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Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?

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 Geographic photojournalist and published poet William Childress. I asked him to elaborate further on that commentary, to which he sent the following.


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 Poetrythe apparent writing ease of vers libre attracted 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 libre can 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:

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!


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.


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Surazeus Simon Seamount's picture
Kelly Cherry: Congratulations on being Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia for two years! I hope you had a wonderful, creative time.
ko shin's picture
ko shin · 11 years ago
Well, I am 72 and I believe this 80 year old is dead wrong. Yes, I am a free poet, out of the Beat generation, and find his remarks interesting, I am sure well researched but says even less than he claims free verse ( over done I guess) and my hero’s of the Beat times. I am not a scholar as is the writer of this diatribe, but have never been that impressed with this kind of scholar. But I am sure you enjoyed writing this, but honestly, as my older of 12 grand kids says, “it sucks!” Or is that to “beat” a response. I love the beat of performance poetry, of free poetry and the old stuff. It all works and it is all good! Hope you didn’t miss your nap, and do not forget to feed the camels.
John Gentry's picture
John Gentry · 11 years ago
So many acerbic responses to this timely piece, unfortunately from too many poets and from too few who might read an interesting piece of verse, but never write one. It is the opinion of the reading public, as opposed to those who write for them, that should carry the argument. Can any free verser deny that interest in writing poetry in recent decades has steadily increased, while interest in reading it has noticeably declined? My book, coming out this month, “Treading Lightly–Not so modern verse in the Post-Modern Age,” Red Lead Press, Pittsburg, Pa.
Wanda Sue Parrott's picture
When one stops writing poetry and writes, instead, critical remarks and opinions about poetry, does she/she die as a “Poet” while being born as a “Philosopher Politico”? If yes, is the Poet resurrected when the Philosopher Politico goes on hiatus, meaning temporary death of creative consciousness in lieu of critical thinking? This is worth pondering because it might hold the key to the unresolved mystery of truth about reincarnation of the self… not only between one death and another lifetime, but in stages throughout the one life each reader is living now.
Nick056's picture
Nick056 · 11 years ago
“Rage, rage, against the dying of my favorite things” - William Childress It’s easy to regard these kinds of arguments with some equanimity, even when they’re offered by someone too old to learn manners and too deaf to value tact. The spread of free verse among poets who grew up writing formal poetry (all of them pre-boomers) was an antidote to the ossification these poets identified in the anthologies of the ’40s and 50s and feared would take hold in their own work. Lowell is probably the key poet in this transition, whose history Childless would find embarrassing to his cause, because it consists of people his age and older embracing free verse after writing formal poems. So there’s really a pendulum effect to these reactions, it seems, as some poets today hope that a resurgence of formalism will address the aesthetic and social failures which they feel have come to define contemporary poetry. I’m cool with that. The New Yorker has been publishing more rhyming poems lately, and they’re delightful. But let’s face it: really good free verse is usually musical and replete with startling imagery and clever admissions. Mature poetry isn’t rebelling against the lessons of New Formalism regarding paradox and balance as much it’s incorporating them. When good poetry challenges what’s been known to work, it does so with intelligence and through discovered language of its own. Examples abound. Childress doesn’t mention any, maybe is a deficient reader of poetry. Galway Kinnell, Stephen Dunn, Donald Hall, John Ashberry, Donald Justice, Bob Lowell, Stanley Kunitz, Mary Oliver, Jeffrey Harrison, Jerry Stern - their poetry is great and startling. And Childress’s history lesson is really just embarrassing. The guy who read Lord Weary’s Castle at the Pentagon march is the same guy who wrote Memories of West Street and Lepke and published Life Studies, which as I mentioned above may be the seminal book in the turn toward free verse. But somehow Childress is associating formal verse with social responsibility and a concern for war dead, despite the biography of the most prominent poet at the march. It’s just shameful. Okay, I promised equanimity, but Childress’ aesthetics and his history are so ignorant and so awful they can’t stand without rebuttal.
Joseph Hutchison's picture
