Register Monday | December 9 | 2019

Verse Versus Verse

Formal poetry makes a supposed comeback

Poets, like whores, are only hated by each other.     -William Wycherley

There’s been much chatter in the Canadian foothills of Parnassus lately about so-called formal poetry and the supposed comeback it’s making in our fair land. More poets appear to be turning to traditional “closed” poetic forms or variants thereof; Jana Prikryl, in a recent issue of Books in Canada, called stridently for a qualified “ban on free verse”; Internet discussion boards have been lighting up with fierce debate on the relative merits and demerits of formal and free verse; the past year has seen reissues of collections by Peter Van Toorn, Anne Wilkinson and Irving Layton; Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve are hard at work editing an anthology of Canadian “form poetry.” If this keeps up, David Solway will have to look for some new foreign object to cram down his craw.

While in some respects it’s encouraging to see so much interest in poetics and refreshing to see spirited challenges to the dominant heterodoxy of vers libre, I have to say the whole thing kind of makes me cringe. For one thing, the terminology is next to meaningless. “Formal poetry” is a redundancy, since poetry is by definition a formal arrangement of words; even poetry with an “informal” or conversational tone cannot be without form. No form = no poetry. Simple. Or, as Eliot said, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” Or, better yet, Chesterton: “Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.” On the flip side, a patterned structure of regular metre and rhyme is no guarantee of poetic form, much as putting a snappy suit on a mannequin doesn’t make it Olivia Newton John. At the risk of having a vat of boiling oil come screaming down on me, it’d be just as easy to write opaque L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-type poetry in metrical rhyming quatrains as in the free verse of Erin Moure or the prose paragraphs of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

I could perhaps be accused of semantic nitpicking on the above point, but if so it’s because the terms are as hazy and overlapping in this as in any ideological or theological conflict. At any rate, lack of perspicuity is the least of my qualms on this topic. What bugs me more is the with-us-or-agin-us Manichaean dualism that characterizes much of the debate. A lot of folks seem to be throwing their lot in with the serried or not-so-serried ranks of one armed camp or another, prepared for mortal combat with their heretical Saracen foe. To simplify (because that’s what’s going on most of the time), the libertines dismiss anything that rhymes or exhibits a regular beat as old-fashioned, fusty, obsolete, while the scions of metrical order deride free verse as sloppy, prosaic, artless--tennis sans net, to paraphrase Frost.

I’ve heard some advocates of untrammelled verse argue, in a Darwinian vein, that their chosen mode is an evolutionary development, and therefore superior to the constricted forms that preceded it. This is an argument that betrays a deeply flawed understanding not only of the history of poetry (free verse in English being as old, at least, as the King James Bible), but also of evolutionary mechanics, in which progress, if it occurs at all--which is far from a given--involves a lot of messy sidetracks, slide-backs and culs-de-sac, and tends to move, with few exceptions, at a glacial pace.

Ecology is also often analogized with free verse, which some of its practitioners deem more “natural” than its artificially corseted cousin. But this has more to do, in most cases, with what feels natural to the writer than with what is actually mimetic of natural patterns, which are remarkably often regular, symmetrical and quantifiable by mathematical formulae. The American critic Paul Lake has written a very persuasive and well-informed essay elucidating this position.

Another misinformed and unfortunate analogy--put forward more often, it would seem, by the emancipators--is the association of free verse and formal verse with political leftness and rightness respectively. This is just stupid. Such an ideological marriage could easily be “proved” by looking at the politics and poetics of certain individual poets, but there are far too many cases that could “prove” the precise opposite. The example of Irving Layton does nicely to illustrate my point. Much of his more socialist verse was penned in closed forms, while a lot of his bellicose Zionist poems of the 1970s were composed in vers libre. The revolutionary poetics of Pound and Eliot certainly don’t seem to have done much to moderate their reactionary political views. Milton Acorn, one of our most renowned poets of the political left, published entire volumes of sonnets. (He was also rabidly anti-abortion, which goes to show, along with the Layton example above, that the left/right dichotomy is as misleading and oversimplified as this question of free/formal.) In short, there’s really nothing inherently elitist or populist about any particular poetic modus operandi.

