If we are going to understand what contemporary poetry is, we need to clearly define our terms and understand what we mean by them. In searching this out, I found one reference that put it quite well:
By definition of its namesake, contemporary poetry is considered poetry written within our lifetime, and includes poems written approximately from the mid-20th century to the present day. The various types of contemporary poetry do not differ so much from each other as they do from poetry of past eras, such as traditional poetry. Contemporary poems often share similar themes and writing styles.
~~ Alicia Sparks, ©2016 Conjecture Corporation, wisegeek.com
So contemporary poetry is not a “school of poetry” or a “poetic movement” per se, like Modernism and Imagism would be, but it is more in reference to a time period and the consistent characteristics found in significant portions of the larger body of poetic work from that time period or era.
Thus, when we use the term “contemporary poetry” we are referring to poetry written in our lifetime. For most of us, that would be poetry written from the 1950s to the present. It does not necessarily mean the poet is still alive, just that they wrote some poetry in that time frame.
Taken together then, when we use the term contemporary poetry we are referring to common qualities and characteristics exhibited by a significant portion of the larger body of poetic work written in our lifetime.
Some of the confusion over the use of this term may have originated in the Modernist movement when T.S. Eliot wrote about the contemporary poetry of his day, which came to be known as Modern poetry, and so to this day, many universities offer courses in “Modern and Contemporary Poetry” which only serves to further blur the more precise understanding of what these terms mean.
The contemporary poetry of T.S. Eliot differs from the contemporary poetry of our day, though there is some overlap. However, the contemporary poetry of Shakespeare’s day vastly differs from that of our day.
Contemporary poetry is difficult to define because it is constantly modified by what is currently being written. So then, what are the qualities and characteristics of a significant portion of the contemporary works in the larger body of poetry being written today?
There are some definite fundamental characteristics of recent contemporary poetry that we can identify that distinguishes it from other poetry.
...is most often written in unrhymed or sparsely rhymed free verse.
...features lines that follow the natural rhythms of language rather than strict metric / accent patterns.
...is written in language that is accessible to the common reader.
...suggests ideas rather than blatantly stating them.
...is usually brief in form and style, especially in comparison to traditional poetry.
...is grounded in vivid imagery.
...invites the reader to see and experience the content the poem for themselves as opposed to telling them exactly what it is saying.
So now, when someone talks about contemporary poetry, you’ll have a better idea what they mean. ■
This article appears in the book, Dropping Ants into Poems. For a free sample of the book, click on the title.