Nick, just a word of protest over Lowell as the “key poet” in the transition from traditional to “free” verse. After Life Studies Lowell wrote in both modes, from what Seamus Heaney called the “heart-hammering sonnets” of The Dolphin period to the “free” verse of Day by Day. Lowell perhaps “gave permission” (to use a bit of psychobabble) to younger poets, but the pivotal figure was Allen Ginsberg, whose Howl and Other Poems preceded Life Studies by three years (1956; Lowell’s book appeared in 1959). Certainly “Howl” is among the earliest “free” verse poems to actively shake up the fusty poetry establishment (I imagine Ginsberg haunted the sleep of poets like Anthony Hecht). This is picking nits, of course. The turn away from traditional verse was crucial to dislodging poetry from academe, though academe—ever Protean—rather quickly institutionalized “free” verse and is well along in co-opting the avant-garde or “post-avant” or whatever the latest branding happens to be. But that’s an oversimplification, as is Childress’s portrait of current poetic practice. Most poets are like Bill Knott, for example, who writes “free” verse but also has a long-standing commitment to the sonnet as well as a wide variety of traditional and ad hoc syllabic forms. Most poets, I mean, feel free to work in any mode they wish. And that’s a good thing.
Ed Shacklee's picture
Ed Shacklee · 11 years ago
I enjoyed Mr. Childress’ provocative article, though I’m not disagree with the notion that free verse is killing poetry. No one is being forced to read free verse. There are so many online journals now that readers can choose what they like, whether poem by poem or according to style. Yes, free verse is much more prevalent than formal verse these days, but the average reader who graduates from high school, let alone college, will be exposed to both and can choose what he or she likes. The happy few who love poetry can, and will, make up their own minds about what to read. The real problem is that very few readers like any kind of poetry. There are about a quarter of a billion people in America who can read, but I’d be pleasantly surprised to learn that more than one in a hundred read poetry on a regular basis. I doubt that’s the fault of either free verse or formal verse; nor do I think the quality of verse today is the culprit, for anyone who has thumbed through a few old anthologies knows that bad and mediocre verse has always been with us. Times have changed. Don Juan didn’t have to compete with Dynasty, and even Homer would’ve had a rough go of it if the ancient Greeks could’ve played Call of Duty instead of listening to a skillful, impassioned recitation of the fall of Troy. From the peanut gallery, the poetry wars between free verse and formalist poets seem unimportant in the face of this vast indifference, and more like a series of skirmishes over access to prestigious journals and academic largesse, which at the end of the day have little affect on the size or enthusiasm of today’s readership. I don’t mean to suggest that poets should throw up their hands and surrender to Nintendo, and I don’t believe poetry is dead – it’s very much alive and widely available. It’s just not very popular at the moment; but as long as it’s accessible, it will always have a devoted (if possibly very small) audience.
Ed Shacklee's picture
Ed Shacklee · 11 years ago
My apology for the typo in the first paragraph of my comment above, which should read “I disagree” not “I’m not disagree.”
Ethan's picture
Ethan · 11 years ago
Embarrassing: “…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.” “Anarchy,” though often used (as here) as a meaningless boo-word, actually has a meaning. Meanwhile, “too much freedom” “in another era would sound like fascism”? Goodness. Embarrassing: “Why have there been no major demonstrations against Afghanistan, when our government can’t even say why we’re there?” Presumably “demonstrations against Afghanistan” is intended to refer to demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan, not against the country itself. Even so, the question is bizarre, because there have been and continue to be many extremely large demonstrations against the war. A better question would be: why has there been almost no media coverage of these demonstrations, as a result of which many people think there have been none? Unfortunately, this question could not be used to ignorantly condemn a vague and imaginary version of some contemporary poets.
Not-the-1980s's picture
Not-the-1980s · 11 years ago
Wow. A clumsy, amateurish rehash of very old grumbling. And at least twenty years out of date. Why did VQ decide to publish this? Anybody who actually reads widely in contemporary literary magazines recognizes that today poetry in received forms exists happily alongside free verse. All the forms are just different paints in one’s paintbox. None but a few reactionaries still think that there’s an Us vs. Them. That was twenty years ago, pal. This self-congratulating voice in the wilderness is crying out against…a mirage.
Jane Friedman's picture
We occasionally publish letters from readers here on the blog, especially if we think it will stir discussion.
Brett's picture
@Not-the-1980s. While I (obviously) disagree with Mr. Childress on the substance of his argument, you’re really complaining that VQR published this? Given the reactions here (and elsewhere online) clearly there was a discussion to be had here. And even a sloppy or outmoded argument can spur a worthwhile discussion. In this case, it has.
Srinivasa Aiyar (Madras, India)'s picture
Srinivasa Aiyar... · 9 years ago

