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Rescuing Contemporary Poetry from Vers Libre

The conservative & informal vs. the free

Before addressing my thesis, let me explain my choice of the word conservative in identifying a category of poetry, basically that which employs meter, often rhyme, and addresses traditional themes. Most would use the word formal. I prefer conservative verse based on both dictionary and connotative meanings. A quick scan of formal in dictionaries finds the following: “stiffly ceremonious,” “outward appearance but lacking in substance,” “a gown or social affair.” These entries reflect what I believe is the ordinary person’s sense of the word formal. I wish to avoid these associations, particularly at the outset. This essay is for all readers, not just the initiated. The word conservative is most often defined as “traditional views and values.” That in what follows fits best for my purposes—I do not expect all to agree.

What exactly do I mean by conservative and informal verse (verse, once meaning a poetic line, now generally understood to be poetry itself) and how do these differ from vers libre or free verse? And why does this matter? Many in the face of the contemporary dominance of free verse have turned away from poetry, or have thrown out all contemporary poetry along with free verse. It is my intention to address this condition by suggesting an expansion of what are generally two categories of poetry (conservative and free verse) into three, differentiating informal verse and broadly aligning it with conservative verse, vs. the free which in my view is largely a manifestation of the triviality and despair of postmodern art.

First of all in this disentangling, we are fencing with a ghost, free verse. The term as applied by many contemporary poets, journals, and universities boils down to “anything goes.” I recently encountered a poem about poetry, a meta poem, in a prominent journal that included this line: “This is poetry because I say it is.” This smacks of Humpty Dumpty: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” T.S. Eliot—ironically often miscounted among “free verse” poets—attempted to put the ghost to rest:

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“[T]he division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.” —T.S. Eliot

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But the ghost did not die, and we arrive at a great share of contemporary poetry (chaos) and the need for clarity.

What is conservative verse? Many will answer it employs meter and often rhyme. Agreed. Though, already, there is room for disagreement, some having more or less strict definitions. For instance, perfect rhyme vs. imperfect or slant rhyme (curtain/repeating, longer/implore, these from Poe’s “The Raven”) or rhyme at line endings vs. internal or no rhyme such as in blank verse (unrhymed, metered) famous in works of Milton and Shakespeare. The definition I develop may differ in degree from another’s with whom I am in broad agreement. Such differences of degree do not, I believe, interfere with my general conclusions.

Conservative verse has a prevailing standard meter or rhythm. There are many standard meters. For instance, most commonly, iambic, anapestic, trochaic: respectively ta-TUM, ta-ta-TUM, TUM-ta, each rhythm based on both syllable and accent or stress, each comprising a unit of sound, a poetic foot. Metrical poetry usually and beneficially in my view employs a limited amount of substitutions of other metric feet. What does “limited amount” mean? Not so many as to defeat a prevailing rhythm. The various applications of meter within conservative verse are endless: length of lines (how many feet), many or few substitutions, patterns and types of rhyming, to name only the most obvious.

Further, important elements of conservative verse are that it respects its roots in poetry past,
back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it is—in another time this would go without saying, no more—understandable. It has meaning or meanings, most often regarding universal themes, death, God, beauty, the human condition, immortality…. Finally, conservative verse employs the elements of all great literature, metaphor, imagery, distinctive diction ….

Bringing focus to the above definition, here is an example of conservative verse from Emily Dickinson, written in the literary “Ballad” form (common meter) developed from the oral traditional ballad. It is constructed of alternating lines of four and three iambic feet.

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I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes—
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Or has an Easier size.

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Note the perfect rhyme (eyes/size) and the rhythm. The lines can be sung to the melody of “Amazing Grace,” with which they share, like many hymns and folk songs a rhyming pattern of ABCB. The meaning of the lines is clear. The poem employs metaphor, imagery, and distinctive diction, and the theme is universal, timeless. Interestingly, Dickinson’s poetry, published in the late 1800s, was considered highly innovative.

Here is a poem of mine, from my new book published by Little Red Tree Publishing in both the USA and the UK, “Rollercoaster Moons,” that might be seen as conservative, while some might think otherwise.

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Prayer

“I pray because I can’t help myself.
It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
― C.S. Lewis

God is the wind, if I were a kite.
God is a mountain, if I were the snow
becoming a stream, and God be the sea.

