“Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”

  • The title is the search term that brought a visitor to my blog.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the teacup that is poetry, the question stirs up tempests. Many rationalizations for the rejection of rhyme have been given, some are genuine but just as many, I think, have been disingenuous. Some of the most absurd rationalizations have been sociopolitical. Formal poetry, and by extension rhyme and meter, has been saddled with accusations of being unpatriotic (Diane Wakoski ~ American Book Review May/June 1986), patriarchal (Adrienne Rich, Deinse Levertov, Diane Wakoski), nationalist (starting with Whitman wanting to break with the poetic tradition of the “Old World”), and whatever other -ism suits whatever chip a poet or critic carries on their shoulder.

“As long as the States continue to absorb and be dominated by the poetry of the Old World, and remain unsupplied with autochthonous song… so long will they stop short of first-class Nationality and remain defective.”

The quote above comes from Walt Whitman’s 1888 version of A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads. Whitman’s reference to the “Old World” was code for what Whitman considered the “European” tradition of meter, rhyme and form. The chip on Whitman’s shoulder? — his poetry wasn’t as widely read as he thought it should be (compared to the rhyming and metrical Longfellow). The following is from Ezra Pound’s preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915.

To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

That last line, “In poetry a new cadence means a new idea“, is pure Romanticism. The 19th century created and enshrined the artistic paradigms of genius, creativity and originality, concepts that were less clearly defined in earlier centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kant wrote that “genius does not follow rules”.  Pound is essentially saying the same thing. A “new cadence”, by definition, breaks from the past and presumably from any rules – such as rhyme or meter. The ideal of creativity is restated as the “new idea”.

Pound’s contemporaries absorbed his argument and transformed its tenets into the free verse of Modernism.

For a time though, two competing visions of poetry were at war. Pound, from the outset, framed the debate when he referred to the “old moods” of traditional poetry, echoing Whitman’s nationalistic “Old World”, along with his insistence that free verse is a fight for the “principle of liberty”. Pound’s rhetoric takes on unmistakably political undertones. Disagree with me, he seems to warn, and the fight will be political; and that, as time passed, is how many poets justified their rejection of techniques like rhyme – through the politics of race, gender, and class. Any new artistic movement must validate itself; and, it seems, the best validation is political.

So, my first answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is to answer that the disappearance of rhyme resulted from the desire to reject what had become the stifling tradition of Victorian rhyme and meter (which is what Pound was chaffing against). And because no artistic revolution goes unchallenged, the rise of free verse had to be defended (forcefully in some quarters) by portraying advocates of traditional poetry (and by extension the techniques of meter and rhyme) as reactionary, conservative, patriarchal, etc… In other words, it’s not the poet, it’s the poetry at fault; it’s not me, it’s you.

I don’t find any of these rationalizations against traditional poetry convincing or compelling; however, it can be equally stated that the political arguments against free verse were just as absurd. To some, free verse came to represent anarchy and moral degradation. I don’t buy those arguments either.

It’s the Poet, not the Poetry

It used to be that a poet’s meter and rhyme were what weeded the poet from the poetaster. Walt Whitman changed that. Whitman was not a talented writer of meter or rhyme, but he proved that being a great poet and a talented formalist were two different things.

With that in mind, there is an implicit confession in Pound’s revolution that many poets don’t care to admit or discuss. Implicit in Pound’s manifesto is an admission that the vast majority of poets just are not good at rhyme or meter — the problem with Victorian poetry was only partly it’s subject matter. The worst of it was the sing-song, amateurish quality of its lines.

Though it is better to cast free verse as a triumphant “new idea” rather than an admission of defeat, Pound’s manifesto nevertheless implicitly confesses that rhyme and meter are hard, that even the Victorians don’t do it well, and that most poets would be better off if they just didn’t try (or, as he more favorably put it, that they be “liberated” from the expectation). Of course, Pound didn’t put it that way publicly. He did so privately with T.S. Eliot:

Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.” It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from “Gerontion” and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

From On The Composition of The Waste Land by Richard Ellman

Says Pound, Pope did it better. The problem, Pound tells Eliot, is not that he is using rhyme and meter, but that he isn’t that good at it.

The truth is, the vast majority of free verse poets are not good at rhyme or meter (possibly none of them). And to be fair, the majority of formalist poets are also not that good at it. The majority of readers don’t know that, yes, the  majority of contemporary poets aren’t good at rhyme or meter because those poets are sensible enough not to try it. (Rue the day that a poet like Ron Silliman tries to write meter or rhyme.) And it is a far more pleasant thing that rhyme be rejected for trumped up reasons than that the poet admit he or she isn’t good at it.

There are exceptions. John Ashbery, for one, has gracefully stated that, if he could, he would write traditional poetry, that he likes traditional poetry, but that his talent lies elsewhere. I have had many free verse poets tell me, in private, that they have tried to write rhyme or meter, that they admire it, but that they lack the talent for it.

So, my more fully honest answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is that poets aren’t good at it.

It’s not that poets “don’t write rhyme” because they reject it, but because they’re not, and never were, good at it. If you are writing poetry that rhymes and uses meter, be good at it. (Just as poets recognize their own limitations, they’re especially good at recognizing the limitations of others.) If you don’t “write rhyme” well, criticism will come where criticism is due. The best poets recognize good rhyme and meter when they see it. At worst, traditional poetic techniques are slighted for ideological reasons, and even envy.  Until you can tell the difference, ignore everyone and write what’s in your heart.

If your interest is in reading modern traditional poets, a few of us are around.

I’m always ready to recommend a few. Every heard of Duncan MacLaurin? He’s a poet about the same age as myself. Take a look and see what you think. Click on August/September 2011 Snakeskin 179, and look for MacLaurin at the top left. A pdf of MacLaurin’s poetry is available, along with a selection of eight at The Hyper Texts.

33 responses

  1. Patrick, I wholeheartedly agree. I am much better at rhyme than meter, though sometimes I can pull off the latter. For me, the issue is more about what is a more appropriate form for the sentiment (I consider, unlike most free verse poets and “formalists,” vers libre to be a form in itself; it is a looser form, but a form nonetheless).

    I feel comfortable operating in several modes of expression. I have written concrete poetry, used avant-garde techniques, stuck with pure free verse, and written using traditional forms – both eastern and western (sometimes in the same poem). I’m what you might call an “experimentalist,” though often my “experiments” are to take seemingly opposite effects and juxtapose them – hardly experimental in the literal sense of the word, however, they are experiments for me personally because I just like to see what happens when I synthesize.

    So, if free verse helps me better express the sentiment I want to express, then I use it. If rhyme and meter are better suited to the expression, then I allow myself to move in that direction. The Masters operated in a similar fashion even within the metrical tradition. Heroic couplets, as you know, served a particular poetic purpose; often, the poet would use the form most appropriate for what he wanted to express. It was intrinsic to the rules of rhetoric.

    The problem with many poets today is that they have no understanding of the traditions and just write what they feel. To me, poetry isn’t about feeling. It’s about thinking. I want my reader to feel, but to get them there I have to think about how best to pull the emotion I want them to have out. I see that as the poet’s job.

    • //The problem with many poets today is that they have no understanding of the traditions…//

      That’s been my experience, at least. Very few free verse poets, who I’ve met, know much about meter beyond the obvious. Even among those who do, however, knowledge doesn’t translate into ability. The point of my post, I suppose, was that the reason so few poets rhyme is because it’s a separate skill, hard to do, and hard to do well. Free verse is much easier; and the overwhelming choice of that verse form reflects that.

