The battle for free verse was over by the time I became a critic: Unmetered poetry was, if not dominant, well on its way to it. So I missed many of the early great essays that argued for or against the verse of Walt Whitman and others.
But I caught up with one of them after the recent publication of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 288 pp., $18.95, paperback), edited by Garrick Davis with a foreword by William Logan. Davis notes that in the essay, “The Problem of Form,” the American poet and scholar J. V. Cunningham (1911–1985) makes the case against free verse with unusual skill: “The indispensability of meter has never been argued for more succinctly.”
Cunningham holds that the popularity of free verse springs from American ideals: We live in a democratic society and “give a positive value to informality.” Formal language is an anathema because we associate it with a hierarchical and authoritarian world with rules set by a privileged class. We see the measured or formal as insincere or a perversion of “the central value of our life, genuineness of feeling.”
If we value informality, we believe we must get rid of formality or form, which is by nature repetitive, Cunningham goes on: “But to get rid of it we must keep it; we must have something to get rid of.” And formal poetry involves a convergence of forms that — metrical, grammatical, rhetorical, conceptual and more. “Indeed, it is the inherent coincidence of forms in poetry, in metrical writing, that gives it its power.” So when we abandon meter in poetry, we abandon more:
“And here in naked reduction is the problem of form in the poetry of our day. It is before all a problem of meter. We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new. We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful. But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have last nothing to vary from. The last variation is regularity.”
Cunningham wrote this decades ago, and a lot has changed. Many contemporary poets work at least partly with forms that include not just meter but rhyme. Those poets include Mary Jo Salter, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, whose recent A Phone Call to the Future will be reviewed soon on this site.
So I’m quoting this not because I agree with all of what Cunningham says but because he makes an argument rarely heard these days. What do you think? Should more people be making it?
Read more about Praising It New at www.ohioswallow.com/book/Praising+It+New and about J. V. Cunningham at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=80763.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.