Free verse?

I don’t like free verse poetry.

I think that I’ve known this subconsciously for some time, but it hit the surface tonight while I was skimming through the most recent NEW YORKER. (Although I am a subscriber to the NEW YORKER, I rarely do more than skim each issue.) Each issue has several poems in it, and I find more and more that they are free verse poems.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with free verse, I suppose. In fact, while I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that free verse was a reaction to the rigid rules of rhyme, scansion, and meter that defined poetry for centuries. Poets rebelled and free verse was their coup d’etat.

What I realized tonight was not that I just don’t like it. I can’t stand it.

The challenge of poetry, to me, is fitting the imagery and metaphor within a tightly regulated medium. There are rules to follow, and the rules, in my mind, make the poem more difficult to construct, and yet makes the result all the more powerful. I think it was Robert Frost who said that free verse poetry was like playing tennis without a net. Give me a Shakespeare sonnet with it’s 14 lines and 10 syllables per line over the free verse any day. Heck, give me a limerick over free verse! In a way, I feel like free verse is cheating.

Lest you think I am snubbing the slicks, like the NEW YORKER, let me say that free verse is showing up more and more frequently in the science fiction magazines too. All three of the major SF magazines publish poetry in each issue, and more often than not, I am seeing a trend toward free verse.

Is this trend actually a metaphor? Is it reflective of some change in our society? What is it that causes people to rebel in this way? I asked myself this questions while considering the verses in the NEW YORKER and I may have come up with an answer. It seems to me that perhaps it is, in fact, trendy now to write free verse. If this is so, than poets aren’t rebelling at all. They are, in some sense, selling out, jumping on the band wagon, watching American Idol. Free verse, perhaps, is no longer that cutting edge sign of rebellion and anarchy that it used to be. Instead, it’s a label like Gucci or Prada or Kate Spade. If this, in fact, is true, then it’s good news for traditional verse lovers, like myself, for as with all things the pendulum eventually swings back, and perhaps we are not too far away from order once again.

I will make one exception to my distaste for free verse poetry: Walt Whitman’s, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”. That particular free verse moves me. But then again, I am biased by the topic. Still, it is an exception. Give me Leigh Hunt’s “Abu Ben Adam” any day of the week. Or Oliver Wendall Holmes “Old Ironsides”. Or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”.

Does this mean I value order over chaos? I suppose it does. In poetry as well as in the Universe as a whole.

But you already knew that.


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