Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Kevin Hughes on Free Verse

'Free Verse' and Punctuation

I have some beef with the popularity of so-called ‘free verse’ poetry. Whether that beef lies more with the naivety of its practitioners or with the form itself, I am undecided. Either way, the central problem is that its existence and popularity is due, in part, to something of a misnomer, and the result is that whole swaths of poets, new and experienced, stymie their own creativity through its overuse. For that matter, poetry as a species of art has suffered due to its overuse.

For the poets I have in mind, punctuation amounts to little more than a necessary evil, and its sparse appearance in poetry today, excluding maybe the comma, attests to poet’s indifference toward or outright dislike for it. Along with traditional forms, the presence of punctuation within the poem is believed to handcuff the variety and liberality (i.e. the free expression of creativity) of both the artist and the interpreter. Forget the use of periods and semicolons, they say; punctuation in free verse poetry carries the same burdens as traditional forms. When we (the free verse poets) do use punctuation, it’s only the comma, and even that we only do so reluctantly—knowing that without it the reader gets bogged down. The overuse of the comma, or even the mere presence of a period or a question mark, drags the skeleton out of the dirty, old coffin to put on display. Leave tradition where it belongs: dead and in the ground with Tennyson and Byron.

Poets who consciously operate with this mindset are the ones I have in mind. They are like that well-meaning atheist freshman sitting in the front row of her first 101 religion class: eager to reject the Judeo-Christian morals and values of her upbringing without realizing that the rejection itself is only possible, is in fact the manifestation of, the emphasis of particular aspects of those morals and values in the absence of all of the others. She hasn’t quite figured out yet that ‘you shouldn’t sleep around if you’re in a committed relationship’ is the 21st century American version of ‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife’. Just like the contemporary poet, she hasn’t quite realized that while her criticisms may be merited, they are incomplete.

I think it’s important to pause and point out that this thought process is rare. Thought processes in humans are rare in general and particularly rare in poets—who believe, rightly, that thoughts get in the way of words. The poets I’ve known (not that there are many in rural PA) rarely think about what they're doing at all. They just borrow the methods of their predecessors, unconscious of their own aesthetic. But even if ignorance is bliss, it is still optional. Two minutes into e.e. cummings, for example, is all it takes to recognize that he is cognizant of what he’s doing, and, moreover, part of what’s impressive about cummings’ writing is his cognizance. The same is true of, say, W.B. Yeat’s use of form. And yet, your average contemporary ‘it was weird watching my mom come to realize that she is a lesbian’ poet isn’t thinking like this--or perhaps at all. With a flourish of unconscious irony, she conforms to the nonconformists’ nonconformity.

I think part of the problem is that for today’s poets, the rejection of form—or punctuation in our case—is, or at its advent appeared to be, the final poetic achievement. The Form of the forms was not the Good—as Plato would have it—but the formless. The best punctuation was no punctuation, or the absolute minimum. When meaning is caged in by commas, periods, and question marks, interpretation is susceptible to old, overused, and oppressive tropes and sentence structures. Poetic invention itself is limited. The reduction of poetry to its minimal symbols (i.e. letters and line breaks) omits tradition’s prescriptivist and formalist tendencies. You can’t tell me where to end a sentence or a clause any more than you can tell me when to emphasize a syllable—not, anyway, without restricting my creative freedom. 'Free verse' begins to dominate the poetical landscape and, in almost indecipherable increments, each generation of ‘free verse’ poets grows less and less aware of why they even use it. 

Somewhere in that history the period dies alongside iambic pentameter because both are examples of creative limitation. New doorways of poetical achievement can’t be attained if we’re imprisoned by an old way of speaking. We know now, or Wittgenstein has taught us, that the limitations of structural and verbal prescriptivism betray a naive view of language. Every 7th grade English grammarian teaches his students nothing about the English language; he only barks on about English convention.

Ultimately, I think that the ‘free verse’ usurpation of traditional forms and punctuation in English poetry was fundamentally insightful, if still fundamentally naive. Though it’s true that prescriptivist and formalist tendencies in early poetry ‘held poetry back’, so to say; it’s equally true that the neglect of punctuation or form, or both, is itself demonstrably not free.

At bottom, the question we are asking is whether free verse can endure the limitations of punctuation and/or form without sacrificing its creative options. Is free verse actually imprisoned when its words come up against the prison bars of a question mark or a comma? Do form and punctuation hinder poesis?

This is a lot like asking why the Sistine Chapel ceiling should be limited to the dimensions of the Sistine Chapel building. It’s even more like asking why a triangle must be limited to having only three sides: the answer, put simply, is that a thing is only what it is precisely because of its limitations. The irony (or tragedy, if you prefer) of the popularity of 'free verse' poetry is that it isn’t free verse at all. It isn’t being what it supposedly is. It’s a square posing as a triangle: valuable in its own right but not a triangle. It's a misnomer that’s widely used for, as far as I can tell, one of three reason: 1) it’s easier to write and to learn how to write, 2) it fosters creative freedom, and 3), everybody else is doing it. The third in that list is especially true. Poetical debutants write free verse for the same reason a child picks his dad’s favorite basketball team. It’s all he knows. But by denying poets the freedom of including— at random, even— an instance of punctuational insight, a line of iambic pentameter, or even some as-of-yet-undiscovered syntactic or linguistic limitation, free verse poetry is only posing as free verse.

