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Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?


[clock] 10-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: September 4, 2012

William Childress

Editor’s noteAfter VQR’s Spring 2012 issue released, I received an e-mail response to Willard Spiegelman’s essay, “Has Poetry Changed?” from former National Geographicphotojournalist and published poet William Childress. I asked him to elaborate further on that commentary, to which he sent the following.

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When Willard Spiegelman, noted scholar, critic, and editor of Southwest Review,wrote a penetrating essay in the Spring 2012 Virginia Quarterly Review“Has Poetry Changed?”, I wanted to reply, “Not fast enough to suit me!” However, the change I wanted was to step back a century and start re-assessing rhymed and metrical poetry.

Free verse has now ruled the poetry roost for ten decades, and its record for memorable poetry is spotty. Catching on around 1912 when Harriet Monroe was starting Poetry,the apparent writing ease of vers libreattracted millions of poetasters, not to mention the support of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and other important poets. No more struggling to find le mot juste,or create original images.Just sit down and write.

As you may have guessed, I’m a formalist, but I’ve written and published a lot of free verse—mainly because of editorial bias against form poetry. In the hands of the right poet, which is true of any form, vers librecan shine—but we’ve had a steady diet of it for way too long. We are, unofficially at least, a one-poetry nation, and various editors, publishers and hidden agenda-ites seem determined to keep us there. As David Orr points out in Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry,“There is complete avoidance and disdain for the kinds of poetry pre-Baby Boomers were raised on.”

Well, I’m a pre-Baby Boomer, and I think such favoritism is stupid, petty, and demeaning to poetry. Form poetry is the kind of poetry a third of living Americans grew up with. A nation that discards its traditions and history is a nation without pride in itself. When I was a youth in the 1940s, most poetry was gentler and more pleasant in tone, but powerful in effect. As a migrant worker and the son of a sharecropper, my schooling was sporadic and interrupted. But somewhere I came across a poem by John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” The way he used words to paint pictures was so powerful, it was like a stonecutter engraving them in my memory.

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud,
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas …

A few years after reading the lyrical beauty of a poem that could make me feel good, even about death, came Howl,Allen Ginsberg’s nihilistic free verse oral diarrhea—and suddenly the world was supposedly singing the praises of Ginsberg’s drug-poisoned pals, who

let themselves be fucked in the ass
by saintly motorcyclists
and screamed with joy
who blew and were blown by those human seraphims, the sailors

Howlin’ Allen has the right to describe the rotting sowbelly of life, but I have the right to say it’s pointless, and as far from real poetry as shit is from Chanel #5. Beat poetry went far toward making ordinary Americans see poets as drug-crazed society-wreckers who wrote only for themselves. By definition, that makes them elitists.

I researched a large stack of Beat poetry magazines from the 1970s and 1980s for this post, ranging from Doug Blazek’s Olé Anthology to Kumquat 3 and E.V. Griffith’s highly touted Hearse (“A Vehicle for Conveying the Dead”). Not only were 95 percent of the poems free verse, many of them hewed to a core of societal destruction that in another era would sound like fascism. It was an argument for too much freedom encouraging anarchy. Vitriol was plentiful, but ways to improve things were not.

A blind person can see that American society is in turmoil, with a fractured government and enormous debt. Both political parties are to blame—but shouldn’t poets be trying to change things instead of writing chaos-poetry or “woe is me” diaries? Who will read poetry when they can’t find a common bond in a poet’s writing? Who likes ruptured grammar, twisted syntax and what my grandpa called flapdoodle? There’s at least a partial consensus that free verse these days consists of a lot of badwriting. I forget who said, “Poets should learn to write before they try to write poetry.”  Many of today’s poets don’t seem to realize that all writing is connected.

Here’s another example of free verse:

Clench-Watch:
Fear-spores in-coil taut
(and calm) as copper-snakes
or-springs—before they cause.

From the sweeping grandeur of The Iliad and The Odyssey to this unfinished fragment in less than 3,000 years. God bless progress. This techie poem is tighter than post-Preparation-H hemorrhoids, but is it poetry, or what we called, back in the day, doodling? It was written by a pleasant-faced young man named Atsuro Riley, and is being hailed as a breakthrough for free verse. Breakthrough to what? This is the amazing shrinking poem. Soon we’ll be gone. Can modern poets be poeticidal?

