It used to be that what separated poetry from paragraphs were the shapes poets poured their words into. Poets worked the miraculous, transforming water into wine. Gilgamesh, though it wasn’t verse, was written in grammatic parallels. Homer wrote using the Classical Hexameter. The earliest poetry from what became the English Language is found in the few and rare poems of the Anglo Saxons. In his introduction to “The Earliest English Poems”, Michael Alexander:
“Old English prose never achieved the sophisticated word-order or complex syntax of Greek or Latin…. This does not apply to verse. Poetry is a much older human accomplishment than prose, and the poets used a special archaic diction inherited from days when their art had been purely oral.”
When Beowulf’s telling rang in the halls of the Anglo Saxons, the shape of it took from an extempore oral tradition. The bards were like the great musical composers who riveted audiences with their skills at extempore performance. Today, the best rappers come closest to the story telling of the ancient bards, mixing improvised rhyme and rhythm with its own rhetoric and grammar. The elemental recognition of language’s rhythm and music, the source of poetry, is alive and well in rap.
Not so in modern poetry.
Twentieth century poets redefined poetry. Poetry was no longer known by rhyme, rhythm, meter, rhetoric, or metaphor. The old forms out of the oral tradition were brittle and stylized by the end of the nineteenth century. The oral roots of poetry were suffocated under the weight of literary tradition. What was changeable and malleable in the oral tradition turned rigid and stultifying under the Victorians.
The “free verse” poems were a gust of fresh air. The formless form was taken with fresh ideas. However, unlike the changing before it, free verse has remained the same for over a century. The first impulses that made it have, like the poetry it replaced, stagnated and suffocated. It is an aesthetic that dominates even a hundred years (or more by some accounts) after its beginning. Arguably, no other aesthetic has so dominated poetry for so long and so absolutely.
The shelves of our bookstores are filled with it. (It’s hard to find a contemporary Formalist on a store shelf.) Hundreds of new free-verse books are published every year. Every college houses its poet who makes and teaches the free verse poem (soon to be a decade into the twenty-first century). The pot is full. The roots are rotting.
Where is poetry going?
If there is a transition, what will it be and what will be the greatness of it? Free verse may go on or it may not, but it’s gone flat – the ground is fallow and ready for a new planting.