I started writing poetry 4 or 5 years ago. I spent a long time reading poetry online and poetry that was “current”, and I kept finding this prose stuff with line breaks. I would say my first experience with “real” poetry was Alexander Pope; and his poem on critique, ironically.
“Then criticism the Muse’s handmaid prov’d,
To dress her charms, and make her more belov’d;
But following wits from that intention stray’d;
Who could not win the mistress, woo’d the maid;
Against the poets their own arms they turn’d,
Sure to hate most the men from whom they learn’d.
So modern ‘pothecaries, taught the art
By doctor’s bills to play the doctor’s part,
Bold in the practice of mistaken rules,
Prescribe, apply, and call their masters fools.
Some on the leaves of ancient authors prey,
Nor time nor moths e’er spoil’d so much as they:
Some drily plain, without invention’s aid,
Write dull receipts how poems may be made:
These leave the sense, their learning to display,
And those explain the meaning quite away.”
I really got a sense of what this short section was conveying when I started to think about Free Verse. I eventually came to the conclusion that Free Verse is pretty crap. I want to explain why.
Poetry is generally considered either good poetry or bad poetry. It stands that that if there is a way to rank something as good, bad, or average; then there must be some standard by which to make such a ranking. It also stands that in order to progress as a poet; to “get better”, one needs a standard by which to judge themselves. For a standard to be a good standard it needs to be something understandable by all people, especially those not educated in how a standard is made. Celsius as a standard does not need much explanation, higher numbers are hotter; lower numbers are colder. The Metric system does not need much explanation; you put a measuring tape down and you count lines. You use a measuring cup with a particular number on it. For any of these you don’t need to understand the whys and hows of their construction. Finally, standards have to have elements unique to themselves; this avoids confusion and redundancy.
The reason free verse is bad is because it has no standard. There is nothing objectively measurable about free verse. There are no rules in free verse by which to rank a free verse poem as good or bad. There is nothing inherent in it that lets your average person know if it’s good or not. Your average person thinks its prose; even if they don’t know the word prose. You tell them its poetry and you will get an awkward “okay..”; the fact that you have to explain that it is poetry should be the devilish detail that lets you know it’s bad.
My belief why this alleged form of poetry is so popular is precisely because of the fact I have just mentioned. It isn’t rankable and everyone fancies themselves an artist. Given the current social climate in America; where every small slight against a person is taken as the greatest personal insult (1), it makes perfect sense that the most popular forms of art are forms that cannot be ranked. It is why “mumble rap” is a thing. People put a lot of energy into their poetry and they feel bad when someone says it’s shit; the solution? Adopt a form of poetry that has no objective standard to it and that no layman can understand. Another word for this practice is called Elitism. Elitism is when you have a small group of people who do things in a particular way and it is viewed as better than what others do in a particular field. Poetry has become incredibly elitist in the last century. The dominance of a form of poetry that -only- other poets understand and can “judge” should be sufficient evidence of that. The fact that you cannot publish (or that publishing still matters) anything other than free verse unless you are well connected; is proof positive.
It is true, however, that the poetry elites will claim that there are some rules to free verse. Some will claim it has meter; albeit they make this claim in the same sense that I say the following string of numbers has a pattern; “5 7 3 1 2 4 7 8 4 2 5 6 7 8 6 4 3 5 7…”, yes, if I punch out numbers long enough I am sure a motif will repeat itself at some point and a pattern will emerge.
Others will claim that free verse still has to be “poetic” or “express an emotion”. To this I say, “poetic” doesn’t mean anything. Or rather still, what “poetic” means to an individual refers to what they; according to their specific tastes and literature history; have found other poets doing. In other words, that’s just like, your opinion, man. “Poetic” is extremely subjective and any instance to justify it as a standard leads to even more elitism where you have to select a few poets (typically those who are more published; because somehow that still matters in the age of youtube) by which to judge against for what an ideal form of poetry is. “Expresses an emotion”, this is true for any writing pretty much. If you write prose without any emotion going on then what is the point; why tell a story with no emotion? Emotionality is not unique to poetry so its ability to be a standard by which poetry is ranked is dubious at best. Free Verse could be excellent prose, but it still won’t be poetry because of its emotionality.
Yet others will say that poetry (and by extension free verse) has to be eloquent; that is, express a lot with as few words as possible. Not minimalistic per se; but text without redundancy. To this I say yes; and so does every. other. writing. Except an EULA. Prose, technical writing, research papers; what ever, they all need to be cleaned up of redundancy. This is what “good writing” is, no matter what field you are in (unless you are a lawyer). Prose, or “prosey” by the way, has become a euphemism for “writing with a lot of redundancy”, I find this reaction to be interesting and telling of the views on modern writing. As if it was okay to be redundant in prose. (Some professor out there is probably an advocate for that too, I am sure)
Free Verse as a form of writing is fine, as poetry it is not. The fact that you can take a free verse poem and erase the line breaks and it becomes indistinguishable from prose to all but that select few elite (just poets in the 20th and 21st centuries) should be enough. Poets have become bad writers and so they have adopted an obscure; yet feigned popular (only poets buy modern poetry books; so sales mean jack (and publishing means jack too, for that matter)) form of “poetry” that they can show and celebrate to each other at the exclusion of everyone else because they know they will be judged poorly and that destroys their personal conceptions of greatness; their delusions of grandeur. Poetry professors are english majors who need a job; it pays (literally) to write free verse which no one understands and then proclaim it is deep and thought provoking while hiding behind a piece of paper that grants you the status of “he who can understand poetry”; if they tried to write something everyone could judge then they wouldn’t have a job.
This begs the question; what is good poetry? For that you will have to wait until I write about it.
(1) This is a decent article that explains microaggressions and victim culture; a lot of what is mentioned can help understand many trends in society; trends in art being no exception. Of course free verse has been around longer; but the hows and whys of its inception are not the hows and whys of its current state. http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/
(The text editing on wordpress is absolutely terrible, I cannot get rid of double spaces no matter what I do. If I shift enter then it leaves no space at all)