Argument Three: Sensitivity to Word Properties

A sensitivity to words — meanings, connotations, past usages, etymologies, social registers, sound, vowel and stress patterns — is essential to poetry, and an important concern to the serious poet. But open / free verse forms do not necessarily make the task any easier, sometimes the opposite. Strict forms push words closer to each other, emphasizing the overall context in which words are heard and gain their power. That power needs careful handling, and to the extent that it can be misused, or not recognize at all, strict forms tend to make problems for beginners. But matters are reversed with experience, so that the many excellent poems being written in free form today are in some ways a greater accomplishment, given that the vast repertoire of devices to modify the properties of words, built up by four hundred years of metered verse, is unavailable to them.

Argument Four: Open Forms Reflect Contemporary Life

To some extent, no doubt, everyone finds life confusing, incomplete and unsatisfying. Why shouldn’t poetry reflect the fact? Robert von Hallberg: “On the other hand are those poets, whom I also admire, like Pound, Olson, and Ashbery who accept the inevitability of incoherence and let economy be damned. For these writers, a principle of coherence is negatively involved; one admires their work despite its moments of apparent incoherence, despite its lack of economy. In fact, incoherence and extravagance are signs that a poem is working at the edges of convention, straining for beauty and meaning that come without coherence.” {9}

It’s not difficult to make an incoherent poem. Blindfolded selection of words out of dictionary would do the job admirably (and has been resorted to). That the result would not detain us long, does suggest, however, that something more is needed: in this case selection, rearrangement and organization of the random words. And once we do this, however unconsciously, there enters purpose to our actions. Why? To what end? Emphasizing what features? The incoherence of our lives, feelings and reflections are not to be recreated by incoherent procedures, therefore, but by creations that highlight or reflect on that incoherence. That in turn means making things that are intelligible to us: themes, marshalled thoughts, syntax with some semblance of order. Art is not life as it comes, but inevitably some representation of life, and with that representation come rules or codes to read it by.

So: if the incoherence of life could be represented by incoherent confections of words, then open forms would win hands down, would indeed be the only way of proceeding. Unfortunately, the random remarks, catch phrases, snippets of articles, puns and like — the constituents of the playful and entertaining poems of Ashbery and others — do not come like leggo blocks with universal attachment points but need great craft to make into something worth reading.

We may indeed be creatures living in insecure expectations and generalities, but that is only one aspect of life, and one that becomes tiresome in less-gifted performers, perhaps even pointless. A self-satisfied and philistine bourgeoisie is not to be woken up by such tactics, given that they hardly read poetry, or not contemporary poetry. What we might ask for, as mankind as always looked for down the centuries, is an art that gives beauty and significance to their lives, which is indeed what the von Hallberg quote ends with: “beauty and meaning that come without coherence.”

Much depends what is meant by coherence, of course, which, as von Hallberg observes (contrary to The New Criticism), is never total in any work of art. Perhaps what is being urged, therefore, is a more generous and sensitive understanding, a coherence that makes greater sense of life in its many contemporary and confusing apparitions.


Just as no water-tight argument for traditional verse has ever been constructed, so many will feel that no justification is needed for free verse. The poems “work”. Readers enjoy them — as I do — and are suspicious of intellectual commentators, of their pretensions {11} and self-centered attitudes. Freshness and sensitivity to words are to be praised in any writer, and poets can surely find their own way. The pioneers of open forms indeed had no love for academia, and tended to make ad hoc explanations of their work as they went along, a strategy familiar to anyone who reads poetry manifestoes or art gallery catalogues.

While it’s not unusual to find editors of very different perspectives making similar selections of poems for a publication, that connoiseurship is acquired over many years of reading, which has been guided by some common beliefs. Many poets today have renounced traditional approaches, and their work is trivial or unintelligible unless we know what they are aiming at. And finally, though some literary commentators do believe that open forms are the only way forward, their critical expositions can be as limiting and/or suspect as any other. {12}

Perhaps the answer lies closer to home: the influence of cinema. Many poems in the twentieth century adopt cinematic devices that are common in novels: “The discontinuity of the Plot and the scenic development, the sudden immersion of the thoughts and moods, the relativity and the inconsistency of the time standards, are what remind us in the works of Proust and Joyce, Dos Passos, and Virginia Woolf of the cuttings, dissolves and interpolations of the film…” {13} Unattributed scenes appear and dissolve in Eliot’s Wasteland, cinematic effects of motion in William Carlos Williams {14}, colliding montages in Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore {15}, film reportage in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, {16} and so on — suggesting that it was not theory that won the day, but simple habit: we got used to their viewpoints.