Formal Poetry vs. Free Verse

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Formal poetry versus free verse. The debate is more than a century old and I don’t intend to settle it. But I will confess my bias right up front.

I find myself drawn to poetry with meter and rhyme because that is my heart language–the verse I learned on my mother’s knee.  My parents read nursery rhymes aloud as far back as I can remember, followed by Eugene Field, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley. In school we read Shakespeare and Poe, and memorized Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

And though one high school English teacher did his best instill in us his conviction that Walt Whitman was the greatest of poets, by then it was too late. By that point my ear was trained, and while Whitman’s soaring verse in Leaves of Grass had a certain charm, it was the charm of a foreign language.

Over the years since, I have made an effort to appreciate free verse with some success. Raymond Carver broke through. Marie Howe has landed a punch or two. So did Donald Hall and Hayden Carruth, (and I appreciate the latter’s occasional return to rhyme.) I’ve even attempted to write a few free verse poems myself. But all along, it has been a bit like learning a second language.

One of the best debates about the relative merits of formal poetry and free verse takes place on the pages of a book I recently picked up off the bookshelf in my adult son’s old bedroom. The book is Old School by the American writer Tobias Wolff.

It’s a wickedly funny story about an elite boys prep school set in 1960. The plot turns on the school’s periodic literary contest. The winner of each contest has the honor of a private meeting with the semester’s guest speaker, which has traditionally been a famous and successful author.

Early in the book, Wolff has the audacity invite none other than Robert Frost into his novel and put words into the mouth of the aging poet. With the students and teachers assembled in the school’s chapel. He recited several of his poems, ending on Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, Frost is challenged by one of the young teachers, a Mr. Ramsey, who introduces his question with a critique of formal poetry.

Your work, sir, Mr. Ramsey said, follows a certain tradition. Not the tradition of Whitman, that most American of poets, but a more constrained, shall we say formal tradition, as in that last poem you read, “Stopping in Woods.” I wonder–

After Frost corrects Ramsey about the actual title of the poem, the teacher forges ahead to make his point.

Yes sir. Now that particular poem is not unusual in your work for being written in stanza form, with iambic lines connected by rhyme.

Frost replies, intentionally mistaking Mr. Ramsey for one of the students.

Good for you, Frost said. They must be teaching you boys something here.

Frost’s mischievous “mistake” triggers an outburst of laughter from the students, but when the poet asks him to continue with is question, Mr. Ramsey is undeterred.

Yes sir. The question is whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness. That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?

Modern consciousness, Frost said. What’s that?

Ah! Good question, sir. Well–very roughly speaking I would describe it as the mind’s response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Surely these things have an effect on us. Surely they have changed our thinking.

When Mr. Ramsey finally finished, it was clear he was making more of a statement than asking a question. Frost then responded in kind.

Don’t tell me about science, Frost said. I’m something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn’t know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow towards the light. Everything aspires to the light. You don’t have to chase down a fly to get rid of it–you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out it he goes. Works every time. We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can’t–what was your word? dim?–science can’t dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.

Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kept going.

So don’t tell me about science, and don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in that one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’s always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very find and pleasant to think ourselves the most put upon folk in history–but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I will write poems for him. Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you–with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give us a true account of the loss?

Frost has been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke. Now he broke off and let his eyes roam over the room.

I am thinking of Achilles’s grief, he said. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry–sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry. Does that answer your question?

I suppose we could have expected nothing less from Frost, who once famously compared writing poetry without rhyme and meter “like playing tennis without the net.”

And I must admit, I was cheering on the old curmudgeon as he put the impertinent schoolmaster in his place.

Advertisements

Poetry Improv

Ballard Market Poetrymongers

Back at the Ballard Market

Made my second trip back to the Ballard Market this summer.

I’m always in awe of poets persisting in their craft and striving to earn a living. the Ballard Market has a couple of regulars who do just that.

Seven and Elliot show up for work with their manual typewriters and their signs that read: “Poems: Your Topic. Your Price.”

They are the improvisational performance artists of the poetry world. If you engage one of them, they will tell you to name a topic and then give them a few minutes.

When you return from sampling the goat cheese and perusing the organic vegetables, they will have a short poem to your theme.

I asked Elliot to write about writer’s block (since that is a topic close to my heart!)  Here is his effort:

Market Poem by Elliiot the Poet

That’s pretty insightful. I couldn’t do that on such short notice! I love the insight about “the voyage inside.”