      I wonder why poets would not consider verse libre a form? Free verse isn’t like a poem that has a regular form, like a sonnet or simply iambic pentameter, but it is a form of poetry, just like prose poetry. And thanks for stopping by, Allen. It’s been a while. :-)

  2. Here in Australia traditional poetry used to be very popular and poets such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were household names – still are amongst the older generation. Since the advent of free verse however, this is no longer the case, although it could be argued that free verse modernist and post modernist poetry coincided with a change in society’s attitude to poetry. For what its worth I write my version of traditional poetry.

  3. Pingback: Expanding Notes « gists

  4. The editor of Snakeskin, George Simmers, has linked this article and commented on it: http://snakeskinpoetry.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/thoughts-about-rhyme/

    No doubt many formalists are unable to write good free verse. I myself feel, like Robert Frost, that “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”. This is not to say that I don’t like free verse. I just don’t feel confident about being able to write it well.

    As a staple diet, however, I do think free verse becomes very dull, and at times I rail against the strong bias towards free verse in contemporary poetry circles. This may be seen by some as merely self-serving, but tolerating an unjustified predominance would not be doing anyone any favours.

    Here’s an essay written by A.E. Stallings in defence of formal verse: http://ramblingrose.com/poetry/others/stallings_essay.html

    • Hi Duncan, just got home. Both you, George Simmers, and A.E. Stallings evince (George implies) an appreciation for “good free verse” – and that good traditional poets might not make good free verse poets. That’s a curious argument because it implies (or seems to) that there’s commensurate skill set required to write a free verse poem (verses a traditional poem) but, at least in my experience, no poet or critic has ever explained what, exactly, makes a good free verse poem as distinct from a traditional poem.

      In other words, what are we talking about when we describe “good free verse”? One can objectively look at a traditional poem, much like a musical fugue or cannon, and judge the author not just on the subject (or the musical theme) but also the author’s skill in execution. How skillful was his rhyme, meter and overall line? There’s no such commensurate, or objective way to criticize free verse poets. It’s only when they begin to bring into their poetry some of the techniques found in traditional poetry. If not, the critic is left discussing the content of a free verse poem (which is William Logan’s specialty).

      I was interested to read Stallings’ statement that she had little success when attempting to publish as a free verse poet. I can only speculate that if her subject matter was the same in her free verse poetry as in her traditional poetry, I’m not surprised. Free verse is almost universally judged by its subject matter. Her subject matter, in my opinion, tends to be on the inconsequential side. I don’t know if you’re a classical music listener but reading her poetry is, to me, like listening to Sammartini (a nerdy and obscure reference to one whose music was light and fluffy). Haydn called the composer a “note spinner”. I feel that way about Stallings (and it’s earned me more than a few enemies). She’s a word spinner. (If you wonder what I mean, compare her subject matter to Dickinson.) She has a wonderful ear for melodious language and that makes up, in its way, for the lack of weight and heft in her subject matter. It gets her published.

      As to her essay, I guess I find her distinction between poetry and verse to be a nice pirouette. She writes:

      “And the definition of verse is a simple one: writing whose unit is the line. By this definition, a prose poem might well be “poetry” with a capital P, but it ain’t verse. “

      This, as she points out, eliminates prose poetry. From a rhetorician’s standpoint, however, she also eliminates free verse. Verse is not, in fact, “writing whose unit is the line”. It’s more than that. Every definition of verse includes the qualification that it be metrical. This, traditionally, is what separated poetry from prose. It’s the one thing poetry did that prose didn’t. From a rhetorician’s standpoint, therefore, there’s nothing that separates free verse from prose. The difference is typographical, but that does not amount to a rhetorical distinction. Stallings then blurs distinctions further by defining free verse as something that is “metrically ad hoc by line”. But, to me, that makes no sense. If a poem’s lines are “ad hoc”, then the poem isn’t metrical. To say that one writes metrically ad hoc lines is like saying that something is ordered randomly.

      It’s then that she writes, “I admire those who can do it well.” To my reading sixth sense, that sounds disingenuous. It sounds like something she wrote in order to forestall criticism that she just doesn’t like free verse. It’s a very flattering thing to say. She admires “those who do it well”. Yes, very flattering. The problem is that she never tells us anywhere in the essay what constitutes a free verse poem done well. However, she’s exceedingly good at explaining what constitutes a well done traditional poem, and I do mean that genuinely. She wrote a beautifully memorable essay on rhyming for example. Similarly, her defense of “formal verse”, as she calls it, is right on.

      But what constitutes a “good free verse” poem? — as distinguished from good prose?

    • I am always amused at the word games people play to position themselves as superior to others. There is much to admire about Stallings’ defense of formal “verse,” but I found a few comments I’d take issue with as well.

      Patrick, perhaps she doesn’t explain what constitutes a good free verse poem because that wasn’t her intent. She was defending form. Anything that stepped outside of that box would have been beating a wayward path. As a master rhetorician, you should certainly see that.

      I do agree that most people who judge free verse do so on content. It’s unfortunate. One shouldn’t judge it on content alone. As Stallings points out, content doesn’t make the poem. To put it simply, one should simply ask, “Do I like it?” If your only measure of liking a poem is whether or not the poet skillfully measures his lines, then I’d say you’re no better off than the person who can’t explain what makes a good free verse poem. Surely there is more to formal poetry than that the poet writes exceptional meter.

      If that last statement is true (and I believe it is), then there is something beyond the differences that set free verse and formal verse apart that can be said for making a poem “good.” The problem is, we all disagree on what that is. So we’re back to the axiom that all judgments of quality are subjective.

      As someone who has written both formal verse and free verse, to include avant-garde styles, I think whether you can do one or the other depends on how comfortable you are in challenging yourself. Both are a learned art. No one is born a formal poet. No one is born a poet. You may have a propensity through genetics or what-not, but poetics is a learned skill. You have to learn to write meter or you can’t do it well. And you have to learn to write in prose, or in free verse, in order to do that well. Simply writing a poem about the moon doesn’t make one a poet. But if one can make me see it in a new light or offer me an experience that I can’t get from some place else, whether that be done through a metrical pattern or through free verse, then one might indeed succeed in writing a good poem.

      Myself, I envision a world where free verse and formal verse can exist side by side as equals.

    • No, you’re right, explaining what constitutes good free verse was not the point of the article. Granted.

      But I can’t help ask the question. She did not say, for example, I like free verse. She qualified that. She said, I like “those who can do it well”. Well, I can’t help but wonder, given the nature of the article, what exactly she means by that? In my writing, when I make a qualified statement like that, I try to explain what I mean. What do they do, who do free verse well?

      Surely there is more to formal poetry than that the poet writes exceptional meter.

      Yes, there’s much more, and that’s not always easy to pinpoint. Sometimes we get lucky, as when Shelley and Horace Smith both wrote sonnets on Ozymandias, or we have first drafts of Keats’ poem “Bright Star”. Then we can compare the difference between a competent poem and a great poem. I’ve made a go at trying to explain some of that but I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.

      …we’re back to the axiom that all judgments of quality are subjective.

