The Form Question

There are various conservatives on the poetry scene at present who often bemoan the loss of "Form" in poetry and decry the current tendency toward open form composition; Mary Oliver and Dana Gioia are among the more prominent lights of this misguided notion, associated as they are with the New Formalist movement in the eighties. What's particularly difficult to process is where this idea came from that "free verse" was in some way divorced from the care and craft required by formal prosody. Never mind the fact that current trends in public education expose most Americans only to Shel Silverstein in their early years, followed closely to a broad survey covering roughly the two hundred fifty or so years between Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Never mind the fact that American poetry more or less begins right around the era of Dickinson or that the Elizabethan dialect grows more and more unfamiliar to speakers of American English with each passing year, and what we have is a situation in which the speakers of a national language, that is, American English, are by and large unfamiliar with their national poetry.

What does this mean to the formal argument? Well, for one thing, American poetry since it's maturity has largely been a bastion of free verse. After all, free verse poetry—despite early and important examples from the King James Bible—found its first true paramour in Whitman's cadenced line. Excepting Poe, all of the important poets of North America have worked largely with free verse of one method or another.

On this fact I am grounding my axiom that American Verse is Free Verse. For an American poet, strict adherence to a form is an aberration of the national poetry. This is not necessarily the case for other nations and languages. Particularly for speakers of the various Spanish and French dialects who have a number of distinct linguistic features available to them that lend themselves to formalism—including large numbers of regular verbs, syllable timed rhythm, and generally more morphologically homogenous lexicons—not to mention many more form options than the pittance available to an American English poetry.

So where does this criticism of the lack of form come from? There are several factors. One is the previously mentioned problem with poetry education. Free verse, also called open form by its defenders—although I think that open verse is much more descriptive and will use it exclusively in the rest of this post—is defined by this woefully inadequate education in poetry as "that poetry that doesn't rhyme." Formal verse is defined by contrast as "poetry that does rhyme" and given its end of the historical spectrum in that afforementioned high school poetry survey, often gets the short shrift; perceived as archaic and "out of style" by those who aren't really paying attention, it has, to the poorly educated reader, been reduced to mere doggerel, the kind of inspirational poetry found in Reader's Digest magazine or spewed by the so-called "Cowboy Poets." As such its appeal is largely conservative, geared as it is toward those uneducated proles not even sophisticated enough to form the mistaken impression that formal poetry is passé.

Not helping matters is the fact that many poetry magazines, editted by similar idiots who've been through the same inadequate educational system, often put in their submission guidelines "no formal poetry." By which of course they mean "no doggerel made up of rhymed couplets in roughly iambic septameter," with which such magazines are no doubt deluged. (Of course, they wouldn't be if they just pulled their listings from the Writer's Market like we suggest.) So, for young people just learning to write poetry and looking to these major magazines for guidance, they might be understandably put off should they like such devices as end-rhyme and a fixed number of feet per line. From this point of view, the New Formalist response almost makes some sense.

Except of course that formal verse never went away, and if one looks carefully, one will find that American poetry is filled with sonnets, odes, and various other fixed forms at every turn. Granted, most of it is terrible, but there are certain standouts, such as Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets or the more recent Jim and Dave Defeat The Masked Man. Formal verse isn't going anywhere, so the dim lights attempting to rescue it by writing it badly aren't really accomplishing what they think they are. Of course, those who don't bother to understand what they're doing before they set off to do it seldom do.