Perhaps the single most famous saying about free verse is Robert Frost’s curmudgeonly observation that writing it is like “playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, as an artistic task it fails to challenge; there is, in essence, no game, at least not one worth playing. Although Frost displayed modernist tendencies of some kinds, he never accepted free verse, one of the hallmarks of modernist poetry. It is to be expected that a poet like Frost, whose work embodies the persistence of the accentual-syllabic tradition in English, would be displeased, even disoriented, by the widespread acceptance of free verse in his lifetime. One senses his exasperation as, writing the introduction to a very traditional verse romance—E.A. Robinson’s King Jasper (1935)—Frost catalogs the ruins of modernism.
The old way to be new no longer served. Science put it into our heads that there must be new ways to be new. Those tried were largely by subtraction—elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It was tried without any images but those to the eye.
Frost simply could not understand why anyone would bother writing free verse, but still they did, and so a question presented itself with some urgency: after the widespread defection of poets from fixed or inherited forms, how would they go about organizing poems? Poetry still must be written, but how, exactly? Where are the starting points? And what are the goals? What tactics will permit a poet to lend meaningful form to a poem without recourse to established strophic, metrical patterns?
In Missing Measures, Timothy Steele points out that a strong-minded band of free verse pioneers in English—Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot foremost among them—never envisioned free verse as a means by which to abandon form, jettison technique, or turn entirely away from the past. Rather, those involved held that free verse allows the rare genius, one who has internalized centuries of poetic technique, to realize infinite new forms, what some critics have called “discovered forms,” as if they had been there all along, in the Platonic manner, waiting to be revealed. The age called for new techniques, but no one knew quite what the ideal free verse poem might look like. As Jacques Barzun suggested in his essay “The Bugbear of Relativism,”
“Anything goes” has been proclaimed in the fine arts. The absolute freedom of the creator, axiomatic for over a century, has produced masterpieces that demonstrate the value of the ever-new. But since original genius is not given to every artist, much spiritless contriving masquerades as innovation.
Much as poets may like to pose as vatic singers, most still feel obliged to create a persuasive beginning, middle, and ending to a poem as well as engineer a texture or tone that will set it apart from others. One impediment to this ideal is the fact that, as H.T. Kirby-Smith put it in his book The Origins of Free Verse,
we have a naive organicism—frankly egoistic, romantic, and personal—that looks to the nature of the poets and builds on Coleridge’s idea, anticipated by certain eighteenth-century theorists, of organic form. Not only is the poem’s form a natural and concomitant growth with the poem’s substance, but both are projections of the poet.
Stephen Burt, who teaches contemporary poetry at Harvard University, remarked in correspondence with the present author that the subject of pattern in free verse is nothing less than the “largest topic in modern poetics.”
As Paul Fussell memorably put it during the Cold War, “we will want to be aware that free has approximately the status it has in the expression Free World. That is, free, sort of.” Although it may make use of elements of formal prosody—meter that comes and goes like the ladies in “Prufrock,” for instance—most free verse since the 1950s strenuously avoids even the poorest vestiges of Victorian prosody. This is partly due to the fact that, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith wrote in her book Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End,
it is difficult to produce or discover a definition of “free verse” that embraces all its acknowledged varieties, that can be stated in positive terms which do not amount merely to a celebration of artistic liberation, and that allows us to distinguish it from, rather than simply oppose it to, other more conventional forms.
Many strategies have emerged to cope with the open field of free verse, several of them before Frost was even born. When moving away from oppositional definitions—free verse is non-metrical, non-strophic—one is confronted with such a vast array of possibilities and examples that it is necessary to summarize and, at times, simplify them for the sake of argument. The possibilities are staggering, but one must begin somehow.