Edward Storer



Form in Free Verse




FREE verse is no longer an experiment, no longer even a new movement. Nearly every modern poet uses it either exclusively or in addition to its counterpart, regular verse. For what it can do it is accepted. It has become a recognized medium of literary expression. At the same time one is aware of a certain feeling of dissatisfaction with regard to it and its limitations. We use it because we must, because it is more real than the conventional metres and possesses a living rhythm as opposed to their dilletante rhythm, and also because it is directed by an intenser rhythmical ardor than prose.

A poet who wishes to give expression to realities in modern life – and I use the word in the strictly [155] limited sense which the antithesis poeticalities suggests – will find in practice that he is confined for his literary expression to the two media of prose and free verse. There is an urgent reason for this which I will examine later. It is argued by some critics that there is no real difference between rhythmical prose and free verse. There is perhaps no arbitrary difference, but there certainly is a difference of degree. All writing, we must suppose, has a rhythmical beat of some kind, however arbitrary or awkward, and language as it tends toward a greater symbolic intensity of feeling tends also towards a more pronounced and formal rhythm, towards at the same time a simpler rhythm in which the beat varies less with a line or sentence of given length.

In free verse we find this interior rhythm, which is present in a less individual form in prose, assering itself in the former convention to a much greater degree. Gathering intensity and form as it develops from the lax and wayward rhythm of prose, it tends to impose itself upon the eye as well as upon the interior hearing, and to demand for itself the linelength. This is what critics of free verse call, very crudely, "cutting prose up into lines." That, however, is not what happens at all. If there is any such dichotomy it is an instinctive impulse of the verse itself wose interior vigor craves such an arrangement. Moreover to speak of so subtle and mysterious process as "cutting" is the kind of critical barbarism one would expect in an epoch of journalist-culture. There is a definite suggestion of objectivity about "cutting" which is misleading. The verse may be said rather to divide itself into lengths according to some almost unconcious combined action of ear and eye, pressed into the service of the verse by the dominating impulse of the poem.

What this impulse really desires but is too week to secure is a regular rhythmic content for its expression. Free verse is verse true in material and inspiration, which has not succeeded in obtaining for itself in a definite form. It is a literary expression which has failed to take its most convenient and final shape. Many reasons may be suggested for this: the confusion of the simple sensuous impulse by the taste and intellectual sophistication of the poet; the debilitating influence of a dilletante sense of poetry which should really be content with the old conventional verse forms in which admirable dilletante poetry may still be written; a lack of conviction, faith, or some other form of strength; a personal impulse sterilized by an inhibiting conception of vers libre which assumes it to be somthing final and sacred in itself. Such an attitude – and it is quite common – would induce a sensory and poetical paralysis each time that the poem attained sufficient momentum to carry it beyond free into fixed verse.

[155] Now we come to the grave question of this fixed verse or regular verse, the verse in which, after all, nearly all the great poetry of the world has been written. Can one not use it, then, nowadays? Nothing is easier, and as a rule is more fatal. The great majority of rhymesters and versemakers should, however, use nothing else. With it they will produce admirable drawing-room poetry, charming examples of dilletantism with which they will please themselves and their friends. But their poetry will have the smallest relation with actual modern life, even when its imaginative or emotional inspirations come as directly as possible out of that life. They will pour these perfumed ecstasies into the delicious old vessels, where all their life and character will be lost.

I have never seen anywhere a careful examination of the problem of why it is impossible or almost impossible to write real modern poetry which shall have no suggestion of affectation or dilletantism, in the regular conventional metres of the language like the sonnet, the heroic line, the couplet. It is not an easy question to answer. It seems to me to depend, to some extent at any rate, on the way in which these regular metres – indeed the whole to use of metre – was approached formerly and is approached to-day. The force which originated the great classical metres and forms of poetry was in some degree a religious force, that is, it derived its power very nearly directly from religion and religious impulses. The close connection between religion and the arts, and the generative force of the former on the latter is generally admitted; there is no need to quote the usual illustrations given from Greek, Egyptian, Mykenaean and Celtic histories. The early metrical forms of poets in the beginning of a civilization have always borne a close analogy to some ritualistic element in the religion of that culture.

