Free Verse Mind: Part 1
I want to take a few posts to think about what I sometimes call ‘free verse mind’. What I mean by ‘free verse mind’ is an inability to see the function of form. More, I mean the inability on the part of free verse practitioners to see the beauty of form and why form has a power which transcends any particular example of that form. At times I think of this as akin to being deaf; only in this case it is being deaf to form.
This is not universally true. There are significant free verse poets who also compose formal verse; Dana Gioia and Edith Shiffert come to mind. So I’m not saying that writing in free verse inevitably leads to form deafness. But there does seem to be, at least in my observation, a connection between form deafness and writing free verse poetry. Perhaps the relationship is something like this: if someone is form deaf and they become attracted to poetry, then such a person will write free verse. On the other hand, someone who is not form deaf may or may not also write free verse.
Perhaps it will be clearer what form deafness means by exploring what it means to compose poetry using the parameters of a previously existing form. I think the best example for English poetry would be the Sonnet. To write a Sonnet in English means to enter into a conversation with the Sonnet tradition. I mean by ‘conversation’ that a Sonnet writer will be aware of the heritage of the form; to a greater or lesser degree. In general Sonnet writers know of famous English Sonneteers who have preceded them; such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dunne, Millay, etc. Often a contemporary Sonnet writer will have previous Sonnet writers in mind; at times they may have a particular previously composed Sonnet as an ideal. It is my experience that sonneteers have often memorized their favorite sonnets. When Sonnet writers get together, either in person or online, discussions of the tradition and how previous poets have constructed their Sonnets are the main topic. There is a strong sense of being embedded in a tradition. And there is a strong sense of being part of a living community based on that Sonnet form.
With free verse, it seems to me, the situation differs. There is a tradition of free verse. There are also favorite free verse poets from the past; e.g. Whitman. But the discussion differs from the kinds of discussions that take place with formal verse, it seems to me. Though there is a free verse tradition it is not a tradition of form. In a sense it is a tradition of anti-form.
The difference I am pointing to partly centers on the hope of being original. If I am writing a Sonnet I am not primarily focused on being original with the parameters of the poem. For example, if I use a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, that is a rhyme scheme that is given, inherited; I didn’t invent it. Others have used it and now I am using it as well. The rhyme scheme is not my property, achievement or something I can own, nor is it distinctive of my personal expression. It is part of the inherited Sonnet Recipe, if you will. In contrast, if I write a free verse poem in the style of Whitman (say by engaging in a long series of parallelisms that mimic some of Whitman’s poems), that would be seen as being derivative; it would be looked at as a flaw. Or if I adopted some of Bukowski’s syntax, that would also be seen as derivative and unoriginal. My point here is that by its very nature free verse poetry undermines the idea that mimicking the structures of past poets in the free verse tradition is something to aspire to. It is, rather, something to be avoided if one wants to make a name for one’s self in the field of free verse poetry. In contrast, with formal poetry, adopting the structural features of previous poets is part of what makes formal verse formal verse.
Part of what I think constitutes free verse mind is a certain unexamined view of the past. It is a characteristic shared by both moderns and post-moderns that our current time and age are in some important sense different from ages past. I refer to this view as ‘chronocentrism’; I mean by ‘chornocentrism’ an exaltation, or inflation, of the present at the expense of the past.
In contrast, traditionalists tend to look at the past as offering lessons, advice, examples both positive and negative, which one can apply to one’s own life. Underlying this traditionalist view is that our time is not that different from times past, that people haven’t changed in any basic way. If one has this kind of traditionalist view then those who lived in the past are part of an overriding humanity, part of a community that is inclusive of one’s self.
Another aspect, connected to chronocentrism, of free verse mind is a kind of hyper individualism. One can see this, at times, in Whitman and I think Whitman has set a kind of precedent for this hyper individualism. I mean by this those long passages in some of Whitman’s poems where he goes on at length about himself in praiseworthy verses. To be honest, at times I find it embarrassing; but I know I’m a minority here.
Working with an inherited form undermines hyper individualism. Instead there is a tendency to see one’s own efforts, say in the Sonnet, as just one contribution among many. There is an inherent modesty in working with an inherited form.
All of this combines, I think, to make the transcendental beauty of form something that many free verse poets simply are unable to access; the psychological barriers are too great. If, as a poet, you think of yourself as a rugged individualist, and your goal is primarily self-expression, it isn’t too difficult to see that this would make one inclined to reject pre-existing forms because a pre-existing form limits the range of self-expression. In addition, if one believes that one’s own time is fundamentally different from past eras, that would effectively raise a barrier to using a form from the past because the past has nothing to offer this new era in which we live.
The above analysis is not universally applicable. It has been my observation that for many younger poets today, trained at universities and various poetry workshops, connected with the contemporary poetry ‘scene’, free verse is simply the way they do poetry. I mean that for many younger poets there has been no opportunity to learn about formal verse and their acceptance of free verse norms is thoughtless. I don’t mean ‘thoughtless’ in the sense of lacking in intelligence; rather I mean not really considered or weighed. Many younger poets have never been introduced to formal verse (metrical or syllabic) and write free verse simply because that is what they have been taught.
One can, however, observe how strong the psychological barriers are to formal verse in an individual when they are shown how formal verse works. This sometimes happens accidentally by running across some formal verse that is also contemporary, or through an auspicious friendship, or, sometimes, a teacher they respect. If the poet responds to this kind of information with openness, then the above analysis does not apply. If, on the other hand, they respond with sarcasm, or trumped up ideological critiques, then, I suspect, something akin to the above analysis probably applies.
Most poets I know, including myself, who compose syllabic verse in specific forms, came to formal syllabic verse from free verse. In my own case, recognizing the potential of syllabic verse came slowly; it was a long process. Others I know have plunged right into a syllabic approach. So the transition is possible and, from what I have observed, rewarding.
But for the free verse poet who is trapped by their own chronocentrism, such a transition remains highly problematical. For such a poet to compose poetry in a pre-existing form would mean, from their perspective, to be ‘going backwards’; a phrase I have heard several free verse poets use. They mean that formal verse is in some sense backwards, of another time, or not relevant. Because they remain trapped in their own chronocentric ideology, they literally are unable to see the beauty of form and its attractiveness.