I agreed with Spiegelman in several areas. Like him, I don’t read much modern poetry. Of today’s writing students he said, not unkindly, “Only a small percentage can satisfy the technical prosodic demands and also write a syntactically accurate English sentence.” And they want to be poets? Free verse must be sending students a message that form poetry does not: beginning poets don’t need “syntactically accurate sentences” to write free verse.

At 80, I won’t spend time trying to fathom the Rubik’s Cube verse of Atsuro Riley, although I wish him well. His poetry just doesn’t move me, and movements are important to octogenarians.  I’d rather read Lewis Carroll than Atsuro Riley.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son,
The jaws that bite, the claws that snatch,
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious bandersnatch!

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In 2006 John Barr, head of the Poetry Foundation, wrote: “American poetry is ready for something new, because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue and stagnation about the poetry being written today.”

Who determines what’s poetry and what’s not? Who are the grand taste-makers? I have always heard, and understood, that poetry has no definition—an argument that goes back to at least the 17th century. If true, how is it that critics, reviewers, and bureaucracies can give awards, prizes, and accolades to certain poets and poetry? How do they define the best of an indefinable art? And why do the rest of us sheep go along with it?

How about something old, Mr. Barr, instead of something new? Really good poems, like wine, improve with age. But free versers have welded shut the doors to the past. Where once we recited favorite poems (always rhymed), or had them taught in school, we now ignore the orphan art in droves. We’re trying everything but free coupons, and the results are a combination circus (slam poetry) and coldly mechanical poems that verify the nature of our earplug-wearing, neighborless, push-button society. Where are the sabot throwers when we need them?

Poet Dana Gioia wrote in his 1992 essay “Can Poetry Matter?”:

American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. Like priests in a town of agnostics they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists, they are almost invisible.

Not only a telling comment 20 years ago, but an accurate prophecy of our current malaise. Poets should also be aware of a report from the University of Florida at Gainesville, which followed MFA graduates for a decade. Only ten percent landed writing or editing jobs. The rest found jobs in real estate, insurance, or McDonald’s. Memphis State University’s Thomas Russell wrote, “Ninety percent of the MFA students are never going to publish a word after they leave the program.”

Poetry needs readers, not writers, but how many poets read any poetry but their own? As one editor said, “All poets should stop writing for a year.” When I was studying poetry in Philip Levine’s class in 1962, he made a point of telling us, “Poetry is the most useless art.”

Yet poetry has been discovered by commerce. The dean of American verse magazines, Poetry, turned 100 in 2012, and is trying to avert a poetryless future. In 2003, it received a $200 million dollar bequest from Ruth Lilly, and has become a kind of Sears Roebuck for poets and readers. That’s fine with me. I grew up with Sears Roebuck, and not just in our outhouse. Christian Wiman’s inking of all kinds of poetry means there’s now something for everyone. The fact that  Wiman’s editorship has increased Poetry’s readers from 11,000 to 30,000 is a hopeful sign. He also says poets should be well-grounded in form poetry before leaping into vers libre. Even that ol’ fascist Ezra Pound announced: “Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.”

When Germaine Greer declared, “Art is anything an artist calls art,” she probably didn’t mean Thomas Kinkade, who painted for more plebian tastes and died very rich. The gulf between what is and is not art has been debated forever—the blind leading the blind into a kind of elitism. If no definition exists, why are critics, reviewers and the American Academy of Poets tripping over each other to laud the hottest vers libre poet in years? Perhaps I’m unkind—but everyone else is so laudatory, I felt that at least one ordinary mortal should challenge the gods.

What goals do modern poets have? At least during the Viet Nam War, poets wrote antiwar poems and marched. I was among the 225,000 anti-Viet Nam War marchers in 1969, when Nixon watched football in a White House surrounded by a protective ring of buses. A former student of mine, Danae Walczak, contacted me not long ago to remember that march. Why have there been no major demonstrations against Afghanistan, when our government can’t even say why we’re there? As a Korean War veteran in the Washington march, my goal was to get our guys home. In August 2012, a young marine, murdered by one of our “Afghan allies” did come home—in a casket. The turnout for his funeral was enormous, with hundreds lining highways and bridges. How many poets will be concerned enough to write poems? Or will they be too busy entering contests and seeking easy recognition?

