Free Verse at the Forefront of Poetic Style
"I would as soon play tennis without a net as write free verse," once quipped Robert Frost. Yet even a poetic deity like Frost could do little to stall poetry’s evolution toward a more open format. The poets of post-World War II America eagerly sloughed off the rigid rules of poetic form, embracing instead the free verse style first introduced by Walt Whitman at the turn of the century. The net of rhyme and meter were soon irreverently torn down by the likes of Alan Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, and Adrienne Rich, among others.
To these post-war poets, the impression of rhyme scheme and stanza length upon a poem impeded its organic growth. Free verse rectified this "problem" by searching for its musicality in the rhythm of everyday speech. Disciples of free verse attempted to squeeze their sanguine drop of poesy for the craggy stone of colloquialism. The elite vocabulary of poetry expanded to include slang and pop culture references. In free verse, poetic tone shifted from what some considered aloof and academic to confessional and conversational. Many poets removed punctuation from their works. Others introduced irregular stanzas. Still others limited revisions of their poetry—all in an effort to create poetry without bounds, verse in the raw.
Philip Levine, a poet at the forefront of the free verse movement, best sums up the sentiment behind this notable shift in poetic style in the excerpt from his work "The Simple Truth":
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering . . .
The moments and memories worthy of poetry, Levine suggests, are those least in need of poetic dressing. The true monuments of life are rendered most poignant only when stripped of all ornamentation—namely, according to Levine, poetic form.
Today, free verse poetry still holds court as the preeminent poetic style. Works such as Langston Hughes’ "Theme for English B," Ginsberg’s "Howl," and Rich’s "Driving into the Wreck" are a testament to the illimitable powers of free verse. But just as the turn of the twentieth century introduced free verse, the turn of the twenty-first century is witnessing the reintroduction of poetic form. Slowly but surely, modern poets are making small concessions to the formal styles nearly abandoned by their poetic predecessors of only a generation ago.
While post-World War II era free verse rallied against poetic elitism, the new formalism approaches poetry in a similarly egalitarian manner. Whereas Levine viewed poetic form and purity of expression as mutually exclusive concepts, modern poets are exploring the combination of formal styles and informal language with surprisingly effective results. The blend of form and colloquialism provides an emotional balance not easily achieved without the boundaries set by rhyme scheme or stanza length. Additionally, the juxtaposition of formal style and informal language can expand the signification and heighten the emotional tone of poetry.
The allowances made to formalism are, thus far, small. Forms like the sonnet and the sestina, with their complex framework of line arrangements and metrical feet, are not entirely avoided, but more subtle poetic techniques are shaping many modern works. A return to rhyme is perhaps the most notable shift. Rather than the clipped and sometimes sterile-sounding perfect end rhyme of poems past, however, today’s poets choose to employ slant rhyme or internal rhyme, in keeping with the natural speech rhythms explored in free verse. Regular stanzaic patterns are also making a comeback, as well as unrhymed styles like blank verse.
Whether poetry is most effective when written in form or free verse is still hotly debated. For the beginner or burgeoning poet, the solution to this quarrel may lie in the motivation behind the poem. A poem intended to endow its subject with dignity and praise may be well suited to the pomp and circumstance of poetic form. On the other hand, a work exploring the electricity of city life and urban language will likely find the flexibility of free verse to be the best fit.
Using poetic form should not be an exercise, most poets agree, but a calling. A poem should naturally lend itself to a particular form, or lack thereof. The subject matter, theme, and tone should, in large part, dictate a poem’s style.
The following excerpt is taken from Denis Johnson’s poem "Heat." Johnson employs a variation on the sonnet form:
Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of the Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover . . .
Johnson’s application of form is particularly clever here. The use of end rhyme—"lover" and "Cover"—as well as internal slant rhyme—"gin" and "Rings"—add an air of sophistication to "beautiful Susan," and certain credibility to the title "Our Lady." Had Johnson chosen free verse as his mode of expression, the character of Susan may have become merely comical, as opposed to devilish and endearing.
The next excerpt, taken from Thomas Kinsella’s "Tear," also offers a description of a memorable woman. Kinsella, however, explores his subject in free verse:
She stared at the ceiling
and puffed her cheek, distracted,
propped high in the bed
resting for the next attack.
The covers were gathered close
up to her mouth,
that the lines of ill-temper still
marked . . .
Kinsella’s narrator describes his ailing grandmother with a certain clinical coolness. Clipped lines and an unfettered vocabulary render the grandmother both pathetic and vaguely loathsome. The incorporation of rhyme and meter here would be ungainly—populating this morbid scene with unnecessary poetic flourishes.
Both Johnson and Kinsella set a distinct tone and create compelling characters, yet their approach to poetry differs widely. This may leave fledgling poets, looking to their more established counterparts for guidance, a bit confounded: Erect the net or tear it down? Ultimately, the decision to employ or rebuff form is a matter of personal taste, but finding the answers to the following questions may lead to a more educated and effective choice:
What do you know? If your familiarity with poetic form extends only to end rhyme, expand your knowledge. The more styles you master, the greater your ability to diversify your poetry. If you do not understand the makeup of a villanelle, how will you know whether or not your topic might best be expressed in that form? There are slews of books on the market that demystify poetic form in all of its incarnations. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, as well as The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayes are both thorough and accessible in their approach to teaching poetic form.
What is your motivation? What is your main objective in writing the poem? The style of your poem should be complimentary to the tone you are attempting to set. Forcing a jaunty rhyme scheme on what should be a solemn poem will confuse the reader and weaken your intended message. Carefully consider what poetic techniques will most adeptly and powerfully express the soul of your poem.
Also consider your emotional distance from the poem. While it is best to allow strong emotions to subside before attempting to express them in poetry, certain memories will always hold a particularly tight grip on your heartstrings. When grappling with emotions such as these, the use of a structured poetic style may work best. In her essay "When We Dead Awaken," Adrienne Rich, one of the purveyors of free verse, admits that in her early days as a poet, "formalism was part of the strategy—like asbestos gloves it allowed [her] to handle material [she] couldn’t pick up barehanded." In other words, form creates a buffer of sorts between the writing process and the powerful emotions fueling that process.
What are you afraid of? Many new poets tend to write in the style with which they are most familiar. If you grew up studying the likes of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, chances are your poetry is chock full of rhyme and meter. If the Beat poets were the rage in your formative years, lengthy conversational poems probably appeal to your sense of poetic style. But like any art form, poetry cannot grow and improve without experimentation and change. Think of poetic form the way you think of clothing: You need different outfits to suit different occasions. A foray into or away from form may be key to your maturation as a poet.
There will remain those poets whose loyalty lies with either form or free verse alone. However, the middle ground struck by today’s poets seems indicative of a diverse future for poetry. The combination of formal and informal produces an almost infinite realm of possibility for poetic style. With the parameters of poetry in constant flux, it will inevitably be those poets who are able to adapt to changing styles while staying true to their poetic voice whose works will ultimately endure.