Why Is Free Verse So Popular?The Popularity of Vers Libre in the 21st Century
As a modern person trying to write, I find myself immediately moving towards free verse. The main reasons for this are, basically, that most of my poetic heroes wrote in free verse. What would Howl have been, for example, if it was forced to move within the confines of a sonnet? Could Walt Whitman have twisted Leaves of Grass into the eternal force it is, if he had to write it in purely iambic pentameter? Perhaps but, for whatever reason, they chose vers libre (such as it is) as the vehicle to catalogue their surroundings and record their very souls. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to explore why free verse is popular as a form of modern poetry.
I would argue that there are several reasons why we move towards free verse naturally. These reasons are not all positive, but neither are they all negative. The intention of this article is not to necessarily judge the choices we make when writing in free verse, but simply to identify them.
To lay my cards on the table, I predominately write in free verse when I make any blind stagger in the direction of poetry. Similarly, it is free verse that I have seen performed live the most – it is free verse which most clutters my shelves. That does not make me biased in favour of free verse but, if anything, makes me more critical of vers libre as an art form.
What are the Problems Associated with Free Verse?
Free verse, or vers libre (if you’ll allow me to get pretentious) still suffers from the same difficulties with definition as it has since Eliot was writing. It is difficult to identify free verse in any positive way. Free verse can only be identified by its lack of features. Look at the facts; free verse has no:
Can we then, only definite free verse poetry by its negatives – by its lack of the things which make other forms of poetry poetry? If so, then the art form is already thrown onto its back foot. These are topics which have been covered before – Eliot’s Reflections on Verse Libre, for example, is well worth reading. After all, make no mistake; anyone writing today is writing under the shadow of T.S Eliot.
Why Do Modern Poets Prefer Free Verse?
There are many reasons why modern poets prefer to work with free verse over any other form. I would argue that the main reasons poets rely on free verse are:
- It’s Easier to Write.
- Requires Less Discipline.
- It Appears Modern.
- It’s More Accessible.
Free Verse Is Easy
This is not an attempt to disparage anyone who works in free verse when compared to a poet operating with more stringent conditions upon their soul. The simple fact of the matter is – free verse is the easiest to write. I am certainly not a prolific writer, nor would I call myself a poet, but I can quite easily knock out a quite adequate poem in vers libre in just a few minutes.
I think that is the point. It is easy to write in free verse – it is not easy to write well in free verse. Because of the freedom from stringent line structures, the freedom from the scaffold of rhyme, there isn’t really anything to fall back on. When writing a free verse poem, your words are your own; the themes the poet chooses are the themes of the poet’s head, heart and soul.
For those who’ve ever struggled to make a structured poem feel natural, free verse is the obvious answer. Remove the structure, and you can say what you want, in the way you want to say it.
Does That Mean Free Verse Is More or Less Valuable Than Structured Poetry?
Suffice to say, I don’t believe that free verse has more value than a structured poem. For example, one of my favourite cantos is Byron’s On Myself, from Childe Harolde, which reads:
“I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flatter’d its rank breath, nor bow’d
To its idolatries a patient knee, —
Nor coin’d my cheek to smiles, — nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.
I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
But let us part fair foes, I do believe,
Though I have found them no, that there may be
Words which are things, — hopes which will not deceive,
And virtues which are merciful, nor weave
Snares for the failing: I would also deem
O’er others’ griefs that some sincerely grieve;
That two, or one, are almost what they seem, —
That goodness is no name, and happiness no dream.”
Half the beauty in the piece is the way it so easily sits into the structure; for me, this is one of the greatest poetic works because of its simultaneous complexity and simplicity. It is beautiful in the way it explodes and bursts with freedom without fracturing the structure around it. This poem is a rose contained within a glass jar, or napalm in a test tube.
Free Verse Requires Less Discipline to Write
Again, the phrasing of this point makes it seem like a negative thing. Free verse is lowered in register compared to sonnets, haikus and rondels. It is a base kind of poetry, the lowest possible form – simply by its own definition.