      Yes and no. When enough readers agree that Shakespeare is a better poet than Middleton, or Keats a better poet than Hunt, then we can begin to say some objective things about what makes a poet’s work better than the rest. It’s a peculiarly 20th century critical paradigm, this notion that greatness (or at least notions of better and worse) are completely arbitrary and subjective. I don’t buy into those arguments and I’ve never seen those arguments successfully made. A recent book, for example, argued that Beethoven’s stature as a great composer was completely cultural and arbitrary. If I can think of the name, I’ll link to it. Wait, here we go. Needless to say, nobody bought into it.

      But if one can make me see it in a new light or offer me an experience that I can’t get from some place else…

      Yes, and that’s a valid way to describe the experience of good poetry. The question: How do you explain what produces that effect? If you can explain that, then I think you go some way toward explaining what makes good free verse. As to free verse and traditional poetry existing side by side as equals, I don’t think it matters. Classical music, Jazz and 60’s rock don’t exists side by side as equals. They’re each their own art form.

  5. You say many interesting things, Patrick.

    With regard to what you say about Alicia Stallings’ poetry, it really depends on what you think is consequential subject matter for a poem. I’ve leant her collection, Hapax, to a friend so I can’t quote her, but I remember one delicious sonnet in particular about Achilles being dressed up as a girl to escape the military draft and being exposed when he chooses the gift of a silver dagger that has been placed among bracelets and necklaces. By presenting this episode in a simple yet exquisite sonnet (the 14 lines perhaps mirroring the protagonist’s age) she highlights the pathos of Achilles being unable to escape his destiny, and she also draws a parallel to that more famous poisoned Greek gift, the Trojan horse. Inconsequential? For some perhaps, but for others not at all.

    The test of verse, like music, is whether we want to listen to it repeatedly, and this is where formal verse has the edge on free verse, as there is often more resonance in formal poetry, more layers of meaning. The free verse trend seems almost to be expressing resentment at this simple fact, its credo being: “We’ve nothing much to say so we’re not going to write it in any lasting form.” Of course there are exceptions. Poets like Whitman and Lawrence wrote with a rhythm and power that outshone the majority of their formal verse contemporaries. But such poets are all too rare.

    Yes, free verse is content-biased while formal verse is form-biased, but whichever we use there has to be a balance between form and content. And all too often free verse merely lowers the bar for both.

    • My opinions are completely objective. Just kidding. Her poetry, with me, just doesn’t leave a lasting impression; and that’s very frustrating because I want them to. She has such a gift for language and imagery, and yet nearly every time I come to the end of a poem, I’m more impressed by its architecture and cleverness than by any sense that the whole exceeds the parts. The poem Cassandra is a perfect example – incredibly clever, but then what? Stallings’ poem The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles leaves me with the same ennui. So Ulysses’ wife is pissed off… and… so what? The poem, to me, is the kind of thing a college student would come up with – a clever revision that seeks to be its own justification. Her poetry generally doesn’t offer me that ineffable sense of suggestiveness — that realization, that new way of looking at the world that I get from reading great poems by the Japanese haikuists, Frost, Keats, Ferlinghetti, Yeats, Dickinson. The poems seem like exquisitely expressed mundanity. I know the poem you are referring to and just searched for it in both her books. Can’t find it. It’s good but maybe I’m not the best reader for Stallings. When you’ve read it, do you feel like she was writing about you or about Achilles? When I read it, I don’t feel as though I could recite it, the way I could recite “The Road not Taken” or Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116”, and expect listeners to nod knowingly. If I recited her poem, listeners would politely clap and congratulate me on my delightful erudition. Do we really need more poems based on Greek myths? Didn’t we go through all that with the Victorians? How many Victorian woman, polite and swooning drawing room poets, reveled in one myth after another. Then there’s Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Browning, etc.. They all did it better and the Victorians did it to death. The problem I have with this kind of poetry is that, to me, it’s painting by numbers. The picture, the myth, is already there. Every myth and mythical figure comes cooked with rich literary associations and allusions. Basing ones poetry on this stuff, in the 21rst century, is painting by numbers. The poet doesn’t have to do as much work. She doesn’t have to introduce or define characters. She doesn’t even have to write the story. All that work’s already been done. But what if one isn’t familiar with those myths? The poems frequently fall flat; and they fall flat because they’re more like footnotes than poems. She’s just too dryly literary for my tastes. Every so often she writes a poem that feels suffused with her own life. Those are the ones I like. To me, Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks and Bad News Blues are two of her best poems. Anyway… if you like Stallings, then you should read Catherine Tufariello. I personally take more pleasure in reading Tufariello. Buy her book, you won’t regret it.

  6. Well, Patrick, I know the classics aren’t always in great favour in the contemporary literary world, but it’s what we’ve got really, and it’s what we’ll hopefully still have tomorrow. I agree that a modern author is somehow expected to renew the classics, and that Alicia Stallings doesn’t add much to Greek myth content-wise, but her short pieces are good inasmuch as they highlight a certain episode. And she brings a modern sensibility to these episodes. And her craft is equal to this task. One could say that by insisting on the validity of the original myths she is refusing to sell out to the post-modernist yen for parody. I myself am more a fan of jokey rewrites of Greek myth which also make a serious commentary of our own times, à la Bilgere: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/09/27

    And I’ve done a couple of these myself. Here’s one: http://homepages.nildram.co.uk/~simmers/158rev.html

    I’ll certainly get hold of that Catherine Tufariello collection you linked to.

    • Thanks Duncan, I always enjoy hearing what others enjoy in a poet.

      And I’m glad you don’t take too much offense at my own opinions.

      Having read your linked poems, I understand why she appeals to you. And I can imagine your reaction when I dissed yet more mythology makeovers! I like Bilgere’s take more than I like Stallings’. The reason, perhaps, is because the poem is really about himself. One doesn’t get the sense that he’s footnoting the Odyssey. Do you have any other poems out and about?

  7. “Form is not about control, it’s about giving up control.” So speaks Alicia Stallings here:
    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2011/09/conversation-ae-stallings-poet-and-translator-inspired-by-the-classics.html

    I find this especially true of my acrostic aphorism sonnets, where I tap ideas that wouldn’t surface otherwise. Standing on the shoulders of the writers I quoted, I found I had a view I wouldn’t normally have. I was allowed to express sentiments in collaboration with them, sentiments I would not normally have considered expressing myself.

    • That’s a good quote, although I don’t think of traditional poetry in those terms. For me it’s just the beauty of rhyme and meter — the beautiful artifice of language.

    • I had never heard of Peter Deniels. Can’t judge the book by a poem or two, but the two poems I read don’t impress me all that much.

      Has something to say, but there’s nothing about the imagery or language that really jumps out at me. Like the blogger wrote, they are “rather unadventurous far as poetic styles are concerned”. For me, poetry lives or dies in its “style”, though not for all readers by any means.

      Interestingly, the blogger puts much emphasis on all the awards the poets have received in contrast to their lack of public popularity – as if there were a connection between the two. What the post tells me, is that there’s a complete and utter disconnect between the self-appointed or appointed arbiters of poetry (the judges) and the general public. All the awards signify nothing whatsoever (as far as the public appeal of the poetry is concerned). Bruce Lee, you know, wasn’t a black belt. When asked why he wasn’t, he answered that belts were only good for holding pants up. I feel that way about awards. They make great paperweights – if that.

    • Yes, to a certain extent you’re right about prizes not necessarily being a road to popularity. On the other hand, as Tim Love points out, if you’re recognized by those dark eminences, “the people who matter”, then there’s certainly a greater chance of popularity. And “the people who matter” do presumably take an interest in prize-winners.

