Expansive Poetry Online
Guest Essay

The Loaded Terminology of the Poetry Wars

by Robert Darling

In most areas of disagreement, contending sides usually choose their appellatives with great care. In the abortion controversy, for example, the terms Pro-Choice and Right to Life both sound appealing; the average person, if somehow ignorant of what the phrases imply, would want to be both. On the poetry front, however, there is no such appropriation of language by opposing viewpoints; terms such as organic form, poetry and verse are misused while other expressions such as free verse, open and closed form, and even the use of "formal" as applied to poetry are prejudicial against traditional prosody by their very nature in contemporary usage. The Twentieth Century's assault on meter has been accompanied by critical terminology that reflects this bias. Such a state of affairs is at least partly due to the triumph of free verse in the academy.

A few months back, I was having lunch with a poet and friend who asked me if I considered the Petrarchan sonnet a viable mode for contemporary poetry. He wasn't aware I had written a sequence of Petrarchan sonnets, a fact which naturally gave a certain bias to my answer. Behind his question lurked the phantom of organic form. How could an Italianate form be suitable for a rhyme-poor language like English?

Organic form is usually invoked in a vaguely defined, reverential, pseudo-Platonic manner, and brings an end to all discussion, much like seeing something nasty in the woodshed at Cold Comfort Farm. Certainly the concept is appealing--that somewhere out there, hovering in space, is the perfect shape that will fit the particular subject matter. The poet is thus an explorer or scientist seeking the hidden form that will reveal a certain truth, much like a hunter after unicorns. Such a role appeals to both the empirical and occult impulses. Obviously, forms which have been used before would be unsuitable, and meter or (good God!) rhyme would be an artificial imposition by the poet on unfettered truth. Free verse, having no shape to which it must conform, would thus be the only option for one who sought to be true to the subject matter at hand.

Organic form, pervasive as it is in our time, is an old idea, far predating Coleridge whose name is most often invoked by true believers. Yet Coleridge did not feel constrained by meter. Still, does free verse give the freedom to find the ideal form, which must be a nonce form, or does it simply result in an arbitrary chaos paraded as inevitability?

Let us consider a poem from our poet laureate of body fluids, Sharon Olds. "Sex Without Love" is actually one of her better poems, and the following lines are quite effective as reproducing the final stages of the journey to orgasm:

     How do they come to the 
     come to the   come to the   God   come to the  
     still waters and not love 
     the one who came there with them....

This is a striking passage--one might even measure it in out-of-breath units--and seems to claim some right to organic form. However, it is not long before the poem's line breaks lose any sense of inevitability, where one could as easily chop the line at some other point and not harm the poem, indeed might improve it. And the passage I quoted above is a rare example in her poetry where form and function work together.

But looking at these lines, one finds that they are much closer to meter than most of her writing. In fact, the exclamation of "God" stands out not because of the white space around it but because it intrudes in a series of galloping dactylic feet, which are then resolved in the quieter post-orgasmic iambs of "still waters, and not love...." That part of the poem which most closely approximates organic form is that which, probably inadvertently, makes use of metrics:

S    U    U   S  U  U
How do they come to the 
S    U   U      S   U  U     S     S    U   U
come to the   come to the   God   come to the  
U      S  U   S   U   S
still waters and not love 
U     S  U    S     U   (U)   S
the one who came there with them....

And when one reviews the effort of the various free verse poets to justify their practices by theory, one enters a real quagmire. Williams certainly did a great deal of talking about the variable American foot, but the good doctor was never able to say exactly what it was. One could hazard the point that something that was as variable as he sought would be too fluid to have a recognizable identity. Charles Olson's Projective Verse didn't produce an intelligible structure or good poems even from him, and the perfect breath unit for English does seem to be the iambic pentameter line, unless you're having sex la Sharon Olds.

It is good to revisit accepted conventions of terminology with simple questions. Organic form? Well, organic in relation to what? The common assumption has been to its subject matter. But this is to assume a universe of ideal forms that merely need to be discovered. I think it safe to say that, while certain forms are more suitable for certain subjects than for others, there is no ideal form for most anything in our flawed world. One can find many poems whose form does reinforce the subject matter--for example with Browning's "A Toccata of Galuppi's" or with Tennyson's "Northern Farmer, New Style" because of their appropriate and skillful use of meter--but it is hard to think of much work in free verse, with the possible exception of that of e.e. cummings, that couldn't be handled as well or better in meter. Because what organic form is really organic to is not the subject matter but the language of the poem. The use of meter is the surest sign of organic form because meter has developed from the language itself through centuries of poetry, evolving through every age. Meter is, quite simply, the most natural, the most organic, structuring of language that exists in a language that makes use of stress.

