The essential—that is, defining—characteristic of poetry as an art form is meter. The poet establishes an underlying pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, then varies it to achieve poetic effects such as enhanced emphasis or lighter movement. The meter and specifically the variations are directions for the speaking voice. And the definitively poetic effects are only achieved this way.
Where I live on Long Island, I have a choice of poetry workshops, one in each nearby town. Our town’s workshop meets weekly in the public library. I call it “10 free-verse writers and me.” My poems are metrical and usually rhyming.
So, am I the older traditionalist guy in a group of younger poets brought up in the contemporary school of “free verse”? Nope. The average age in the workshop is around 70 and the range is small. And that is true in the other workshops in surrounding towns. There is no “generation” for which “poetry” denotes what I call “the great tradition” of metrical verse in English.
Why discuss “free verse,” again? And why now? Don’t we have serious problems to discuss?
And anyway, the epitaph for “poetry” has been written and amply revised many times. Typically, examples of “free verse” from the New Yorker and Poetry are cited—often incomprehensible, commonly obscurantist, seemingly pretentious—and declared DOA for most readers. The head of a poetry workshop I used to attend explained that her husband would not be coming to our annual public poetry reading: “He says he would rather scrape his teeth on a curbstone.”
After citing the off-putting free verse, a typical epitaph for poetry will quote a stanza from the great tradition. The contrast can be telling, certainly, but millions (literally) of poems penned by students over decades that do have meter and rhyme would look shabby, indeed, next to a stanza from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”
Can one make a case for the importance of the “great tradition” of verse that dominated poetry until the baby boomer generation? That cut-off point is commonly chosen because the five-volume poem, Paterson, by William Carlos Williams, was published first in 1946 and is seen not as the first free verse but as the beginning of the dominance of the free-verse school. Paterson, unsurprisingly, was written partly as Williams’ response to Ulysses by James Joyce. Commentators see him, also, as imitating “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot.
So, what of the “importance” of traditional verse? That readers for centuries have delighted in such poetry, viewed it as incomparably enhancing the experience of life, and expressing things in the soul otherwise ineffable, might be an argument. That the literary geniuses in each age have dedicated their lives to poetry, even if, like William Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy, they were literary giants in other fields, might be an argument. That great educators at top schools and colleges long viewed poetry as a bedrock of liberal education and mastery of the English language might be an argument.
Proponents of free verse, of course, argue that those roles of poetry continue, today, at first enriched—now dominated—by free verse. But there is a fundamental problem with that response. The problem is that free verse is not poetry.
Robert Frost said so, T.S. Eliot said so; but logic, including the nature of definition, also says so. The essential—that is, defining—characteristic of poetry as an art form is meter. The poet establishes an underlying pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, then varies it to achieve poetic effects such as enhanced emphasis or lighter movement. The meter and specifically the variations are directions for the speaking voice. And the definitively poetic effects are only achieved this way.
This is the first stanza of Shakespeare’s famous 73 sonnet. The first three lines set the meter (perfect iambic pentameter—alternation of unstressed and stressed syllables); then, the poet claims his payoff with a fourth line that piles up stressed syllables (no fewer than seven out of ten) to achieve incomparable emphasis.
That time of year though mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold,
/ / / – / – / / /
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
Why are metrical effects the only definitively poetic effects? Because prose shares all other effects achievable by poetry such as denotation and connotation, metaphor, rhythm, assonance and consonance, imagery, sentence structure, and tone. William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe are modern novelists said to write “poetic prose,” which means prose notable for the effects listed above. Another widely heralded example is Vladimir Nabokov, who was primarily a novelist, but also a notable poet and translator of poetry.
We have no problem recognizing these “poetic” novelists without fear of confusing their prose with poetry in the great tradition. But that is decidedly not the case with free verse. I offer this challenge to free verse writers, including those in my workshop: If you did not use line breaks would we know that this was a poem? And not a beautifully written prose sketch or a paragraph from a novel?
There is no effective answer to this challenge except to point to other devices introduced into free verse to signal that it is not prose. Many writers of free verse, for example, use little or no punctuation. Many eliminate connecting words such as propositions and articles. Most resort to obscure references and oblique descriptions so that the reader’s first reaction on finishing the poem typically is “This is beautiful, but I don’t really understand what it means.” Well, then! It must be poetry, right? Because the first quality sought in all other writing is intelligibility.
In “real” poetry, line lengths are defined by the number of poetic feet in the verse form the poet chooses. The most common poetic foot by far in English poetry is the iamb (an unstressed syllable, then a stressed one). The poet selects a three-foot line (trimeter), four-foot line (tetrameter), five-foot line (pentameter), or six-foot line (hexameter). For each, there are many thousands of famous models from centuries of English prosody. Each line length has well-known potential and characteristics.
In free verse, line length and line breaks are arbitrary, or, to be more charitable, chosen by each poet for each line of each poem according to “feel”—and justified, when required, by reference to a one-off argument. The destination of this logic long ago became clear, but now is more widespread: “paragraph poetry,” which dispenses with the line-break charade.
It is important to mention rhyme. Use of rhyme is limited to poetry (there is no systematic rhyming in prose), but poetry is not limited to rhyme. Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) and there is a long tradition of such verse, including Robert Frost’s longer poems such as “The Hired Man” and “The Witch of Coos.” Thus, while rhyme is perhaps the most striking and beloved aspect of poetry, meter is its defining and indispensable characteristic.
