Formal poetry or free verse?

The days of the sonnet, the villanelle and the ballade are over. The what? you say. You know, formal poetry with strict rhyme schemes and regular rhythms and stuff. That has been the mantra among the echelons of the poetry world for as long as living memory can stretch. Ever since T.S. Eliot stunned the world with the Waste Land people have been tolling the death knell of formal poetry and nowadays nobody writes formal poetry any more, do they?
Well, in actually fact, the Waste Land is peppered with formal poetry elements in disguise, and nowadays there is a growing battery of “new formalism” poetry journals and magazines that publish nothing but formal poetry. Formal poetry still doesn’t have the punching heft or the inviolable, lofty status as free verse, for most people, but it is making a come back.
T.S. Eliot himself was heard to say: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” That in fact is what happened to The Waste Land, his epic masterpiece. In its original form it was a sprawling mess of a poem. As Ezra Pound (who eventually managed to edit it down to half its original size) mentioned to Eliot, he had written “the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic].” The poem turns out to be mostly free verse with formal elements infiltrating it all the way through. Another gnomic utterance from Eliot states: “It's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” This still stands today as an indictment against would-be poets who never really take the trouble to learn how to practice the rules of formal poetry but stick to free verse all the way through.
So which is better: formal poetry or free verse? Well, it depends on a number of things, including the subject matter, the occasion and the audience. Sometimes rhyming poetry works best and sometimes free verse does.
I have found Eliot’s comment about working within a strict framework producing the richest ideas to be true, for the most part. Writing rhyming and scanning poetry forces you to concentrate. It’s a bit like working on a cryptic crossword puzzle. It can be fun, but it can also be infuriatingly frustrating. You have to think more carefully about your word choice, make sure you don’t add extra syllables to a line, make sure the rhyme scheme is adhered to (even if they are only slant-rhymes) and in some cases (for example, with sonnets) make sure you have finished what you want to say by the time you run out of space and reach the end of the poem. Of course, it is possible to write a technically brilliant poem that doesn’t say anything much…
Free verse, on the other hand, by definition doesn’t have the constraints of formal poetry. You can literally write anything you want. But because of that a free verse poem has to stand on its own two feet without the surrounding support of a structure to hang your thoughts on. It is easy to waffle. It is easy to produce flabby lines that lack concision or thought. It is easy to produce a poem that sounds just like prose. So why do so many people prefer it to formal poetry? Poets prefer it because it appears to be relatively easy to write (although not so easy to write well). Readers of poetry prefer it because often it is easier to understand than the alternative.
But even if you are writing free verse, it can help to put some formal constraints on what you write, such as making each line a set number of syllables, having stanzas that are of a uniform length, or using an iambic rhythm in each line. It can help to add a little discipline to what you write. Similarly, if you are writing formal poetry you still have some latitude to depart occasionally from the scheme you have chosen if it helps get the meaning across or emphasizes certain words. In actual fact, the more you look at it, the distance between formal and free verse gets closer and seems more like a continuum rather that two discrete styles.
Formal poetry gets the reputation of being stuffy and, well, formal. Free verse gets the reputation of allowing the emotions of the poet to come out, well, freely.
So just to mix things up a bit, here is a formal poem that exudes poignant emotions but still manages to do it within the rules of the form: Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Sonne.” It is an incredibly touching poem set down in rhyming couplets – lines which rhyme in pairs – which you would not have thought at all suited to powerful emotion. It was written on the death of his little son, on the child’s seventh birthday. The little boy was named Benjamin after his father, and Benjamin, in Hebrew, means “child of my right hand” hence the opening line. There are three short verses:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age!

Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.

And here’s part of the aforementioned Waste Land, which is written in free verse but is still concise and compelling:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Free verse does have a value and can be used to devastating effect. But, as Eliot says, it is much better to learn the rules of formal poetry first before you decide to break them.

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