God is a stone, and I a dull blade.
God is a potter, and I the soft clay
pressing myself against his firm wheel.

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This poem is constructed equally of two different, highly related, poetic feet (iambs and anapests). Strictly speaking, conservative verse has but one dominant meter. There is exact and slant, not perfect, rhyme with no traditional rhyming pattern (God, exact rhyme; blade/clay). Yet the poem has an equal number of metrical feet in each line, and the diction is firmly rooted in the poetic past, root if not branch. The meaning, I believe, is clear. It is replete with metaphor and image. So, conservative? There is, as I will contend and shortly illustrate, no bright line—but where I will in due course argue there is a bright line between conservative & informal verse and the free. I believe the delineation worthwhile. It will become, as we proceed, important in appreciating informal verse and become critical in differentiating both the conservative and the informal from the free. So, is this, “Prayer,” poem conservative? You decide. As you consider the question I will venture a guess: your ear and eye tell you this poem may not be strictly conservative but it is not in the camp of the free—suggesting the need for a third category.

Here is an example of a poem, another of mine, first published in HQ Poetry Magazine, The Haiku Quarterly (stretching definitions) that I see as conservative. It is structurally a sonnet (iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme)—yet a purist might argue it is not conservative, the historical sonnet theme being romantic love and Haiku being a set number of syllables.

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Stream

Above the bend, the water deep and clear,
the current strong; seen from the Buckman Bridge,
ten minutes walk for me, my cabin near,
through pines down from a timeworn granite ridge

—a lofty mountain once, it’s said, in time
gone by. I come to see and hear the stream,
this part that of the whole makes not a line:
a phrase, a word or two, in the river’s scheme

of mounting water up ahead that this
small stream will join; and that behind, upstream,
flowing down, winding from a nascent hiss
to sing a hymnal line and brace the dream.

From this unsubstantial perch, this swaying bridge,
mirrored in the stream, the sun floats on the ridge.

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Now, the more difficult question: How am I defining informal verse? It may be metrical and rhyming but within a broader permissible space, fewer metrical and rhyming limitations, less strict than conservative verse; or it may have an alternative structure and rhythm altogether. Importantly, it shares with conservative verse a respect for the poetic past and, in addition to a structure and rhythm or music, it has meaning(s) with often a universal theme. Finally, informal verse, also like conservative verse, employs the elements of great literature, imagery, metaphor, distinctive diction….

Consider the famous modern poem by Ezra Pound:

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In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

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Close reading reveals an iambic meter. The first line has six feet, hexameter. The second line is three feet, trimeter, and has a very common trochaic substitution (PETals) in the opening foot. An unusual couplet, yet clearly metrical. Also, the poem is similar (but different number of syllables) to haiku poetry, dating back at least to Basho in the 1600s. Now consider the poem’s meaning. Focus on the title and the word “apparition,” then on the poem’s imagery in the second line. The poem may be understood as an enigmatic view of the human (perhaps urban) condition, a universal theme. Finally, along with image, there are traditional elements of literature, metaphor and alliteration. Despite the conservative characteristics, the look and feel of the poem (its brevity, extreme variance in line lengths, and abruptness) jars when contrasted with typical conservative verse, strongly suggesting the informal. Conservative or informal? Here again, no bright line. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, actually in part because of it, the dividing line is worth considering (finding what is common as well as different) in order to appreciate the informal and thereby keep it from being wrongly identified with free verse.

A clear example of a modern, informal poet, as defined herein, is T.S. Eliot. He often wrote in nonstandard rhythms, that is to say other than standard meters, while including perfect metrical lines. He was clearly grounded in poetry past and universal themes reaching back to antiquity. Consider this line from “The Waste Land.” It is, as are other lines in the poem, in perfect iambic pentameter.

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The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne

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In other places Eliot includes lines from popular songs of his time, having their own rhythms. Still other lines are quotes from antiquity, and there are phrases from ancient poetic works. Eliot does not conform to any standard meter, his lines are of varying lengths in no consistent pattern, and his rhymes follow no scheme. He creates rhythm, a music all his own, and writes with complete mastery of metaphor, imagery, diction…. His poetry is then by my definition (notwithstanding the conservative characteristics) beyond the conservative border, not conservative verse; yet far from being free. I venture your ear and eye—pause to consider—will tell you Eliot’s poetry is neither conservative verse nor free, validating the need for a three-part taxonomy. Listen to and consider these lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

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Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent ….