In the kingdom of the highland bees,
My precious little darlings,
Still your panting breath and hush your flutt’ring gowns;
And hark! They buzz an adage thus:
Indeed it’s true in every hue
Not every bonny bud to burst with beauty would
Hold honey in her heart;
’Tis sadly truer there are fewer
Sweet hearts
Of those in whom is scorn for bloom.


I have read this excellent post and all its comments with great interest. I agree with the minority that correctly understood Childress’ excoriation to be directed not at vers libre per se, but rather at the “unfair bias” against formal verse. Although I am a relative latecomer to this thread, I want to add my own thoughts to it, bringing, I hope, a uniquely Indian perspective from my station.


As some of you may already know, India has a long poetic and literary tradition - The great Sanskrit epic Ramayana spans 24,000 verses (48,000 16-syllable lines), longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and the Mahabharata, at 200,000 lines of verse, dwarfs all three of them combined in both volume and richness of metrical variety. And when it comes to formalism and rules, it hardly needs saying that no educated Indian could ever be a stranger to prescriptive use of language. One of the commenters above has noted that free verse is the “naturally occurring form” of poetry and that all structured forms are artefacts that came later. That statement, if true, has not been better recognised and celebrated anywhere else than in ancient India. Early Indian commoners spoke and sang a language they called Prakrit (which means naturally occurring), while the elite employed Sanskrit (purified or refined). Sir Monier Williams, in fact, called codification and taxonomy the biggest obsessions of the Indian mind. He boggled at Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit, and charged our ancestors with wasting precious intellectual cycles in turning a natural grammar into some kind of algebraic mathematics (This, incidentally was the same grammar that led Sir William Jones to make his seminal comment that Sanskrit “is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.”


Be that as it may, every writer likely believes deep down that a living language must be the result of a constant struggle between the restrictive confines of a grammar and the creative spirit that constantly pushes and tries to out. In the end it is always the creative spirit that wins, and grammar will be adjusted to accommodate literature. At the very least, this belief permeates our entire continent. Even in our far South, in the non-Indo European Tamil, the language of the state in which I live, we call this the victory of ilakkiyam (literature) over ilakkanam (grammar). The interesting thing is that in India (as I suspect elsewhere also), this wonderful phenomenon touches more than just language. It touches every art form, be it poetry, sculpture, painting, dance or music.


And so the perspective I want to bring is not related to language or linguistics. It is to music, which too is a tradition stretching back at least two millennia in India. Like language, Indian music was not immune to the pressures of regularisation and it wasn’t long before it became formalised quite rigidly. A typical Indian concert (especially in Southern India where the tradition is preserved more faithfully under the name Carnatic Music) is highly structured. People in the Western world often write that the most significant aspect of Indian music is improvisation, as in Jazz. But that wasn’t always true. Once, prepared compositions rendered according to strict rules were the norm, but an artist needs freedom. And so it wasn’t long before allowances were made to allow an artist to improvise free-form. Needless to say, such freedom was obviously taken to an extreme during its infancy, and it spawned an extreme proliferation of bad musicians. But fortunately, the maestros had the foresight to nip in the bud this disaster waiting to happen. I believe that the genius of their solution lies in a clever coupling of the freedom to innovate and improvise with a socially mandatory licence. This licence could only be obtained after a student had demonstrated mastery of the basic formulaic art.