I’m not advocating control of vers libre, which has been around since the Book of Kings,just that its adherents stop stifling rhyme and meter poems. If poetry is to survive, it needs to use everything in its armory, especially metrical rhymed poems—serious, humorous, nonsensical, satirical, even insult poems. Variety, as Christian Wyman found, is the spice of life, and it’s absurd to think that vers libre should be the only form American poetry should take. No wonder John Barr found stagnation in American poetry. So loosen up, vers librists, and ask formalists to join you. Poetry needs all the help it can get. Or can’t you write good rhymed and metrical poems? Walt Whitman couldn’t.

About William Childress

Fifty years ago, William Childress published his first antiwar poems in Poetry.  Then he spent decades as a freelance photojournalist. A former National Geographic editor/writer, 2011 saw his poems published in Steel Toe ReviewCT Review, and the Connecticut Review. An environmentalist, his “Flight of the Wild Goose” will appear in Bird Watcher’s Digest this October. His 14-year column in  the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In August 2012 he was awarded the $100 second prize in The National Senior Poet competition.

48 Comments

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez's picture
An entertaining read with a couple of thoughtful points mixed in, but I disagree with the main thesis that seems to argue for more formal verse as the answer to making poetry relevant to mainstream culture again. I think the real answer comes towards the very end, when Mr. Childress calls for poets to become more engaged in the world, and in doing so, reveals that he’s critiquing a stereotype of free verse, not the reality. He’s at the other end of spectrum of the anti-vers libre brigade who decry modern poets and poetry for an undue emphasis on activism and current events, and is apparently unaware of the many extracurricular programs around the country working with kids to make poetry relevant and accessible to them, including Community Word Project and Urban Word here in NYC. That said, I do agree that there’s more than enough room for free verse and formal poetry to co-exist (some of my best friends are free verse poets who heartily embrace several forms), as long as formalists are self-aware enough to realize there’s just as much bad formal poetry as free verse, and cherry picking a few bad examples of the former is just as easy to do as Mr. Childress did here.
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Brett Ortler's picture
As an argument, this is embarrassing. You quote two(!) poets out of context and lambaste them, then you use their brief snippets (not even the entire poem, in one case) and assume that those two samples are representative of free verse as a whole. That’s two fallacies in about two seconds. When you add in the standard grumbling about money in poetry, the tired MFAs-are-the-devil-routine, and the poor-me, poor-me allegations of “editorial bias against formalists” this is simply a list of grievances, not a credible argument. One last thing: In a piece lamenting the death of well-crafted verse, you might want to avoid groaners like this: “The way he used words to paint pictures was so powerful, it was like a stonecutter engraving them in my memory.” The whole “poet as painter of word-pictures” is both artless and inaccurate. As a formalist poet should know, the word-picture nonsense leaves out that whole “sound” portion of the poem, which, I hear, is somewhat important.
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Stephen S. Power's picture
Stephen S. Power · 2 years ago
This essay may be wandering and cranky, but it’s often trenchant. How many poems written after WWII could most people quote even a line from today? And how many of those did they first hear in a movie, such as Auden’s “Funeral Blues”? Also, it should be pointed out, the piece’s best line: “and movements are important to octogenarians,” is in iambic heptameter.
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Stephen S. Power's picture
Stephen S. Power · 2 years ago
Of course, now I look it up: “Funeral Blues” was finalized in 1938.
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Joseph Hutchison's picture
“I’ve written and published a lot of free verse—mainly because of editorial bias against form poetry.” So we’re supposed to take seriously the views of a poet who writes verse in a mode he doesn’t like just to get into print? Maybe it’s this craven PoBiz approach that’s really at the root of American poetry’s problems. As for the charge the Walt Whitman couldn’t “write good rhymed and metrical poems,” I can only say, “Who cares?” He wrote dozens of great poems and has certainly been the most influential American poet worldwide. Would anyone rather he’d wasted his time writing like Bryant or Longfellow? Finally, there is no such thing as “free verse” as opposed to “form poetry.” All good poetry is formal, whether the forms are traditional or not. All bad poetry is poorly formed whether or not it uses rhyme and meter. Mr. Childress’s real complaint is that there is too much bad poetry being published—a point on which most readers would almost certainly agree.
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Ashley M's picture
Ashley M · 2 years ago
“and MOVE-ments ARE im-PORT-ant to OCT-o-gen-AR-i-ans.” Suggestive of iambic hexameter, if you elevate the final syllable - and allow for a couple substitutions - especially, but I’d say it’s not quite there yet! ;)
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Wanda Sue Parrott's picture