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Now, consider the following lines from arguably the most widely read modern poet, by my definition informal, clearly beyond the conservative border; yet far from floating free.

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The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

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These lines, of course, are from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. They are not conservative by the yardstick of standard meter. They have a contemporary look (long varied and unpatterned line lengths) and have their own rhythm; yet, I would argue, they have deep roots in the poetic past, most notably the Bible. Compare to Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes.
Here is another informal poetry example from Walt Whitman. It employs—as does the Whitman example above—lists, a common technique in contemporary poetry. Whitman’s source of inspiration for the list technique may have been Homer, but more likely was the Old Testament. Again, listen for echoes of Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes.

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I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work …

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Walt Whitman’s poetry, as defined here, is clearly informal. The lines are of wildly different
lengths, with no metric pattern. Yet they have music and poetic roots. Conservative and informal verse spring from the same well. Whitman and Eliot move away from the border between conservative and informal verse but they do not break free.

We have now a complete delineation of informal verse. The elements of conservative verse, meter and rhyme, may be employed but more loosely and often in atypical ways; or informal verse may have an alternative rhythm or music, much as Jazz does not sound like Mozart but is recognizable as music. Additionally, informal verse employs the historical elements of great literature, structure, imagery, metaphor, distinct diction…. And informal verse has meaning(s), often regarding universal themes. The distinction between conservative and informal poetry is not one of time. It seems so only when using poetic paradigms of recent (centuries) history. Both conservative and informal verse has existed at least since ancient Greece. Both are long standing, and they are first cousins.

Let’s expand our view of informal poetry with some lines from Wallace Stevens. Stevens wrote in a conservative, flexible blank verse, tetrameter and pentameter, as well as informal verse. Unlike many of his contemporaries who wrote in meter (Robert Frost) or rejected meter altogether (William Carlos Williams) or wrote in some alternative form of rhythm (T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore), Stevens alternated between both conservative and informal verse and created striking pathways between the two. From the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Ordinary Women”:

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Then from their poverty they rose,
From dry catarrhs, and to guitars
They flitted
Through the palace walls….

Insinuations of desire,
Puissant speech, alike in each,
Cried quittance
To the wickless halls.

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Here we have iambic tetrameter cloaked by a broken third line, which accentuates the women moving through walls, as one moves by imagination from the everyday to the world of the cinema, (“quittance,” “wickless halls”) the everyday left behind to attend an entertainment. Note the rhyme (walls/halls). Something new? Hardly. Here, from Hamlet, Shakespeare rounds a bit of iambic pentameter dialogue with broken first and last lines. Guildenstern, Act 2, Scene 2:

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But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded.

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Now two more examples of informal verse, reinforcing both the difference and the kinship of informal and conservative verse; underlining the conservative aspects of informal verse, important in not confusing the informal with the free on the mistaken basis of “what’s new.” Consider these lines from “The Fox and the Goat,” a playful fable by Marianne Moore, a celebrated modern poet, and by the definitions put forth in this series, a writer of informal verse.

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Captain Fox was padding along sociably
When Master Goat whose horns none would care to oppose,
Though he could not see farther than the end of his nose;
Whereas the fox was practiced in chicanery.
Thirst led them to a well and they simultaneously
____Leaped in to look for water there.

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No discernible standard meter, but a palpable alternative rhythm or music. Try reading the stanza by taking away the word “there” at the end of the stanza; it completes the music of the stanza. There are both perfect and slant (quite clever) rhymes, and the narrative is understandable, making a wry universal point. Informal, yes. And nothing new. Compare “The Argument,” by William Blake, late 1700s: no discernible meter, but rhythm, slant rhyme (path, death, heath), metaphor, imagery, and a universal theme.

..

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

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Informal verse is renewed not new: Blake, Eliot, Whitman, Pound, Stevens, Moore ….

Now, another tack, let us see what conservative and informal verse are not. They are not free verse, which by contrast typically has no substantial structure (prose cut into lines) or music. Additionally, free verse is most often opaque or devoid of meaning(s), ipso facto addressing no universal themes. All this in direct opposition to both conservative and informal verse.

