Is it “incongruous” or immoral, as Mark Signorelli argues in his intriguing pair of essays, to write or read free verse? I don’t think so, but let me start with what I think Signorelli gets right.
In the first essay, Signorelli argues that the free verse and fragmentation found in modern poetry embody a “debased” yearning for an individual freedom “severed from all obligation to tradition, nature, or rationality.” Free verse expresses the dream of an individual will free of the “essential ends” of the art of poetry, even if this means the death of poetry. In the case of fragmentation, it is the dream of an individual will free from rational coherence, even if, ironically, this means the death of the subject. “That is why,” Signorelli states, it is incongruous, and perhaps even immoral, for poets to fill “journals with free-verse modernist-style creations.” In the second essay, he argues that poets must return to the “essential ends” of the art—teaching and delighting.
I think Signorelli hits a number of right notes. First, there is no question that all forms of art and poetry embody “some identifiable ethical or cosmological perspective,” though, as I will argue shortly, they cannot easily be reduced to one perspective. Second, Signorelli is right that free verse is rooted in part in a longing for autonomy. Third, I share what I sense to be Signorelli’s frustration with what passes for poetry today. Many poems lack craft and intellectual rigor, and turn to shock value or the political screed to garner some attention. I agree that the use of meter and rhyme would do much to reinvigorate contemporary poetry. Fourth, I share Signorelli’s concern for a lack of critical spirit when it comes to poetry and the arts, especially among American evangelicals. Too often we reject unthinkingly or love indiscriminately.
Signorelli’s argument rests on the premise that all artifacts embody the spirit of the age in which they are produced. The spirit of the modern age is relativism; therefore, Signorelli concludes, free verse can be rightly understood as embodying this relativism. Although this is true to an extent, it is overly reductive. Works of art—particularly great ones—embody, yes, but also transcend their ages. This is what makes them great. They are not merely reflective of the ideas or preoccupations of a certain people from a certain time in a certain place, but of the unchanging human heart as well. This is why people from other times and other places find them compelling. If the ideas of a particular age are particularly bad, this makes transcendence more difficult but not impossible.
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While we can lament the poverty of our modern age and attest, as Signorelli does, that the art of our age expresses this poverty, it is an error to reject particular formal inventions on the evidence of this rational link alone. The question is, then, does free verse only embody this “decadent” yearning for a personal freedom “severed from all obligation to tradition, nature, or rationality”? And if not, is what it does embody or allow to be expressed of any value?
I would argue that poets turned to free verse (or a precursor of free verse) for other reasons than a simple longing for individual freedom. Wordsworth’s attempt to use a selection of “common” diction in Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude is clearly a precursor of free verse. Reacting against Alexander Pope’s claim for a universal diction present in neo-classical poetry, Wordsworth incorporated elements of low diction in an effort to provide a more accurate representation of human nature. There is a higher and lower element to man, Wordsworth argued. We are both ethereal and earthy. And so he turned to lower diction, among other reasons, to balance what he understood to be the untruth of an overly stylized, ornate diction that ignored man’s fleshly nature and common diction.
We find a similar motive, surprisingly enough, in French surrealism. While there is a fair share of yearning for a “debased” autonomy in surrealism, the use of fractured syntax and absurd images was also motivated by a rejection of nineteenth-century positivism that tacitly reduced man to pure rationality—a point Marcel Raymond makes in his classic study De Baudelaire au surréalisme. The partial goal of both Wordsworth’s common diction and the surrealists’ free verse fragments is a more accurate representation of human experience as it is actually lived, not as it should be.
An example of the value of a free verse poem is helpful here. Yves Bonnefoy’s first book of poems was published in 1953. He was originally associated with the surrealists, but broke with Breton when he refused to sign “Rupture inaugurale.” While his earliest poems are marked by a certain ideological “militantism,” his work has been almost universally lauded since that first volume. This poem is entitled “A Bit of Water”:
I long to grant eternity
To this flake
That alights on my hand,
By making my life, my warmth,
My past, my present days
Into a moment: the boundless
Moment of now
But already it’s no more
Than a bit of water, lost in the fog
Of bodies moving through snow.