Thanks. William Childress, for serving as spokesvoice for untold multitudes of poets who agree with your felings about free verse versus formalist poetry. Anyone interested in seeing your poem that won the 2012 National Senior Poets Laureate Honor Scroll Award may visit www.amykitchenerfdn.org and scroll down to Newsletters–Diploemat. Go to the September 2012 edition, page 6 for “The Sorceress,” which is, by the way, hauntingly touching vers libre. Wanda Sue Parrott, SPL Contest Co-founder and Administrator
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Wanda Sue Parrott's picture
My item was posted before I could edit it. The word “felings” is, of course, meant to be “feelings” and the page on which award-winning free verse “The Sorceress” by William Childress appears at http://www.amykitchenerfdn.org should be Page 2. Wanda Sue Parrott
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Bill's picture
Bill · 2 years ago
Wow! With friends like that, people who write formal work don’t need enemies. There are real, substantial arguments for the reinvention of form, but the author has made none of them. Instead, he gives us the same tired old stuff we’ve been hearing for years, attacks good people, supports the less good, and even contradicts his own case. What we need is a clear, articulate, pragmatic argument concerning how form can move us forward. It’s developing all around us. But would VQR print it? ;)
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Janet Kenny's picture
William, I write what many call ‘formal poetry and I too am a pre-baby-boomer. I like the way you defend inherited form. I really like that! But I too am anti-war and I can’t understand why it is that you don’t share my memory of joyful discovery that “Howl” bestowed upon our generation. I was a New Zealander working as a classical musician in London at that time and I remember feeling that at last here was something that expressed the disgust, hopelessness and despair that was eating me up. I truly think that most people today miss the core of that poem which was of a generation which had been exploited and betrayed. But yes we do need beauty not as a deodorant but as a positive acclamation of life. But Shakespeare and all the great poets and composers have always written of pain and despair. You know that of course. You just got carried away. Thanks for the good bits.
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Baltimore Poet's picture
I agree with the above that this diatribe fails to make a coherent case for formal poetry, as if a bunch of couplets can solve poetry’s relevance. Isn’t that the issue for this poet, relevance? If it’s just pleasure, well, I found the John Crowe Ransom excerpt above tiresome, and the “alas” comically bad. It’s just taste. Auden is a great one for rhyming verse that also feels modern. The Allen Ginsberg quote above is shocking but also real. There is here, as in much of the formalist arguments, that nostalgia. I respect Byron, but I’d prefer reading modern free verse poets like Louise Gluck, Stephen Dunn, Phillip Levine, Adrienne Rich, the list goes on. Re-reading Yeats and Langston Hughes, there is much that can be said for the richness of sound and melody in their practice that is missing from modern “free verse.” There is pleasure and meaning in sound that cannot be replaced with word choice. That’s an argument for some return to some kind of form. I’d also like to add that a person, like this author, who published free verse because it was trendy and thinks Walt Whitman should have written good formal poems is so far off from the essence of poetry, he should look (again) under his footsteps and see if that great American bard may whisper, like the wind, a tincture of its secrets.
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Thomas D's picture
Thomas D · 2 years ago
Oh, this was a fun read! Thank you, Mr Childress, for demonstrating that one needn’t always genuflect to the more tedious esthetic pieties of the day. I’ve written my share of flapdoodle, to be sure, and my share of emulative “experimental” stuff – aping Ashbery got me into a magazine in my early twenties, alas – but I do always find myself returning to the old meters and forms. Old? Perhaps the Augustinian formula of “beauty ever ancient, ever new” is more apposite. And yes, writing in vers libre does not automatically make a poet the equal of Whitman, or the author of the Song of Solomon (any more than every sonneteer is the equal of Shakespeare!). I was entertained and edified by this essay, and heartened by the writer’s courage. He’ll probably be pilloried by the petulant pipsqueaks of puritanical poetical progressivism!
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Phil Sheehan's picture
Phil Sheehan · 2 years ago
Thank you, William. Do not ignore the carpers and wailers, but do not worry much about them either. They will grow, will age, will learn, tomorrow or in ten years, to respect the argument you make. All save surefincoils, above, whose vers libre notation marks him/her as one of the intransigent. (Though I do sort of like “sharing in delicious.”)
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MJ's picture
MJ · 2 years ago
