Traveling around my little home state as its poet laureate, I’ve especially enjoyed that audience members outside academia tend to ask truly basic questions, which after all represent concerns that everyone feels on contemplating a poem for the first time: who’s talking? why? where? Too much current poetry can’t answer those questions on the page, and even as a lifelong lover of poetry, I turn away from them, conscious of my biological clock’s ticking.
But in fact the most frequent questions I hear involve form and meter. There are those who wonder if something can be called poetry if it does not have a regular meter, regular stanzaic shape, and often as not, a rhyme scheme. A quick reference, say, to Paradise Lost or the Hebrew Bible’s Psalms usually makes the point that needs making in this regard.
Now for the most part I happen to be something of a formalist myself (though I suspect and even hope this is unobvious when I read, because I pause in my recitation when the grammar does, not when a line does). I even use a goodly amount of rhyme and half-rhyme. And yet I employ these tools merely because they enable me, not because they represent capital-P Poetry. Indeed, I steadfastly refuse to grind any ax in the free verse/formal verse debate, since it seems to make advocates on either side suddenly go brain-dead. Of course poetry can exist in an unrhymed and unmetered format: consider our great Walt Whitman. Of course poetry can be formally constrained without being “academic”: never mind my own small example; consider Robert Frost, a die-hard formalist...who managed to capture the sound of actual speech far more effectively than a free-verser like Ezra Pound ever did.
passionate free-verse partisans may still believe that their mode is
anti-establishment, which would of course be the truth– if today were 1920;
since about then, free verse has reigned supreme in virtually every academic
MFA program and among most noted poets. It is
the establishment practice. But then that other sect of blind debaters,
formal fundamentalists, will allege that free verse shows sloppy thinking,
shoddy technique – as if that applied, say, to Robert Lowell or, more contemporarily,
to Louise Gluck. Taking an equal and opposite stab, the free-verse crusaders
will impute coldness, sexual frigidity, political reaction, and – again –
“academicism” to formalist delivery -- as if any of these charges were relevant
to the giants of the twelve-bar Delta blues, a mode that is surely America’s
greatest formal contribution to world culture, and, I would argue, one that
pervades our poetry even when practitioners are unaware of that effect. And how
does such a judgment fit, say, Marilyn Hacker?
And so back and forth the ranters will go for hours, wading through idiocy all the while.
As I hear the free vs. formal debate rehearsed, I am too depressingly reminded of political dialogue in our day. I am never shocked by the slogans on either side of the liberal/conservative divide. It’s as though there were no real need for any of us to look at a given issue from more angles than just one: we liberals are sure we already know what the conservatives are going to promote; but we fail to see how perfectly predictable our own thinking is. And the conservatives have us pegged as well, without needing to hear us out.
When I was appointed Vermont’s state poet, I claimed in my address that a little humility never hurt anyone. The humble but crucial questions I encounter at the state’s libraries assure me that there remain at least a few open minds in the nation.