Poetry critic Adam Kirsh, frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New Republic, in his book The Modern Element, Essays On Contemporary Poetry describes many contemporary free-verse poets in the following way:

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“ … taking delight in writing poems where the syntax of narration
persists in the absence of meaning, the poet seems to be telling
you a story about him or herself, but the story never makes sense.”

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Kirsh further elucidates, as it were, much of the contemporary free range:

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“This is not nonsense as a computer spewing out words is nonsense;
it is, rather, an evasion of sense. Each phrase and line has a certain
weight and atmosphere, though one might be hard put to say what
it is. Yet there is something impressive about this kind of writing.”

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Underpinning much of such contemporary free verse is a nihilistic worldview. We return to my early observation that free verse in its current manifestation is in large part a part of the postmodern movement in art: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless. Nihilism is of course fair game in the world of art and ideas, and nothing new—Nietzsche reaching back to “Dionysian Pessimism,” and forward to the 1950s Beat End of the World poetry…. There is much here worthy of barbs, and certainly some of note. And, in fairness, the floridity of the romantic poets devolved into greeting-card poetry, and, ironically, became a rationale for the new, which boosted postmodern free verse, now institutionalized (academia, many prestigious journals) and became and is now dominant; turning, I believe, the discerning general population away from poetry. This current dominance of free verse is a subject in itself, too large to be addressed here. (See Missing Measures, by Timothy Steele.) On a positive note, at least from my point of view, I have as a poet survived, thanks to brave new journals and book publishers with open (not necessarily new minds). Not long ago I would have been totally shut out by the free-verse poetry power brokers of academia and endowment, as I a conservative and informal verse poet was for decades. Castigated for my conservative likings, I finally dropped out of a major university creative writing program. I dared to say what I have said above. I published my first poem, after writing poetry from the age of twelve, when I was in my early sixties. The professors who put me down in my youth, having lost a little power.

Free verse proponents, my view, in general, mistake the opaque for the profound, the exclusive (in-group information and perceptions) for the intelligent, and despair for a kind of courage. Another distinction: free verse tends to be self-absorbed. Everything is all about ME. Universal themes (love, life and death, beauty …) are generally eschewed, viewed as passé, or meaningless along with everything else. A final common element often found in free verse is the elevation of the ordinary; say a Walmart front entrance suggested to be a work of art equal to Donatello’s “Door of the Apostles.” Well, as you desire.

Here is a final approach to defining conservative and informal verse and differentiating these from the free. Compare poetry by analogy to the art of painting. The “conservative” poetry school in my definitional scheme would be by analogy representational, a realistic representation
of what is depicted. The “informal” school, extending my analogy, would be impressionism, a personal impression yet still representational. Whatever is depicted is still recognizable for what it is A tree is still recognizable as a tree. Impressionists, my “informal,” would include Monet, Renoir, van Gough, Picasso, and yes at times Leonardo da Vinci. A notable thing about the impressionists is that they all could paint in the classical style and, as notable with Picasso, many of them did so extremely well. The impressionist artists might be compared to Eliot and Stevens in the world of poetry, differing from the strictly conservative but retaining deep roots in the past; an infinitely recombined and reformed essence of art. The, impressionists in my analogy, in the modern frame, are informal, not free. Art in my view welcomes innovation, reinvention, but not a hubristic separation from the past. Conservative and informal verse are both in my view art. Free verse poetry in my view most often is not, just as a squiggle or a coffee splash or a urinal on a museum wall in my view is not.

I urge a return to poetry, the conservative and the informal, taking care not to lump the informal in with the free. The conservative and the informal, together, are the bright open future of poetry that is neither hidebound nor, like Humpty Dumpty, hubris and childish.

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Leland James is the author of six poetry collections and four children’s books in verse. and a book on creative writing and poetry craft. His most recent collection, from Little Red Tree Publishing, USA/UK, Rollercoaster Moons, is subtitled “collected conservative and informal verse.” Leland has published over 300 poems in venues worldwide, including The Lyric, Rattle, The Atlanta Review and London Reader. He has won numerous awards, including from The Society of Classical Poets, Aesthetica, and London Magazine; and has been featured in American Life in Poetry. He was recently nominated for a Push Cart Prize. www.lelandjamespoet.com


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36 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    No “vers” is “libre” for the poet who wants to do a good job.

