Poems need some supporting structure, and that in turn requires a decision: should you go for free verse or tackle the more demanding traditional forms?

Discussion

Metre is a systematic regularity in rhythm. It creates and organises content, giving emphasis to words or elements that would otherwise escape attention: the tighter the metre, the more expressive can be small departures from the norm. Metre gives dignity and memorability, conveys tempo, mood, the subtle shifts in evidence, passion and persuasion beyond what is possible in prose. In the hands of great master like Shakespeare, metre provides grace, energy, elevation, expressiveness and a convincing approximation to everyday speech.

Conventional English verse is usually (and confusedly) described in a terminology deriving from classical prosody — i.e. as iambic, trochaic, dactylic and anapaestic. For contemporary practice it may be better to consider metre under two headings: whether the syllables or the stresses are being counted, and whether these counts are fixed or variable.

Accentual verse has fixed counts of stress but variable syllables. Syllabic verse has fixed counts of syllables regardless of stresses. Accentual-syllabic is conventional metre, with both stress and syllables (more or less) fixed.

Accentual verse is found in popular verse, ballads, nursery rhymes, songs and doggerel. Syllabic verse as exemplified by the French alexandrine is not strictly metrical, and twentieth century attempts to write a pure syllabic verse in English have not caught on. Accentual-syllabic was developed by Chaucer from Italian models, and became the staple for English poetry from Elizabethan times till comparatively recently.

Free verse originated in France around the middle of the nineteenth century, was championed (briefly) by the founders of Modernism, and has ramified into various forms, some of them indistinguishable from prose.

Traditional verse is overshadowed by the achievements of the past. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Wordsworth set standards difficult to emulate, and poets are nowadays hardly encouraged to try. Many of the better magazines — where the fledgling poet must start his publishing career — will not take traditional poetry, and those with more generous standards may still lack readers or editors capable of telling the good from the merely facile. Nonetheless, strict verse enjoys periodic revivals, and has been a feature of several twentieth century schools: the Georgians, Neo-Romantics, the Movement poets and the New Formalists.

Free verse is very confused field, not properly understood or linguistically mapped. Adoption may be more about pamphleteering and cultural allegiances than poetic ends. Some of the speech rhythms claimed as “superior to metre” are not rhythms at all but an enviable dexterity in idiomatic expression.

Metre is not diametrically opposed to free verse. Many contemporary poets write both, or served an apprenticeship in strict forms before creating something closer to their needs. Nonetheless, in the absence of this ability to highlight and compound meaning, free verse is often driven to expand in other directions. It prizes a convincing exactness of idiomatic expression — the line seems exactly right in the circumstances: appropriate, authentic and sincere. It operates closely with syntax. It adopts a challenging layout on the page where line and syntax are rearranged to evade or exploit the usual expectations.

Suggestions

Experiment. Weigh up the pros and cons.

Traditional metre and stanza shaping confer certain advantages, and certain disadvantages. They:

  1. Please the reader by their display of skill, their variety within order, their continuity with the admired literature of the past.
  2. Help the actual writing of the poem, either by invoking words from the unconscious, or by pushing the poem into new areas to escape the limitations of the form.
  3. Provide a sense of completeness impossible in free verse. The author knows when the last word clicks into place.
  4. Enforce dignity, emotional power and density of meaning.
  5. Are more memorable.

The difficulties are equally apparent. Strict forms are:

  1. Taxing to write, requiring inordinate amounts of time, plus literary skills not given to everyone.
  2. Much more likely to go wrong and expose the blundering incompetence of their author.
  3. Inappropriate to the throwaway nature of much of contemporary life.
  4. More difficult to place in the better literary magazines.