All the ballyhoo over the rejuvenation of formal verse obscures an important fact: it never really went away, and the period of its official disfavour has not been very long at all. It’s probably true that most of what has been recognized as the best poetry over the last few decades has been, for the most part, one variety or another of free verse. But to see this favouring of vers libre over formalism as reflective of actuality is to attribute more to the tastemakers and cultural mandarins of the day than is their due. And even so, such “formalists” as P. K. Page and Margaret Avison have hardly suffered critical or popular neglect as a result of their old-fashioned praxis.

Canada’s curmudgeon laureate, David Solway, has decried, in no uncertain terms, Al Purdy’s seminal role in the propagation of “Standard Average Canadian” poetic diction and the loosely structured anecdotal poetry in which it is deployed. And it may well be that Purdy has had such a nefarious influence; other critics have noted the “impoverished style” of most published Canadian verse. But to pillory Al for that is like blaming Jesus Christ for fundamentalist Christian dogma. Purdy was well schooled in, and had a healthy respect for, prosody and poetic tradition. He tried his hand at formal verse early in his career, but he was, to put it baldly, bad at it. (Interestingly, his 1965 sestina “The Madwoman on the Train” was deemed worthy of inclusion in the Norton anthology Modern Poems, but didn’t meet with his own approval when setting the text for his Collected Poems.) The style he eventually developed was not a hick repudiation of metre and rhyme, but a recognition of what worked for him, a fraught negotiation with poetry itself. As Dennis Lee and others have recognized, Purdy’s “polyphonic” free verse was informed by his wide reading of more formal work. He hailed Irving Layton as “a poet as close to genius as any alive”; late in his career, he co-authored a book of criticism (albeit of an informal variety) on John Donne; and a few years before leaving us for good he heralded Steven Heighton, whose work displays a significant formalist bent, as “maybe the best” writer of his generation. In short, he wasn’t encumbered by the bloody-minded prosodic prejudice that combatants in the form/freedom war display with so little apparent shame.

It’s not as though bad poetry would disappear if only all writers revised heavily and were more disciplined in the shaping of their verse. A great deal of Solway’s own doggerel puts the lie to that bogey. The simple fact is that poetasters are legion in every age and since they are frequently the most zealous of impresarios, their work and that of their untalented brethren also often receives the greatest plaudits. Very little of such verse, no matter how well received in its own time, survives beyond it, unless animated by the anti-genius of supreme awfulness, as in the case of McGonagall. (Who remembers who won the Governor General’s award in 1973?) For all of his self-vaunted schooling in the traditions of poetry, Solway betrays a wilful ignorance of poetic history. He’s whining about the same sort of thing that Juvenal did in his first Satire and Pope did in his “Epistle to Arbuthnot.” It’s as great a waste of time and energy now as it ever was, even when the ranter’s judgment is sound.

The terms of the formalism vs. free verse debate obscure a great deal more than they reveal and anyone who buys into them is automatically suspect. Methodology can never fully account for the power of great poetry. As Emily Dickinson put it, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” The formation of schools has a lot more to do with strategic positioning, in solidaristic wagon-circling fashion, than with the solitary pursuit of truth, originality and excellence that has always produced the most memorable poetry. Fortunately, the limitations of the debate seem to be recognized by the genuine poets at work today in Canada. These include, to name a few, senior poets (Page, Avison, Coles), poets in mid-career (Clarke, Heighton, Bowling) and relative newcomers (Babstock, O’Meara, Solie). For these poets, “open” and “closed,” “free” and “formal” are not mutually exclusive opposites, but complementary options; their free verse is carefully controlled and their formal verse spontaneously unpredictable. They see not a choice of allegiances, but a range of possibilities. They are of their time and for all time; their focus is local, their appeal global. In short, they’re doing what poets have always done, giving form to chaos through language.

Ultimately, how a poem is built is irrelevant. All we need ask of it, to poach a quote from Mavis Gallant about the short story, is, “Is it dead or alive?” Nothing else is worth a tinker’s dam.