Free Verse

Free verse features an irregular cadence instead of standard meter. Unfortunately, the words that make up the term free verse suggest a kind of poetry that lacks distinctive form or tradition. Although its history dates back to early English versions of the Bible, serious discussion of the form usually begins with Robert Frost who said he would rather play tennis without a net than compose free verse. Ever since, some people have seized on that analogy to argue that free verse really isn't poetry. That's not the case, and that's not what Frost meant. In an interview on Meet the Press, he elaborated on the remark. Asked why he took so many images and metaphors from the world of games, Frost replied, "I don't think anyone could think right in this world who didn't play games sometime in his life. I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down. That brought tennis in."

True, Frost didn't care much for free verse. But he was defining the type of verse that he wanted to write. He became a poet during an era that featured the innovative moderns — Pound, Eliot, H.D., Williams, Stevens and many others —who wrote many of their best poems in the first decades of the twentieth century and who argued against the formal verse in vogue in the Victorian era. They said the sound of poetry was stilted and blamed it, in part, on the forms of traditional verse; but they also accused Milton and the influence of his Paradise Lost, a brilliant epic in iambic pentameter (or blank verse), which, alas, lacks the tonality of the human voice:

To whom, with healing words, Adam replied: "Daughter of God and Man, immortal Eve! For such thou art, from sin and blame entire Not diffident of thee do I dissuade Thy absence from my sight, but to avoid Th' attempt itself, intended by our foe. . . .

The paradox, as it concerns Frost, is that he had similar ideas about voice. Although Frost may have embraced the old forms, he rejected artificiality and recaptured a natural New England tone in his work. He was an innovator, too — of formal poetry. Meanwhile, moderns like Pound were rebelling against the traditions of the previous century, save one, as this Pound lyric suggests:

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