Why Formal Meter?

As a matter of personal taste (which shouldn’t threaten or upset anyone—and yet this one often does), I find poetry written in formal English meter much more beautiful than what is written in free verse. Not bad meter, mind you—I much prefer expressive free verse to sloppy, negligent, and unexamined attempts at poetry—but poetry of the kind written by Shakespeare and Spenser, Johnson and Donne, Dryden and Pope. It is a kind of poetry not much celebrated today—or for the past century—and is often dismissed as “artificial.” But for my part, I find it to be no more artificial than free verse; although I do find a lot more artifice in it, and consequently, delight.

Good metrical poetry has a rhythm that is not only recognized but felt; done well, this gives a poem a kind of power common to music. Most free verse, in contrast, lacks such rhythm (although it depends upon the poet: poets like Walt Whitman and T.S. Elliot did not disdain rhythm, but rather sought alternative rhythms; but many other poets since Elliot have nearly abandoned rhythm). Occasionally an alternative rhythm is offered (as in the poetry of Billy Collins); and other times a bit of free verse manages a different type of music, but more like a toccata instead of a sonata. But I prefer an established rhythm—and all the variations, and deviations that are only meaningful (or even possible) against the background of a standard.

The standards, or rules, of formal English meter may seem like limitations to many partisans of free verse; but to the formal poet these “limitations” are the essence of poetry, distinguishing it from prose, and instead of stifling expression, they contribute to its production. For example, if I choose to write a sonnet, I immediately conjure up a context (most sonnets, and the Petrarchan sonnet in particular, are on the theme of love; although another common theme for sonnets is mortality); and that context contributes to the meaning. If I choose to write in anapestic instead of iambic meter, my poem becomes imbued with a different energy and levity. Meanwhile I have so many choices available to be both between forms and between content for a given form that I in no way feel “limited” in my expression. Complaining about the “limitations” strikes me as complaining about people choosing to color within the lines in their coloring book; but if you want to color outside the lines, then please, at least don’t insist that others agree that it’s just as pretty (or pretty in a better way).

Writing in the context of these rules also joins the writer to a community of other writers, including not only the living but also the long dead. It is an acknowledgement of others’ participation in your creative work. Meanwhile most free verse that I have read (mostly through college books) seems to me to resent this community—so interested are its practitioners in their own individualism. Whether this social atomization and spirit of rebellion is fundamental to free verse is debatable; but it is at least dominant throughout its history.

Meanwhile, on a personal creative level, I find myself much more capable of writing poetry in meter than in free-form (or formlessness). Often, after wrestling with different phrases, I finally determine my meter, and suddenly the poem starts to come alive. Meanwhile I can’t write a thing in free verse—because everything I write just appears to me as pretentious prose. Now I admit that not all free verse it pretentious prose (in fact I rather like the work of Billy Collins); but much of it is quite indistinguishable from prose, except that its author has chosen to designate it as poetry and write it in short lines and/or fragments. Anyway, I leave it to others with a sense of free verse to write free verse; all my ability is to be found in writing meter.

But none of this answers the question so well as a few examples of the real thing. Read a poem like “The Raven” or “Once Upon a Time”—two poems with extraordinarily different feels to them, but both written with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables—and ask yourself if either could work without such music to them. You’ll find that in both the metrical pattern adds a substance and a vitality to them that would otherwise be absent. That’s what writing in formal meter is about.

Of course, not everyone has the same taste; and I realize that I am now in the minority. Why this is the case is a long story (a good explanation to it is given in the book Missing Measures, by Timothy Steele); but I think a good summary is that people no longer understand formal meter—its mechanisms, construction, and effective use. In colleges a music major can learn how to compose Classical music; but it is a rare literature major who learns the same of formal English meter (results at your local college may vary—maybe you are lucky enough to have Timothy Steele as a professor).

But formal poetry is not dead, and I hope I can encourage its continued expression and growth. And I hope many of you will, too.


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