As a public service, since it’s National Poetry Month, and since there seems to be a considerable deficit of awareness about what contemporary poetry is all about, I thought I’d provide a brief overview of the different types and brands out there right now. This, I hope, will save the curious but lazy the trouble of having to do a whole lot of unnecessary reading.

For starters, there’s slam poetry. Slam poetry consists of saying things in a rhythmic or “jazzy” way, usually about your feelings or your street cred or how the establishment is trying to keep you down. It may be accompanied by dramatic gestures. Slam poetry is the only kind of contemporary poetry that rhymes. It is sprinkled with profanity here and there, so that the listener can tell that the poet is contemporary. Slam poetry exists only at open mics and on MTV, never in books. Slam poets are not afraid to criticize each other’s work. It’s all about being real. They use a sophisticated ranking system, often involving a scale of one to ten, or applause volume.

Then there’s confessional poetry. Confessional poetry has some things in common with slam poetry, especially its emphasis on the poet’s personal perspective, but whereas slam tends to be more about how the poet will overcome various obstacles via the transformative energy inherent in his/her individual awesomeness, confessional poetry focuses more on sharing the poet’s most intimate, painful, and private business with the reader. Confessional poetry, being more “serious,” doesn’t usually rhyme (unless it is of the increasingly old-fashioned Plathian variety). Confessionalism takes as its main starting point the tenet that anything that has happened to the poet is inherently interesting, as long as it is broken into lines of verse in a convincingly random way. For example, if you simply state,

I remember late July afternoons out at Badger Lake when my stepfather, pink-faced from drinking warm stout all day, would gradually shift his stubby fingers away from the jib of our old dinghy and over to the waistband of my Dittos,

It’s just great, hard-hitting writing. But if you format it like this:

I remember late July afternoons
out at Badger Lake when my stepfather,
pink-faced from drinking warm stout
all day, would gradually shift his stubby fingers
away from the jib of our old dinghy
and over to the waistband of my Dittos

It’s also finely wrought confessional poetry. For added potency, confessional poetry can be enhanced by special focus on the poet’s racial background, sexual orientation, political beliefs, and/or various drug addictions.

Next is professional poetry. Professional poetry’s main function is to establish the author’s non-amateur status through iteration of various aesthetic codes recognizable by other professionals. These codes include the use of fancy-but-not-too-fancy words, a kind of dignified uninterestingness, and little hints that there is a trust fund somewhere in the background. There may be allusions to French films from the Criterion Collection, terms borrowed from continental philosophy, or little snippets of quotation from any of several medieval romance languages. In some cases, subtle fragmentation may be deployed, but not so much as to obscure the author’s impeccable Ivy-League grammatical training. Professional lyric used to be in blank verse but now it just looks like it is.

Neo-Beat poetry: see slam poetry.

Language poetry: there are actually only about twelve actual language poets, all of whom are now either university chairs or market analysts, but a wide swath of contemporary poetry has been gathered under this rubric by the vulgar masses, so what are you going to do? Language poetry is poetry that makes even less sense than regular poetry. It is synonymous with experimental poetry, innovative poetry, proceduralism, Modernism, Postmodernism, abstract lyric, Oulipo, New York School, Dada, surrealism, math, and deconstruction. The original language poets were committed to an ambitious political agenda which involved effecting revolutionary change by alienating readers from transparent linguistic reference. It totally worked. Language poet John Ashbery is now Poet Laureate of the UN and head of the US shadow government in Cuba.

That leaves the rival cousins conceptual writing and “flarf.” Conceptual writing is usually just copying stuff down, or better yet, scanning it. Sometimes it may involve listing everything in the author’s apartment that can be lifted by his penis. “Flarf” (so called because of a tattooing accident suffered by its inventor, Noah Eli Gordon) is a far more advanced procedure whereby Google search results are translated into Russian, back into English, then into Korean, back into English again, and finally collaged by the poet’s undergraduate interns into dramatic monologues. “Flarf” has shown promising results in clinical trials where it has been used to treat nervous disorders in parrots, budgerigars, and other talking birds.

I may have forgotten a few, but these are the chief strains that anyone needs to worry about. Overall, anyone who isn’t already actively engaged in reading or writing contemporary poetry of whatever type, but who wants to learn more, should probably just read the Amazon customer comments on various Norton anthologies, or—I guess—the anthologies themselves. The most important thing to remember is that poetry is for everyone, not just local eccentrics and internet trolls. Poetry elevates us by giving us a venue in which to seem much smarter and more culturally engaged than we really are, which is why it’s a real shame that it’s pretty much impossible to make any actual money from just doing poetry as your main thing. For example, I have to do all this fucking teaching and guest blogging. But anyway, poetry is a shared heritage that we all benefit from, meow meow meow, someone please send me a free copy of Dana Ward’s new book, Crisis of Infinite Worlds (Futurepoem, 2013), because it looks amazing.

Originally Published: April 8th, 2013

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of several books of poetry, including Deer Head Nation (2003), A Thousand Devils (2004) Breathalyzer (2008), and The Front (2009). In The Sonnagrams (2009), Mohammad anagrammatizes Shakespeare’s sonnets into all-new English sonnets in iambic pentameter. He is also editor of the poetry magazine Abraham Lincoln and faculty editor...