A bunch of years ago now, a friend tried to convince me to broaden my definition of poetry. On the surface of things, she was slightly successful. I’d taken the position that poetry has to rhyme. I didn’t really mean that and gave her that point in my opening salvo.
Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does have to have structure.
Now, before someone gets upset and starts an angry email about free verse and how it’s the epitome of poetry, I’ll remind you that you’re entirely free to enjoy what you enjoy and use whatever definition you’d like.
But you’re not going to convince me.
Part of something being a poem is that when it’s read, it’s recognizable as a poem. There is form and metre and rhyme and syllabic measurements or some combination of those things that might only be one of them but not none of them. The point is that reading a poem, even to yourself, sets up a structure, mental or verbal, of some kind that adds to the experience of that poem.
Poetry needs structure or it ceases to be poetry. Without that structure, it’s indistinguishable from prose. It may be poetic and evoke feeling and imagery (which prose often does do), but it’s no longer poetry. The structure can be subtle, but it needs to be there.
And no, visual structure doesn’t count. When you read a poem aloud instead of in your head, what happens to the visual structure for someone hearing it? Gone.
When I was young, I certainly wrote things in free verse and called it poetry. I look back on those poetic fragments and can’t use that word now. These days, any poetry I write is structured. Yes, it’s harder, but it’s far more satisfying to complete when it’s harder, and when a piece is done I can look at it and say that it’s a poem. I’ve had to build the thought I want to express into a structure that makes it stand up and be noticed, that convinces the mind to read the words in a certain way, that gives the reader a clearer idea of what I meant when I wrote it.
A little reading recently has brought me to the idea of New Formalism. While Wikipedia takes an amerocentrist view, it doesn’t take long to discover that it’s far more widespread than that and probably arose independently in a variety of places around the same time. But in true American fashion, you can find references to the Poetry Wars. There’s plenty of controversy available if you want to look for it.
But to the point, it essentially promotes the idea of returning to structured poetry and has a lot more adherents than you’d think if you browse the poetry section at your local bookstore.
And that’s okay. Choice is good. People should buy and read what they enjoy.
Poets should write what they like.
As both, you’ll find me a formalist.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.
Along a country road at night,
The wind and rain depriving sight
Of all the tiny crawling things,
Of things that hop and things with wings.
A quick flash of reflected light
Shows two eyes in darkness, and brings
A sudden taste of bitter fright
That rushing wheels must soon disguise,
The sudden fall of endless night.