A shift away from an assumption that traditional forms, ideas, and history can provide meaning and continuity to human life has occurred in the contemporary literary imagination throughout many parts of the world, including the United States. Events since World War II have produced a sense of history as discontinuous: Each act, emotion, and moment is seen as unique. Style and form now seem provisional, makeshift, reflexive of the process of composition and the writer's self-awareness. Familiar categories of expression are suspect; originality is becoming a new tradition.

It is not hard to find historical causes for this disassociated sensibility in the United States. World War II itself, the rise of anonymity and consumerism in a mass urban society, the protest movements of the 1960s, the decade-long Vietnam conflict, the Cold War, environmental threats -- the catalog of shocks to American culture is long and varied. The change that has most transformed American society, however, has been the rise of the mass media and mass culture. First radio, then movies, and now an all-powerful, ubiquitous television presence have changed American life at its roots. From a private, literate, elite culture based on the book, the eye, and reading, the United States has become a media culture attuned to the voice on the radio, the music of compact discs and cassettes, film, and the images on the television screen.

American poetry has been directly influenced by mass media and electronic technology. Films, videotapes, and tape recordings of poetry readings and interviews with poets have become available, and new inexpensive photographic methods of printing have encouraged young poets to self-publish and young editors to begin literary magazines -- of which there are now well over 2,000. From the late 1950s to the present, Americans have been increasingly aware that technology, so useful in itself, presents dangers through the wrong kinds of striking images. To Americans seeking alternatives, poetry seems more relevant than before: It offers people a way to express subjective life and articulate the impact of technology and mass society on the individual.

A host of styles, some regional, some associated with famous schools or poets, vie for attention; contemporary American poetry is decentralized, richly varied, and impossible to summarize. For the sake of discussion, however, it can be arranged along a spectrum, producing three overlapping camps -- the traditional on one end, the idiosyncratic in the middle, and the experimental on the other end. Traditional poets have maintained or revitalized poetic traditions. Idiosyncratic poets have used both traditional and innovative techniques in creating unique voices. Experimental poets have courted new cultural styles.