The Origins of Free Verse. Henry Tompkins Kirby-Smith. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1998. xiv, 304 pp. Pbk. $17.95.
Free verse is a topic almost guaranteed to cause debate. The issue seems simple enough. Free verse is simply poetry without meter. (Corn, 123; Fussell, 76ff; Gross and McDowell, 95) Some would define poetry such that meter is a necessary component so that free verse would be an oxymoron. (Fussell, 3; Enright, 12) However, is this definition of free verse given previously a valid one? Does it cover the free verse of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Willam Carlos Williams as well as a host of others who are almost the roll call of 20th century poetry? This writer believes it does, especially since the poetry of those exemplars of free verse breaks meter or never starts with it.
Others have even claimed that to write free verse requires no skill. If such is the case, then a theory of free verse, the topic of H. T. Kirby-Smiths historical survey The Origins of Free Verse, is nearly pointless except, maybe, as a study of how aspiring poets can go wrong. However, if there is more to free verse than just scribbling lines down without meter, then it might be possible to understand why free verse arises and what directions it takes. It should be noted too, as Kirby-Smith points out, that adhering to a form in verse is no guarantee of skill much less of creating a great work of art. Just as the free verse poet can hide her lack of skill in the absence of formal structure, so can the metrical poet hide his behind the presence of such structure.
Walt Whitman is often celebrated as the first free verse poet in English. However, free verse in English has a longer history and possibly an even longer past. Kirby-Smith goes at length to show examples of free verse predating Whitman, going back as far as Abraham Cowley (circa 1665) and including many other poets who lived and died long before Leaves of Grass.
This is not to discount the fact that during the 20th century, free verse came of age and became fashionable. If the 20th century is to be delineated in terms of its characteristic poetry, it would be known as the Age of Free Verse. Nor does Kirby-Smith deny this. Yet this should not get in the way of understanding its roots.
Nor should it lead one to believe that free verse in former times was marginal and not influential until discovered by modern poets and scholars. John Milton, for example, wrote some free verse. Was this merely a fit of experimentation that had negligible impact on the rest of his work or the others around and after him? If so, then no linkage might be discerned between free verse before and during the 20th century..
Before going forward, Kirby-Smith also notes that meter did not congeal spontaneously in Modern English. Surely, Anglo-Saxon poetry did have its strong stress meter, relying on accents, alliteration, and caesuras. (Wallace, 16) But the transition to syllabic-accentual meter by the 17th century did not happen instantaneously. Instead, there was a period of several decades as the new poetry new for poets composing, to oversimplify in the extreme, between the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare took hold.
During this period, accentual syllabic meter found its voice mainly through the influence of non-English poetry. The attempt to adapt classical meters to English took strong stress meter, which relies on the number of stresses per line and alliteration, and turned it into the accentual-syllabic meter, which founds itself on the relation between stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. Though Chaucer broke with this prior tradition in introducing the new meter, it took decades for it to finally sink in. (Nims, 175)
This led to a proliferation of accentual-syllabic meters, given the variety of combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables possible and their combinations in lines. At the time, this was highly unusual, given Englishs penchant for stress over all else. Now, of course, we experience such meter as normal if not expected in poetry and some of us might even be bored with it. Hence free verse in all its varieties.
Kirby-Smith breaks free verse into five varieties. His is not the first attempt at classification, but sticking to the current book, he divides free verse into phrase-reinforcing, phrase-breaking, word-breaking, word-jamming, and the prose poem. (See Fussell, 77-84 for another classification scheme of free verse.)
Phrase-reinforcing works by using lines parallel to natural phrasal units.(44) The example he uses is Oread by H.D. Phrase-breaking free verse interrupts the natural phrase at an unexpected point.(45) The instance of this he gives is Williams Flowers by the Sea. Needless to say, formal verse can and has used such techniques especially to highlight meter.