Take, for example the following poem, "At Rose's Range," by R. S. Gwynn, a poet as yet undiscovered by Helen Vendler:

     Old Gladys, in lime polyester slacks,
     Might rate a laugh until she puts her weight
     Squarely behind the snubnosed .38,
     Draws down and pulls. The bulldog muzzle cracks
     And barks six times, and six black daisies flower
     Dead in the heart of Saddam's silhouette.
     She turns aside, empties, reloads, gets set
     And fires again. This goes on for an hour.

    Later, we pass the time at the front door
    Where she sits smoking, waiting for the friend
    Who drives her places after dark: You know,
    Earl's free next month. He says he wants some more
    Of what she's got, and she's my daughter so
    I reckon there's just one way this can end.

Here is an all-too-Texas scene described in language which could actually be spoken by those at the range; the "bulldog muzzle" and the "six black daisies flower" might be the only exceptions, but they are images that Gladys would appreciate if not originate. There is nothing unrealistic about her speech in the poem. Yet "At Rose's Range" is not only rhymed and metered but is a sonnet as well, that place where old professors go to die, according to Robert Bly. It is difficult to think of any poem in the Bly opus which is as naturalistic as the Gwynn poem.

The case for rhyme can be made along similar lines, and the skillful use of rhyme can result in connections and echoings otherwise not possible. But rhyme is also pleasing and decorative when well done, two values which are not featured prominently in our time's aesthetic concerns. One need only look at the lack of decoration on most of our architecture to see the elevation of function at the cost of pleasure. The lack of play in much modern architecture reflects the totalitarian, collectivizing impulse of this grim century. The closest we come to decoration is the barbs on wire. Something that is pleasing should not need to justify its existence, but then we do have a difficult time outgrowing our Puritan heritage.

Open versus closed form is another example of biased terminology. Yeats said he liked to use set forms because, if employed successfully, they allowed the poem to "come shut with a click, like a closing box." But much contemporary criticism would see the box as a coffin. It sounds much better to be open than closed. But again one must ask: open to what and closed to what? The practitioner of free verse would claim open and closed to the experience at hand; through the avoidance of imposed form one can more truly appreciate the uniqueness of the moment. First of all, all form is imposed by the poet, either consciously or unconsciously, and moments are both unique and common. Any event or moment shares certain qualities with others; otherwise all communication or shared understanding would be impossible. And certainly, most responsible readers of poetry, whatever their predilections, are not going to claim that all the poetry of previous ages in traditional forms was out of touch with the moment.

The question of what form is open or closed to might better be answered by stating that verse in received forms is open both to the particular moment and the tradition of achieved moments known as a literary heritage. What is now considered an open form is really a nonce form, and one cannot form a tradition of nonce forms; they would be too variable for even Williams to make sense of. Rather, working in form allows the poet not only his or her own experience of the moment but also calls on the long tradition each poet inherits. Some obviously consider it a curse, but it is a blessing; that one can write in measures used by Shakespeare, measures still organic to our tongue, can be intimidating, but it can as easily be enlivening. One is not isolated in time or a complete stranger to genius.

The terms "Formal Verse" or the "New Formalism" have unfortunate connotations. Formal should be meant as partaking of form, but this would render it a tautology: all poetry has form, either nonce or shared, i.e., organic to the language. Rather, the term seems to imply a certain pretentious stuffiness, poetry dressed up in a bow-tie or tied up in bows, a boring lecture. This is unfortunate since formal verse is most at home in the language, and much free verse, in a desperate attempt to establish identity, tends to the eccentric. (Using the term expansive verse avoids the problem, but the phrase is quite unappealing, making one think of fat or unfocused poets.)

Free verse is another loaded term. Again, one might ask: free from what? A.D. Hope has stated that free verse is neither free nor is it verse. Appealing as this definition may be at times, perhaps a more moderate approach might serve us better. Certainly, the term, though adapted originally from the French Vers libre, has certain implications native to English alone. (The initial French practitioners of vers libre, interestingly, often used rhyme.) Its pioneers in English considered it a liberation from what they saw as the constraints of meter; Timothy Steele, in his masterful study Missing Measures, points out that Eliot, Pound, Ford & Co. confused idiom with meter in ways previous verse revolutionaries such as Dryden and Wordsworth did not. One wonders how tools which had assisted in producing the riches of the English language suddenly came to be seen as constraints; this would be similar to a carpenter seeing nails as constraints because they keep the house from falling apart. Regardless, the term soon came to imply freedom from verse.

