Two generations ago, the proponents of free and metrical verse were locked in battle. Now, without fanfare—and with no pretension to being the only way of doing it—free verse seems to be everywhere. This has not happened by chance. In the process, it has developed some powerful disciplines, many of which still seem to be poorly understood.
One of the arguments that erupted after the publication of Contemporary Australian Poetry concerned the prevalence of free verse in its pages.1‘Most, though not all (of the strongest poets)’, we had concluded in the introduction, ‘will be writing a free verse exhibiting a sustained capacity to control every nuance of tone and meaning.’2 While we only became fully aware of its dominance once we had looked back over what we had collected, not everyone was happy with this. David Campbell wrote an article criticising the lack of rhymed and metrical verse,3 which was later backed up by many contributors to Stephen Romei’s column.4 Although broadly accepted in the poetry world, there is clearly still a view in the community that free verse is just one more sign of the breakdown of form in the arts: proof that contemporary poets are really only concerned to out-sprawl, out-weird and out-experiment each other. Bad free verse certainly can be like that. But a form that has been around for more than a century has also accrued some powerful disciplines, and, judging from some of the commentary, these may not be as well understood as they should be. There are reasons for its popularity: it is not something that has happened merely because of the whims of artistic fashion.
It has not always been so dominant: one only has to go back to the fierce arguments conducted against it by Hope and McAuley to realise how different things were a couple of generations ago.5 Nor did it emerge overnight. When, in the English-speaking world, Whitman, and, later, Pound and Eliot used it, it met with a now legendary resistance and bewilderment—even though both Whitman and Eliot were partly inspired by biblical rhythms and, in Eliot’s case, the transferred authority of the Bible’s tone. Pound and Eliot would have been alert to the cultural authority of the French writers of vers libres. But free verse also suited the needs of their material. Whitman required a form that allowed him to be copious—and copious with momentum. Most sections of Leaves of Grass are driven by praise, which can lose its way if the language is fastidious or careful. He needed to be able to compile his praise lists without being checked by either the requirements of the metrical unit or the need to find a rhyme (as had also been the case for that earlier free verse praise-poem, Smart’s Jubilate Agno).6 Whitman didn’t choose free verse for negative reasons, out of a desire to be free of constraints: he needed to access possibilities only free verse could give him.
Nor did Pound and Eliot simply select it because they had been reading widely in French. Eliot sought, among other things, the images and diction for contemporary urban life. Prior to Baudelaire, there had not been an appropriate language for the city: there were either versions of hell, as in Blake, or it was conceived in noble but generic terms, as Eliot himself still invoked in ‘What the Thunder Said’: ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London’.7 Neither stereotypes, however, were adequate for the cities that the poets were now trying to find a language for, with their changing physical environments, and their fractured moral worlds that, in Eliot’s case, he wished to juxtapose against their predecessors.
In ‘The Burial of the Dead’8 he moves from the Baudelaire allusion in ‘Unreal City / Under the fog of a winter dawn’ (ll 60–1), to a reference to Dante’s Inferno in ‘Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled’ (l. 63), to the Webster of ‘O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men’ (l. 73), and then back to Baudelaire with ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’ (l. 76). No doubt it is technically possible to incorporate such a large number of quotes and allusions into a metrical scheme, but when one considers that what Eliot was working on was new, with a focus on making his unprecedentedly disparate fragments cohere, then it is not hard to see how he might have regarded rhyme and metre as impediments—or something to be reserved for special passages.
Pound’s use of free verse had much to do with his desire to use flexible speech-rhythms and this, too, would have been difficult within metrical constraints. Pound was influenced by the self-disrupting voices of Browning rather than the more fluently marshalled colloquialisms of, say, Kipling. Like Browning, Pound understood that one had more freedom to use such rhythms if one put them in the mouths of speakers from other times or cultures—and so he revisited the silver poets and imagined himself as Propertius, and he mimicked the Chinese and the Provençal as if he were a native. By itself, this material might have appeared simply exotic, but Pound inserted himself into his translations and makeovers with so much energy—and chutzpah—that the authority of both the original poem and the contemporary speaker were enhanced. There is much literary theatre in this, but one of his achievements was to increase the range of cultures in which we might expect to hear moving or assertive voices: in the long run, the result may be more important than how we got there. And thus we have:
Midnight, and a letter comes to me from our mistress:
Telling me to come to Tibur:
‘Bright tips reach up from twin towers,
Anienan spring water falls into flat-spread pools.’
What is to be done about it?