    — Ezra Pound, agreeing with T.S. Eliot

    All the early modernists recognized this truth. But once they opened the floodgates, it was impossible to prevent the inundation of garbage.

    Reply
    • Leland James

      Yes, but can we not pause and carefully not, with the inundation of garbage, throw out some fine contemporary work that finds a less than strictly “classical” structure, often finding an echo of the classical, and Homer and the Bible….. That is my case. Thanks for reading

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    For those of us “afflicted” with logophilia to any degree, the most disturbing thing about the free-versers is their glorification of chaos. If they regard us as being stodgy, patriarchal or handcuffed by tradition, then so be it. What irks us goes beyond playing tennis without a net; the real thorn is the expectation that we should accept asemic lines as somehow deep and meaningful, when in fact they are simply unreadable. I try to keep an open mind, but I literally cannot read what is unreadable, and I usually don’t even make an attempt anymore. Try, for example, any recent issue of Poetry.

    Reply
    • Leland James

      Yup. I also find Poetry Magazine unreadable. But consider this when mastering frustration with all the fluff out there, the obscure masquerading as the profound…. Much very fine and well crafted poetry of the Romantic period ushered in the “Hallmark-card verse,” also masquerading as profound and every bit as self-absorbed. Poetry has always been panning for gold. My thoughts anyway. Thanks for yours.

      Reply
  3. D.G. Rowe

    Cheers, Mr James, for the extended read and divulging your aesthetic
    conclusions and ruminations.

    I have a general rule that when it comes to investing my time reading at great lengths, and obtaining collections from what we may call “Major”
    Poets, I don’t bother with any Poet born after 1921, the year ’21 is designated cos that’s the year Larkin was born, and I like him.
    There are, of course, to my taste anyhow, the Poets I’ve read born prior to that year that make my eyes glass over with boredom, and funnily enough they all tend to be of the American tradition, but not all, or rather should I say attached to the modernist movement, and all this imagist business I think is utterly pish.

    There is some thing I’ve noticed that is rather prevailent in the poetry world, a poetic bug-bear, that I shall get off my hairy chest while we’re on the
    subject, and that’s Haikus; or more to the point Haikus written in English.
    I have come to the opinion, and I think some-what
    instintive, that Haikus have no place being written in English, or any other language for that matter other than the language that pertains to the
    philosophical-cultural-religious traditions and mores it was intended for and born from.

    I despise the Haiku fad in English language poetry on all aesthetic, cultural and linguistic grounds. Bloody things wind me up as much as reading Paul Muldoon.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I find it tedious to read more than three haiku at a sitting. They have a long tradition in Japanese poetry, but also a number of rules and conventions that never seem to be followed in English. For more solid commentary, the go-to person on this subject is Margaret Coats, who is fluent in Japanese.

      Reply
      • D.G Rowe

        I live not too far from Oxford, so is not a bother to drive in to town to attend a Poetry open-mic evening.
        Being Oxford, you can, Mr Salemi, clearly garner the nature of the ideological fog that pervades every nook and cranny of the place, both political and artistic.
        I’ve seen it with mine own eyes, and heard it with mine own ears, when some one stands before the crowd and declairs they have a haiku to read for us, they then proceed to spend unecessary amount of time talking about the thing, then they deliver!

        I have seen ‘portentous hush’ in the flesh. And the creature is vile, Mr Salemi, it is hideous, especially when the Haiku is injected with ‘the cause’.

        Thank you for the heads-up. I will search Ms Coats for any scholarly input on the nature of Haiku. Her input seems rather solid on other matters, when she comments, so perhaps she can elucidate these little buggers.

        Be well, and be good.

    • Leland James

      Thanks for comment. I think you have something about haiku. It does now that you point it out–and I have published a few–have something imitative about it in English. Particularly when the strict syllables are forced, like forced rhyme in classical verse. The syllable count is of course in Japanese and only the general structure has sense in English.

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        Haikus get rough ride
        from some classical poets.
        Petals on the wind.

  4. Paul Freeman

    Thanks for laying out a balanced view on the topic of formal and free verse – note I used ‘and’, not ‘versus’. From my point of view, I appreciate good poetry, whether free or more structured.