    • Yes. you’re right. There’s a greater chance of popularity and more interest in prize winners. Prize winners are the ones invited to read at universities and the like. None of it seems to stick though. I’m amazed by how many prize winning poets there are. The real prize, in my view, is to be read, liked, and recommended. That’s not something that can be awarded by ones peers. So far there’s not a single living poet, that I know of, who has won that prize.

  8. I’ve recently been immersed in the poetry of Keats and Shelley. Three weeks ago I was in Rome for the first time with a class and had them reciting Shelley at his graveside. I bought a biography of Keats, Posthumous Keats by Stanley Plumly, recommended to me at the Keats-Shelley house. I read it on the ride home. A great read. Here’s a rave review by Christopher Ricks:
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/jun/11/keatss-afterlife/

    Right now I’m looking at the poems in The Dark Horse magazine that came yesterday. This is an excellent Scottish-American poetry journal. I find the literary essays especially good. Check it out here: http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/newissue.html

  9. Another interesting discussion.

    [[[In other words, what are we talking about when we describe “good free verse”?]]]

    I would say that would depend on the poem being described, the same way what constitutes “good verse” would depend on what poem was being described. I’ve often wanted to create a whole new aesthetic theory called “toolism” (silly name, I know; we must put our heads together to think of something much more impressive sounding to academics!) where every element that goes into any art are merely tools for expression that can be used to different purposes. Don’t speak to me of verse VS free verse, speak to me of what tools each possess unique from the other and what opportunities for artistic expression they present.

    On that note, what makes good free verse? Well, since three defining elements of free verse are line breaks dictated by choice rather than meter, form dictated by choice rather than tradition, and rhythm dictated by choice rather than meter, then “good free verse” would use these elements in some manner to express something in the poem. As Auden said: “I think very few people can manage free verse—you need an infallible ear, like D. H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end.” (this was from an excellent interview here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3970/the-art-of-poetry-no-17-w-h-auden).

    I think the first question I always ask myself when it comes to free verse is what effect each line break has. Why break the line here? If it’s enjambed, what does this “splitting of sense” add to how I read the poem? Does the next transform what came before, does it subtly add to it, does it ironize it, does the “spilling over” seem to enhance what’s being said, what’s the significance of the word it ends on and the next line’s first word? I mean, those are just basics. A poem like WCW’s Red Wheelbarrow, which is actually much more highly structured than most free verse, does, at least, reveal how line breaks can be used so that the next line can transform the meaning that came before:

    so much depends
    upon

    a red wheel
    barrow

    glazed with rain
    water

    beside the white
    chickens.

    Here, “barrow” and “water” transform the words that came before–not “wheel” but “wheelbarrow,” not “rain” but “rain water”. This is contrasted with the first two lines whose break/followup is predictable, as “upon” would logically follow the phrase “so much depends.” So the first two lines give us a sense of predictability, of sureness at the natural order of things. This is immediately destroyed in the next two “stanzas,” while the final doesn’t even pretend towards predictability as we have no way of knowing what might follow “white,” as it’s clearly an adjective unlike wheel and rain. Even the scattershot rhythm keeps trying to find the meter, a predictable “home” that it never can quite achieve. So you do have this tremendous balance of sameness and pattern on one level (each second line is one word, two syllables, each opening line is three words, that only modulates between four and three syllables), but unpredictability and “imperfection” on another.

    Paul Fussel said in his seminal book on Poetic Meter and Poetic Form something to the effect that in verse, meter was the base that allowed the chaos of variations to punch through expressively, while in free verse it’s the chaos of unpredictability that allows form and predictability to bring order to it. I think metrical poets can become banal by never varying the same way that free verse poets can become incoherent by never finding any order. Even Whitman seemed to (intuitively) recognize such possibilities as Fussel noted in his book:

    WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

    What’s the only line of iambic pentameter in this poem and how does it enact the thing it’s stating? Actually, the whole poem seems to build to that one iambic pentameter line, with the first 4 lines lengthening and “piling on” the others, and the next three lines contracting, more “even” in their length, trying to find a comforting order and a pattern.

    So there’s two great examples of free verse that use that freedom to their fullest expressive advantage.

    • I think you’re the first person to try an answer at that question; and it’s a good answer.

      Linebreaks

      When you describe the “effect” of the linebreaks, the effect might work for you, as a reader, of this poem, but may not work for the next. As you say, it all depends on the poem – “what poem is being described”. And that begs the question: Why? And how do you avoid enactment fallacy? One can write a parody of the poem :

      the recipe
      depends

      on ripe straw
      berries

      said my grand
      mother

      while she strangled
      chickens.

      The poem above, does precisely the same things as WCW’s poem – using the same number of syllables and compound words. So, in an alternate universe you write:

      Here, “berries” and “mother” transform the words that came before–not “straw” but “strawberries,” not “grand” but “grandmother”. This is contrasted with the first two lines whose break/followup is predictable, as “depends” would logically follow the words “the recipe” So the first two lines give us a sense of predictability, of sureness at the natural order of things. This is immediately destroyed in the next two “stanzas,” while the final doesn’t even pretend towards predictability as we have no way of knowing what might follow “strangled,” as it’s clearly a verb unlike straw and grand.

      What’s wrong with bizarro-Suzanne’s analysis? Anything? Does the subject matter change anything? If so, does this bring us back to subject matter as the primary, if not sole, means by which to judge free verse?

      Fussel’s quote is interesting but I, unfortunately, have an allergic reaction to quotes like these. They sound great, they’re cute and memorable, but once you really begin to parse them, they dissolve into meaninglessness.

      Whitman’s free verse is unique in that he uses grammatical parallelism, moments of meter and highly patterned rhetoric. One can point to it and say he did this, and this, and that, and that it’s a form of patterning that is highly rhetorical and atypical of anything like modern free verse or prose. Whitman’s rhetorical patterning has far more in common with Shakespeare’s prose passages or a dramatist like John Lyly. The parallels between Lyly and Whitman can be striking. Interestingly, it’s when Whitman pulls in techniques from oratory, rhetoric and traditional poetry, like his Iambic Pentameter line, that things get interesting. I like that kind of free verse. I wrote a post on Furlinghetti that admires the same techniques. In this case though, good free verse is being described as good because it draws on the techniques of traditional poetry.

  10. [[[And that begs the question: Why? And how do you avoid enactment fallacy?]]]

    The reason why it depends on the poem being described is because every poem has something to express and has chosen a certain way to express that thing. The whole point of art is to find a suitable medium and techniques for that expression that will give it the most force and impact possible. Equally, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” method. If there was, all the arts would get very boring. Rather, the arts are usually a long line of finding a new method, perfecting it, and then finding a new method that makes the old one obsolete, or that subsumes it within itself. Frequently, these new methods come as a reaction against old methods, like free verse against verse. The new method presents new and exciting possibilities that artists revel in trying to cultivate and perfect. Eventually, it may seem to some that all the possibilities are tried out, there’s nothing greater that can be done with it, so there arises a need for something new. Blake would call this “the Orc cycle,” and it’s a cycle he saw all throughout nature, society, culture, etc.