The word-breaking kind splits a single word between lines, and the word-jamming kind squeezes words together. Good instances of both can be found in e. e. cummings work. (Of course, e. e. cummings goes much further than that as can be seen in his variant, mixed up, and unpronounceable spellings of words in many of his poems. See Gross and McDowell, 1-2 and 120-4.)
Kirby-Smith does not think highly of the prose poem, despite giving much space to it. He states: "...the prose poem is a piece of writing that falls into sentences rather than lines, that lacks regular meter or rhyme, that is printed like all other prose, and that... a poet has chosen to designate as poetry..." (259-60) He believes good prose poems are rare and that prose poetry is the "ultimate refuge of bankrupt talent..." (255) With the definition he gives, it's hard to see how he would find any good prose poetry, though he does praise Ernest Dowson's "Absinthea Taetra" for its power. (265-6)
With the classifications in hand, the reader should have a rough idea of where Kirby-Smith is heading. His sees free verse as a rebellion against whatever metrical conventions a given age has. This is not so much a theory of how free verse works, as a theory of how it happens.
This is similar to an idea put forth by Paul Fussell who contends that divergence from expected meter makes poetry interesting and powerful. (Fussell, 30-61; Corn, 5-6) As in all art, regularity is at best the starting point; at worst, it can destroy the work. This is why a lot of formulaic art romance novels, monster movies, Norman Rockwell paintings become boring. The mind wants a degree of regularity, but it does not long for mechanical predictability.
The theory is a little more elaborate than that a poet merely tries to work outside conventions. Even if one does simplify, there would still be a need to separate experimentation that tests the boundaries of a convention from experimentation that throws away a convention. Someone creating a new sonnet form, say one built from purely trochaic feet, would not be making free verse. She would be creating a new form of metered verse. Someone using the sonnet form to ditch meter, say a poem having fourteen lines but working via uneven syllable counts alone, would be making free verse. The boundary between the two might seem fuzzy, but in most cases, free verse only lapses into meter for effect or by accident.
He links this idea to religious and philosophical notions too, though he doesnt make it utterly dependent on them. For example, he believes that much 19th century American free verse was part and parcel with the religious dissent and individualism permeating the culture. While on its face, this sounds cogent and, given that many poets of the Romantic Period also adopted this individualistic view of the artist as a creator from nothing, reasonable. Even so, would this explain free verse experiments predating American and Romantic poetry? Would it explain free verse in Italian or of the Ancients?
It would not, though this does not mean that the notion is off base. Free verse in English originated after the Reformation and during a time of increasing religious balkanization. The same can be said of vers libre in France. (See the next section.) This came after the Revolution and during a time when France was exposed to English poetry and philosophy even if France maintained a distinctive poetry and worldview apart from Britain.
Also, the whole notion of the artist as a creator, somehow outside his cultural milieu, unfettered by conventions or form finds resonance in Kants esthetics and Rands. Kant believed art was a realm of freedom where the artist legislated the rules, then made the objet dart according to these rules. (Kant, 174ff; Roberts, 57-66) Rand, with more of a nod to the subconscious, sees the artist as a prime mover personified by the architect Howard Roark in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. In this view, the artist is able almost duty bound to escape the formalism of his time, though notably, like Kant, Rand did not throw out the rules, but put them in a different context.
Her notion is a bit more sophisticated than that as can be seen in her book on art, The Romantic Manifesto, where she calls art the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." (Rand, 19) Though this view seems a lot like the Romantic artist as a creator from nothing, she sees the artist as working with material culled from experience and from the minds working over experiences (e.g., abstraction, selective attention, and inference). Thus, she almost bridges the gap between the creator from nothing and cultural milieu views of artistic production.
Getting back to the culture that fostered the Romantic view of the artist and art, too much weight should not be placed on cultural considerations without examining more evidence, especially since this subject should be approached dispassionately rather than with partisanship. With an eye to philosophy and religion, the reader might not only miss the truth but also be ready to accept a simple answer that fits with her convictions than a more complex one that might be more valid.