    I prefer writing structured poetry myself, though I will occasionally delve into free verse (though the last time was more than a year ago) to exercise my use of extended metaphors and literary devices more freely – it also helps enormously with enriching my prose writing. However, I’m constantly aware of rhythm and meter when I write free verse, which is where a proliferation of free verse falls down (and which may explain the backlash against free verse).

    Anyhow, vive la difference, and thanks for an enlightening read.

    Reply
    • Leland

      Yes, I also write and publish both what I call conservative and informal verse. My new collection (publisher has an ad here on SofCPs) is about half and half. I find that a poem tells me which way it wants to go. If it leans informal, I search it for the rhythm and often internal rhyme it wants. Once I have that it imposes the same discipline conservative (formal, classical) poetry has. Both, I think, can be grand.

      Reply
  5. Geoffrey Smagacz

    I tell people that I write rhymed-and-metered poetry and avoid the words “formal” and “conservative.” Too loaded.

    Your observation that “[u]nderpinning much of such contemporary free verse is a nihilistic worldview” is provacative and probably true. No underlying structure equals no ultimate meaning, which takes us back to chaos and the first chapter of Genesis.

    Reply
    • Leland James

      Yes. I think placing the current confusion and turning away from poetry by people in general is best understood in the context of the same problem in art in general, the postmodern which is nihilistic to its core. My position is to honor and learn from the past but not retreat into the past–fight back with quality contemporary verse. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I totally agree, Geoffrey. And I really like your idea of describing your poetry as “rhymed-and-metered.” I think I’ll start describing mine that way, too.

      Reply
    • Leland James

      Glad it was useful. I know that coming to this personal understanding freed me up to both appreciate poets like Eliot and not feel like I was somehow slipping into the “free.” It also helped me understand my own informal verse and how it is not “free.” As someone in the thread above said, most of the early, better, modernists knew this. I always felt it. My essay reflects how I’ve come able to better understand and articulate it, which I think in turn helps my writing.

      Reply
  6. Olga

    Thank you for the wonderful essay! The tradition of translation into Russian has always been focused on keeping the rhyme and meter of the original. This is one reason why Russian readers are quite familiar with much of English poetry. We love Nursery Rhymes as children as much as we do Shakespeare sonnets as adults! Another reason, of course, is that many of Russian translators of poetry were also outstanding poets.
    That’s why I’m always taken aback when I see the publications of rhymed and metered Russian poetry translated into English with vers libre. It becomes a narrative, and in most cases has very little to do with the original. The impact of phonosemantics is lost, and with it, the magic.

    Reply
    • Leland James

      I totally agree. What you put your finger on is that meter and rhyme are integral to a poem’s meaning, not a decoration as forced rhyme and meter occurs in much modern poetry that is only imitating the classical. I find in what I call informal poetry (i.e. Eliot) the same phenomena with a alternative meter and rhyme. This is proven, for me, in the many people who read and appreciate Eliot at some level and have no idea what the poem is about. Thanks for your comment

      Reply
      • D.G. Rowe

        “meter and rhyme are integral to a poem’s meaning”

        Absolutely. In conveying mood and sentiment, excitement, despair, in building tension, resolving tension; there is defintately that which connects and elevates the energetic meta-physical experience.

    • BDW

      as per Esiad L. Werecub:

      Rhyme is “definitely” not integral to Ancient Hebrew, Greek or Latin poetry.

      Reply
  7. BDW

    Here are a few views:

    I am one of those who disagrees with your use of the terms (conservative, informal, etc.); but you “do not expect all to agree”; and you wisely quote T. S. Eliot:

    “…the division between Conservative Verse and verse libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.

    I do agree that good verse can contain meter and rhyme, and “…respects its roots in poetry past.”

    I am pleased you brought forth some lines of the American poetess Emily Dickinson:

    “I measure every Grief I meet/ With narrow, probing, eyes—
    I wonder if it weighs like Mine—/ Or has an Easier size.”

    Both in Eliot’s prose and Dickinson’s verse, literary genius lies at the edge.

    I would note that the dominant meter of “Prayer” is anapestic tetrameter. Occasional alterations occur, but are less significant than Dickinson’s “Easier”. “Prayer” is reminiscent of Hopkins without sprung rhythm.