    Now, perhaps you guessed it, but I am not a proponent of the enactment fallacy. It seems to me that to label such thing a fallacy is to essentially say that the tools and methods poets (nay, all artists) have used since the dawn of time is fallacious. Was Pope really committing a “fallacy” when he described how certain poetic devices could be used to enhance the sense in An Essay on Criticism? The enactment fallacy doesn’t seem to realize that there are numerous abstract correlative associations in art between the thing to be expressed and the method to express it. Even music, the most abstract of mediums, has found (or thought it found) correlations between certain devices an, say, nature. If you want to argue that these correlations don’t really exist, then what makes an artist and audience think they do to begin with?

    Perhaps one of the famous arguments against enactment was one critic (I forget who) who said that if you change Tennyson’s famous “the murmuring of innumerable bees” to “the murdering of innumerable bees” then you don’t lose any of the sound effect the line is so famous for. But what this stupidly ignores is that nobody ever said that such sound effects were divorced from the words, from the content being described. Even in the “murdering” example you’d actually have a rather ironic use of the sound effect (though it could also be argued that the hard “d” in “murder” does interrupt the effect slightly, but that’s a quibble).

    [[[One can write a parody of the poem: … What’s wrong with bizarro-Suzanne’s analysis? Anything? Does the subject matter change anything? If so, does this bring us back to subject matter as the primary, if not sole, means by which to judge free verse?]]]

    If we’re arguing poetic effect on an audience (“reader response”) then you cannot place art in a bubble outside of its socio-historic context. Since all art feeds on the past anything new is usually a combination of old techniques that attempt (usually slight) alterations to give the audience an experience that feels “safe” in that it has precedent but “excited” in that it seems relatively new. In the case of a parody like that it’s too close to its original to be anything BUT a parody. It’s not that the analysis is no longer applicable, it’s merely that once that analysis has been made conscious previously then the same work recreated no longer has the same effect to make us care about it. We’ve been there and done that. That’s what parodies are, they’re works that make their indebtedness to previous work conscious to an audience so they will be aware of the “sameness,” so any “difference” will usually be humorously conscious instead of exciting or new or whatever.

    That said, there are key differences even in this parody. One thing that makes WCW’s poem so extraordinary is its compressed bathos that doesn’t make itself obvious. Those first two opening lines have a grand, ominous quality about them. “So much depends/ upon,” so the reader thinks “wow, whatever follows is going to be monumentally important since SO MUCH depends on it.” The next line starts to fulfill this promise, “a red wheel.” Now that’s an interesting image as wheels ARE important, and red makes us think of blood and urgency and all kinds of things. Maybe we’re going to get one of Blake’s wheels that drive the universe. But, no, it’s just a red wheelbarrow. Well, that’s an odd thing for so much to depend on… maybe we’ll find out why it’s so crucial. But, no again, all we get is more information about it, that it’s “glazed with rain / water,” that it’s “beside the white / chickens.” Every subsequent stanza, instead of expanding outward to something grandly important, like the opening lines make us think, contracts inwards towards more and smaller details. The final stanza goes outward a little, but only to tell us that it’s surrounded by chickens, which couldn’t a less important thing for something that so much depends on.

    Your parody also ruins the 3 words/1 word pattern, and you miss the rhythmic parallelism between line 1 and line 7. The word that follows recipe could be anything. But anytime you say “X depends” it’s always followed by “on” or “upon.” But, more importantly, you miss the elements above. Telling us right away that it’s a “recipe” that depends on something has none of the effect of WCW’s poem. Also, “depends” does not necessarily follow “recipe”.

    [[[Fussel’s quote is interesting but I, unfortunately, have an allergic reaction to quotes like these. They sound great, they’re cute and memorable, but once you really begin to parse them, they dissolve into meaninglessness.]]]

    Ok, well, feel free to parse it and explain why it dissolves into meaninglessness. Otherwise you’re just dismissing something that I feel had a great deal of validity. It should be noted, though, that the statement is merely my paraphrase of a conclusion that Fussel doesn’t state quite so explicitly in his book that’s filled with examples of said conclusion.

    [[[n this case though, good free verse is being described as good because it draws on the techniques of traditional poetry.]]]

    But I think this is the wrong way of looking at it. The vast majority of Whitman’s poem that I quoted DOES NOT rely on traditional techniques. The lengthening lines in the beginning, along with the quadrupled anaphora, adds to the sense of frustrated weariness that the speaker feels. True, you could get the anaphora in any poem, verse or free verse, but not the lengthening lines. Not only is there a sense of mind-numbing repetition, but one of a piling weight of such dullness. It’s only because the one “traditional line” finds order in this chaos that the poem works. If that one “traditional line” were in any other poem of blank verse then it likely wouldn’t have nearly the same effect. To chalk up the power of that poem to that one line is to unfairly extract it from its context, which could only be achieved through free verse. Really, the opportunities that free verse makes to lengthen/shorten lines is nothing to scoff at, neither is the opportunities to arrange them interestingly (which I agree many free verse poets seem to do haphazardly). e.e. cummings was fantastic at finding unique formal arrangements to enhance his poetry.

    • The reason why it depends on the poem being described is because every poem has something to express and has chosen a certain way to express that thing.

      That’s not unreasonable, but that’s also a slippery slope. Many critics, like Wiliam Logan, have commented on this issue. If each poem has it’s own chosen way to express something, and each poet has his own chosen way, then whose to say whether a poem is successful? – the poet or the reader? A not uncommon refrain heard in the art world, is that artist X rejects the criticism of critic Y because critic Y doesn’t comprehend the aesthetic, philosophical or artistic principles and intentions of artist X. One often here’s the same kind of defense offered up by poets, , especially in poetry workshops. It can go like this: My poem is supposed to be boring because I was portraying boredom. (I really did hear this at a poetry workshop, by the way.) I call that the Fallacy of Imitative Form. The poet calls it genius. And the critic, if all artistic choices are relative, is forced to call it genius. You know what I’m getting at? If a poet is bad at meter or rhyme, there are objective standards for saying so. But how does one critique line breaks in a free verse poem? And that gets us back to the question: What, besides content, makes a good free verse poem? Or is there no general standard by which to judge free verse poetry. Must each poem be considered in isolation? – and does the poet have a say? So, I’m not challenging you so much as trying to feel out your stance.

      Now, perhaps you guessed it, but I am not a proponent of the enactment fallacy.

      Yes, I can see why. It’s like telling a chocoholic that candy is fattening. I think you might misconstrue the fallacy. What it is, is this: Assigning meaning to poetic techniques which those techniques do not possess. In your analysis of WCW’s poem, Red Wheelbarrow, you engage in Enactment Fallacy. You assign meaning to the linebreaks in a way that conveniently bolsters your interpretation of the poem — this requires the assumption that your interpretation is correct. You can claim, as you do, that the interpretation of these techniques is inseparable from (or a part of) the subject matter, but that’s a somewhat circular argument. Whose to say your interpretation of the subject matter is correct?

      One thing that makes WCW’s poem so extraordinary is its compressed bathos that doesn’t make itself obvious. Those first two opening lines have a grand, ominous quality about them.

      But all this is your interpretation. So, naturally, to bolster your interpretation, you interpret technical aspects of the poem through a self-affirming lens. I, for example, have never read the poem as “grandly ominous”. I don’t discount your interpretation. It’s valid. But I do discount your interpretation of its technical aspects. I call that Enactment Fallacy.

