The Modern Poetry Predicament
“Love and some verses you hear
Say what you can say
Love to say this in your ear
I’ll love you that way
From your changing contentment
What will you choose to share?
Someday drawing you different
May I be weaved in your hair”
— Love And Some Verses
by Iron and Wine
In today’s world, the classical structure of traditional poetry is almost impossibly out of fashion. Free verse is in vogue; meter and rhyme are not.
Personally, this has puzzled and saddened me. Free verse has many merits and can certainly be beautiful and moving. Its essence is in its freedom; unbridled by any set form, there is no right or wrong. The words can travel in any direction the author choses. By the same token, to toss aside the boundaries which long defined a poem as a poem has negated some of the awe of traditional verse. Anyone who has written a poem with an iambic or other pentameter, such as a sonnet, knows how rigorous the task can be to achieve. Each line must be counted out to an exact and matching meter. Each verse much follow the same pattern of rhyme, whether by couplets or another design, and the rhymes are best when they are exact. No slip-shod work of letting “earth” couple with “hearth”. (A frustration of the English language in how they seem as though they should rhyme, or else should be spelled differently). The diligent poet finds a true rhyme such as mirth, birth, girth, worth, dearth, etc., or selects a new word to fit the line and begins the process all over again.
When you come across modern day poetry, it’s nearly all free verse of some kind. You hardly ever see metered poetry in magazines or other publications. A couple of examples of poets who pushed free verse into popularity are Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. They were prolific writers who have a continuing influence. However, I personally find that reading their poetry — which can seem like a jumble of word salads — becomes tedious all too quickly. There are nuggets of cleverness and beauty to be found, but they must be picked out from among what often comes across as chaos. In those situations, it feels as though the freedom of being structureless was taken to the extreme, used as an excuse to word vomit whatever the writers felt like at the time. I can’t help but wonder if they’d incorporated a little more structure, would they have crafted move cohesive narratives?
Of course, there are many free verse poems I ardently adore. “Thanks” by W. S. Merwin is one of my favorites of all time. Rupi Kaur is remarkable. Or “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, which follows a loose structure of repetition. I heard it read aloud by the author on a podcast and was mesmerized. Yet the majority of poems I’ve set to memory and return to time and again, as many generations have, are traditional: “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost; “The Wrong House” by A.A. Milne; “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carrol, or “Hope Is The Thing With Feathers” and others by Emily Dickinson. This is a preference, to be sure, yet I believe there’s something about classical verse which can more easily beckon memorization. Also, given those lilting examples of traditional verse, why isn’t that style just as important a creation from today’s poets as it was in the past?
In some ways, comparing traditional and free verse is like trying to compare a typical song to a composition of jazz. Most songs have a reliable structure; some combination of verses, refrain, and bridge come into play, with the melody patterned as an accompaniment and the lyrics rhyming and making some semblance of sense, whether to tell a story or share an emotion. A comfort of songs is this ubiquitous form, whereas those who love jazz appreciate the unpredictable nature of the notes. Obviously, one person can love both, yet no one is saying that jazz should replace structured lyrics in today’s musical world. They are each appreciated for what they are: why then, I wonder, has free verse ruled the day while meter and rhyme are considered old fashioned?
A second example could be modern art versus classical paintings. Many of today’s exhibits feature more wild expression and less capturing an image as closely as possible. With the way that fashions keep circling around and around, will we see a day when traditional art and metered poetry have a triumphant comeback? Both are still around, but they’re on the fringes.
I feel for writers who, like myself, have labored over a well-structured poem, only to wonder if there’s any point in submitting it anywhere. Some submission guidelines say plainly that they aren’t looking for traditional verse, and again, examples of anything but free verse in today’s publications are difficult to find. I do enjoy writing free verse very much, and I find the ones I listed above to be highly inspiring. It’s simply that one form shouldn’t be tossed aside in favor of another. The discipline of measured stanzas and exact rhymes, and having it all come together in a complete creation, is so satisfying. That form of poetry was loved for centuries after it’s conception and can create just as vivid and relevant a picture now as it ever has.
I believe that all types of poetry should be created and published, just the same as with art and music. They should be given the opportunity to be critiqued or lauded by readers who see them in print rather than rejected out of hand. My hope is that the decisive work of metered, rhyming poems will be more appreciated in today’s offerings rather than relegated to that of a bygone age. For more publications to accept other types of poems beside free verse; all forms of prose for all the forms of readers.