    I would call “Stream” an English sonnet with a PostWordsworthian flow. Although there are impressive instants in the poem (none less than “nascent hiss”), because I have gone through so many sonnets, they tire me, much as haiku written in English tire you.

    I do agree that haiku can never be written well in English for so many reasons (not least of which our words do not end in a few vowels and “n”). However, here I disagree profoundly. I find it very important to try to write haiku in English, with the whole tradition of Japanese literature behind one, despite the impossibility; because, just as the Italian tradition informed the English sonnet, and helped expand the possibilities of English literature, the Japanese tradition (as well as the Greek, Latin, etc.) has helped do the same.

    As for the meter of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, L2 seems to be a clipped trochaic tetrameter. Here is a haiku from April, 2021:

    In the Metroplex,
    petals on dry, gray-brown boughs,
    thousands and thousands.

    What I like about your essay is who you mention from the English tradition, writers who have influenced my writing, such as, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Pound, Eliot, and Moore.

    But there are many other writers from the English tradition unmentioned, as well as, whole literary realms, which are missing from your essay, like Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, etc.

    Reply
    • Leland James

      Well, I’m reminded of the saying: “If all us agreed all of the time, some of us would not need to be here.” Thanks for responding.

      Reply
    • D.G. Rowe

      English, Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, to state just these five, as well as sharing linguistic roots insofar as literature, also share ancient ethnic, racial, artistic, cultural, philosophical, religious, physical, and meta-physical historical traditions.
      The mind and ethics that produce the literature are the same family, the same supra-civilisation.
      The Italian Sonnet and English Ballad come from the same root, there is no loss in linguistic/artist meanings and cultural ethics when using the
      sonnet form to write in English, or using a common meter ballad to write in Italian

      Taking a haiku, and then abstracting its superficial structure to then impose English language, and the inherent cultural mind imbued in the essence of the language, upon the said Haiku structure produces nothing but pretentious codswallop. It gives licence to do nothing, it is a fish out of water, and flounders accordingly.

      It is an incongruous pointless excersise, in the face of far more important culturally and technically harmonious poetry objectives one can, and must persue in the English language.

      Reply
    • Paul Freeman

      Haikus face the axe
      wielded by ruthless wordsmiths.
      Hailstones pelt wheat fields.

      Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    D.G. Rowe is absolutely right. English, Italian, French, Latin, and Greek all derive from an Indo-European heritage, not just philologically but also in a vast array of cultural attitudes, shared history, presuppositions, and even genetic proclivities. The Japanese and Chinese cultures, ancient and great though they are, are not part of this complex of common identity, just as we are not a part of theirs. When it comes to high cultures, “multiculturalism” is a bad joke.

    I read my first haiku in junior high school back in 1960. A teacher had asked her class to compose three-line poems of a 5-7-5 syllabic count. That’s all. Nothing else. Just a 5-7-5 syllable structure. A number of them were printed in the school magazine, and even then they struck me as pointless little epiphanies of no significance. Here one that I remember:

    My sister Janice
    Playing a soft melody
    On her piano.

    I knew the kid who wrote this, as well as his sister. I thought to myself “Big deal. So what?” And that has been my standard reaction to all English haiku ever since. In Japanese this form has a long history, and also a number of conventions that are not commonly known to us. But just taking the 5-7-5 structure and filling it up with some trivial perception? What’s the point? It’s as if someone on Mars wrote a Petrarchan sonnet without knowing a thing about la volta, or octet-sestet structure, or forensic argumentation, or the topos of the beloved lady, or an understanding of rhetorical copia.

    Poetic structures have an identity, an essence, and a history. Just like a real nation.

    Reply
  9. Leland James

    Joseph,
    Yeah, I have to agree. Now I wonder, using my conservative/informal paradigm, don’t we sometimes make a haiku-type mistake when a poem wants to go informal but we (I know I can be guilty of this) prefer meter and rhyme, a pushing of content into a form in which it does not belong. I know, I’ll say it again, I don’t expect everyone to agree. Just the haiku discussion brought me to consider the above.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, consider this: When Ben Jonson composed poetry, his procedure was to first write out (in straight prose) what he wanted to say. Then he would “versify” that prose material in whatever poetic form he had chosen to work in. So it certainly is possible to put your intended meaning into a fixed form if you are determined enough and skilled enough. In the case of simple iambic pentameter, it can accommodate almost anything.