      As to Walt Whitman’s poem, I didn’t mean to imply that the entirety of the poem’s power rested on that one Iambic Pentameter line, only that all of the features you have touted have their roots in rhetoric (oratory specifically) and are atypical of modern free verse.

    • Hopefully I’m using this blockquote thing right. If I’m not, I’ll rely on you to fix it.

      If each poem has it’s own chosen way to express something, and each poet has his own chosen way, then whose to say whether a poem is successful? – the poet or the reader?

      This is a problem inherent in the criticism of all art, certainly not just poetry. I’m actually having a similar discussion on IMDb about Stanley Kubrick. Now, Kubrick as a filmmaker was a perfectionist, a profoundly conscious director of what kind of film he wanted to make and how he wanted to make it who accepted no compromises (even in the money-driven Hollywood studio system) to see his vision through. Every film of his, at least from Dr. Strangelove on, is “perfect” if we’re judging them by the standard of what Kubrick wanted to express and how he wanted to express it–that is, judging by his intentions. Likewise, the same way you think of there being an objective standard to judge formal poetry, Kubrick succeeded on all the technical standards of film, especially when it came to the photographic and editing elements.

      Yet, not all of his late film are considered equally great. I don’t think there are many critics or cinephiles that think Eyes Wide Shut is as great as 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, again, on technical standards they’re both pretty much perfect, they’re both exactly the films that Kubrick wanted to make. So how can we say one is better than the other WITHOUT resorting to the reactions, opinions, biases of an audience? I don’t see that it’s possible.

      Likewise, as Allen Taylor deftly points out in the post above: “A lesser poet (than Shakespeare) could deliver a line that is equal in rhyme and meter and the poem still not be as good simply because the poet isn’t a master at other details such as the sound of the words within the line or the creative expression that gets the line from point A to point B.” That’s part of the crux of this issue. Meter and rhyme are just tools of the art like any other in any other medium. How they’re utilized in a poem that chooses to utilize them is certainly important, but can a poem that utilizes meter and rhyme rather badly not also be deemed “good” because it gets other elements (perhaps elements that aren’t unique to formal poetry) “right”? And is this “rightness” much more than a personal feeling that something, perhaps indefinable, in a poem works for an individual? Could you not have a poem in meter or rhyme that’s rather bad, but because there’s a profundity of thought, or clever use of sound effects, or a striking metaphor/simile, or a unique usage of synechdoche or metonymy, or clever wordplay, or dynamic usages of images, speaker, tone, agent, or tense deem it good?

      Plus, what IS this “objective standard for good rhyme and meter” anyway? If a poem is in perfect iambic pentameters then that’s the most we can say about it. But wouldn’t such consistency get boring without variations? And what are variations if not deviations from an ideal perfection? You may say but variations are utilized to have a certain effect. Perhaps so, but who’s to say whether that effect is consciously intended, (perhaps the poet just couldn’t make the line/statement work without deviating from meter; as I said on Amazon, writing in form is a bit like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle), or who’s to say it actually does have an effect on the audience? Likewise for rhyme. What constitutes a “good” rhyme? What about slant rhyme? Is the latter not a kind of perversion of the former? The latter wouldn’t have been accepted in Pope’s time, yet it was an integral part of Yeats’ art.

      Let me go back to film for a moment. Much like poetry, classic film language arose out of a desire to bring a form to what most thought was a chaotic art-form, just images in time randomly strung together. DW Griffith showed how editing could be used to create continuity, increase dramatic tension, create parallel lines of temporal action, etc. early masters like John Ford, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Dreyer, etc. all built off of Griffith’s innovations, experimenting with long takes VS montage, spatial and temporal continuity, expressive angles, special effects, etc. By the 1930s this language was assimilated into the Hollywood Studio system to the point that directors were interchangeable because they all shared a common language, and that commonality existed right up at least until the late 50s.

      In the early 60s a radical group of filmmakers from France formed the French New Wave and revolutionized cinema, radically deconstructing the established “language” of cinema, turning it inside out, finding new ways to do things. In 1959s, Godard’s Breathless was (no pun intended) a breathe of fresh air for a world cinema that many felt was growing stale. But many of its “innovations” came because these directors didn’t have the resources of the rich Hollywood system, so they HAD to find ways to make films cheaply, yet films that weren’t devoid of substance, freshness, etc. So there you had a situation where directors couldn’t make Hollywood-like films (much like you say many modern poets CAN’T write well in rhyme and meter), so they had to find another way. And it’s thanks to them that we have independent filmmaking. It’s thanks to them that we have “auteur theory,” where the vision of great directors are the defining voice of films. It’s thanks to them that we now recognize the few original voices in Hollywood cinema that stood out from that homogenized era (mostly Ford, Hawks, Wilder, and Hitchcock).

      The same question you’re asking about “what makes a good free verse poem” could very well be used to ask “what makes a good independent film.” Why is Godard’s 60s work any “better” than Kevin Smith’s Mallrats or Clerks? Perhaps it’s because, in the 60s, Godard was utterly unlike anything else in the world of film, while Smith, working in the 90s, is just one decent indie filmmaker amongst thousands. But, hell, you could even ask “what makes any 1930s-1950s Hollywood film better than another of the same genre”? The most common answers you’d find were that the best films from that era were those that, while still being obviously apart of that time, contained many unique elements. Were it not for Hitchcock’s and John Ford’s unique pictorial eyes they would be no more distinguishable from any of the stock studio directors. And when we point to great moments in their films, it’s usually those moments that stand out as being different, unique, not a usual part of the homogenized way of making films then.

      The same thing, IMO, applies to great poetry in verse. When we talk about great verse poetry it’s rarely in the sense that the verse perfectly falls in line with the “rules” of its form or meter. We don’t fawn over every Shakespearean sonnet written in a 4-4-4-2 form no more than we fawn over ever Petrarchan sonnet written in an 8-6 form. Likewise, we don’t fawn over every iambic pentameter poem that perfectly goes ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum predictably until the end. So, really what I’m rejecting is this notion that even verse and formal poetry has some “objective standard for greatness.” The best we can hope for is that we can objectively describe it as being perfectly aligned with some abstract form. Yet that’s never what we single great formal verse out for.

      So, now to free verse. There is no “general standard” for free verse, no. But that’s like saying there’s no “general standard” for independent films. We have a long history of both, and when one watches an indie film/reads a free verse poem one is able to compare it to those that have come before. If it’s too familiar, not distinguishable from any others, then perhaps it will be deemed bad, boring, banal. If it’s too original, doesn’t seem to have anything in common with any others, then perhaps it will be deemed bad, confusing, pretentious. Or, then again, maybe some will say the former succeeds because it is a competent rendering of “classical free verse” in the vein of whatever poet/poem they find it similar, or perhaps some will say the later is fresh, innovative, and holds a potential new direction for exciting poetry. Such is the tug and pull and art and standards. Just when standards become homogenized, it’s usually works that stand in sharp contrast that create the revolution, and in that exciting chaos of revolution springs standards itself, and then the cycle repeats ad infinitim. Most every major art movement was created out of a cycle similar to this. Perhaps free verse persists solely because one CAN’T set down general, fixed standards for it (yet I’d argue these standards still exist in some nebulous state or else nobody could ever say any free verse poem was good/bad or better/worse than any other).