Yet Kirby-Smith does present compelling evidence for his notion of these deeper views affecting how poets write. Someone once remarked that the Protestant needs only the Bible and his faith, while the Catholic needs the whole community of his religious life. The Reformation, and the Protestant movements that flourished after it, spread the notion that the individual was in communion with God more directly than any social institution. Intermediaries were unnecessary if not harmful.
Even so, poets live and work in their respective times and cultures, to some extent artistic invention is driven by forces inside art. When they exhaust a given vein, artists mine new quarries. There's always experimentation. It becomes more intense when older veins yield no more gold. This might explain why the 20th century was the century of free verse, given that all traditional veins seemed overworked.
Kirby-Smith is not immune to this view. He shows elsewhere how once freed of orthodoxy, pre-20th century poets generally experimented and those experiments are mostly along metrical lines, though sometimes they abandon meter. While many a poet was influenced by the idea of the artist as free of his surroundings, especially of poetic traditions, he rarely was. While the Pindaric poet (see below) wants to escape the formalism of his time, he does not run aimlessly, but settles on specific paths of innovation. History, even the history of free verse, is not chaos.
Kirby-Smith devotes one chapter to discussing the first example of free verse as a movement in English poetry. This is the Pindaric poetry established by Abraham Cowley and copied by many others. Despite the name, the Pindaric is only loosely based on Pindars poetry. For the most part, 17th century poets used the term to excuse their divergence from the formal poetry of the time. This is not to say the Pindaric did not impose some formal requirements, but it allowed the poet freedom to expand beyond the sonnet.
The sonnet was not exhausted then and probably never will be, but this does not mean artists should only move forward to new forms or to free forms only when all other means are exhausted. If this were needed to permit artists the freedom they desire, then very little experimentation would be done in any art. Exploring a new world is usually more exciting and rewarding than mapping each tree and rock in your backyard.
The point though is that the sonnet had become the norm. Poets who could not fit their ideas into a sonnet found any means to get around that form to be liberating. The Pindaric, though irregular in terms of line length and number of stanzas, often maintained a rhyme scheme. This sounds a lot like the way someone might attack a multivariate problem in mathematics hold constant one set of variables while exploring changes in others. (Casti, 8ff)
Fussell hints at a similar view of free verse, though he by no means goes into such details. (Fussell, 76-7) Nor does he back his claim with historical evidence. Despite his wide view of poetry, he treats only late 19th and 20th century examples of free verse. Another writer concurs, stating Those who have made a close study of traditional prosody write better unmetered poems than those who havent, acknowledging regular patterns by making intelligent departures from them. (Corn, 126)
The desire to capture some earlier, ruder, and, believed to be, purer form of art, especially with the King James translation of the Bible led many poets to imitate Ancient Hebrew poetry. Again, we see an outside factor impinging on English poetry. Once again, we find poets using an outside authority to rationalize their innovations.
This line of influence continued to have an impact on English poetry ever after. From Thomas Traherne in the late 1600s to Walt Whitman and beyond, the Bible has been imitated and parodied. Kirby-Smith tells us how a lot of this poetry was produced independently of other experiments. Whitman probably did not read Traherne but went directly to the Bible. This yeilds the historical fits and starts of this sort of free verse. The Bible and Ossianism2 acted as a direct force upon many separate poets without the help of any mediating works.
Again, we see poets trying to escape the trappings of structure and mannerism to the point of breaking down previous meters. This was the major form of free verse right up to probably World War One and continues to heavily influence a lot of later poetry, especially African-American poetry.