At a Carnatic music concert today, it is routine for professional musicians to render at least one textbook piece, presenting it first in its pedagogical form, and then going on to embellish it in successive iterations with gradually increasing sophistication and freedom. As a result, it is practically impossible for a musician to gain public exposure with any less than a dozen years of rigorous training. No self-respecting patron of classical Indian music would consider sitting through concerts where artists cannot first prove their basic proficiency. “Do not try to break the rules before you can prove that they hold you back” is the clear message.


At the same time, such free-form improvisation is not only expected, but rather demanded of the maestros when they sit down to perform. As T. S. Eliot wisely observed of poetry, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”. So it is for musicians also. We encourage free improvisation, but we want a maestro to know its precise place in a performance, and also its hidden costs. In a Carnatic music concert, every major piece sung typically includes at least two predictably located vocal improvisation sections. The first one is at the beginning, called Alapana, where the singer is free to improvise without either rhythmic requirements or expectations of semantic content, but within the chosen scale. The second major section occurs towards the end of the composed part, where the singer must improvise using solfa syllables only (i.e. void of semantic content), but within the constraints of both the chosen rhythm and scale. If I were to draw an analogy, I might say that the first portion is roughly similar to “sound poetry in free metre” and the second to “metrical sound poetry”. Concert goers enjoy both, but musicians who are not also demonstrably good with form music have no chance of displaying their skills in these deeper areas, let alone move their audience past the sentimental level of choking back their tears.


Although I’m commenting in an American forum, I hope I can take the liberty of giving in to the Indian in me and resorting to another analogy yet: How can water overflow a vessel before filling it first? Rules should only be broken because the thought to be conveyed is too big for the space otherwise allowed. The masters break form because they have reached its limits and find themselves being held back. Indeed, I think it not an understatement to say that the most effective use of freedom in composition will come from those who appreciate what it’s like to not have it. As a grey Leonato might once have consoled his desolate daughter:


For he will love you best, fair Hero, who
Has keenly felt the most your loss to sting.


I think therefore it behooves young poets to stick to form as much as they can, and only step outside when they have to. Sadly, many shrewd poets exploit the situation and break rules in the hope that doing so will make their ideas seem bigger than they are.


A poignantly depicted parallel from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List comes to mind: Real power, explains Schindler to Goeth, is in desisting from killing when it is within one’s power to do it, a solemn message apparently beyond the grasp of its feeble-minded recipient: We are shortly thereafter presented with a Goeth, who censures, condemns and then pardons his prisoners willy-nilly, but expectedly not for long - An amateur breaks rules out of incompetence, insouciance or the shallow pleasure of knowing that he has the power to do it. But the higher spirit breaks them for a loftier calling - because the rules prevent her from delivering and sharing the deeper bliss that lies beyond. This same point is also implied in an excellent video of Picasso in action showing how a piece progressed from concept to completion (I’ll leave to you the pleasure of discovering it). As you watch this moving clip, you will see how the master struggles to paint the picture in his head using various techniques, runs into barriers, wrestles with them, and at last breaks through in a sort of epiphanic moment as his idea explodes on the canvas inside our heads.


To be sure, the Indian mandate of “form first, freedom follows” is not a reflection of our intolerance of good artists who hold formality in contempt, but rather of our impatience in the search for good music in an ocean of cacophony, and our lack of luxury and time to sift through piles of rubbish to spot the real gems. This last sentiment is especially germane to the present discussion - an exactly similar situation seems to be unfolding in the world of English poetry, given the exceedingly low cost with which Internet publishing has blessed aspiring poets.


