No free verse?

I may have bitten off a rather large mouthful in tackling this subject. What I meant to do was reflect on some things I’ve read recently about the structure of poetry, but as I keep reading I’m growing further enmeshed in the larger and very sticky question of what makes a poem good. But to keep it manageable, I’ll stick with form.

The question of form and structure interests me. Like many poets today, I write in free verse, but at the same time I enjoy and admire verse that follows traditional forms. When reading free verse, I often listen for what holds it together.

Reading critical essays on the subject always reminds me of this tidbit from a letter L.M. Montgomery wrote to a longtime correspondent:

By the law of dis-association of ideas— how do you like “free verse”? I loathe it. I saw a delightful definition of it the other day — “shredded prose”— although the full delight of the definition will be lost upon you if you are not familiar with the breakfast cereal known as “shredded wheat.” Vers libre aggravates me beyond my powers of expression.

Montgomery goes on to write her own piece of vers libre, itself a fine example of shredded prose, in which she castigates its perpetrators for writing verse that is “without form/ And void” and for being too lazy to look for rhymes. (That “shredded prose” definition apparently came from American writer and editor William Dean Howells, who used the term in reviewing Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.)

T.S. Eliot, in a brief essay called “Reflections on Vers Libre,” takes an interesting view of the issue: he claims that there is no such thing as free verse. “If vers libre is a genuine verse-form,” he says, “it will have positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.” He acknowledges that there can be good verse without rhyme, but insists that meter is inescapable. Some simple metre must lie behind any free verse, as a structure that the poem either approaches or departs from.

That last point is important. Eliot does not insist on rigid adherence to a form, but rather advocates for poets mastering form to the point where they’re able to take liberties with it. This, he says, is what makes poetry interesting: “It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.”

I’m not sure Eliot is entirely right about meter, when he says that “even the worst verse can be scanned.” Much free verse does approximate to some kind of meter at least some of the time, but there’s also verse that doesn’t follow a rhythm of feet and accents, but instead builds around whole phrases or lines—the “breath unit,” as Theodore Roethke puts it.

But Eliot is right in stating that “there is no freedom in art,” in the sense that a work of art, even when it rejects predetermined forms, must find a way to cohere. Art works best within boundaries, however loose; otherwise it has no energy.

[Eliot’s essay, first published in 1917, appears in The Structure of Verse, ed. Harvey Gross (The Ecco Press, 1979). The reference to Theodore Roethke is from his 1961 essay “What Do I Like?” which appears in the same collection. L.M. Montgomery’s letter, dated Sept. 14, 1922, appears in My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G.B. MacMillan, ed. Francis W.P. Bolger and Elizabeth R. Epperly (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980).]

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