Elliot told us that he can make some decent money “on a good day.” But, then there are other days when the take is not so good.

I shared my favorite Hayden Carruth haiku with him. The one about the Japanese haiku master Basho.

Basho, you made
A living writing haiku?
Wow! Way to go, man!

I’m always happy to see poets making a go of it.

POEMS — Your Topic. Your Price.

Street scene at the Ballad Market

This whimsical scene at Seattle’s Ballard Market the other day made me smile. This pair of poetical hustlers are bittersweet reminders of the plight of poets everywhere.

They brought to mind the funny (but not-too-funny) little poem by Hayden Carruth, written when he was studying and writing about the Japanese haiku master, Basho, who lived and wrote in the late 1600s.

Basho, you made
a living writing haiku?
Wow! Way to go, man.

This pair at the market did not appear to be doing much business, but they were earnest and eager, and I wish them the best.

“Brothers, I Loved You All”

Hayden Carruth
Hayden Carruth

One of my literary-minded friends has introduced me to the America poet Hayden Carruth, who lived from 1921 to 2008.

I’m not sure how I could have gone so long and gotten so old without finding him.  (Just another example of the gaping holes in my education, I guess.)

Carruth is growing on me.

Like Robert Frost, he moved to the Vermont countryside and learned to how to farm.  Carruth’s poems about some of his country neighbors are vivid, precise character sketches that remind me of the country folk I knew in my youth.

Like Frost, Carruth did a bit of teaching to help pay the bills.  He was aware of the looming shadow Frost cast over later Vermont poets, and he played with it a bit in some of his poems.

But he seems to be ornerier than Frost.  And more down to earth.  He seems to be a common man.  But a wicked smart, extremely well-read common man.

He dwells at that intersection between classic poets from an earlier age who paid attention to meter and rhyme, and the moderns of the last century, who reveled in the free innovation for the sake of innovation.

His poem, Late Sonnet, written later in his life, is one of his most interesting, I’ve read yet.

LATE SONNET

by Hayden Carruth

For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
singing and suchlike other song, for that
I gave it up half cold-heartedly to set
my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
original in young arrogant artificers who
had not my geniality nor voice and yet
their fashionableness was persuasive to me,–what
shame and sorrow I pay!
+++++++++++++++++++++And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
these being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.

I read this as the confession of a poet who abandoned the craft he knew in his youth to pursue the fashionable trends of modern style.  He contrasts the pretentiousness of modern poets — the “arrogant artificers” — with the pure horn playing of jazzman Sidney Bechet, who — according to Carruth — emphasized feeling over originality.

Carruth developed this idea more fully in an interview published in Contemporary Authors.

“When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large.

“We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature.

“Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”

Carruth has helped me put my finger on what has bugged me about so much of modern poetry for a long time. I couldn’t quite define it until now. But after reading this, it has come into focus.

In the secular despair of the 20th Century, artists sought to take the place of God, who had been declared dead by the wise men of the age.

As Carruth said, “if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization.”

Cultural restoration through poetry!  Moral improvement through exposure to art.

The divine revelation of the Bible had been debunked courtesy of Darwin and Freud and others, faith had been undermined, and the vacuum that was created was seeking to fill itself with the work of artists and poets.

I would submit that this is much too big an assignment for poetry.

Don’t get me wrong.  I hold a pretty high view of poetry.  It can do a lot.  It can inspire, comfort and bless a soul.  It can express rich and deep feeling in elevated language. But I think the artistes of the last century reached too far.

My hypothesis is that this poetic overreach was responsible for much mischief — and a lot of unreadable poetry in the 20th Century.

Lest  you think I am making this up, Stevens was explicit about his intention to replace God with poetry.

According to Poetry Foundation, Stevens maintained that art was “the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity.”

I find Stevens’ abstraction cold and heartless — and frankly boring.

I disagree with his premise and his conclusion.  Just because Stevens didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that God was dead. (Please note: this theory is still under construction.)

If God is not dead, then poetry does not need to strive to be something it is not.  It does not need to replace divine revelation.  Since God is not dead, poetry can slip comfortably back into its proper role.

The poet can cease stop trying to take the place of God and settle back into the role of a human created in the image of God, creating beauty that reflects the beauty of God and his creation.  And also telling the truth about the tragedy of how the creation has fallen.

Feel free to check out the blog for some decidedly un-modern poetry…