      To wrap this all up in a conclusion that answers your question, it’s neither solely the writer or the reader that gets to proclaim a poem is successful. A writer can define what they intended, but from then on the reader is free to say whether they find that that intention is achieved or, even if achieved (like Kubrick’s late films), whether or not it affects them. Maybe a poem about boredom does create a bored feeling in the audience by intention, but whether or not this “achievement” will make people like it/care about it is another matter.* Artistic canons are basically just collections of what works and artists enough people have felt were great for a significant period of time, and canons have ways of changing, often radically. Those that survive are usually those that become kind of bedrocks, ultimate examples of what the medium is capable of that transcend time, trends, tastes, culture, society, history, contexts, etc. Shakespeare would not be Shake-the-greatest-effing-writer-ever-peare if he was not beloved by people who couldn’t be farther removed from his time period and culture. In some respects, that ability to transcend such limitations and appeal to so many people over such a long period of time is the only lasting, consistent standard we have for measuring true greatness.

      *Actually, this claim is not unique to poetry. Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami said that he wanted to put his audience into a sleep state, not to recreate a feeling of boredom because his films were about boredom, but to access more unconscious, meditative parts of their brain that aren’t reachable in fully awake/aware audiences. Does he achieve it? Well, most general audiences find his films insufferably dull, yet he’s probably the most critically acclaimed directors of the last 30 years.

      What it is, is this: Assigning meaning to poetic techniques which those techniques do not possess. In your analysis of WCW’s poem, Red Wheelbarrow, you engage in Enactment Fallacy. You assign meaning to the linebreaks in a way that conveniently bolsters your interpretation of the poem — this requires the assumption that your interpretation is correct. You can claim, as you do, that the interpretation of these techniques is inseparable from (or a part of) the subject matter, but that’s a somewhat circular argument. Whose to say your interpretation of the subject matter is correct?

      I’m not quite sure where I even “interpreted the subject matter.” The subject matter is, literally, about how “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens”. That’s the “content”. Most of my “analysis” was stating things that are objectively part of the poem. There IS, objectively, a stanzaic pattern of 3 words/1 word. There is, objectively, a rhythmic parallel in line 1 and 7. There is, objectively, no repeated rhythm across stanzas. There is, objectively, four syllables in lines 1 and 7, three syllables in lines 3 and 5, and two syllables in all of the one-word lines. There is, objectively, a predictability that follows “so much depends” (have you ever heard someone say “so much/it depends” without it being followed by “on” or “upon”?). There is, objectively, words that are traditionally nouns that end lines 3 and 5. These words are, objectively, followed by words that turn the previous word into an adjective. Line 7, objectively, ends with an adjective that cannot be misconstrued as a noun. This poem, objectively, moves from the predictable of S1, to the surprising of S2 and S3, to the blatantly unpredictable of S4.

      There is none of this that is an “interpretation” but an objective statement of what the poem is composed of. When I speak of the poem being “commpressed bathos” and how the opening lines have a “grand, ominous quality,” then, obviously, I’m speaking to MY reaction of the poem. But this reaction, whether you share it or not, does not invalidate my objective analysis of it. What I did, however, was explain the thought process for why I think the poem’s form evokes this feeling, and I don’t think my reaction could ever be deemed unreasonable. When a poem starts with “so much depends / upon,” then how do you NOT interpret that as having some grand significance? Why would you not then expect it to be followed by something that would be more recognizably important that so much would depend on it? And why would you not be surprised to find an increasingly contracted description of a wheelbarrow surrounded by chickens?

      I think like most people I first read this poem and was utterly baffled by it. I didn’t know how to react, I didn’t understand why it was so frequently anthologized and considered great. Yet, like so many works like it across all other mediums (say, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in film, or Radiohead’s OK Computer in popular music) there was something about it that drew me back to it, made it interesting, intriguing. Perhaps it was the mystery itself. I’m the type that when I experience something I don’t understand I usually have a desire to pick it apart to figure out how it works or, at least, how (and why) it works (or even doesn’t work) for me. The more I analyzed Red Wheelbarrow, the more interesting it became, and the more I began to see why it was a great poem, a model of minimalistic expression.

      But, to get back to your accusation, if a poem effects us we naturally look to its elements, the pieces that make it up, and try to assign attributes to those elements that cause the reaction. What the enactment fallacy does is it tries to claim that the effect is not related to the cause assigned to it. When Pope says:

      When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
      The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;

      How would it not then be part of the “enactment fallacy” to state that the phonetic discordance and spondee clusters “enact” what the line is saying? With the enactment fallacy all we can ever do is say that a poem utilizes certain devices, but we can never connect these devices with contributing to our reaction or understanding of the poem, nor could we attribute any intent for this understanding and reaction to the poet. I do understand that there’s a need to curb a potential tendency for readers to come up with an interpretation of a poem then attempt to make the devices in the poem fit Procrustean like into that interpretation. But in such cases it will merely be that the evidence, the objective analysis, will not fit convincingly with the interpretation; it will seem strained, forced, as if it’s making too much out of too little. The Red Wheelbarrow’s poetic devices that I objectively outlined could match numerous interpretations not limited to what I describe as its opening grand ominousness that descends into compressed bathos. To me, that interpreted “theory” fits with the evidence. But, as I said in another post, I do not think we need to label that interpretation “true” in exclusion to all others. Others can fit, and they can fit side-by-side with mine because the poem and its devices allow it. We do not need to dictatorially contract all interpretations to one right answer to rule them all.

      I remember reading one review that accused Vendler of this in her Yeats book. Luckily, it was easily found on Google, I’ll cite the relevant parts:

      Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” Here’s the stanza in question:

      Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
      Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
      Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
      To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
      The night can sweat with terror as before
      We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
      And planned to bring the world under a rule,
      Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

      “With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):

      Now days are slow and easy, the summer
      Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
      Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
      To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
      The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
      We weave our visions into poetry
      And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
      Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

      Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it?

      This, again, IMO, is a ludicrously stupid argument because it separates form from content. No critic is saying that the form alone can convey this sense, but that when you combine form with certain forms of expression or content it has this effect. When I look at the “parody” of Yeats here with the same devices I may not get a “helter-skelter” sense from it, but neither do I get ANY sense from its form. Why? Because there’s nothing in the form that makes the content memorable, unlike in Yeats’. When I look at the parody, I see how it ends with describing creating poetry by bringing thoughts to a rule, but, here, the end-stops and sense of the line has nothing to contrast against; the earlier enjambments don’t describe chaos that order needs to be brought to.

      If we go by Pope’s rules we could certainly say something about flying fast and free that’s full of spondees and phonetic discord:

      When Ajax flies, some plains wide stretch that’s vast,
      The Line too quickens, and the Words move fast;

      Yep, same rhythm, different sense, but now the two don’t seem to be in concord. Spondees ARE heavy, caesures DO slow us down, it DOES take more effort to read phonetically discordant lines that requires more mouth/lip/tongue movement. So when you combine those things with descriptions that are heavy, weighty, slow, strong, etc. then things seem to “fit,” they “enact.” Likewise, enjambment DOES “overspill” its line, giving us a sense of incompleteness, anarchy, chaos, escaping bonds, transcendence, etc. So when the content is about these things then enjambment is a good “enactment” device. Likewise, integral single lines offer the opposite; a completeness, order, etc. I once remarked on this regarding Ted Hughes’ Hawk Roosting and all of its end-stopped lines in traditional syntactical order. It DOES seem to reinforce what the poem is saying about the Hawk being complete into itself, lacking the conflicted self that, say, humans have. Could you use end-stops to describe chaos, disorder, etc? Sure. But would it be memorable? Well, that’s the question, ain’t it?