(‘Homage to Sextus Propertius, Section III’)9
You’d have men’s hearts up from the dust
And tell their secrets, Messire Cino,
Right enough? Then read between the lines of Uc St. Circ,
Solve me the riddle, for you know the tale.
Partly, the ventriloquism is a trick to enable him to use his otherwise unacceptable midwest idiom in poetry. By invoking Propertius or Bertrans de Born, he is able to speak as himself. That is not an illegitimate project: why shouldn’t his shape-shifting, attentive crankiness be available as a way of speaking in verse? Yet it is difficult to imagine how he might have done so within metrical constraints.
Once the example had been set, it still took time before readers felt comfortable with it. One reason may have been because its earliest proponents often struggled to generate a satisfying musicality. Many influential poets of the same and succeeding generations—Yeats, Auden, Larkin—wrote rhymed and metrical verse—largely, one suspects, because of this. Once it had become available, however, others began to explore it thoroughly—essentially for the reasons it had been used in the first place: because it provided opportunities for articulating the things they wanted to write about. Ginsberg needed to propel his crazy or enraged lists in a similar way to Whitman; Snyder and Whalen saw technically constructed form as an impediment to the real form suggested by the shape of the idea; the New York that Ashbery and O’Hara wrote about had become, if anything, more complex than Eliot’s London, requiring an even greater freedom of association than he had sought; both W.C. Williams and Olsen sought a spontaneity with speech rhythms that was incompatible with metre.
There were also changes occurring in the society itself that collectively made free verse an apt way of exploring the things it was interested in. One shift concerned changes in the way we thought of the subject. As recently as the nineteenth century, one’s role could be more important than one’s life as an individual. One was a stationmaster, a drover or a seamstress before one was a private self. Personal names were reserved for intimates and relatives—some husbands and wives only ever addressed each other in formal terms. Every role, however, had a nickname—people were chalkies or chippies, navvies or tars—which was, in itself, a way of registering how central the roles were. When I was a boy it was still possible to hear older women in the street being referred to as ‘Mother’—‘Mother Wilson’, ‘Mother Jones’: their visibility as generic mothers was clearer than their definition as individuals. Role was a summation of all the other differentiations one inhabited: of dress, accent, status, gender, for example. It hasn’t disappeared, and some roles—policeman or -woman, minister—remain all but inescapable. Nevertheless, its importance has shrunk to an extent unimaginable a century ago, alongside the relaxation in the pressures of context (working men used to change clothes to walk home; men used to have two vocabularies, according to whether they were in the presence of women or not).
We no longer insist on relationship names such as ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’. Even children will often use first names for adults. Once, only the wealthy and the middle class warranted complex private lives in books—the sort of lives, say, that Jane Austen or Henry James might have been interested in. The further one moved from the benign literary glow of individuation, the more one’s character lost focus in the stereotypes of class and gender that were little more than the application of names—the attempt to rectify which has been one of the great literary projects. In the light of such shifts, one wonders whether ‘poet’ wasn’t used to define a similarly narrow role. As with other roles, it was defined by distinctive forms of address, such as the use of metre and rhyme, the preference for certain types of diction, and limited choices in subject matter. It would almost certainly have also implied rules about acceptable pitch and intonation in oral presentation.
The best poets found a way to say distinctive things in a distinctive way, but to do so they would have had to negotiate with the pressure to produce what the audience expected to hear. When one asks whom the nineteenth century poem was addressed to, it is often hard to imagine it spoken to an individual. The individual note was beginning to emerge—in the conspiratorial closeness of Clough’s ‘Amours de Voyage’ or the way grief is handled in Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, for example—and it is hard not to think that Dickinson isn’t speaking to other individuals in upstairs bedrooms. But most nineteenth-century verse is either too formal or too poetic to imagine it addressed to a single interlocutor. It was designed, rather, to be projected into the mysterious joint construction we call the public space, and if the reader were to find anything personal there, he or she would only have been able to do so by retranslating it into personal terms.
There were other forces at work as well: the increasing number of narratives a subject had to participate in, the growth in the amount of information each had to deal with, and the variety of perspectives each had to master: the ‘emergence of the modern individual’ may partly have been a matter of the authority of the old, clearly defined roles being overwhelmed by the proliferation of new ones.
