Verse Freed? But Freedom Comes With A Price!
English language poetry has been through several major revolutions in the last half a millennium, but not all the changes have been unequivocally good.
One critical change was the result of the introduction of the novel. Poetry was primarily narrative and had a substantial audience, at least partially because everyone loves stories. The novel stole its thunder. It was a more flexible story-telling genre, because it wasn’t constrained by the then formal restrictions of verse.
So poetry concentrated on the lyric form, the intense and passionate and brief expression of emotion, with which the novel couldn’t easily compete. But this had a smaller audience, and so meant less fame and fortune for the successful writer.
I’m now tempted to admittedly flawed comparisons to the changes in musical taste. So-called classical music became less popular as less demanding and less structured ‘pop’ music became available through radio and recordings, just as wider literacy and the relative ease of publishing and distributing contributed to the decrease of the popularity of poetry.
Another major poetic revolution was breaking the chains of formal accentual-syllabic verse structure, with the great American poet Walt Whitman leading the revolt. This actually increased the popularity of poetry (and the numbers of writers who chose it as their medium), but not enough to catch up with the novel.
The downside to this revolution was the idea that anyone could write this undemanding ‘free’ verse, and a lot was written that lacked the intensity possible by more attention to the sound , including rhythm, (required by conventional structures) that elevates poetry to the highest literary plane. Of course, the loosening of poetic ‘rules’ didn’t necessarily mean a decrease in attention to the sound component, and most of the best poets of the last hundred years wrote what might be called ‘free verse’, and were just as attentive to all the musical components of the poem as someone like Pope or Shakespeare. It was just structured in a new way, just as jazz is really quite structured, although it doesn’t follow such classical rules as the sonata allegro form.
So where is the revolution in poetry? The closest thing to an answer is spoken word poetry, but that’s really old hat. All poetry was spoken word until roughly five hundred years ago. It was the language of theatre! How a poem sounds remains of great importance.