Saturday, October 9, 2010


For the last hundred years, the Western literary world has labored under the delusion that poetry has generally undergone a transformation from its centuries-long “formalist” tradition into a new mode called “free verse,” which predominates today. However, most contemporary “poetry” is not properly free verse but rather free prose—prose freed from arbitrary margins and many conventions of grammar, syntax and punctuation required of orthodox prose.

Though such compositions look like verse, in that their lines have irregular lengths, those lines reveal no rules of measure, as does verse, which “turns” (the literal meaning of verse) at a set metrical interval. Furthermore, its lack of rhyme patterns and other sonic resonances exemplifies the mode of prose, not poetry.

While etymologically the poet is simply “a maker,” and a poem is something made, a verbal artifact, the long tradition of verse making reveals something more specific in the way of techniques appropriate to verse-craft, which differ linguistically from prose-craft.

Most traditional short poetry is called “lyric” for its musical qualities, as if it might be accompanied by a lyre or other instrument, and because it might be sung, not just said, summoning vocal effects beyond what prose calls for, were it read aloud. Reading poetry aloud is de rigeur because the poet writes for the voice and ear as well as for the intellect and imagination. Not so for prose, or not nearly so much.

I argue, therefore, that our generic categories be adjusted to reserve the use of the word poetry for verbal compositions with distinctively musical oral qualities—which is not to say that some eloquent prose may be denied the epithet “lyrical,” to the extent that it affects to a degree the techniques of poetry in rhyme and resonance. Otherwise, shorter literary pieces that lack such aural traits should be named free prose rather than free verse. Reserve the word poetry for measured lines with lyrical designs.