern American Poetry Drawing of a red wheelbarrow StudySmarterModern American poetry uses daily objects as inspiration and subject. Wikimedia.

    This poem, "Harlem" (1951), by Langston Hughes uses images of decay to describe aspirations that go unaccomplished.

    What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

    -"Harlem" by Langston Hughes

    In "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)" (1952), E. E. Cummings uses the traditional theme of love but implements unconventional techniques.

    here is the deepest secret nobody knows

    (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

    and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

    higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

    and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

    -"i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)" by E. E. Cummings

    (lines 10-14)

    In "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)," Cummings modifies the English sonnet, changing it from 14 lines to 15, maintaining a mostly ABAB rhyme scheme, and using love as a topic. However, the experimental use of punctuation and lack of capitalization shows a rejection of the traditional writing and poetic conventions.

    Modern American Poetry - Key takeaways

    • Modern American poetry is part of the early 20th-century Modernist movement.
    • Key traits of modern American poetry include a return to the simplicity of language, a rejection of traditional forms, and experimentation with new topics and styles.
    • Common themes in modern American poetry include a focus on nature, a realistic portrayal of things, places, and people, and a focus on individual identity.
    • Contemporary American poetry is poetry dating from after World War II to the present. Influential modern American poets include T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, E. E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound.
    • Walt Whitman is often credited with ushering in the age of modern American poetry with his focus on daily domestic life as something to be celebrated.

    1Untermeyer, Louis. "The Spirit of Modern American Poetry." The English Journal. February 1924.

    2Spoo, Robert. E. "The Making of Modern American Poetry: Four Aspects." The Princeton University Library Chronicle. Spring 1994.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Modern American Poetry

    What is modern American poetry? 

    Modern American poetry is part of the early 20th-century Modernism movement. 

    What are the basic characteristics of modern American poetry? 

    Key traits of modern American poetry include a return to the simplicity of language, a rejection of traditional forms, and experimentation with new topics and styles. 

    What are the major themes in modern American poetry? 

    • Common themes in modern American poetry include a focus on nature, a realistic portrayal of things, places, and people, and a focus on individual identity and a rejection of the old traditions. 

    Who is a modern American poet? 

    Influential modern American poets include T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, E. E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound. 

    What is an anthology of poetry? 

    An anthology of poetry is a collection of poems gathered together by a poet or editor. 

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