William Childress, in his response to Willard Spiegelman’s essay ‘Has Poetry Changed?’, claims that modern free verse fails to appreciate poetic craft, is something you ‘just sit down and write’ and does not provide receivers with a moving, emotional impact. He further suggests that not only is there a lack of craft involved, but even free-er poetry’s tendency towards self-expression ruins what a poem is meant to be: universal and relatable to all.
Today I’ll be challenging the conception that free-er poetic approaches are “killing poetry” by demonstrating how poetry that departs from traditional forms still values craft, provides receivers with an emotive impact and is not something you ‘just sit down and write’. I will also contest the notion that a poem must be universal and highlight theimportance of free verse’s self-expression, which Childress dismisses as pointless ‘‘woe is me’ diaries’.
Similar to Childress, Bernard Lamb, head of the Queen’s English Society, also protests against the rise of modern free verse. He believes that this poetic approach does not provide a ‘special pleasure’ and has not been truly crafted, stating: ‘too often strings of words are being labelled as poems’. For Lamb, ‘True poems’ yield a ‘special pleasure’ only achievable through crafting regular ‘metre’ and ‘rhyme’.
Yet why are these techniques seen as the only means of producing a ‘special pleasure’ for receivers and for a poem to be seen as possessing poetic craft? While ‘special pleasure’ is abstract, I interpret it as when a poem evokes an intense, emotional impact. Metre and rhyme help craft ‘special pleasure’ because, as Christian Obermeier’s study shows, they lead to ‘enhanced aesthetic appreciation, higher intensity in processing and…make the message of an utterance more salient and more emotionally involving.’ This suggests that regular scheme, when coupled with carefully chosen words and images, enables poets to elicit strong emotional responses. But take this extract from the poem ‘Summer’ by Emily Berry:
‘In a kitchen, on an island, stirring tomato sauce, I am far from
Deadly sauce, which thickens with my sinking feeling. Which
cracks my ice caps.
From now on I will eat only the foods…that require
no preparation, that cannot break into me: white cheese, white
Berry’s poem lacks regular scheme and yet, after reading, I felt an intense emotional impact. While my response could be considered biased as I am defending her poetic approach, many readers appear to feel the same way; critic Sarah Crown describes the collection this poem features in as ‘deeply moving.’ Upon attentive reading and investigation as to why I experienced this effect, it is clear that Berry employs a multitude of techniques which still require craft and enhance readers’ emotional response.
For example, Berry uses metaphorical language such as ‘Deadly sauce, which thickens with my sinking feeling…cracks my ice caps.’ to make her feeling of being broken after her mother’s death a concrete image that can be vividly imagined rather than simply an abstract representation. This approach continues throughout, particularly in the line: ‘now…I will eat only the foods…that require no preparation.’ Through this concrete imagery, her loneliness becomes tragically visible. She dislikes cooking food which requires ‘preparation’ as it reminds her that she is alone and no longer has her mother to eat with her. By enabling readers to have precise sensory visualisations of her loneliness and grief, Berry makes the poem highly evocative and particularly poignant.
Lamb’s and Childress’s limiting of ‘true poems’ to regular metre and rhyme is thus devaluing as it ignores other techniques poets use which also help create a ‘special pleasure.’ These techniques, and their careful employment and arrangement, still require craft and are not just ‘strings of words.’ Free-er poetry should not be undermined by stating that it is something ‘you just sit down and write’ simply because it does not possess regular scheme. If a poet can express their message and also create an intense, emotional impact, then I believe that is poetic craft and a ‘true poem.’
The critic Rebecca Hazelton, from my perspective, provides a more productive stance regarding craft within modern free poetry. Hazelton rejects the claim that modern free verse poems are not ‘true poems’ and have a limited understanding of craft. Instead, Hazelton suggests that effective free verse poets draw on understandings of traditional form and strategically break rules, adapt them and employ varying techniques to complement the specific import they wish to express in their poems.
This aligns with Thomas Hulme’s helpful analogy: free verse ‘is clothes made to order, rather than ready-made clothes.’ I agree, as rather than ‘strings of words’ free verse poets have carefully crafted ‘clothes made to order’ to maximise the emotional impact.
In fact, the potency of free-er poetry is apparent as in some poems, ‘ready-made clothes’ would actually reduce the ‘special pleasure’. Imagine a poem which communicates the sense of being under threat and out of control. A lack of controlled form will undoubtedly intensify the feeling of chaos. If the poem was in controlled, regular form, the structure would abate the sense of being powerlessness and under threat.
However, Lamb appears to discredit this view: ‘If it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’ But this criticism ignores how poetry, unlike prose, is condensed and not diluted by additional details.
When concise messages are coupled with techniques like repetition and metaphors, they gain a greater intensity than what would be induced in prose. Poetic craft can therefore be separated from ‘just prose’ if it condenses and employs techniques to intensify expression. Achieving this through regular scheme is simply one method.
Another critique of modern free verse which Childress argues is how it has a tendency to be too individualised, too self-expressed, and destroys what a poem should be: universal. I agree that there is more self-expression in free-er poetry, after all, they are ‘clothes made to order’. However, is this necessarily a bad thing? Should poems really be universal?
Melissa Lee-Houghton in Sunshine explores her ‘first-hand experience’ with ‘abuse, addiction and mental health.’ Those undergoing similar ordeals can identify with her poetry and gain a ‘special pleasure’ from realising they are not alone in their experiences. Moreover, there are undeniable benefits for the poet themselves, as articulating painful, personal experiences through writing can be therapeutic and help them to comprehend and endure pain.
Lee-Houghton directly explains this: ‘writing has helped me through the arduous process of understanding and bearing things that previously felt unendurable, and it brings a kind of relief.’ Poems containing self-expression are clearly not pointless ‘‘woe is me’ diaries’, but are an important means of connecting with specific life experiences and dealing with the ‘unendurable.’
Finally, I believe that in reality, expecting a poem to be universal is an impossible demand. Ben Lerner draws attention to this in his essay ‘The Hatred of Poetry’: ‘You can hate contemporary poetry – as much as you want for failing to realize the fantasy of universality,…but the haters should stop pretending any poem ever successfully spoke for everyone.’ No poet can claim their poetry captures a universal, common experience for all. We all live and experience life differently.
So, are modern free poets “killing poetry”? I hope my discussion has shown that contemporary free verse poetry and free-er expressions are, unlike Childress’s claim, not abandoning craft. They are simply different approaches which still require careful consideration and engagement with various techniques. It is also evident that if a poem is defined by universality – which is impossible – no poem would ever truly be considered a poem. Self-expression should thus not be seen as ruining what a poem is meant to epitomise, but instead be appreciated for its therapeutic benefits. However, I do not want to appear as if I am arguing that free-er poetry is “better” than traditional forms. I believe as poets we should respect different approaches to poetry and unite rather than argue as, ultimately, we all aim to create poetry that generates a ‘special pleasure’.