Here’s an idea for consideration: The majority of poetry written in twentieth century United States is rhymed, formal verse.
Just think about it for a few minutes and see if that consideration makes sense.
Initially, I suspect, it won’t make sense. This particularly applies to those who have studied twentieth century poetry in college and those who self-identify as poets. The standard view is that the twentieth century saw a revolution in poetry known as free verse, or verse libre. Free verse is, as a general rule, unmetered and unrhymed. There are good reasons for this standard view; there is much to support it. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and then picking up speed and sweep in the early twentieth, free verse seemingly came to dominate the world of poetry.
There is, however, another way of looking at this. If one turns to song, and studies song lyrics in particular, if one classifies song lyrics as poetry, then all of a sudden the landscape of twentieth century poetry in the U.S. shifts. What was in the background suddenly dominates the foreground. Consider the major songwriters of the twentieth century; people like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, all those Blues composers, the Country Western genre, everyone from Broadway tunesmiths to Rock n Roll to Rap and Hip Hop, all of them wrote rhymed formal verse.
Including song lyrics in the realm of poetry would have been normal throughout most of the history of poetry. The division between poetry and song was porous; a poem could be made into a song and a song’s lyrics could be read as a poem. In some ways that is still true today in that the lyrics of famous music groups are published on their own; one can find them at bookstores. In that case the lyrics are being marketed as poems.
If what I am suggesting makes sense, then it raises the question of why it is that the idea of free verse dominance of twentieth century poetry is so taken for granted. Tentatively, I would suggest that part of the free verse revolution was a shift away from song to other sources and models for the distinguishing features of free verse. I am suggesting that free verse poets cut themselves off from song and instead found the characteristic features of their approach in fiction and essay. For example, authors of fiction and essay are not concerned with either rhyme or meter, or regulated lineation. In fact attention to rhyme and meter would interfere with their modes of writing. In some forms of essay, such as the scientific essay, rhyme is deliberately avoided and probably would be removed as a distraction to the conceptual content of what is being communicated.
Does this sound familiar? Doesn’t this accurately point to the distinguishing features of free verse? Critics of free verse have long observed that for an awful lot of free verse, if one reformatted the free verse as a continuous paragraph there would, often, be no deformation of meaning. In other words, lineation is often arbitrary and not a signifier. This mimics what one finds in fiction and essay, in diary and epigram.
The preceding paragraph does not apply to all free verse; there are significant exceptions. But it is a generalization that often seems apt.
I think that the shift away from song to the literary structures of fiction and essay was due, at least in part, to the growing prestige of the novel, and to a lesser extent, to the growing influence of the essay. Fiction writing from the eighteenth century onward exerted a growing dominance on literature. More and more people read it. Less and less people read poetry.
The influence of the essay, the broadside, also became more widespread; an example of its growing influence and presence is the newspaper editorial and the pastoral sermon. An example of this is Emerson’s three series of “Essays” which were hugely popular.
In other words, poetry was losing its role as the central fact of literature. It is difficult for us in the twenty-first century to realize that poetry in the past was considered almost a divine art. This is true cross-culturally. In China, for example, poetry was considered to be the highest of the arts and great poets were hugely admired. One of the Confucian Classics is the “Book of Songs”, a collection of ancient Chinese verse put together by Confucius whose status was on a par with the “Analects”. In Japan imperially commissioned collections of poetry greatly influenced culture for many generations. In the west Homer is quoted in classical Greece and Rome as authoritative; the way one would quote scripture. And this sense of poetry as divinely inspired continued for many centuries.
The situation for poetry slowly shifted, and then in the late nineteenth century radically changed. Poetry slowly became marginalized, just one of a group of literary endeavors. A good example of this is someone like Thomas Hardy; known as a poet and a novelist.
The consciously literary poet no longer could assume admiration simply because of the high status of poetry. Poems now competed with fiction, essay, diary, and editorials.
Meanwhile, as all this was going on, people continued to write songs and these songs continued to be rhymed and metrical. Under the pressure of a growing literature that did not assume poetic norms, poetry began to mimic the structures of fiction and essay. And in this way poetry cut itself off from what had always been its root, its source of nourishment.