It maybe should be noted, that poetry originated from a free verse type “structure” and was subsequently structured. What proof do I have of this? None. Nor do we have proof that poetry originated from a more structured frame. But it only makes sense physiologically, that the human mind first encountered this creative act in the same way a child does a new action — with full spirit and excitement, ignorant of nothing else but the beauty of its simple existence. Then, and normally only then, does the excitement become common and the human mind looks for ways to reinvent, to further play with, that which once sufficed by mere being. So, the question of is “Free Verse Killing Poetry”, should become more clear. No; free verse is its nature state. However, the artists, if one feels that poetry is indeed being killed, should be held responsible. If artists are leaning more toward free verse, it is likely because it has been claimed “formal” poetry is the true state poems. Once you stop pitting one against the other, you can “everything in its armory, especially metrical rhymed poems”.
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Mary Jones's picture
Oh dear! What has free verse ever done to you? Poetry is Poetry, the style used is not important…it is what is being said and the way it is used to reach out to the reader. It should not be labled or ridiculed for it appearance or style, it should be embrace for what is being said and how. If it reaches its reader and makes that person cry, laugh, smile, angry or just thoughtful then it has done its magic…but to lable it and say it is right or wrong….for shame. Whatever the approach a person uses is unimportant as long as it appeals to the reader and gives them a reason to…. One needs to remember that poetry is not an academic only ability…poets are born, not taught…being aware of the different styles comes with the territory of the self taught poet, love for the art encourages them to learn more and share their talents…but writing in a style that is comfortable for them is what is important…you excell with what you are comfortabe with…that is only natural, and poets naturally grow with their abilities as they age…that is part of the territory as well. The true worth of a poet is not his ability to reach only the academic level of approval but to be able to reach the average level of popularity with the comman man/woman, with any style, as well.
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Jason's picture
Jason · 2 years ago
One point for Mr. Childress to consider if he writes on the topic again: of all the available free verse to cite as an example of what bothers him about this style of contemporary poetry, he could probably do better than to use lines that are actually quite metrical: Fear-spores in-coil taut (and calm) as copper-snakes or-springs—before they cause. My scanning of this is: FEAR-SPORES in-COil TAUT (and CALM) as COPper-SNAKES or-SPRINGS—beFORE they CAUSE. Pretty standard iambic trimeter, with that initial spondee there. Now, I’m not suggesting Mr. Riley is intending to write metrically–my limited reading of his poems would suggest otherwise–but there is a rhythm reminiscent of traditional meter here that is not being given proper credence, especially when you note the assonantal rhyme of “au” in “taut” and “cause.” And what does it matter that Atsuro Riley is “pleasant-faced”? If he was sneering in whatever photo this references, would that mean he was a better poet?
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Jason C.'s picture
Jason C. · 2 years ago
Rambling and blunt though this post may at times have been, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Childress’ thesis–which, as I understand it, is that poets should revive, or at least revisit, the long-lost qualities of rhyme and meter. I am a formalist myself, indeed a classicist: I proudly venerate the great poets of yore, for whom rhyme and meter were indispensable arrows in the quarrel. Theirs are the immortal creations! Of what contemporary poem can that be said? Today we see a lot of rather deplorable pablum being foisted on the literary world as “poetry,” but does calling it poetry make it poetry? Or is there more to poetry than that? Certainly there’s excellent free verse out there–Mr. Childress himself has written quite a bit of it o’er the last half-century or so, according to Wikipedia…and that to high acclaim–but lordy, is there ever a lot of crap appearing in poetry journals these days! In my opinion it’s time to get back to what poetry used to be all about: the rhythmical creation of beauty, the ennobling of the human spirit through the most elegant of literary forms. Kudos to Childress for daring to go against the grain and champion a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
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Ray Malus's picture
Ray Malus · 2 years ago
As a practicing (yup, that’s the word) poet, I find a lot of value in what Mr. Childress says. I have read some exquisite free verse. I have read some sublime formal poetry. I have read execrable examples of both. The problem as I see it is the rabid prejudice against formal verse. I believe there should be tolerance and moderation on both sides. The important thing is the experience, the universality, the meaning, the truth of the work. Meter, rhyme, form, are marvelous tools. They create expectation, add elegance and certify that the words have been CHOSEN. They also show a certain mastery of the language. Certainly, a poem can be a poem — even an enduring on — without them. And the best examples of formal poetry try to hide these devices. But to denigrate them, just for the sake of being ‘modern’ is snobbery. To quote myself (in a column I once wrote): “To say that poetry is “just prose broken into small lines,” is utter stupidity. A 1040 form put through a wood-chipper is not “poetry” any more than excrement rolled into tiny balls is “medicine.” -=rm=-
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William's picture
