Poetry vs Free Verse

Poetry vs Free Verse


a comparison

I take exception to free verse being called poetry since free verse lacks the restrictions of set meters and rhyme schemes, the two rules that distinguish poetry from free verse, and why free verse was given its name long ago to distinguish it from poetry. In addition to my poetry and lyrics, all of which have set meters and rhyme schemes, I write a little free verse. And though I love free verse, it’s not poetry. Magazines like the New Yorker and some practitioners of free verse erroneously refer to free verse as poetry and steadfastly use the adjective “classical” to describe poetry, as though they are trying to redefine poetry as free verse and require poetry to carry the moniker “classical”. Unless it is rhymed and metered, and metered properly with the correct syllables being emphasized, it’s not poetry.

Why then this misuse of the term? Free verse writers do not feel inferior to poets. Free verse writers are “poets” in the sense that they are creative people with rich imaginations and powers of artistic expression. Who cares if they do not fit the definition of poet as one who writes poetry? They surely do not. In fact the first creators of free verse were emphatic about distancing themselves from poets. They loved that free verse did not fit the constraints which define poetry and instead dispensed with set meters and rhyme schemes. Walt Whitman was happy in his freedom from rules he felt constricted his thought and expression. The results of the writings are what’s important; not the label. And yet certain folks persist in trying to push onto free verse some feeling of inferiority, or turn free verse writers into wanna be poets, when clearly they are not poets denotatively and have no wish to write poems. What’s so wrong with free verse that it has to co-opt poetry?

The magazine trying to sell subscriptions, the publisher trying to sell books, or the club owner trying to promote a poetry reading night, all have a vested financial interest in passing free verse off as poetry because it was and still is so much easier to use the tried and true term poetry than to build the new brand free verse from the ground up, easier to simply say that free verse is a “form” of poetry, though it is not. Free verse is not a form of poetry; poetry is not a form of free verse. To say that free verse is a form of poetry is as ludicrous as saying that poetry is a form of free verse. But if a manufacturer can get consumers to start calling margarine butter, they score a marketing coup. But butter is not margarine and margarine is not butter, and never will be. What’s so wrong with a free verse reading?

My lyrics are not poems, and cannot stand alone as poems, even though they have set meters and rhymes. They have a different sensibility than poetry. I could call them poems, but I’d be lying. I’m selling a book of poems and a separate book of lyrics. It would have been far easier, and more profitable, to sell my lyrics as poems, just dishonest. They are poetic, and far closer to poetry than free verse, but I would never call them poetry because they are not. Playing with a baseball or football using different rules or a different field would not make the sport baseball or football just because they use balls and are played on a field. Likewise just because free verse uses words and is written on a page does not make it poetry. It’s the rules that give sports their names, just as it’s the rules of meter and rhyme that give poetry its name, and following no rules that gives free verse its name. Just as the absence of the rules of poetry makes free verse what it is, so the presence of rules makes poetry what it is. They are two different forms of writing with two different names yielding two different results.

The freedom allowed the free verse writer is limitlessness. The constraints put upon the writer of poetry are repressive. It takes more time to comply with the severe restrictions of meter and rhyme, and so more time must be spent contemplating the subject matter or hypothesis, more time to question what one is trying to say exactly. A free verse writer may or may not spend as much time, and both may spend lots of time, but a poet must take the time required to comply with meter and rhyme while a free verse writer need not. In poetry, feelings and thoughts must fit constraints, and so are analyzed over and over. One must dwell longer on the topic of the poem and the sentiment of each line just to comply with the restrictions. Free verse writers, on the other hand, are free to spend that time considering feelings and thoughts without constraint. Free verse writers are free to seek better words and more fitting phrases rather than waste time or throw away perfect phrases in pursuit of meter and rhyme. Free verse writers then are more likely to hit the nail on the head since there is nothing to constrain them. Free verse writers can use all of their time to accurately saying what they want. The result is a different form and a different sensibility.

The reader of poetry is prepared to consider the constraints and to revel in the triumphs over meter and rhyme, the heard rhythm and repetitive lyricality of the words in meter, and the anticipation of a rhyme where and when it must occur. The reader of free verse is prepared to go wherever the writer may take them, however the writer may take them. Poetry is like marches and rock and country and big band swing while free verse is like bebop and classical music.

Just as the absence of rules makes free verse what it is, so the presence of rules makes poetry what it is. They are two different forms of writing with two different names yielding two different results with different sensibilities, thankfully.

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