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Modern American Poetry

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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.

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 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.

Realism

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 both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;"
-"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost (lines 1-5)
th
Modern American Poetry Robert Frost's cabin 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 depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens"

-"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
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

Modern American poetry is part of the early 20th-century Modernism 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 and a rejection of the old traditions. 

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

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

Final Modern American Poetry Quiz

Question

When did Confessional Poetry begin as a literary movement?



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Late 1950s

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Who are four of the most famous Confessional Poets?

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Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and W.D. Snodgrass 

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What is Confessional Poetry?

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a literary movement born in the late 1950s that honestly and directly spoke about the poet's own life experiences, often remarking on the psychological battles they have faced.  

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What is the difference between a narrator and a speaker in literature?

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In longer books and novels, the one who tells the story is the narrator but in poetry, the one who tells the poem is the speaker.

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What was unique about Confessional Poetry in terms of the poet versus the speaker?

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Confessional Poets bridged the gap between the poet and the speaker, making them one and the same.

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Question

What does Colloquial mean?



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Use of informal or familiar language  

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When did Confessional Poetry lose popularity?

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In the 1970s

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What are two poetry movements influenced by Confessional Poetry?

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Slam Poetry and Perfomance Poetry

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What is the modern critique of Confessional Poetry?

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 Modern criticism of Confessional Poetry states that Confessional Poetry was too exclusively white, middle to upper class, and heterosexual/heteronormative.  

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What are the four key characteristics of Confessional Poetry?

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intimate subject matters, the use of the first-person point of view, autobiographical experiences, and careful use of craftsmanship. 

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What does it mean to write in the First Person Point of View?

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It means that the speaker of the poem is telling the poem from their point of view using the pronoun "I". 

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Why was using the First Person Point of View important to Confessional Poets?

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It is a way of inviting the reader into the mind of the poet while also inviting the reader to relate and perhaps place themselves into the shoes of the poet/speaker. 

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Question

What is the Beat Generation movement?

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The Beat Generation movement was a literary movement in the 1950s in the United States. It is characterized by poets and authors with countercultural social ideals and radically new approaches to poetry. 

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What are the Beat Generation characteristics?

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The Beat Generation is characterized by free verse, spontaneous poems without a traditional narrative structure. The form of Beat poetry sought to mimic the cadences and rhythms of jazz, imbuing the improvisational nature of jazz music into the poetic structure. 

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What was the Beat Generation rebelling against?

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The Beat Generation came following the atrocities of World War II. The writers making up the Beat Generation experienced life during wartime, and then the U.S. immediately thrust itself into the Cold War. Disillusioned with the world following these events and the horrors of the war, the Beat Generation poets rebelled against what they saw as the ills of society: capitalism and conformism. They sought to make taboo subjects, such as drugs and sexual liberation, mainstream.

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Why was the Beat Generation important?


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The Beat Generation was an important cultural movement in the history of the United States. Its influence is seen in the changes in censorship lawsuits following the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) in which the poem, despite its frank discussion of drugs, sex, and use of foul language, was deemed to have redeeming social value. The Beat Movement also paved the way for the hippie movement of the 1960s.

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How did the Beat Generation influence America?


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The Beat Generation influenced America by changing the approach to censorship and obscenity in literature following the publication of works such as Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959). Additionally, the Beat movement’s emphasis on the importance of nature and care for the natural world is seen as the predecessor to later environmental movements in the United States.

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Who are considered the three founding members of the Beat Generation?

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Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs

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What poem sparked an important obscenity trial that publicized the Beat Generation movement?

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"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

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True or False: The Beat Generation was founded on anti-capitalist, anti-conformist values

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True

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How did World War II influence the formation of the Beat Generation?

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Many of the poets and authors involved in the Beat Generation witnessed the atrocities and horrors of World War II. The subsequent entry into the Cold War saw these authors disillusioned with the state of the world and seeking answers through spiritual, anticapitalist, anticonformist lifestyles.

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Where were the East and West coast hotspots of the Beat Generation movement?

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On the East Coast, Greenwich Village in New York City, and on the West Coast, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. 

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What was New Formalism a reaction to?

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Free verse poetry and Confessional poetry.

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When was New Formalism popular?

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The 1980s and 1990s.

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When was the foundation set for New Formalists?

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The late 1960s and early 1970s.

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What are some defining features of a New Formalist poem?

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The use of structured meter, rhyme, and stanzas.  

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Did New Formalists prefer narrative structure or lyrical structures?

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Narrative structures

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What was the main criticism of New Formalist poetry?

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Many critics believed that New Formalist poetry, was socially conservative, elitist, capitalistic, and supported white supremacy and the patriarchy.

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How have Annie Finch and Julia Alvarez defended New Formalism?

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They believe that New Formalism can be used as a reclamation of language by minority groups.

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Can you name a few New Formalist poets?

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Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Brad Leithauser, Marilyn Hacker, A. E. Stallings, and Leo Yankevich.  

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Why is the New Formalist poetry of A.E. Stallings unique?

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Stallings is known for creating a grey area within her poems between free verse and formal poetic structures. 

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What is a poetic Narrative structure?

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A poem that has a beginning, a conflict, and a resolution as well as a fully developed plot and characters.

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What is a poetry slam? 

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A poetry slam is a type of competition in which originally written poems are performed before a live audience. 

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What is slam poetry? 

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Slam poetry, also known as performance poetry or spoken-word poetry, is a genre specifically written to be performed. 

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How long to performers typically have to present their poems during a poetry slam? 

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3 minutes

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During a poetry slam, performers are allowed to do all of the following except

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use music

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All of the following are rules in a poetry slam except 

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poems must be politically charged.

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Is the following statement true or false of slam poetry:

"Slam poems must adhere to a strict format."

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False. Slam poems come in a variety of formats and do not have a specific rhyme scheme, structure, or meter. 

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Are poetry slams and slam poems the only form of performance poetry? 

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No,  the performance of poetry has been around since the times of Homer's epic poems.

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When did poetry slams originate? 

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Originating in Chicago in the 1980s, poetry slams were a means to reawaken poetry and return it to the general masses.

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What is the difference between slam poetry and other poetry? 

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The primary difference between traditional forms of poetry and slam poetry is that slam poetry is performance poetry and written with the specific intent of being delivered live, to an audience. 

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What is an example of a slam poem, or spoken-word poem? 

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A prime example of performance poetry or spoken word poetry is "The Hill We Climb" by Amanda Gorman, presented at President Joe Biden's inauguration. 

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What magazine was fundamental in the start of modern American poetry? 

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The early years of modern American poetry are considered by most to have officially begun with the founding of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1912.

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Modern American poetry is characterized by all of the following except

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a strict adherence to traditional forms

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Which poet is often credited as being the "spirited grandfather" of modern American poetry? 

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Walt Whitman

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What is the difference between modern American poetry and contemporary American poetry? 

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Modern American poetry ranges from the early 20th century to before World War II, and contemporary American poetry is typically poetry from after World War II to the present. 

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What is an anthology of poetry? 

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

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How is E. E. Cummings's poem "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in)" a modern American poem? 

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Cummings altered the form of the traditional English sonnet and experimented with punctuation and capitalization. 

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Common themes in modern American poetry include all the following except

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Answer

romantic love

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What social need in America created the modern American poetry movement? 

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The modern American poetry movement, or 20th-century poetry, was born out of a social, political, and cultural need to redefine the American identity. 

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