Well said, sir. I enjoy both Ginsberg and Keats, though I lean toward Keats. I’ve written quite a few free verse poems, and despite what my mother or my college poetry professor would tell you, I am quite convinced that poetry is the hardest sort of writing. I am in no rush to write any more poems.
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Stephen S. Power's picture
Stephen S. Power · 2 years ago
Ashley: “and MOVE-ments ARE im-PORT-ant to OCT-o-gen-AR-i-ans.” There’s a soft accent on the “to” and “ans,” with the “OCT-o” foot reversed, so it counts. One could say it’s a four-footed line followed by a three-footed one, but the first would have to end in “to,” and that’s weak sauce. Jason: Sure the Riley lines sort of scan (“coil” is actually one syllable, like “fire”). Trouble is, they don’t mean much. They’d make for a wicked steampunk spell, though. In addition, they demonstrate the greatest weakness of free verse poetry today: the fetishization of the line and word as a replacement for meaning and gravity. The former is exemplified by the trend of double-spacing between every line of a poem as if the lines were so reactive they would explode if pressed together by single-spacing, when in fact they are often so inert they need all that extra white space to suggest the glow of energy. The latter is often manifested in how poems are read, the reader agonizing over every word, stopping often, making each word and phrase precious and important, possibly because to read them straight out in sentences would make them seem too much like bad prose or, worse, utterly incomprehensible. In this poem Riley does both: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/182107. And in this one: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/180272.
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Stephen S. Power's picture
Stephen S. Power · 2 years ago
I should add that formal poets have their own sins too, most prominently their often forgetting we no longer live in the Victorian Age (or earlier). Reversals for the sake of rhyme, a hyperrarified tone and in my opinion an overfondness for Attic life and old-fashioned high culture, for instance, are not necessary when the plain language of today’s world is metrical (“I’ll have the special and a glass of milk”) and can address everyday concerns. The thing is, formal verse, in my opinion, can make the everyday more epic than free verse can, and that’s a goal worth striving for.
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Byron Bray's picture
Byron Bray · 2 years ago
As the publisher of William Childress’ most recent chapbook, The Bumblebee Wars, I was pleased to see his remarks in the VQR and equally pleased at the comments, both positive and negative, that they have generated. Mr. Childress is not, in my view, condemning vers libre so much as advocating a more balanced embrace of all poetic forms. I for one completely agree. I’m not sure why so many commenters have seen his forceful and passionate argument for reconsideration of structure and older forms in poetry as an attack on vers libre itself; it is not, though it is an attack on the almost-dogmatic dominance of vers libre to the virtual exclusion of any other form. The trend to free-verse has so dominated published poetry for so long that structure may be considered, in practical terms, to have little or no place in the market. Mr. Childress’ remarks are an impassioned and, in my opinion, forceful argument for both greater consideration of form as a mode of contemporary poetic expression by poets themselves (and by those who teach, review and criticize poetry) and a greater willingness on the part of editors, publishers and others to publish structured poetry when it’s worthy of publication. I might remark that, some years ago, I ran across a small collection of wonderful sonnets; sonnets that read like lyrical prose while adhering perfectly to form. They were lovely, touching, evocative and altogether appealing, but I knew that I couldn’t sell enough of the published work to cover the cost of publication (not that that has ever stopped me or most who publish small-run poetry publications) or even to ensure that they got the exposure they merited, largely because of the malaise in appreciation of older forms in today’s market. Free verse has, of course, removed the barriers of formalism which required one to at least know (or devise) and adhere to form. That has given to many an enormous permission to write poetry without knowing or heeding form. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it doesn’t necessarily promote the writing of good poetry. Neither, of course, does simple adherence to form. But one might reasonably take the position that at least the poet (or writer or playwright or orator, for that matter) who has studied and works with rhyme, meter and the other elements of form and style has a much wider palette upon which to draw and a greater consciousness of construction, emphasis and the power of the read or spoken word than those who neglect them. All of these elements aid a writer or poet in effectively (as well as artistically) communicating with the reader or listener, which is largely what writing and poetry are all about. Childress’ objective, it seems to me is the widening and broadening of that palette. Though his remarks are rambunctious and sometimes incendiary, I think he makes a number of excellent points; a greater consideration of form would enrich our perception and appreciation of poetry today and plant the seeds of further evolution and variations in the poetry of tomorrow. I should point out, too, that any idea that Childress’ writing of free-verse is somehow hypocritical should be immediately discarded; he has been writing and publishing vers libre for a good 50 years, that I know of, and has written some very wonderful free-verse poetry. Pointing out a problem with an art form one creates in and loves doesn’t make one a hypocrite. He recently remarked to me that he likes a good scrap. It looks like he got one. Byron Bray Hearse Press Albany, Oregon