We are, of course, thankful to the numerous poetry forum editors who have taken on the onerous task of personally weeding out misfits for us. But this solution is not scalable, not to mention quite unfair on all but a dedicated few for whom it must be a labour of love. The only self-sustaining way of quality control would be to reverse the cultural change that has stigmatised form poetry. Indeed, even go so far as to make form composition a necessary step in the rites of passage for young writers. Then Williard Spiegelman’s concern that “Only a small percentage can satisfy the technical prosodic demands and also write a syntactically accurate English sentence” will be heeded to in its entirety. And the world will not be deprived of quality vers libre that might otherwise have been drowned in a flood of filth.


Before I’m roasted in the fiendfyre of this forum’s flames for having suggested the sacrilegious, let me end my admittedly rambling and ranty response with a short and relevant passage, unabashedly quoting the ending lines of a recent poem that has pleased me.


A new appreciation dawn’d
Of the Pablo’s fruitless strife
To capture and to portray truth
Through e’er delimited port’l;
The Tao you can see is not
The Tao of this life;
The widen’d mind with shackles shook
Thereby become’s immort’l.


Thank you for your time and patience.




[1] Ilakkiyam and Ilakkanam are no doubt related to the Sanskrit Lakshyam (desire, target or goal) and Lakshanam (structure or distinguishing mark).

Andre Tann's picture
Andre Tann · 8 years ago

I enjoyed this comment (by Srinvasa Aiyar) almost more than I did the original article! How come it doesn't even show on the main page?


marcusbales's picture
The problem isn’t that modern poetry is beautiful and pointless — it’s that it’s not beautiful at all, and it’s STILL pointless. It’s pointless because poets are not rigorous thinkers, and yet the dominant strain of modern poetry is to try to be smart in a poem. Poets are not, by and large, smart people — they’re people sensitive to language, nuance, meaning, interpretation, ambiguity, and emotional resonance. They’re not smart in the way Wittgenstein or Hegel or Plato, or Einstein or Newton or Pythagoras, or Clauswitz or Machiavelli or Nizam al-Mulk were smart. Poets not erudite, profound, or even rigorous, and they have neither the inclination nor the training to use whatever intellectual horsepower they have to command respect for what they’re saying. Poets have always made their intellectual livings, such as they are, by how they said something, not by the validity or strength or insight of what they’ve said. In fact, the content of almost all poems is typically banal and cliched: reworked pablum half-understood and only partly worked-out. What makes poems interesting to read, when they’re interesting to read at all, is not what’s said but how it’s said. But modern and postmodern poets have lost sight almost entirely of what poetry is all about, and have for about 100 years of free verse tried to say smart things instead of say whatever thing they’re saying well, even beautifully. And because the erudite, hard-working, reality-based intellectuals and academics in every field are so erudite, hard-working, and reality-based, they are simply and straightforwardly enormously better at being smart than poets are. Poets, by abandoning beauty and beautiful language, have made themselves pointless.
Joseph Hutchison's picture
It’s always fun when nitwits hold forth on subjects they know nothing about. Once one defines “smart” as “rigorous thinking,” the entirety of the humanities can be tossed aside. If marcusbales can’t grasp the nature of art he should confine himself to other subjects. He seems well versed (pun intended) in philosophy, physics, mathematics, warfare, and political theory—but of course, I’m just a poet, so my impression is probably off the mark. Perhaps he’s just an arrogant twit.
Norm Rourke's picture
Norm Rourke · 8 years ago

Much of what is said in this piece is good...and a point. It is good to know the masters of semantic verse. It is good to emulate their style and grace. But unfortunately, most people do not like poetry because the mechanics of poetry; reading and writing, have been so much ingrained that one feels a prisoner of the rules the enjoyment, and yes, the understand of poetry is lost. So is it worth it? Don't know. For Mr. Childress perhaps this is a demise of a lost art. Don't think so. If free verse frees people of the fear of poetry, then let it continue, let it encourage a young kid in the ghetto to write his/her feelings whether or not it is constricted by the rules. If a neighbor kid prefers the classical, more governed style, so be it. Let him/her write on in equal enthusiasm! But let the PEOPLE who hate poetry learn to appreciate it and enjoy it regardless of style and structure. Poetry for far too long has been an elitist excersise that has taken a back seat to great literature. The Poetry Police who say poetry MUST be written a certain way hamper creativity. And that is a crime.

