Modern vs Contemporary Poetry

All categories are slightly artificial and perhaps none more so than periods in literary history. When I wrote about first encountering ‘contemporary’ poetry, I wanted to emphasize how far our ’now’ can, or should stretch. Decades, not years

Perhaps it should stretch further. Playing with categories is like shuffling cards: potentially endless and, after a certain point, pointless. But the way we use words like ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ says something about our attitudes to the past and the present and this is always interesting to me because it means they are also value judgements, statements of feeling as much as descriptions.  

For example, you could argue that having a very narrow conception of the contemporary is simply an extreme version of a much older debate about the value of modern as opposed to ‘classical’ poetry: whether literature should reflect the world the writer is living in or be based on ‘timeless’ principles, usually associated with particular forms and conventions.

If what distinguishes the modern from the classical is its ‘present-ness’, then we should expect poetry to change as often and as drastically as the world does, i.e., a lot. So, although Milton, Wordsworth and, say, Elizabeth Bishop, are all ‘modern’ in comparison to Homer, they represent distinct eras. What now tends to get called modern poetry is just the era before whatever era we are in right now.

Then again, none of these writers (or their contemporaries) are as distant as we might think. People once dismissed the idea of writing poetry in English at all, or of writing plays which weren’t modelled on Greek tragedy. Then they dismissed poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as, well — romantics. W. H. Auden feels pretty contemporary right now – but so does John Clare.

One the things which makes poetry poetry is the way it sits somewhere outside of ‘day to day’ time. It speaks to — and is a way of listening to — the past as well as the present. There is no point in quibbling about where the contemporary begins, because all poetry is contemporary.

And yet: there is a lot of past to choose from. And because poetry is so time-specific, it is easy to take out of context. How people chop up history almost always says more about the chopper than the thing being chopped. There is something inevitable about this. Everyone has to work out for themselves what they want to listen to, who they want to speak to. You have to chop your own wood.

The problem comes when history is wielded in order to exclude or diminish other kinds of writing with different concerns, or to demarcate a particular community: ‘everyone should read and admire X, not Y, or they are not truly one of Z’. (The traditional sign that something radical has become prescriptive is that you have to study it in school or at university.) The rebels always end up inside the castle.

Louis MacNeice said it best when he advocated for ‘impure poetry… for poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.’1 Beyond that, perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it.


1 The quote comes from MacNeice’s book-length essay Modern Poetry, which was published in 1938.

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