These forms have then been developed without any thought of the original religious impulse from which they grew. But this impulse or ictus, emotional, racial and religious in character, has fertilized these laicised and laicising forms. To take a very simple example from English literary history: it is impossible not to feel in reading the Border Ballads, for instance, how near both in matter and form they were to the deepest life of their day, how serious was the feeling which inspired them how religious in fact. There was nothing frivolous in such writing, nor was there anything pretentious. They were simple, to use an adjective which is the despair of our modern culture.

Gradually, as these metrical poetic forms became more intricate and more intellectualized through the ascendency of technique or skill, they lost some part of their primitive spirit. But they did not change very greatly or very rapidly. They did not change, moreover, in anything like the same ratio of change with the spiritual force that was necessary to irradiate them. As they lost the primitive force which created them they also lost their meaning or a part of their meaning. They remained too classical for their content. It has become impossible in using them to produce more than a theatrical effect. It is now as if the writer were obliged to make an arrangement with is reader and his own sense of fitness: "Now we will talk in poetry." It is in fact no more than a masquerade in which the poet of the traditional strophes engages.

As a consequence the following conditions present themselves. In a language and culture such as the English language and culture, or for the matter of that, in almost any European language and culture, we arrive at a state where the ordinary poetic forms, too long removed from their originating stems and not fecundated by any other racial or religious impulses, are capable only of being used for literary or dilletante exercises, for work which shall look like other literary work and not for the containing of an original idea or ideas vital to the life of the day. Thus these forms will be unable to hold any deep and sincere religious or passionate feeling because, though themselves religious in their origins, each religious impulse seeks its own forms of expression, its own ritual and canon.

Now it can safely be said that all strong feelings and powerful thoughts to-day are personal in quality rather than communal, if for no other reason than for this, that civilizations are based upon economic and business bases rather than on religious ones. The men of genius of our age are solitary egotistic figures, would-be Napoleons of the arts, recognizing no higher authority in modern times than themselves, submitting to no authority in modern culture or religion other than their own, admitting only the superiority of antiquity. Such man have been our Wagners and Nietzsches, typical modern European men of genius.

As a result, the originating form and impulse which in ancient times was a racial and religious impulse occurs now as a personal one. The poet in such a case supplies the religious impulse himself by his faith in himself and his works – which gives form to his work. Being as a rule entirely sceptical in the religious sense, he cannot help but create for himself his own religion, be his own god, in fact. All this, it is true, in one sense is but another manifestation of the older race impulse, but it is in the matter of degree that the whole difference lies. When an artist of sufficient fineness and power arises to be able to create his own forms, he succeds for a while, at any rate, in imposing them or giving them to his contemporaries and successors, who thus de[156]rive the vigor of their own forms from an artistic and not a religious source. Yet since this artistic impression is only one remove from the religious impulse, art is thus one of the few ways in which religion still lives on in the world of to-day.

With regard to modern verse, then, we have these divisions: for the dilletante, the purely literary man, the trifler, there remain the old literary forms which have little value now beyond their scientific qualities to recommend them. Determinating, originating thought they will not take. For anything pretty, elegant, insincere or clever they are excellent. And on the other hand for the expression of modern truths, for the expressions that come from the heart of our epoch with all its defects and its strength, all its good and evil, all its science and all its spiritual sterility, there are the great formlessnesses, the dissipating molten matter of speech, the possibilities of language.

This free verse is nothing in itself. Every man's free verse is different. All such verse constitutes attempts and failures to achieve poetic form – the poetic form of to-day which exists in posse where free verse triumphs over its own license and achieves self-mastery. In a sense, of course, verse will always remain free now, so far as one can see, but there is a difference again of degree implied here which is of the essence of the question.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The New Republic.
A Journal of Opinion.
Bd. 6, 1916, Nr. 71, 11. März, S. 154-156.

Gezeichnet: Edward Storer.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The New Republic   online
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000502176
URL: http://www.unz.org/Pub/NewRepublic/





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer