ON FREE VERSE and Various Other Ramblings
Free verse, although identified with 'Modernism' in many minds, is nothing new. Indeed, it may be as old as poetry itself.
Who might say whether the first poems, couched perhaps in some meager primeval language (did Homo erectus have poetry, perhaps?), were recited to a beat or chanted in free form? Both exist in all the cultures of earth, from the most primitive to the sophisticated. Gregorian chant, e.g. is essentially free verse.
But I would write here of modern free verse, the stuff that's been written since the mid-19th Century (so, you see, it's not really all that new either). Much hated -- as was 'modern art' -- by many people for many years, now it is commonplace, rather the norm, in fact.
As is modern art, modern music, and all the rest of Modernism. It does amuse me occasionally to come across magazines that look down on rhymed or metered poetry as 'old fashioned.' It is no more so than free verse, these days.
Although Edgar Allen Poe never wrote a free verse poem, it has been recognized that he played an important role in its appearance. Poe was loved by the French (the Jerry Lewis of his time?). As a result, prose translations of his work were widely read. These profoundly influenced the Symbolist poets.
Translations in prose/free verse form, French to English, English to French, are where it pretty much started. Before long, those French Symbolists were writing the first prose poems. Not long after, Whitman and others were composing English-language free verse. This was not the Modern era -- this was the Late Romantic.
The Symbolists can be considered somewhat as poetry's analog to the Impressionist painters. They saw words in much the way those artists saw light, recognizing that the whole is made up of these parts, that each had its own host of connotations -- symbols and metaphors -- attached.
Both Symbolists and Impressionists had their day. When the Romantic era faded and the Modern began -- around 1910 or so is a useful date for this -- Modernism took up the free verse form quite readily.
The Late Romantic, of course, pre-shadowed the Modern, just as the Late Renaissance pre-shadowed the Baroque and the Late Baroque pre-shadowed the Romantic. Once the old ideas and ideals are brought to full development, the innovative begin to look for new artistic inspiration. Sometimes this results in the bizarre, the mannerist; sometimes it plants the seeds for the next great era.
Certainly, many great Modern poets did not write free verse, or did so only at times. Frost, Neruda -- they used meter and sometimes rhyme. Though with Neruda and his fellow Spanish language poets, it must be noted that rhyme and meter are decidedly easier to employ in their native tongue than in English. The whole concept of rhyme and strict meter came into English language poetry from outside, anyway, from French and Latin and Arabic influences. But I'm getting off the subject, a bit!
Why did Modernism embrace free verse? Was it the urge to rebel, to shock, to do away with the old? Traditional rhymed poetry certainly carried a lot of baggage with it by that time and Modernism was big on leaving that baggage on the platform and jumping unencumbered onto a fast train to the future.
There was also the desire, as with Cubism, to find new and different perspectives -- to break the rules that had governed our way of looking at things, of thinking of things. A host of 'isms' sprang up, trying to formulate these new ways, to put forth new concepts. Modernism could well be named the Age of Concept (and yes, I'm borrowing this from Tom Wolfe, somewhat).
Conceptualism, in all its many aspects, is ultimately -- in my opinion -- the reason for the wide spread acceptance of free verse in the Modern era (and Post-Modern, which is really just a stage of Modernism). It is the idea that the idea is the important thing. This is not the 'all' of Modernism, naturally, but it is a major facet.
A corollary is the now-commonplace statement that form follows function. The Modern poet, more often than not, saw no need for the old forms. They served no purpose in what he or she was attempting to achieve.
Form does, however, have its uses. We like form. It provides a jumping-off point, a reference. It provides order.
Now, free verse is also a form. That's why it has a name, after all! Recognizing that we categorize and name all things, that we see forms and order everywhere, allows one to choose a path. It becomes a map for our artistic journey.
So, today I might write free verse, tomorrow something alliterative and accentual, and perhaps heroic couplets the next. Or create a way of my own, if possible and if need be. The thing is to know why one chooses ones form.
Free verse is, obviously, here to stay, as thoroughly entrenched as any other way of writing poems. There is a great deal of bad free verse written, however, by poets who don't grasp the metaphors of the Symbolists, the visions of the Imagists, or the power of language in general.
Language must have power. The ultimate reason for relaxing the structure is to allow the words to shine through unimpeded. Which brings us back to original purposes of the Symbolists.
And I admit to a fondness (or weakness?) for the work of those French poets (who, as you may be aware, directly and heavily influenced Bob Dylan's song writing, as well as that of Patti Smith and many others, and indirectly influencing just about everyone else.). Recognizing, of course, that they are from a different era and attempting not to fall into pastiche -- that's something I do far too easily.
I'll never be a 'New Formalist' (not so new now, they've been around a couple decades or so), but as a writer of songs as well as poems, I do appreciate and explore the use of structure. It's important too, just as with words.
It's a matter of balance. We can push the words into the foreground, we can emphasize the structure, but both must be there, the one balancing the other. When I feel the need to let the words and their meaning shine, I may tend toward free verse (or the loosely accentual form I frequently employ). If the musicality of the structure is paramount, then its time for a stricter form and the words will serve that.
I can see a day when free verse will go out of style. All things do, inevitably, and, just as inevitably, come back. The poetry of 'slams,' the proliferation of the (mostly bad) rap-influenced rhyming poem, may point to that day.
For now, though, the free verse poem is still viable, still has power. It will still be written and read.
Stephen Brooke ©2011