Mind Over Meter

Traditional vs. Contemporary Styles

Amateur poetry today seems to be divided right down the middle as far as traditional vs. contemporary styles are concerned.  For many, however, there is too fine a line between the parameters that classify a poem as traditional or contemporary.  In our line of work, it has become apparent to us that poets who prefer the traditional art of rhyme are actually quite offended by the more mainstream style of free verse poetry, a modern style fathered by Walt Whitman in the mid-nineteenth century with his collection Leaves of Grass.  Therefore, I’d like to take this opportunity to assuage and educate all the concerned traditionalists out there who have difficulty accepting free verse as an established form of poetic art.

First of all, I can assure you it is long-established and wholly accepted, so now, in the year 2011, it’s time to get over it.  Part of the bitterness seems to be attributed to the misconception that “anything goes” in free verse poetry, and that it requires very little technique especially when freeing your verse from the constraints of rhyme and meter.  There is, however, an actual art to writing a poem that does not adhere to metrical regularity.  The art is in how skillfully you do not adhere and, frankly, do just the opposite.  Overall, the free verse form works to develop and emphasize the conduct and often the theme of the whole poem.  It is more concerned with conveying an idea and feeling than it is with the arrangement of a preordained metrical scheme.  Other techniques and generalizations involved with free verse poetry include the abandonment of capital letters at the beginning of each line, omitted punctuation, use of informal abbreviations, repetition of words and phrases, enumeration or cataloging, and meaningful line breaks.  Improper, awkward line breaks create what is called enjambment.  Enjambment occurs most of the time when lines end with articles (a, an, or the), passive verbs (is, are, am, were, etc.), prepositions, as well as with any word after which there would not be a natural pause.  Lines that do not end on a natural pause can cause awkwardness for the reader.  With a free verse poem, line length is determined by feel rather than by an established pattern of meter, and where a line ends and the word it ends on is critical to the reader’s understanding.   Always remember that the two most important words in a line are the first and last; therefore, they should be words of substance.

At the same time, too often writers take the term “free verse” all too literally; free does not mean do whatever you want.  Every technical decision made when composing a free verse poem must be justified (and, yes, if you are serious about your writing, you must be conscious of technique).  A common flaw is committed when writers lose capital letters or forego punctuation just for the sake of doing it.  In reality, free verse form requires just as much technical thought as metered verse.  The sudden shortening of a line must say something.  A one-word line must say something.  An all lower-case poem must speak to a reason.  Every decision must have a purpose that is conducive to the meaning of the poem.

With this being said, rhyming poetry can go either way.  When coupled with rhythm and meter, it takes the form of traditional verse, and most dignified poets will agree this is certainly the more difficult of the two.  It is normal for a poet who typically writes in this style to switch over to free verse; however, very seldom does a hobbyist poet switch from the modern style to metered verse.  As we have seen, contemporary poets prefer the freedom of free thought over the tedious task of accentual and syllabic prosody that is required for the traditional form.  However, just because a poem rhymes, do not automatically give it credit for being written in the traditional form of metrical verse.  And at the same time, don’t always assume that a poem not written in metrical verse was any easier to construct than one that was.  Each form is significant in its own right and has its own requirements.