Initially, this definition sounds nonsensical: free verse claiming to be free from verse while still asserting it is poetry. But here is where a fatal distinction between poetry and verse has crept in over the past few centuries. Timothy Steele, again in Missing Measures, outlines at length how this distinction resulted from a conflation during the Renaissance of ideas from Aristotle, Quintilian, Plutarch and Servius. By the time one reaches the Nineteenth Century one can find as fine a thinker as Matthew Arnold making the imbecilic statement that Dryden and Pope were masters of English prose rather than poets. Therefore something written in verse is not necessarily poetry.

It is not that large a leap to hold that if something written in verse is not necessarily poetry, poetry does not need to be written in verse. Verse becomes merely an exercise that may or may not lead to poetry--the Modernist implication is that it often does not--and it becomes accepted that poetry is necessarily something more or other than verse. The poet Robert Dana once told me that rhyme and meter have nothing to do with poetry. That, as I recall, ended our conversation.

So what is poetry? Here the skies grow cloudy, eyes mist over, and words fly to the numinous. Poetry becomes a certain quality of thought, an indefinite, oracular utterance from the beyond. The vatic impulse is extolled, the civic denied.

Certainly the vatic element is important to much poetry. But the poet as citizen, a role so magnificently fulfilled in this century by W.H. Auden, is forgotten. Poetry is less an act of communication than a voyage past language into the primal self; ultimately, it become solipsistic. One goes to poetry not for pleasure or instruction but for the ineffable. Ultimately, most people stop going to poetry at all.

Interestingly, for the non-initiate into the mystic vale of contemporary poetry there is a popular misrepresentation of poetry analogous to the one discussed above. A while back, the faculty of the school at which I teach was holding a meeting whose purpose was to prepare a mission statement for the college. Speaker after speaker said the statement needed more poetry, meaning by this flowery or elegant language. Despite my junior status at the time, I did remind them that what they were looking for was prose, not poetry. These sorts of harmful confusions of terminology are clearly not limited to the trenches of the current poetry wars.

Poetry, as the word is used today, is too often more an attitude than an art. We must return to a simple, non-mystical definition of what we mean by poetry; poetry may have many mystical aspects to it, but poetry should be defined generically rather than qualitatively. To claim something is poetry is not to claim that it is excellent, or even good.

Poetry can be good or bad, mundane or sublime, discursive or concentrated, wise or wrong-headed, moral or immoral, religious or blasphemous, or any combination of these or other properties. The one quality defining a work as poetry is that it must be written in verse.

Amid all the garbage, there has been some very good poetry written in free verse; indeed, this can be considered quite an accomplishment as poets, in writing free verse, are giving up some valuable tools at their disposal. Thus we can probably never return to a definition of poetry as language written in meter. But what separates poetry from the other arts is not mystical, though it is capable of producing magical effects. What marks poetry as poetry is, quite simply, the right margin. This sounds alarmingly pedestrian at first, but in saying this I am affirming that the central determining unit of poetry is the line. As the sentence is the solid foot-soldier of prose, the line is the heart of poetry. The weakness of much free verse is its lack of respect for the line; this is not to say that it is not poetry, just that it is probably not good poetry. In prose one writes to a margin which does not matter. Theoretically, prose has no margin but could extend in a straight line until the paragraph was ended; this would pose a major difficulty for publishers, however. But the root of the word verse means a turning; the poet, not the page, makes the decision when to turn.

For the root of poet means maker. One Romantic notion that has run amok in this century is the idea of the spontaneous inspiration of the moment that overtakes the poet and gives the poet a finished poem. This can happen, but it is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Most good poets are good revisers. The poet is a maker, not a medium. Someone once defined inspiration as being run over by a bus and then trying to copy down the bus's license plate number. This is in some ways an apt analogy, but those who can copy the plate numbers have spent a great deal of uninspired time studying buses.

Poetry is writing in verse, and writing in verse is recognizing the primacy of the line. Returning poetry to as pedestrian a definition as I have and linking it inextricably with verse is not to deny the truly magical nature of the enterprise. But the magic lies in the good poem itself, not in the mumbo-jumbo definitions of the high priests of academic culture whose contorted syntax and reasoning would earn them failure in a decent Freshman Composition class. Poetry can be great, good, bad or indifferent, but it must be verse. And verse, however bad, is poetry.

                Robert Darling

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