Is free verse just “shredded prose”?
REFLECTIONS ON RICHARD WILBUR’S INTERVIEW
Everyone seems to be able to write a poem nowadays. Everyone can arm themselves with a pen and let their feelings flow on a piece of paper, creating random separate verses, pretending to have the aspect of a poem. And the culprit of all this seems to be an excessive use of free verse.
This new form of poetry – or lack of a form, as someone identified it – has always been considered with suspicion by poets, critics and theorists.
In an interview for Web of Stories, US poet Richard Wilbur, talking about his own teaching method, mentions the importance of prosody in writing poetry.1
His idea originates from the fact that nowadays free verse seems to be the most common form, and young poets feel justified in resorting to it even before practising with standard formats such as sonnets or riddles.
The risk in doing this is the possibility of producing a poem which is not a poem at all, but what Wilbur calls “shredded prose”2. This idea reminds one of John Livingstone Lowes’ comments about free verse: “Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?”3
T. S. Eliot, in his essay Reflections on verse libre, affirms that any new form of art needs a theory to cope with the polemic. In this sense, the verse libre does not exist at all as a standard form since it does not have a positive definition. In fact, it can be defined only in absentia: as a lack of pattern, of rhyme, and of meter.4
Thus, free verse seems to break with all the formal rules which have always shaped the world of poetry, as a denial of all metrics and rhymes and patterns. However, before breaking a rule, one must be aware of how the rules work. This is why it is important, according to Richard Wilbur, to practise with standard forms before writing free verse. In this way, any young poet can understand the importance of metrics and, above all, can start shaping their works following a pattern and a musicality which enforce the meaning of words.
In any case, any debate about the most proper way to write poetry is still open, and considering the different aspects of society and culture nowadays, one may not wrongly say that it will take a long time before coming to an end.
3 John Livingstone Lowes, Nation, February 1916
4 T. S. Eliot, Reflections on verse libre, 1917
Intern, Limerick Writers’ Centre
12 Barrington Street, Limerick, Ireland