Arts, classical, contemporary, creative writing, E. Cummings, Free verse, John Keats, Kenneth Goldsmith, literature, meter, modernism, New Formalism, Poetry, Postmodernism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Reading, rhyme, Richard Wilbur, sonnets, traditional, verse
As Filianism and traditionalism go hand in hand, this is the first of a series of future commentaries and comparisons that I will be making on the expression of traditional, modern, and postmodern attitudes in everything from architecture to fashion. Today I will be discussing these world view attitudes in how they relate to poetry, with a focus on formal poetry vs. free verse.
My first memorable exposure to the blatant disdain of traditional poetry happened in the Creative Writing class I took as a senior in high school. Poetry was the first subject we covered in that class, and the teacher handed out a packet full of poetry from all different eras, ranging from the sonnets of the 1600’s to contemporary poetry. We read over one of the Shakespearean sonnets as a class and when we had finished, the teacher said, “Do you know what I think of this? It’s crap. Flowery, lyrical crap.” He made the same statements about John Keats and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Crap, crap, crap. Don’t you dare write rhyming poetry like this in my class.” We continued into the modernist and postmodernist movements, where his criticisms of the poets were a little less harsh. For example, “E.E. Cummings may rhyme in some of his poems, but look at his creative use of ignoring the rules of capitalization and punctuation, indenting his lines in a haphazard manner, random spacing of words…genius!”
However, my former Creative Writing teacher’s prejudicial attitude toward traditional poetry is quite common, especially amongst literary professors of higher education. Most publishers of poetry books will not even consider publishing your poem if it follows traditional conventions. The rationale? Some say that traditional poetry is “boring” and “out-dated”, others go so far as to complain that formal writing conventions are “oppressive” (Contemporary poetry critics never consider that their close-minded rejection formal writing conventions and the writers who still use them is quite oppressive itself, from a traditionalist’s perspective).
Let’s take a look at modern and postmodern free verse poetry and the mindset behind it. Free verse came into vogue during the 20th century with the emergence of the modernist movement. This should be of no surprise, as society continued to move further and further from a traditional worldview. The modernist movement, in poetry as well as literature as a whole, was marked by the trend of rejecting distinctions between low and high art and rigid distinctions between genres while embracing concepts like ambiguity, fragmentation, and discontinuity. This worldview is best exemplified in poetry by E.E. Cumming’s “The Grasshopper”, which consists of gibberish that is both unattractive and difficult to read:
The postmodernist world view followed on the heels of modernism, leading to a collapse of societal order and culture. This postmodern worldview in poetry gained ground during the 1960’s, when its influence extended far beyond art forms. Postmodern poetry, like modern poetry, does not “flow” in the same way that traditional poetry does. It is often difficult to read out loud and is full of strange uses of nontraditional grammar and syntax, as in the following post modern poem by Kenneth Goldsmith:
e2 the new york times, tuesday, september 11, 2001arts abroad
Continued From First Arts Page
On Islam, Mr. Houellebecq went still further, deriding his estranged mother for converting to Islam and proclaiming that, while all monotheistic religions were “cretinous,” “the most stupid religion is Islam.” And he added: “When you read the Koran, you give up. At least the Bible is
very beautiful because Jews have an extraordinary literary talent.” And later, noting that “Islam is a dangerous religion,” he said it was condemned to disappear, not only because God does not exist but also because it was being undermined by capitalism.
At first glance, modernism and postmodernism follow the same set of values. In poetry, both shun traditional lyrical verse and rhyme in favour of disorganized free verse. However, they do differ from one another in a couple of aspects. Dr. Mary Klages summarizes the differences between the two ideologies in the following passage:
“Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn’t lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning then, let’s just play with nonsense.”
A reflection of the late Kali Yuga age, I believe?
Modern and postmodern poets threw off the “oppressive chains” of meter and rhyme, of tradition and all that accompanies it, in favour of slavery to rebellion. In my opinion, it is one matter to produce unique, original poems, but it is an entirely different matter to produce unique, original poems solely for the sake of uniqueness and originality, regardless of the increasingly ridiculous measures relying on shock value that must be enployed to produce a “unique” work. Contemporary poetry critics complain of the “contrived” nature of rhyme, but fail to see that forcing originality, an obvious pitfall of much contemporary work, can just as easily be labeled as “contrived”.
On the other hand, traditional poetry makes use of formal rhyme schemes and meter to produce a smooth, lyrical sound when the poem is read aloud. The traditional poem is pleasant both in appearance and in sound, its words do not skip all over the page or form an incoherent jumbled mess, and its thoughts are coherently expressed. A properly written traditional poem (one that follows formal poetry rules yet does not use language that seems contrived or forced to fit the rhyme scheme) is much more difficult to create than the free verse popular in contemporary poetry circles, as one must think not only of the concepts and meanings being expressed through the poem’s words but also the harmonious combination of syllables to create a work that not only appeals to the visual senses by reading it, but also to the auditory senses by listening to it. The traditional poem, therefore, is beautiful on a myriad of levels, and is therefore of a higher form of art than the contemporary free verse poem.
During my research for this piece, I did discover that there is a small contemporary movement in poetry called “New Formalism”, advocating for a greater respect for formal poetry. Although the current mainstream culture’s overwhelming disdain for all things traditional and formal is likely to stay in vogue, the fact that a reactionary movement like New Formalism exists at all shows that not every poet buys into the postmodern argument. Richard Wilbur, a contemporary poet who writes formal poetry, addresses how he creates his poems while debunking the popular view of how formal verse stifles creative thought:
“It’s always a matter of sensing that something wants to be said, something of which, as yet, I have a very imperfect knowledge, and letting it start to talk, and finding what rhythym is wants to come out in, what phrasing seems natural to it…In any case, the line lengths declare themselves organically as they do, I suppose, for a free verse poet. The difference between me and a free verse poet is simply that I commit myself to the metrical precedents which my first lines set.”
To me, that doesn’t sound like the experience of a writer suffering from the restrictive constraints of formal verse and rhyme.