I have chosen this poem because, on the surface, it seems to illustrate Signorelli’s thesis. Here the poet longs “to grant eternity” to the snowflake on his hand by making it the subject of a poem. Bonnefoy, who is an indefatigable translator of Shakespeare, is no doubt alluding to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (and the many classical precedents) in which he proposes to grant his subject life after death in his “eternal lines.” In writing about the snowflake, however, the poet also hopes to grant himself eternity. After all, the snowflake is observed from his perspective. Thus, something of his own life attaches itself to the snowflake—which is wonderfully illustrated in the flake alighting on the poet’s hand—and passes with the snowflake in the poem into a “boundless / Moment of now.” The free verse embodies, as Signorelli would say, this longing for a boundless present, and the enjambment in line six and seven neatly captures this longing for boundlessness.
But here’s the rub: the snowflake melts before the poet can grant it and himself eternity. It has become “no more / Than a bit of water,” which, ironically, becomes the title of the poem. Here we have an acknowledgment that poetry—even free verse poetry—cannot save the flake from melting or the poet from the constraints of finitude. This is a fact that Shakespeare only acknowledges grudgingly in Sonnet 18. In the end, this is not a poem that misleads us into believing that we are autonomous individuals free from all constraints. Rather, it shows how we all long for such freedom, and how we can never possess it through our own power. The tension between the free verse and the repetition and closure (as well as the dichotomy of past and present, snow and “warmth”) of this poem expresses this twofold truth of human existence. Nor does this poem end in relativism, but in agnosticism. The poet knows these two things, but he leaves the question of what we are to do in light of them unanswered.
Does the structure of this poem embody a depraved desire to free the self from all constraints? Does it express an epistemological relativism? Is it marked by a paucity of truth? Is it an attack on the reader’s sensibilities and the “essential elements” of poetry? Is it marked by “a perfect indifference toward the telos of his art”? In other words, does it fail to teach and please?
The answer to all of these questions, I think, is clearly no. In fact, one could even argue that his poem is distinctly “incarnational,” embodying the meaning of the particular piece (the desire for an eternal present coupled with the recognition that such an eternal present cannot be brought about through poetry) in the flesh of the form.
All poetry is constrained in some way or another, and almost all so-called “modernist” poets recognized this. In 1942, T.S. Eliot stated famously that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” William Carlos Williams wrote that “Being an art form, verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles.” Williams himself experimented with what he called a “triadic line.” Even the staunchest of anti-formalists, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, cannot shake all formal constraints, as Paul Lake shows in his essay “The Enchanted Loom.” Internal rhymes, repetition, syntactic hierarchies, self-similarity, fractal scaling, and so forth assert themselves again and again. In fact, the impossibility of freedom from formal constraints is now so widely accepted it has become a truism—a fact Signorelli fails to mention.
In the end, Signorelli’s hasty rejection of free verse and idealization of traditional poetic forms oversimplifies how poetic forms develop and work. All forms are invented. Chaucer’s heroic couplet, Dante’s terza rima, Petrarch’s sonnet did not fall from the sky. They were created as these poets explored human experience in language, informed by their respective understandings of who we are and what there is. The development of traditional forms and free verse in English, as H.T. Kirby Smith has pointed out in The Origins of Free Verse, is much messier than is often acknowledged, by “organicists” and formalists alike.
Furthermore, in simply returning to traditional forms—which is what Signorelli seems to have in mind when he calls us to return to “formally structured, consecutively ordered verse”—without exploring current human experience in language, the poet runs the risk of becoming a grammarian, skilled in the technē of poetic forms but lacking in virtuous insight.
I, too, believe that contemporary poetry can be reinvigorated by an incorporation of meter and rhyme, but rather than simply rejecting free verse as immoral, a better solution would be for poets to open themselves up to the possibility of rhyme and meter, using it when appropriate as they explore language in search of new forms that communicate the truth of who we are and what there is to living individuals. After all, art is a communal act, and the artist must write poems that meet his own satisfaction but also serve his audience.