A lot of people have fancied themselves poets on account of their ability to put angsty or syrupy words together on a page without concern for freshness of expression, depth of thought, or interesting content. Others have reached the same conclusion about their literary status based on their willingness to desecrate language in the name of nihilism. A third group, the Hallmark card writers, don't care if they're poets as long as they get paid.
Free verse is not anarchy. It's not a license to throw away all semblance of meaning, sublimity, or syntax. Free verse is simply one of many forms of poetry writing, and the term simply indicates that a given poem doesn't follow a set metrical pattern. To assume that it consequently has no musicality or rhythm is to mistake prose for poetry.
Indeed, some impertinent souls go so far as to write what they call "prose poems." The absurdity of such a statement defies paradox in favor of simple oxymoron. A poem is by definition (at least, partly) a rhythmic organization of words that convey or impart some meaning. In a poem, cadence and meaning are inseparable because the way the words ought to be read determines how they'll be interpreted.
This is true of all language, not just poetry, but it's especially true of poetry. The goal of poetry is not to make propositions, but to go beyond the intellect to affect the inner person. Simply making remarks in sentences of different lengths can accomplish this goal no better than merely dumping words in random order or repeating the same phrase over and over (as some "poets" have done).
In many ways, free verse is actually the most suitable form for the poet's task. If a writer is too worried about suiting his words to an established structure, at times he'll be forced to sacrifice preciseness for form. The best formal poets seem never to have this difficulty, but they're the best, and most poets at times become stilted when the rigors of meter and rhyme prevent freedom of expression. Good free verse poets, while still concerned with cadence, don't really have the same problem; if a thought runs longer than a line, they simply start a new one.
That's one reason self-editing is crucial for free verse poets. The tendency to continue writing after the poem is finished is nearly universal (writers like to have something to say, after all), making the need for awareness and caution that much more important. Not all poets face this struggle, but (ironically) they aren't always the best ones, either.
If you plan on a career in poetry, you should learn to master at least one mode of formal poetry before venturing into free verse. That way, the freedom is less likely to go to your head and encourage you to be unpoetic, long-winded, or pedantic. The skill of experimentation is best wielded by those with the most technical knowledge.
Most of the 20th century's most revered and beloved poets wrote primarily free verse. T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, e.e. cummings—their best poems are unrecognizable as such when compared to sonnets or heroic couplets, but when read with an open mind and a willing heart, they immediately take their place among the best works ever written.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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