The net result, however, has been that society now thinks in terms of individuals—and its poets speak as one individual to other individuals. It turns out that free verse is suited to this. Many of those impulses that were at least partly defined by role and situation—the vatic, the honorific, the exhortatory—have diminished in importance, while a poetry grounded in the quieter but less inhibited momenta of the personal and conversational has taken its place. It is not less powerful. But there is a sense in which it is less social. A poet now expects his or her readers to have minds of their own: that they will not simply surrender themselves to the perspective, or the story, in the way that an audience might once have done.
If there are role cues in the poem, they will appear as just another strand in the paraphernalia out of which the individual is composed. It is still possible to speak powerfully from within the edifice of rhyme and metre—one might cite the work of Derek Mahon, Derek Walcott or, in Australia, of Stephen Edgar—but for many poets it is a little like a juggling costume—impossible to wear without self-consciousness. It has become increasingly difficult to circumvent the closure and finality it projects in a way that allows one to express credible emotion. Sometimes it is resisted by the reader as a slightly implausible dance step: one easier to accept when the intent is comic or satiric. Meanwhile, rhyme and—in a rough and ready way, metre—persist without demur in rap and rock lyrics: though it is worth noting that, of all the art forms, these are some of the most heavily invested in role.
The poem has become an instrument of private communication, and anything that interferes with that—such as the simplifications of the public arena—is treated warily. But there have also been changes in our understandings about what the various forms do best, the effect of which has been to isolate—and value—that precision of meaning which has become such a key element of good free verse. The storytelling function of poetry has largely been replaced: first by the novel, then by film and TV—although many poets remain intrigued by what had been one of poetry’s primary modes. The patriotic functions of verse have disappeared: no-one attends recital evenings any more, to bond around self-assertions such as ‘Invictus’11 or ‘He Fell among Thieves’.12 The simpler lyric functions of poetry, moreover, have largely been absorbed into the popular song.
This leaves poetry to do what it does uniquely well: to explore our understandings and the emotions they elicit. Never before has there been such a premium on the poet’s distinctiveness of perspective and on his or her capacity to articulate it. There are a small number of situations in which people still say simple things in patterned language: in football songs and advertising jingles, and sometimes in religious practice—although nursery rhymes, unfortunately, are disappearing. Yet such occasions are remarkable for their scarcity. Overwhelmingly, the role of poetry has become exploratory. One of the implications of this is that anything that interferes with word selection is treated with caution. In metrical verse, one’s first duty is to fulfil the requirements of the metre. With rhymed, metrical verse, one is also under an obligation to the rhyme scheme. In both cases, exactitude of meaning has a lower priority.
It is not that accomplished metrical poems don’t manage their various pressures with great skill. But many don’t. And for those, all the normal restrictions apply: the scarcity of rhymes in English; the need to end the line in a predetermined way—placing consistent restraints on phrasing and diction, and inviting what are now syntactically unacceptable compromises, such as inversions; the way that regular form can give an unjustified impression of certainty, when that is not always desirable in these questioning and open-ended days. Poets have always chosen their words with care. But the criteria with which they select them have changed as a premium has been placed on meanings that are subtle, or difficult, or new. The priorities of rhyme, metre and exactitude have given way to a slightly different set of emphases on exactitude, economy and rhythm.
Economy has always been a virtue—though rarely to the extent it is nowadays. There have been many economical styles in the past: the Tang court poems, Japanese tanka and haiku, the Latin and eighteenth-century epigrams, sonnets and border ballads—and many of the best poems of any type, at any time. But now, it seems, the whole writing planet believes every word must justify itself—must be ‘doing work’. This has not always been the case. There are passages of Dryden, Shelley or Byron (or Pound or Olsen, or many of the other earlier writers of free verse) that one might scrutinise in terms of economy. Even Shakespeare is usually edited for performance—and not all the losses are in terms of thematic richness. But economy is now one of the first things one reads for. Besides, there are so many words out there, and so many of them are just blah—it is a relief to encounter texts where all the words have edges and a purpose. Ultimately, economy and exactitude are aspects of the same thing: economy is a function of exactitude.
Rhythm is a complex issue, and only the briefest of summaries can be offered here. Not all free-verse poets place great stock on rhythm and musicality—just as some metrical poets think it enough simply to fulfil the requirements of the metre, some writers of free verse think it sufficient just to set the meaning down. But for those who wish to articulate not just the meaning, but the weight of the meaning as well, skill with rhythm is indispensable. Practitioners of free verse can spend as much time getting the rhythm right as their formal peers spend on metre and rhyme—who care also, but who typically have less room to play with. There is, of course, a vast heritage of metrical poems that also display a mastery of rhythm. But the use of metre is no guarantee that rhythm will be lively, nuanced or powerful. One thinks of those poems that simply go on (even The Faerie Queen, for all Spenser’s metrical and rhythmic skills, struggles to maintain rhythmic energy). And at a less capable level, not to have a sense of rhythm over and above the requirements of the metre is one of the defining characteristics of the bad poem.
