Why “formal” verse?

This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all poetry is equal – indeed, that not all of it is even poetry. “Poetry” went off the rails in the 20th century for a variety of reasons – accidentally? suicidally? – but it is slowly getting back on track.

Chatterton

“The Death of Chatterton” – the poet died at 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose, trying to cure himself of venereal disease).

“Poetry – the best words in their best order,” said Coleridge. Aristotle says “rhythm, language and harmony,” and that it is the use of harmony that distinguishes poetry from the other language-based forms. “Harmony” again from Thomas Campion, talking of poetry as the “ioyning of words to harmony”. Ezra Pound rewrites Aristotle’s definition as “Poetry is a composition of words set to music”.

This requirement for “rhythm”, “harmony”, “music” is what has been missing from most of what people styled “poetry” through the last 50 years. But it never goes away from popular culture, because it lives in musicals, rock, c&w, rap, the chants of street protests, and the nursery rhymes and lullabyes sung to babies. It never goes away from popular culture, because it is deeply ingrained in all of us, beginning with the heartbeat that surrounds us before we are born.

And rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other tricks of formal poetry are not just some meaningless style: they are the hooks on which we hang our memory of the exact words. Ask anyone to recite a poem, and it will be a song, a nursery rhyme, or something else with strong formal elements to it. If you want something to be memorable – not in the sense of remembering the experience, but of remembering a text word for word – if it is anything more than a dozen words, it is far, far more easily remembered if it has rhythm and rhyme.

This blog argues that formal elements are essential to poetry. “Free verse” may be insightful, emotional, witty, descriptive (or, often, none of those), but it isn’t poetry. It’s prose.

 

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