Friday, April 18, 2008

The Tyranny of 'Free' Verse

This is bound to be an incomplete entry but I've been thinking about it so much I can't help myself. David sent me a link to a "Frequently asked questions about the business of verse" page for Slate magazine. At long last, critic Robert Pinsky explained:

"Why Don't Modern Poems Rhyme, Etc."

Whew! I am so relieved. I was really beginning to wonder why my verses seem so trivial and unimportant. All it took was a great critic like Pinsky to open my eyes to the truth. And, while I don't think I am quite up to being a 'jerk' (read the last part of the page) I do think I understand why, if it's the critics like Pinsky to whom I'd like to pander, I shouldn't even bother writing poetry unless it's in the modern canonical form of free verse.

But is the emperor actually wearing any clothes? I don't think so.

I don't think that the practice of taking (what may be) perfectly good prose and cutting it up with line breaks and odd punctuation in the interest of rendering it recondite ought to be considered a superior poetic form or even a particularly important development of the art itself. Instead, like so many other self-referential critical artistic 'successes', free verse is an illusion, or worse, a sham that has become,in just a few short years, a tyranny.

Because the constraints of meter and rhyme do, of course, necessarily limit the range of the poet's use of words, they are now perceived by critics like Pinsky as limiting factors to the expressive power of words. Somehow, it is thought that words, when arranged in a metrical structure that also happen to rhyme are trivialized and the result is 'light' verse, worthy of consideration only by 'jerks'. I disagree with this position because it seems counter-intuitive at best and downright elitist at worst.

It is counter-intuitive because it seems logical (to me anyway) that when structured carefully, words can create and strengthen the sense of resonance that a reader is perforce required to experience in the linear process that is reading. Attempts to potentiate the meaning of written or read words by breaking the bonds that connect them and allowing them to collide randomly are mere folly.

After all, reading is in itself a tyranny, so it seems silly to suggest the true meaning of words can be unleashed by the breaking of a few rules and by spattering them around like mere vessels for consonants and vowels. Perhaps certain words rhyme for a reason? Might there be connections between them that point to underlying resonances that defy time and place? Well, I know that's what I like in a good poem: "a sword upstairs".

As for the elitist position that the modern critic feels he must take up in defense of 'art', it is easy enough to beat up on someone for merely fitting into that category, since I too am an elitist. However, it is nonetheless only fair to say that critics like Pinsky are giving elitism a bad name. They'll ruin it for the rest of us unless we speak up and repudiate them as the corrupt and self-serving individuals that they are.

Yo Pinsky, I can see your ass.

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