And so, today, poetry’s well-established precincts (school and college literature classes and creative writing classes, magazines that publish poems, and poetry journals) are increasingly inhabited by free verse. In literature classes, at least for now, poetry’s great tradition gets some coverage; but, at all ages, in all contexts, the writing of poetry overwhelmingly means free verse. That means, in the context of my thesis, here, that the poetry establishment has given up on poetry.
And so, too, have readers. Today, many people write free verse, often sitting down for an hour or less to produce a poem for the workshop, but far fewer people read poetry—or listen to it. In my area, poets, groups of poets, bookstores, and bars (cabarets?) hold poetry readings, but mostly they are attended by other poets. The standard ploy is the “open mic,” where poets sign up to read one or two poems. To get to read, they must listen to the other poets. Not infrequently, the total attendance at a reading can be ascertained by counting how many people have signed up to read. Very few names of free verse writers, today, even those on the scene for decades, are as widely known to the reading public as are the last poets in the great tradition (all now deceased): William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and Dylan Thomas. Poetry today has given up its audience because it has given up poetry.
Although it requires an additional article, a question bound to arise is where have poets inspired by the genuine poetic impulse gone and what have they done with poetry? Two evident possibilities are that the poets attend “poetry slams” or write, and listen, to “Rap” music (now part of “Hip-Hop”).
The 2014 National Poetry Slam featured 72 certified teams, culminating in five days of competition. There are permanent venues for slams in many cities. Since the movement began in the mid-1980s, the slam has absorbed new poets and become increasingly “mainstream.” In 2017, Tyehimba Jess, a poet who competed at the National Poetry Slam, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Several slammers have won National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships for Literature; a few now teach on college faculties.
The slam emphasizes personality and performance; slam poetry is performed poetry. There is nothing new or dubious about that, of course. Slams have injected the human voice back into poetry and voice, gesture, and drama can compensate for many shortcomings in the work itself. Nevertheless, the slam is a limited window on the world. It began as political protest and remains that, now heavily focused on identity politics. Audiences view slams as political protest events. Susan B.A. Somers-Willett in The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2009) writes that “poems that make an empowered declaration of marginalized identity and individuality are a staple of one’s slam repertoire.”
Here is a stanza from a poem by Tyehimba Jess:
when your man comes home from prison,
when he comes back like the wound
and you are the stitch,
when he comes back with pennies in his pocket
and prayer fresh on his lips,
you got to wash him down first.
One slam poet and critic, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, offers a partial rundown of poetry slam styles as “…ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks…” Among those “styles” emphatically is not poetry, if poetry is defined by the great tradition of prosody evolved over seven or more centuries by poets writing in English.
Well, has the poetic impulse, then, escaped free verse and found refuge in Rap music? Something has found refuge, there! Forbes reports that Rap is now a $10 billion a year industry and “its customer base is the 45 million hip-hop consumers between the ages of 13 and 34, 80% of whom are white.”
Rap, unlike slamming, is not even putatively in the tradition of English poetry. It is song, particularly chanting, accompanied by background music. Rap traces its origins, as do the blues and spirituals, to African roots, specifically the West African tradition of oral historians or “praise-singers.” Rap undoubtedly is rhythmic and does employ rhyme—in fact, obsessively so, as in the psychotic thought disorder called “clanging,” in which the patient connects thoughts chiefly by rhymes and puns. Like slamming, but more so, its window on the world is narrow: sex, domestic violence, racism, and a disturbingly repetitious focus on killing police officers. Here’s a famous line from rapper 4hunnidGs:
“Scared to death, scared to look, they shook/
Cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks…”
I don’t think that those longing to experience poetry in the great tradition are going to gravitate to Rap or that Rap even remotely portends a return of poetry’s popular appeal. It does have popular appeal, but the appeal is not poetry.
It is possible to put what has happened to poetry in a wider context to reveal the philosophical “motives,” or underlying ideology, of the free-verse movement. The key to argument is that free verse specifically rejects the essential characteristic of poetry. Vers libre is “poetry” without meter. No other elements of poetry are rejected, but the element that is rejected defines poetry. This has the earmarks of a philosophical agenda.
The analogy with the visual arts has been drawn. What we call modern, or “abstract,” or “non-objective” art specifically rejects what had been viewed as the purpose and defining characteristic of art: representation. In other words, a drawing, a painting, was of something. All other aspects of art—shape, color, pattern, movement, texture—remain.
Obviously, the thesis is a broad one, but it can be indicated in concert music, too. What is sometimes called “modern” music, to which audiences are treated because government and corporate funders of the arts insist on “recognizing it,” lacks melody, harmony, and tonality. At one time, and I venture, still, for most concert goers, those were the very definition of “classical music.” Tracing how “modern” music emerged can illuminate poetry, also, for in music there is an explicit assertion that music has no timeless truths and no classical principles. So stop criticizing.
Once upon a time, painting pictures of “something” and approaching poetry writing in the context of metrical structure were to recognize the nature of an art form, recognize what it was.
In “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” William Butler Yeats, the last of the great Romantic poets and the foremost traditional poet of the Twentieth Century, looked back on World War I and wrote lines that apply to many things we have let slip away:
“Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude…”