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Somebodysomewhere's picture
Somebodysomewhere · 2 years ago
Um, he does know that the Beats are like a poetry thing that was big 60 years ago, right, right? I mean, what does this have to do with the poetry of today? Sure you can show an antecedent, but does he even read the poetry that’s out today at all, huh?
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CrabbyAbby's picture
CrabbyAbby · 2 years ago
Too much free verse? Maybe. Too little formal verse? Probably not. Too many articles like this one? DEFINITELY.
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Stephen S. Mills's picture
Stephen S. Mills · 2 years ago
In the piece, Childress states he doesn’t read much modern poetry. Then why comment about it? This piece could have been quite interesting, but it lacks support and knowledge of what is actually happening in poetry right now. This is out of date and out of touch.
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Joseph Hutchison's picture
Replying to Byron Bray, I have to say that my earlier response wasn’t based on hostility to Childress’s views of traditional verse but on his odd statement that he’d written free verse only to sneak it by the censorious editors who don’t want traditional verse. This is obviously either empty rhetoric or craven careerism. As for your statement that Childress is after “a greater consideration of form” doesn’t make sense, since all good poetry is formal; its form may just turn away from meter and rhyme. The poet’s task is to find the form the poem wants to inhabit and help it do so. Experience writing traditional verse can only help the process by honing the poet’s skills, but it has nothing to do with any given poem in itself. Childress is really lamenting the quantity of bad poetry around us. Attaching that artistic poverty to particular formal elements distracts from the real and more difficult issues: what makes bad poetry bad and why is there so much of it in print?
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Surazeus Simon Seamount's picture
I started writing poetry in 1984. At first I wrote free verse, but the absolutely unstructured messiness and infinite possibilities for randomly arraying concepts in strings of words too similar to rambling prose that characterizes unstructured free verse reinforced my focus on developing skill at crafting more formal structures for expressing complex narrative and philosophical concepts. I wrote in blank verse for a few years, but on discovering the accentual verse of William Langland, I spent the past 25 years writing poems using this half-free half-formal style, focused on the natural music of spoken language on the simple rule of 4 or 5 accents a line. I focused most on crafting a clear visual image with each line, and following a dreamy logical flow of concepts building on each other with each line. Last year I decided to write an epic poem about scientists. While the accentual verse worked well for most of the narrative tales and song lyrics I was writing, I decided to return to the slightly more structured pentameter blank verse line. This has worked well in providing a more formal structure for narrating the biographical lives of philosophers and scientists. So far I have written 36,000 lines covering the lives of 15 philosophers. The formal structure of pentameter verse provides a confining bank of enclosed space to maintain the steady river current on which I may guide my sailing ship on the chaotic stream of inspiration, balancing musicality of verse with formality of content that condenses action and speech. There is far greater thrill in writing coherent sentences to narrate dramatic action and explore character in formal blank verse than there is in the rambling, unstructured, infinitely uncontrollable potential of free verse.
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Brett Ortler's picture
Surazeus: Regarding: “At first I wrote free verse, but the absolutely unstructured messiness and infinite possibilities for randomly arraying concepts in strings of words too similar to rambling prose that characterizes unstructured free verse reinforced my focus on developing skill at crafting more formal structures for expressing complex narrative and philosophical concepts.” and “The formal structure of pentameter verse provides a confining bank of enclosed space to maintain the steady river current on which I may guide my sailing ship on the chaotic stream of inspiration, balancing musicality of verse with formality of content that condenses action and speech” Given these two sentences, I wholeheartedly agree that formal verse is the best option for you; condensing your writing seems essential. Also, re: “guiding your sailing ship on the chaotic stream of inspiration?” What is this, a terrible metaphor contest? Some of the comments by his formal-verse defenders (NEW COMIC BOOK TITLE) are hardly doing Mr. Childress any favors.
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Kelly Cherry's picture
I’m mostly in favor of this piece, though nonce forms can also serve, as well as the free-verse poem that is unified by various devices.
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