The topic of traditional verse forms comes up often in the poetry section over at the mywriterscircle.com. Questions like: Is formal poetry even valid today? Is it too hard for beginners? Should they avoid forms altogether or at least wait until they are more comfortable writing in general? The following is modified from a reply I posted to one of these topics.
A newer poet posted a rhyming poem. The rhymes were forced and the poem had no detectable metrical structure. One suggestion made was for the poet to abandon their attempt at rhyming verse and to focus on what they wanted to say. It was a thoughtful suggestion and presents an approach that may work for many. Another approach, and one I advocate, is to learn the building blocks of metrical verse through study and imitation. I think this approach will serve the poet throughout their life regardless of their intend to work in form or not.
Poetry evolved. It is a mistake to assume that at some magic point in time poets cast off their shackles and started writing ‘real’ poetry. It is equally a mistake to assume that the tools and techniques put to use effectively in the past are irrelevant to modern expression. Every poem, or at least every poem worth reading, has a form. The poet is creating a soundscape to carry their meaning and all the emotion appropriate (in the sense that it conforms to the poet’s intent) to it. Otherwise every utterance is a poem and all definition is pointless.
At a minimum we should agree that a poem tries to say something in a purposeful and specific way. That way is the poem’s form. Seen in this light, good free verse is not formless. Its form is organic. The idea that it is easier to write good free verse than in a traditional form is simply false.
There is a creative tension between the artist and their medium regardless of what that medium is. It’s kind of the “necessity is the mother of invention” idea. The problem in poetry of relying on what you have to say is that what most of us have to say is not all that earth-shattering. Worse than that, someone has certainly beat us to the punch. As poets we count on this. We are hoping for a connection. We want our words to resonate with the reader. What we can do, is say it in a way that is pleasing, that engages the readers senses, appeals to their common humanity, and makes them think. Uniqueness does not need to be forced. It is a given.
If a young poet is bending their content to fit a rhyme, the problem is not the rhyme, it’s more than likely a weakness of vocabulary or the creative faculty to rephrase exactly what they want to express in a manner that fits their medium. This effort is what forces the formal artist to get creative. I will add that the effort often drives the poet to examine their idea(s) intimately. The effort itself forces them to know what they want to say. I think it is in this sense that Winters viewed poetry as a form of discovery.
Young poets focused too heavily on just saying it run the serious risk of counting solely on moral judgements, political affiliations, and fashions of thought. Please don’t misunderstand, there are many talented people out there. Some with the such raw ability that they will find their voice regardless. But, if we are talking about young people of average genius, telling them that expression is enough and to ‘just go with it’ is destructive to them as artists and destructive to the art as a whole. Its effect on modern poetry can be read in reams and reams of agenda-based nonsense, sentimental drivel, and lowest-common-denominator sexualization that lost even its shock value decades ago.
I’ve known people in the visual arts. To a one, regardless of style, they have a strong foundational understanding of classical technique. This foundation is viewed as core competence and provides them with material for their own innovations. Musicians, if they are worth there salt, know at least some measure of theory. When it comes to poetry however many aspiring poets operate under the assumption that centuries of history and the evolution of their art can be dismissed. Self expression may be therapeutic and political expression may be socially valuable, but they are not art. They can be expressed through art and a poet that want to address the valid issues of their day to effect should know at least the foundational building blocks of what that art is.
Again. I’m not advocating everyone or anyone go back to writing sonnets (it won’t hurt), but I do think young people who want to be poets should know the history of their art and appreciate that at one time, the forms that are now considered staid and stale were once radical innovations capable of extreme emotional and rhetorical power. That these techniques can inform and enrich their own poems. And that the best way to express yourself effectively is to know how to speak. This means having all the tools of our literary heritage on our palettes whether we chose to use them in a particular work or not.