I am frustrated with most of what passes for poetry today. Too many poems lack craft and intellectual rigor, their words are simply a screed of banal sentiment. I submit that the use of meter and rhyme would do much to invigorate contemporary poetry. I further submit that there is a general and disheartening a lack of critical spirit in the reading of contemporary poetry. |
Entirely too many of the free verse poets of our times are semi barbarians bent on destroying our body aesthetic. These poets are barbaric because they continue to celebrate sentimentality and religious superstition in a space age society of digitized computation. One of the essential qualities of verse—that the free verse poetaster seems to have forgotten— is rhythm. After all, lyric poetry is actually song. And too, the free verse poets seem to know nothing of the poetic traditions in which the regular alternation of strong and weak elements play a vital part, I refer to the quantitative rhythms of Greek and Latin (relying on the oscillation of long and short syllables), including the accentual rhythms of Germanic languages (including English). One of the essential, predictable qualities of the poetic past is the rise and fall of light and heavy, weak and strong that echoes the beat of our heart, and forgotten too, in free verse, are the patterns of light and dark, cold and hot, life and death by which our very existence is ordered.
I would argue that poets turned to free verse for reasons other than a simple longing for individual freedom, or an effort to provide a more accurate representation of human nature. They argue that there is a higher and lower element to man, that we are both ethereal and earthy. And so the free-versers turn to a lower diction, among other reasons, to balance what they understand to be the untruth of an overly stylized, ornate diction that ignored man’s fleshly nature and common diction.
A similar motive can be found in French surrealism. While it is clear that there is a yearning for a “debased” autonomy in surrealism, a similar yearning is to be found in the use of “debased” fractured syntax and absurd images employed by free verse poets. They argue that the common diction of the surrealists’ free verse fragments is a more accurate representation of human experience as it is actually lived, not as it should be lived. But all poetry is constrained in some way or another, and almost all so-called “modernist” poets recognized this. In 1942, T.S. Eliot stated famously that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” William Carlos Williams wrote that “Being an art form, verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles.” Williams himself experimented with what he called a “triadic line.” Even the staunchest of anti-formalists, cannot shake all formal constraints, as Paul Lake shows in his essay “The Enchanted Loom.” Internal rhymes, repetition, syntactic hierarchies, self-similarity, fractal scaling, and so forth assert themselves again and again. In fact, the impossibility of freedom from formal constraints is now so widely accepted it has become a truism.
I believe that contemporary poetry can be reinvigorated by an incorporation of meter and rhyme. Poetry would be better served if poets were to open themselves up to the possibility of rhyme and meter, using it when appropriate as they explore language in search of new forms that communicate the truth of who we are and what there is to living individuals. After all, art is a communal act, and although the artist must write poems that meet his own satisfaction they must also serve his audience.
T. S. Eliot observed in his 1917 "Reflections on Vers Libre," that "there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos." How to avoid the latter? The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating it to a very simple iambic one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse. Eliot tells us that, "the ghost of some simple meter should lurk behind the areas in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse.” The freedom of free verse is only truly free when the ghost of meter appears in its background.
So in answer to the title’s question I hope that the era of “free verse” has been no more than a temporary aberration, given that poetry was always, before the modern period, associated with meter. In support of my argument I’ll cite a Robert Frost poem, “Let chaos storm! Let cloud shapes swarm! I wait for form” Collected Poems of Robert Frost
Related Articles -
free-verse, malignancy, surrealism, Eliot, Frost,