      If you subscribe to the enactment fallacy then I’m not sure on what ground you have to base ANY declaration of what is good and bad poetry. I mean, provide me with an example of a poem and tell me how it’s objectively good or bad because of it’s formal elements where those formal elements have nothing to do with the content or how you react to it.

  11. If a poet is bad at meter or rhyme, there are objective standards for saying so. But how does one critique line breaks in a free verse poem? And that gets us back to the question: What, besides content, makes a good free verse poem? Or is there no general standard by which to judge free verse poetry. Must each poem be considered in isolation? – and does the poet have a say?

    Patrick, these are all good questions. Let’s take them one by one, starting with your premise that a formal poem can be judged by objective standards.

    The only thing your objectivity can measure is whether a poet employed the techniques effectively. But you can’t judge whether a poem is good by your objective standard. You might be able to say that W.H. Auden was a master as the metrical line or that Shakespeare’s rhymes are all masterfully employed. But that’s like saying a house builder used all the right techniques successfully in building a house. You can even say whether the structure will stand up against the whether, but no technical standard will ever be able to tell you whether it is pretty to look at.

    And there’s the rub. Art — all art — has something going for it that no objective standard can measure. You can’t judge passion with technicality. That’s something the individual artist brings to the table.

    You can always tell a Shakespearean sonnet from any other sonnet, but that’s partly because of his technical prowess in delivering a line. But his creative fingerprint is wrapped up in that technical prowess. A lesser poet could deliver a line that is equal in rhyme and meter and the poem still not be as good simply because the poet isn’t a master at other details such as the sound of the words within the line or the creative expression that gets the line from point A to point B.

    We see a similar fingerprint in Whitman’s poems. As many poets who have tried to imitate Whitman, there is still no one to this day who has matched his prowess in delivering a poetic line with equal intensity as he does in poems like “I Sing The Body Electric” or “When Lilacs Last In The Door-Yard Bloom’d.” A Whitman poem is so quintessentially Whitman that it can’t be duplicated. Parodied, yes; but not duplicated.

    Which brings me to my next point and your next question. How do you judge line breaks? There’s no objective standard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t judge it. Let’s compare it to a cooking contest.

    Two chefs are in the kitchen and they are subjected to a basket of ingredients. The same ingredients. They get to choose what to cook and how to serve it on the plate. (This is the premise, actually, of a TV show called “Chopped.”) How do you judge the food? Well, the judges have their criteria and it boils down to taste, creativity, and presentation. All of those are subjective elements. A chef might well be a very technical chef, able to employ all the spices perfectly, delivering each meal with all the precision a master chef can muster. And he can still lose. That’s because no objective standard exists to tell a person who can’t stand the taste of coriander how a chef who uses just a tinge of it should be judged. The chef’s use of coriander may be perfectly executed, but if I don’t like coriander, then I may not like the dish. Or I might like it in spite of the coriander.

    Line breaks in free verse really tell us one thing – what the poet would like us, the readers, to focus on. This can be done in a number of ways. The last word of the line may require special emphasis, or maybe there is a typographical purpose to the line breaks, or maybe punctuation plays a role. If it’s a concrete poem, the shape of the poem itself will be a clue.

    None of that is objective, but it can make for good discussion. In Whitman’s case, line length plays an important role in how you judge line breaks. He uses repetition a lot and that plays a role. But another poet may break up the line differently and it will render a different experience for the reader. Sorry, but you’ll have to overlook the coriander.

    Your next question – what, besides content, makes a good free verse poem? – can be answered by going back to a comparison between Shakespeare and Whitman. Why is Whitman so admired? Why is Shakespeare? I’ll tell you why I think they are and it has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s rhyme and meter or Whitman’s long lines. It has to do with what they have in common: Their own unique ability to use the strength of each’s passion in delivering a moving experience for the reader.

    Shakespeare was a product of his time. Whitman, his. Whitman set out to create an American form. He did. His passion was in making poetry that described the American experience and to do that in a language that common Americans could understand and relate to. When you read “O Captain, My Captain,” that’s a poem that could not have been written during any other time in history nor by any other poet. Yet, interestingly, this is one of the few Whitman poems that carries a traditional rhyme and meter throughout.

    I think you can judge the skill of a free verse poet by how well she can employ traditional poetic techniques – and not just rhyme and meter. A poet who just throws lines on a page and breaks them up isn’t really writing poetry. A poet who wants to be a skillful poet will study technique. In our day, that means looking back at the traditional verse of Shakespeare as well as the free verse poets of the 20th century and culling the best from the best. All the best free verse poets borrow something from the traditionalists. And I think if the formalists were honest, they’d say they can learn from the free verse poets as well. That doesn’t mean they drop their rhyme and meter, but why not delve into the nuances of language that can be employed through crafty prose or passionate free verse – and learn from that?

    If I said there was a general standard for judging free verse I’d be lying. How can you judge poets like Billy Collins and Charles Bukowski by the same standard? How do you judge High Modernists by the same standard as the Confessionalists? You really can’t. You have to judge them on their own merits.

    With some schools, it helps to try to understand their method as they communicate it for themselves, but in the end, it still boils down to whether you like the poem or not. You can compare poets, and even individual poems, but what good does it do? You might like the T-bone steak at The Texas Roadhouse while I’d prefer the Italian Chicken somewhere else. We can even take a poll and see who among the population likes each, but does the majority rule? In the end, all we have is taste. Yours may be more refined than mine, but I still won’t give mine up.

    • Patrick, these are all good questions. Let’s take them one by one, starting with your premise that a formal poem can be judged by objective standards.

      Yikes! That’s not my premise. My premise would be that elements of a traditional poem can be judged by objective standards. (As an example, I was comparing line breaks in free verse poetry to rhyme or meter in traditional poetry.) As you say, a poet can write masterful rhyme and meter and still write a bad poem. Victorians were especially good at that genre.

      So, I’m not saying that traditional poetry can be objectively appraised and free verse can’t – only elements.

      This I don’t buy: “Why is Whitman so admired? Why is Shakespeare? [Snip] It has to do with what they have in common: Their own unique ability to use the strength of each’s passion in delivering a moving experience for the reader.” Seems too general. Every poet, even the worst, were passionate about what they did. The job of readers like myself, and you perhaps, is to explain exactly how they transformed their passion into great poetry. This is what the average reader wants to understand and enjoys.

      This I do buy: “I think you can judge the skill of a free verse poet by how well she can employ traditional poetic techniques…” It’s the point I’ve been driving at every which way but one. Conversely, the free verse poet who rejects any and all traditional poetic techniques is writing prose (albeit lineated). Nothing wrong with that. But the only way to judge that kind of poetry (besides the arbitrary appraisal of line breaks) is to award them for their content. We see this all the time. To date, none of this poetry has demonstrated any lasting value.

      You have to judge them on their own merits.

      Yeah, but that’s another one of those bland, catch-all phrases that make me itch. It’s better to know what exactly those merits are. Just what is it about Bukowski that makes a reader want to read him more than the next? Being able to explain, successfully, makes for a better reader and a better poet.

  12. Pingback: On the subject of Rhyming « PoemShape

  13. Pingback: To Rhyme Or Not To Rhyme…… | wdbwp

  14. Pingback: To Rhyme or not to rhyme … (a reblog) | Right to the (Pen's) Point

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