By Liz Mastin
Sorting out the confusion
I have been told by several poets that metrical verse (formal verse) is making a steady come-back so that knowledge of metrical prosody is good thing for the modern poet to have. Most of the famous and memorable poems of the past have been written in metrics, many in form, and for that reason alone, it is good to know how it is “well” done. Several poets of our modern time, have led in this current formalist revival; two of these being Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. Their poems are anything but mundane and for the metrical poet, they are really worth studying. Their use of metaphor and images are superior. Beauty marks their poems as well. They have done something new in getting away from the too much sing-song aspect of metered poetry as well.
So, I am taking this brief hiatus from my metrical Poetry and poetic forms study, to try to clear up some confusion between free verse and metrical verse. I believe there are many questions being asked, such as “Which type should I write? What are the rules? What are the non rules?” In free verse, for example, it is said that there are no rules. Thus, it would be inconsistent (with this premise) to say one may never rhyme the lines in a free poem. I know a fine poet who has. Even among the greatest authorities however, one occasionally finds inconsistent opinions. I will turn to a prominent “authority” as I try to help clarify some of the differences between free verse and metrical verse. I have gathered this information from Timothy Steele’s book: “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.” In this book: an explanation of meter and versification, he explains this way:
In metered poetry, he says “The definiteness of expectancy is greatly increased, reaching in some cases, if rhyme is used, almost exact precision…. With every beat of the meter the tide of anticipation turns and swings, causing sympathetic reverberations in our beings.” He continues: “ A skilled craftsman of metered verse will tease the reader’s anticipations with metrical substitution, enjambment, and other devises.” Timothy Steele says “When we begin to read metered poetry, we anticipate a form and beat which heightens our expectation and pleasure.” I think of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” or Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” or Lord Byron’s “She Walks in beauty”: all examples of famous, memorable metrical poems.
Why was so much poetry of the past written in meter? Steele explains: “Eighteenth Century poetry reflected an ordered world. Order, to the populous of that time, was what made poetry so pleasurable. Also, the microcosm that a poem presented was reassuring. Plus the poet may imagine the metrical order as reflecting some greater order. It is quite humorous that Steven Dobbins, in his book “Best Words in Best Order” states “When the first metrical substitution was made, free verse became inevitable.”
Free Verse began to take hold in the 20th century. Reaction against the regularity and structure of the prominent iambic pentameter line occurring partly due it having become a bit monotonous. It had been, after all, used extensively with two thirds of all English verse having been written in it, including all of Shakespeare’s plays etc.
With the arrival of the lyrical Romanic Period, other feet were now used for the prominent footage producing trochaic, anapestic, dactylic and other experimental poems. “The Song of Hiawatha” is a trochaic poem. This was a getting away from the predominance of the iambic foot. It represented more freedom too!
Free verse, unlike metered verse which anticipates the expected, -- is governed by the unexpected! Thus free verse would not have occurred in the orderly past Age of Reason. The 20th century has been typified by “constant disruption and speed.” Poets today, are working in a different world from the poets of the past, enjoying many more possibilities. Gone are the class-distinctions, for instance, along with many other strict societal structures. The use of surprise in today’s free verse poetry stems directly from the speed and the change of the 20th century. It is, however, foreshadowed by Walt Whitman and indeed by the “Psalms” of the King James Bible. A poet named Apollinaire further developed the idea of surprise. In free verse, the poet uses surprise in not allowing the reader to anticipate the rhythmic direction of the poem.
“He keeps the reader from ever resting or gaining his balance as he is sent tumbling down the page.”
Osip Mandelstam said, “The capacity for astonishment is the poet’s greatest virtue. The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise.” Ezra Pound said “Make it new.” Pound also said “surprise and metaphors are the true hallmarks of genius.”
End Note: For free verse poets as well as formal poets, it pays to study the best poets in order to keep improving. Free verse poets should be studying Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, for example as well as some of the prominent free verse poets of today like Billy Collins. “Poets, learn your craft!”
by Liz Mastin
Salt in the morning air,
The Mexican night watchman;
Still there, still there, still there.
He paced with angel’s wings,
As he guarded this time-share shore
Until the first bird sings.
His mind like an orphan’s, caught,
And tossed about on the ocean
As he walked and walked and walked.
I know one time he saw me,
Out on my balcony here
As he surveyed the fading darkness,
As brilliant dawn drew near.
Today will find him sleeping,
Young man having had his fill
Of the lovely but lonely night,
So still, so still, so still.
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene,