Is Modern Poetry Too Complicated For Modern Readers?

Modern poetry is markedly different from classic poetry. It relies less on meter and rhyme, and focuses more on biographical events and the everyday experiences of people. So why isn’t poetry more popular these days? Are there ways in which modern poetry is too complicated — and therefore uninteresting — to modern readers?

Superficially, modern poetry is simpler. Because rhyme and meter are emphasized less, we don’t get the tortured grammar of Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Modern poetry more often adheres to free verse, meaning that the poetry tends to follow conventional grammar more closely. Instead of Shakespeare’s inverted sentences (for example, “Why so large cost, having so short a lease,/Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?” from Sonnet 146), we get Vera Pavlova’s paradoxical, but grammatically clear lines (for example, “If there is something to desire/There will be something to regret” from her collection of poems by the same name).

So in some ways, modern poetry isn’t too complicated. However, there’s a lot more to it than grammar.

Modern poetry frequently draws on academic references that make it difficult for non-graduate students to understand what is happening. T.S. Eliot is perhaps most famous for this. His famous poem “The Waste Land” begins with a Greek quotation, makes references to Anglo-Saxon mythology and Buddhism in addition to more traditional Roman mythology, and has lines in German, French, and Italian. It’s easy to feel helpless when approaching a poem like “The Waste Land,” because most of us don’t have all of these references at our fingertips. A poet like T.S. Eliot makes modern poetry seem hard and makes it seem like poetry is only for elites who have the time to unravel complex mythology.

However, even parts of “The Waste Land” can be appreciated on their own. The fourth section of “The Waste Land” is a moving meditation on death, even if you don’t know who Phlebas is or where Phoenicia was located. There are ways in which modern poetry can be enjoyed in parts, rather than in wholes, that is unusual in poetry. Furthermore, many modern poets have started incorporating pop culture references into their poetry (for instance, Bay Area poet Uyen Hua references Mary J. Blige, among others, in her collection of poems a/s/l), a move that makes her poetry more widely accessible.

Perhaps most interesting is the rise of translation. Suddenly poetry has a global reach, meaning that people can read poems from Palestine, India, and a variety of post-Communist Eastern European countries, in addition to the countries that have been traditionally translated (France, Italy, and Germany, for example). This means that readers are expected to know a vast amount of world history in addition to being up on current politics. In many ways, this is a good shift because it introduces Western readers to a variety of viewpoints that they may never have encountered before, but this shift also makes the poetry more complex.

Modern poetry is very complicated because it requires a lot of its readers. However, that doesn’t mean it’s too complicated. Sure some poems make you feel like you’re wading through molasses, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. Poetry is a deeply individual genre. Just because one writer is too complex for you doesn’t mean that all modern poetry is too complex. Whenever you read poetry, keep Jasper Fforde’s description of poetry in mind: “Whereas story is processed in the mind in a straightforward manner, poetry bypasses rational thought and goes straight to the limbic system and lights it up like a brushfire. It's the crack cocaine of the literary world.” If a poem doesn’t hit you like crack cocaine, try a different poet. Soon you’ll find that modern poetry isn’t that difficult after all.