After the Bible came the French. French Symbolist poets, such as Rimbaud, were already reacting to their context and trying to forge a new poetry. Among later innovations of the Symbolist was vers libre a poetry which rested on syntax and grammar instead of syllable count, the usual metric feature of French poetry. (Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, 101) At the opening of the 20th century T. S. Eliot had already immersed himself in the French language, so much so that he actually wrote poetry in French. Amy Lowell and her circle of Imagist poets including, for a time, Ezra Pound also paid close attention to French vers libre poetry. This represented another influx of external influence on English poetry, another birth of nonmetrical poetry.
Also, early 20th century poetry reacted to both formal meter and Victorian diction. Some late Victorian poets experimented with free verse, but kept the formal diction of the times, as in the poetry of Thomas Edward Brown, and moralizing, as in George Meridith's "Dirge in the Woods." (126)
It's notable that vers libre poetry was not as wild and free as the poetry it inspired in the Eliot and the Imagists. (185) Again, we see English-speaking poets using a non-English source as both a source of material and a justification for their home grown innovations. By the middle of the 20th century, free verse no longer has to explain itself because it has become the norm. This final birth is the one that lasted.
This is not to say that there was no further evolution, but that a clean break with metrical tradition had occurred. Metrical poetry, to be sure, still exists and great poets often write it, but free verse is no longer seen as a sideline. It is now part of the mainstream. It is even traditional. A final and lasting birth of free verse had come.
Reprise or prelude
Kirby-Smith does an excellent job of defending his theory. His style is happily informal though he does go into technical details at times. One problem, however, is that he often skirts issues of precise definition even if such a definition is only suited to the level of precision needed at given points. This makes it hard sometimes to follow his argument. It can also lead to confusion if one just skims the book.
It would be interesting to apply his theory to poetry in other languages as well as to contemporary current poetry. Kirby-Smith does go into the French vers libre poets influence upon T. S. Eliot and that of the Italian madrigal upon earlier English and French poets, but this only whets the readers appetite for more. One wonders, too, about how English poetry has influenced that in other languages. For example, Baudelaire was heavily influenced by Edgar Allen Poe and went on to inspired the French Symbolists. (Baldick, 220)
He promises to take on alternative theories of free verse in a later work. Hopefully, he will tackle that with as much skill, but like the missing meter haunting a free verse poem, this lacuna haunts the current work.
One might also fit this into a larger, well known idea that in the arts, styles fluctuate often by one style dominating, then loosening, then being overthrown, and eventually a new style becoming dominant. Poetry in the English language seems to be no exception to this pattern. The Origins of Free Verse pushes us to this larger view.
1 Thanks to poet Corey L. Thrasher and Matthew Stoloff for their many helpful comments and for proof reading earlier drafts of this essay.
2 Ossianism was a hoax perpetrated by Scottish schoolteacher James Macpherson in 1700s. Macpherson claimed to have translated two epic poems by the Celtic bard Ossian. I wasn't until the early 1800s that these were proven to be fraudulent. (Baldick, 157)
Chris Baldick. 1990. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press: New York.
John L. Casti. 1992. Reality Rules, Vol. I. John Wiley & Sons: New York.
Alfred Corn. 1998 . The Poems Heartbeat. Story Line Press: Ashland, Oregon.
John Enright. 1989. "What is Poetry?" Objectively Speaking. 2(2).
Paul Fussell. 1979 . Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Random House: New York.
Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell. 1996 . Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, Second Edition. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor.
Immanuel Kant. 1987 . Critique of Judgment. Hackett: Indianapolis, Indiana.
John Frederick Nims. 1996. "Our Many Meters: Strength in Diversity" in David Baker, editor, Meter in English: A Critical Engagement. University of Arkansas: Fayetteville, AK.
Ayn Rand. 1975 . The Romantic Manifesto. New American Library: New York.
Julian Roberts. 1988. German Philosophy: An Introduction. Humanities Press International: Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.
Robert Wallace. 1996. Meter in English in David Baker, editor, Meter in English: A Critical Engagement. University of Arkansas: Fayetteville, AK.
Back to My Works
Film/TV Literature Links Music Updates Visual Art