vers libre vs. Poetic Form

These days there is absolutely no shortage of aspiring young writers, all salivating to get out their first volume of free-verse angst which is just, like, so totally profound. Well, in the attempt to be profound, such writing usually just misses target and hits pretentious nonsense instead. Young writers, it seems, have become confused by the elusive nature of poetry. Yes, the meaning is not always apparent and there are ambiguities and a whole variety of possible images and understandings, but very few poems are written from nothing more than a desire to be elusive and tricky. This is, rather, something that comes with time and skill. The task in hand is really to express something; an image, a feeling, a thought, whatever. One cannot attempt to write something profound without having first had a thought which it turns out, consequently, is profound, and attempting to express it (N.B. and attempting to express it in a true manner, not in a profound manner).


It also appears to have been forgotten that poetry is, in part, about the beauty of the expression, and the beauty of words, no matter what we may think, resides in their musicality, it is through their rhythm and rhyming qualities, when combined correctly, that make them ring true. Thus, the decision to move away from formal poetry, before one has properly worked at and explored poetic forms, is an uninformed decision that will do the writer a disservice. Apprentice painters learn, first, a variety of techniques following the various masters before they can begin to break the rules and try the “freer” expression of abstract art. The wordsmith, similarly, would greatly benefit from learning the techniques of sculpting words into set poetic forms, if only for the sake of better understanding how words work together, how those poetic rules may be broken to great effect and how some of those rules may also be applied out of context to great effect. For example, grief does not necessarily meet its most profound expression in free verse, although this would seemingly match well its disjointed and choking quality. It is more profound, perhaps, to show the battle with grief in crafting it into a strict metrical and rhythmic pattern. It is possibly more profound again to break that strict meter and/or rhyme scheme within its confines to show how grief overwhelms human confine.


The concept of “free verse” by implication, suggests that all other verse is constrained, bound, chained, tied up. It is true that poetic form represents constraints, but it does not represent a prison cell. If you have ever read Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), you may recall how he adjusts himself to the changing gravitational fields in the training room; writing in form is something similar. It is, of course, already a challenge to express oneself, but once the commitment to poetry as a medium has been made, it is perhaps better to embrace it entirely. If one must think of poetic form as a constraint, think of it as the sort of constraint that training rhetoricians used to apply to themselves as they practised their speeches, such as carrying sacks of rock up mountains; they are, at the very least, constraints which can improve one’s skill and ability and, when freed from the idea of being constraints, may give poetry new life. Let us react against our predecessors as did the modernists we seem so intent on aping—with a healthy disrespect for their practices.


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