      It’s not so much a question of putting your content into a recalcitrant form (yes, that is a danger — it’s absurd to try to fit a tragedy into a limerick, or a mathematical theory into a villanelle) but a question of using a foreign or alien form for purposes for which it was not intended. Haiku are no doubt excellent in Japanese when they follow the dictates of Japanese tradition, but not when they are used in English to encapsulate every damned little epiphany that somebody thinks up and shoves into a 5-7-5 framework.

      “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” –Kipling

      Reply
      • Leland James

        Yup. My point about forcing forms is contextual to the modern scene. One becomes (easy to do) vehemently opposed to what passes for poetry in many journals for poetry. One prefers (like me) meter and rhyme. The “informal” in my scheme can be neglected when it is (in my view) a superior choice. Yes, some poems work either way. But I find poems that want one or the other, and are superior in one. Perhaps Ben Johnson was skilled enough to put anything culturally consistent in any culturally consistent form, which is a big waterfront. Not my experience, I bet not a lot of others. Notwithstanding your points are well taken.

  10. BDW

    as per “Clear Dew” Ibuse

    Of course, for some there is little value in studying the poetry of Japan, or China; but I cannot imagine such a world.

    When I was striving, in my early twenties, to imbibe and embrace poetically T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”, the rather long, but unsuccessful poem I wrote, “Cicada’s Voices”, utilized haiku from Basho onward. By the way, the haiku itself, in its present form, is a relatively modern development, from the time of the 17th century.

    Later, as my poetic studies evolved, I appreciated the panorama of Japanese literature, from Yamato, Nara, and Heian periods [I remember one of my brilliant students studying Japanese and reading Murasaki Shikibu’s “Genji monogatari” in Japanese.] through the Tokugawa, Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods to this New Millennium.

    The poetic world I have come to know would be so much poorer without that extraordinary power and depth. The Japanese writers themselves helped me appreciate the importance of steeping oneself, not only within one’s own cultural milieu, but within others, like Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), who being well-versed in English literature, brought to his poetry and prose new insights and novel vistas. It is amazing, indeed, how deeply Japanese writers have delved into Chinese, British, German, French,… and even American literatures.

    So, despite all these cicada voices, I will not soon be disparaging casually drawn plum blossoms.

    Reply
    • Leland James

      I think this a strong and valid opinion. And I don’t think what is being said about haiku in this thread is in disagreement. The issue many are raising and I find myself in agreement with is that the strict 5-7-5 formula makes no sense in English, and further even the haiku structure seems unproductive in Western culture, which is not to say a Western poet can not, as you say, appreciate and learn much from the East. I hope others read this last input of yours. It is clarifying, I think, in the back and forth that has gone on.

      Reply
    • D.G. Rowe

      No one saying there is no value is studying the language and literature from other cultures and civilisations, and producing great translations. For this is indeed a most worthwhile endeavour and can only given stead fast praise in all efforts.

      I don’t speak Japanese, so have never explored the literature, or at the least read other peoples studies, so I must ask to kindly be excused on this point of my ignorance.

      I am genuinly curious to know, have the Japanese men of letters like this Mr Soseki that you mention, spent their time writing Japanese language poems in English Ballad form, Anapaestic Hexameter, Blank verse, Heroic Couplet, Sonnets, limerick and the such like; have such things ever been rendered..?

      Reply
      • Leland James

        An interesting point. This occurred to me too. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear from a Japanese poet regarding the possibility and productiveness of executing the sonnet or villanelle in the Japanese language? Any takers out there?

  11. T.S.(not eliot)

    I am afraid that with labelling formal verse as “conservative” that it is a thematic one, meaning the opposite of “liberal” verse!! some people these days think schismatically.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Both terms “conservative” and “liberal” no longer have any useful meaning. If to be conservative means to conserve and preserve what we have — well, what we have now, politically and culturally, is pure garbage that is not worth conserving. And if to be liberal means to be in favor of freedom and against social constrictions, then our soi-disant “liberals” are in fact deeply opposed to that kind of freedom.

      It would be better all around if we simply called the kind of verse we favor “traditional” verse, or verse written in accord with the practice of Anglophone writers prior to the modernist debacle of the twentieth century.

      Reply

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