My own observation is that the use of rhythm in free verse is more sophisticated now than at any time in its relatively short history. There were great practitioners of rhythm among the modernist masters, such as Olsen and Eliot, but some, such as Oppen or Reznikoff, could be more focused on other aspects of their experiments. Reznikoff, for instance, in his longer pieces, paid so much attention to the condensation of the narrative that he left little room to register its emotional implications rhythmically. Rhythm is not just an interaction between breath and utterance; it also works a tension between sound, meaning and emotion, and some of the modernists—perhaps understandably—were too intent on other things to listen to the counter-voices their poetry might also be generating—alternative centres of gravity without which rhythm can be one-dimensional, having nothing to flex against.
Now, however, we have had a century of poets working out how to use it, and we have the melodic rhythms of a Linda Gregg or a Robert Hass, the layered climaxes of an Adrienne Rich, the poise of a Louise Gluck, and so much more. In Australia, too, there is a stunning variety and mastery of free-verse rhythms: from the quiet lyricism of Malouf (‘We sit in the warm dark watching / container-ships ride / on blue-black moonlit glitters. // After long / journeying arrived at the high tide / of silence, after talk’)13 to the contour-infatuation of Judith Beveridge (‘Yasodhara, if you came / to me now, I’d say I saw death // in the lattice of sunshades, death in a sky of soft cottons’);14 from the restrained compassion of J.S. Harry (‘: what could I tell you? … // that presently / a person / who belongs / where she is going / will hang her life up as if it were a hat / above a ledge of air / & step out’)15 to the wry, playful meditations of Ken Bolton (‘How to explain / to Samuel Johnson / the thrill & special intensity / of James Brown?’).16
I am not suggesting that there are not still plenty of ways to make metrical poetry work. And poets will find new ones: one should never underestimate the inventiveness of authors, and the instinct to make patterns is a deep one. I am simply pointing out what is obvious to anyone who spends time with the material: that a high proportion of the best poetry being produced in Australia at the moment is written in free verse. Far from being an indeterminate sprawl, moreover, the best of it is disciplined in the way that good poetry always has been—though its disciplines are not always recognised as such. No form is pre-eminent forever, and there is no guarantee that its prevalence will continue. Even if it were to disappear tomorrow, however, free verse will become known—like blank or alliterative verse, or like rhyming and metrical verse itself—as one of the principal means by which we have produced this stuff, at least in the West. It is here now. The achievement is in place.
Martin Langford’s most recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009)
- Langford, Beveridge, Johnson and Musgrave (eds), Contemporary Australian Poetry, Puncher & Wattmann, 2016.
- Langford et al, Contemporary Australian Poetry, Introduction, p. vi.
- Australian, 12 August 2017.
- Weekend Australian, 16–17 September 2017.
- ‘Many English teachers today have acquired a horror of anything that is formal, and they pass this on to their students: indeed anti-formalism in regard to all the arts is positively and wilfully inculcated in schools—in defiance of everything that a knowledge of the history of the arts and of cultural anthropology must inevitably suggest to the contrary …’, James McAuley, ‘Ars Poetica’, in Leonie Kramer (ed.), James McAuley: Poetry, Essays and Personal Commentary, UQP, 1988, p. 201.
- Christopher Smart, Poetical Works, vol. 1, ed. Williamson, Oxford, 1980.
- T.S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land: V’, Complete Poems and Plays, Faber, 1969, p. 72.
- Eliot, ‘The Waste Land: I’, Complete Poems and Plays, p. 61.
- Ezra Pound, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius: III’, Collected Shorter Poems, Faber, 1952 p. 229.
- Pound, ‘Lustra’, Collected Shorter Poems, p. 171.
- W.E. Henley, in Quiller-Couch (ed.), The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, p. 722.
- Henry Newbolt, in Quiller-Couch, Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, p. 840.
- David Malouf, ‘At Lerici’, Earth Hour, UQP, Brisbane, 2014.
- Judith Beveridge, ‘One Sight’, Wolf Notes, Giramondo, Sydney, 2003.
- J.S. Harry, ‘her letter’, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1995.
- Ken Bolton, ‘Why Kenneth Clark?’, Sly Mongoose, Puncher & Wattmann, 2011.