As there is no structure to follow, no scaffold to climb and no river banks to flow along, free verse requires much less discipline than other forms. However, that also gives it an edge. Free verse can be used to truly express the soul of the poet, and the point they are trying to make. Free verse is freedom; to express yourself however you wish, to tell the story you want to tell, to use the language you need to use to render your art.
This lack of discipline when creating free verse is also a problem. It is one of the reasons that many free verse poets can become sloppy and half-hearted. There is no need, except the demands within your own head, to refine your poetry. It is one of the things that makes editing free verse so difficult – practically everything can be cut, so it becomes hard to justify what not to cut.
Free verse requires less discipline to write; however, it also requires significantly more discipline to edit. It’s another reason, to my mind, why mediocre free verse is so easy and great free verse so difficult.
Free Verse Appears Modern
Another reason that modern poets rely on free verse is that it screams of modernity. Poetry (although this is starting to change) has always been viewed as a traditional art form. Something for stuffy white men to applaud themselves for their sensitivity. Free verse is irreverent – because of its lack of discipline, its freedom and its chaos, free verse screams of modernity.
Vers Libre is a way for those who may not be familiar with poetic history, with the works of the classical poets, to understand the same fire that drove those ancient figures. It has the virtue of feeling fresh, edgy and impossibly cool. Free verse flirts with other kinds of spoken word – rap, for example. By writing and reading in free verse, the poet supposes they escape from the heavy works of poetry gone before.
Of course, this escape is untrue. Free verse has now been practiced so long, and in so many different forms and styles, that it has just the same weights and shackles as any other form. However, these weights are to be found in a contextual sense – the actual act of writing the poetry remains as free and liberating as ever.
Free Verse Is More Accessible
Free verse is, in a way, easier to read. The difficulty is the same difficulty as faced with when writing it. Free verse is easy to read – it is difficult to read well. Well-written vers libre can take on a thousand more forms than any other type of poetry all at once.
When done well, free verse can focus on one specific instance and stretch one image or moment out until the stars burn out. It can also encompass a point in time, a nation – even the entire world, with the same fluidity and ease. It can bring a thousand instances together and create an ebb and flow which is unmatched in any kind of art form.
Is It Possible to Read Free Verse as Prose?
If you choose to ignore the beauty, ignore the ability to become so fascinated with a single line, stanza, image – whatever; ignore all that, and you could read free verse like prose. Much of it will be disjointed, it may take several attempts to make the oft tenebrous connections, but it does work.
That’s where it becomes a little disjointed for a lot of people – with little reason, really. For example, it is quite easy to read the writing of some prose writers as poetry if they were broken up correctly; for example: We lay on our backs / looking at the ceiling / wondering what God had wrought / when he made life / so sad and / disincined. Perhaps the only difference between free verse poetry and prose is the formulaic nature of its construction.
Why is Free Verse (Vers Libre) So Much Popular than Structured Poetry?
Because free verse is often easier to read, it is also significantly more popular than structured poetry. As it’s more popular, there is also the argument that poets work in it to appeal to a larger audience. At the end of the day, anyone who wants to be a commercially successful poet (although there are incredibly few of them) must, in some way, appeal to the demands of the audience. There is even the argument that publishers are only really looking for free verse work, because that is what the audience wants to read.
Look at it this way:
- The modern audience wants free verse.
- Publishers are more likely to publish free verse as its the most likely to sell.
- Modern poets who want to be successful are writing free verse, because it’s the form of poetry they’re likely to get published.
- As such, the only kind of new poetry the modern audience receives is, inevitably, free verse.
It’s something of a vicious cycle, but one that doesn’t really deliver any negatives; perhaps there is some vague neo-liberalism, or twisted Darwinism there. If free verse is, now, the strongest of the poetic form, the most commercially viable, why shouldn’t it be applauded? Why shouldn’t it be admired and practiced at the expense of haikus and sonnets?
Why Is Free Verse So Popular: Conculsion
In conclusion then, there are many reasons why free verse is so popular today. It’s easy to see why; it offers many advantages to the modern poet, its more accessible and can be written extremely quickly when compared to other styles. There is also a significantly greater demand for it than writing obscure, difficult to penetrate structured poetry.