Michael O'Brien's picture
Michael O'Brien · 6 years ago


Dear Mr. Childress,


Have you noticed that, while in the 19th century some poets got rich from their poetry, in the 21st century the idea of a rich poet is ridiculous?  Unless, of course you include lyrics of popular songs under the definition of poetry, which I do—even though there has been a lamentable increase in the number of songwriters whose rhymes don’t rhyme.  (One thing I notice about Billy Joel is that his scansion and rhymes are usually perfect.)


When Dylan got the Nobel prize, some objected that his stuff is not poetry because it is sung.  I guess these people don’t where the “lyric” in the phrase “lyric poetry” comes from.  Personally, I think that critics of future centuries will regard Strange, by the Doors, and one of the 20th centuries finest short lyric poems.


Long before magazines and newspapers began to lose circulation from the competition of broadcast media, they had virtually ceased to print poetry.  During the period during and after the First World War, when free verse was beginning to take over poetry (look how the poems of Clark Ashton Smith simply disappeared), some wonderfully entertaining verse was still coming out of Tin Pan Alley.  But when was the last time a Broadway musical produced a song that everybody was singing or humming?  When I was a child (1960s), I was always hearing songs from Broadway played on the radio.  “The phantom of the opera” has the reputation of being a good musical.  Name some of its best songs.


One of my criteria for judging literary works, such as poems, is: “Is it fun to read?”  The lay of the last minstrel certainly passes that test, especially the parts about the wizard, Michael Scott.  Who doesn’t love a good wizard.


I figure that the decline in scansion and rhyming (compare what was playing on the radio in 1970 to what is playing now) has something to do with the general collapse of standards of all kinds in our society, except in areas where a lack of standards would result in an immediate catastrophe, such as putting up buildings.


For example, the current view of art and artists seems to be that anyone who calls himself an artist is one, and, if he calls what he makes art, it is art.  If you say “This isn’t a piece of art.  It’s nothing but a stupid stunt” it proves that you are just a Philistine who has no appreciation of art.  Every art lover is afraid to stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes.  I think that if everybody among cultured people started to say what he actually thinks of modern art, we would find that very few people actually like it; they are just afraid of being mocked if they declare their true opinion.


Well, let’s hope things change.


Yours truly,


Michael O’Brien


Roy S's picture
Roy S · 6 years ago

For those who understand no explanation is necessary. For those who don't understand, no explanation is possible.

Wendy L. Schmidt's picture
Wendy L. Schmidt · 6 years ago

To me free verse should still sound like poetry. Language, rhythm, repeat, more intense yet simple descriptive words, even rhyme if not obvious. something that says, this is a poem. Sometimes, at readings I think, this sounds like a personal essay or a work of fiction. Often the free verse goes on and on long after the poem really should have ended. Perhaps the poet might have made an effort to stop and see that not every good poem needs to be several pages in length. I write both prose and poetry and I certainly know the difference between the more descriptive often heightened language of a poem rather than the full sentences, paragraphs, beginning and endings of an essay or fiction piece. If it sounds like prose throughout it really is prose and not poetry. I'm not an expert. But, I get very tired and confused by the endless Free Verse poems which, after a while, tend to blend together so that I can't tell when a new poem begins and one ends. It starts to seem like one very long, very tiresome poem.

Teri St. John's picture
Teri St. John · 5 years ago

I just started a Poetry class - after a taste of it 20 years ago - I am back to a class.  First class I was chastized because I want to rhyme.  My writing is concrete - you can see and fee and taste and touch, whateveryone else was doing - free verse was - making the reader question what was the message, the point and where are we?    Your article gives me courage to blaze ahead - going back in time to go after the stanzas and rhyme and meter.  Maybe this old gal can make a change.  Thank you for your refreshing take on current poetry trends.




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