Okay fine, but this is just mincing words; free verse doesn’t mean free verse. So what? Didn’t we already establish that Webster’s prescriptivism betrays a naive view of language? Why apply it now? The meaning of a word, we remember, is its use. I agree. If the use of the moniker ‘free verse’ merely designated a type poetry that utilizes line breaks and sparse punctuation—or even arbitrary line breaks and excessive punctuation—then I would be content with this use. But this isn’t the use: it’s used, especially by new poets, to designate that form of poetry which is non-traditional, anti-form, and contra-conventional. Poets sitting in MLA seminars around the country consider free verse the formless, untethered poetical form, and often imagine this ‘fact’ a good enough reason to neglect the poetry of the predecessors of ‘free verse’ like Shakespeare and Byron.

What then, should the idea be to create a form that omits all forms and punctuation? This, like before, is a lot like saying that we should remove the Sistine Chapel building to make room for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s probably not the best idea. You can't have a recognizable version of the one without the other. Too many of our artists fail to realize that a necessary condition of freedom is the access to limitation— a fact as true of life as it is of poetry. If the final poetical achievement lies with providing the poet with every creative option, limitation must be one of those options.

Take the ironic existence of line breaks so common to free verse poetry today. Their use betrays exactly the type of naivety I have in mind. Why bother having line breaks if not to force the reader to pause, however briefly, before moving to the next line? Aren’t line breaks vestiges of something older and, perhaps, wiser— the idea that the full length of the page doesn’t lend itself to emphasis in the way that concision lends itself to emphasis? Aren’t line breaks limitations that serve a function in the same way that, say, the limitations of the sonnet serve a function?

For that matter, even the space placed between two individual words is, as Koine Greek shows, itself a choice (however unconscious) that forces the poet and the interpreter into a way of writing and reading that is itself ‘conventional’ to the way of writing the English language. To the poet, the purpose of a space’s inclusion between two words has an equal, if opposing, function to its absence between two words: the former is clarity and ease and the latter is obfuscation and difficulty. Don’t we already know that both can serve the poet?

In other words, 'free verse' poetry cherry-picks line breaks and the occasional piece of punctuation from tradition and naively imagines itself free from that tradition. This is actual, empirical, anachronistic nonsense. Free verse isn’t antithetical to tradition or even meta-traditional; it’s entire identity is contingent on the tradition that started its line breaking, punctuation-having limitations. Free verse isn’t non-traditional: it’s piecemeal tradition.

What’s more, the bulk of today’s poetical debutantes borrow this artistic framework unconsciously and try to express new dimensions of poetical insight while enduring, unconsciously, the very creative limitations they believe to be freeing. Free verse is a linguistic prison so obscure and complete that its practitioners grimace in disgust or confusion at the work of, say, John Keats in the same breath that they praise the work of Charles Bukowski. And yet, both are geniuses precisely because they knew what they were doing with the given limitations they set themselves.

But wait, isn’t all this blather little more than a defense of avant garde poetry over and against free verse poetry? Not really. While avant garde poets dabble more in what 'free verse' might mean more if we took its definition more literally, there’s a very real sense in which the avant garde writer ignores, if not altogether avoids, traditional poetry, too. To be and to revel in the unorthodox or radical means to neglect or, more accurately, to reject that which is orthodox and traditional. But what I’m suggesting is subtler than free verse and avant garde; what I’m suggesting is something closer to what T.S. Eliot says about the total conversation of art occurring over time: that instead of rejecting orthodoxy, we create a neo-orthodoxy through new combinations of orthodoxy.

Like Eliot, I do not believe that poetry, or any art, occurs in a vacuum. The comma, too, we must remember, was an invention. The old voices and methods sneak their way into the new voices and methods (lousy or masterful) simply by virtue of having existed. The words, syntax, punctuation, and forms poets use (or neglect) today are older than the poets themselves, and it’s the neo-combinations (or neo-neglect) of those things which are overused and worn out that generate something new. Specifically, our up-and-coming poets could find the addition, even aggressive addition, of punctuation to their poetry freeing. No more of this ‘necessary evil’ nonsense. No more line breaking to let the reader catch their breath; consider the advantages of drowning. Turn punctuation and form from a necessary evil into an exercise in poetical neo-orthodoxy.

Of course, none of what I have to say here would matter if free verse poetry were only a subgenre of poetry. It would amount to little more than a misnomer practiced by a few, and what poetical insights that group had would be cherished for their own sake. But a misnomer practiced by the majority and, moreover, adopted by nearly every novice poet, generates legions of poets using squares when they think they’re using triangles. It creates legions of poets wholly and unequivocally naive to the one-dimensionality of their own aesthetic.

But I want more from poetry. Every poet who deserves the name wants more. Part of what it means to be a poet is to obsessively search out the as-of-yet undiscovered openings into reality. Poetic achievement amounts to turning the doorknob of words and having to brace from the brightness of the new sun waiting on the other side. Free verse helps and has helped us do this for a century now; but it is time to move onto new doorknobs and other suns.

- Kevin Hughes’s poetry and essays explore the cross-pollination of the subjects he teaches in college: English, philosophy, and religion. He holds an M.A. in philosophy and religion from The University of Pennsylvania and lives in East Earl with his wife and three children. Contact:  

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