by Ron Hayes
Stockholm Syndrome. Harry Houdini. Robert Frost. Spelunking.
A short but strange list, no? It may not be obvious right away, but there is a thread of commonality that runs through it. But what? What could tie spelunking to Robert Frost, Stockholm Syndrome to Houdini and the rest? Oddly, the answer is poetry.
In 1955, the American news magazine, Newsweek, ran an article that briefly sketched poet Robert Frost’s visit to Pittsburgh, making note of his charming fascination with all he found there. It also happens that it was in this article that Frost revealed to the world his now famous opinion of writing in free verse:
“I’d as soon play tennis with the net down.”
Zing! Ouch. Feel the burn, contemporary poets, feel the burn! Right?
Well, maybe… Kinda…
While I’m not sure Frost was as much attacking the burgeoning free verse movement for being lazy or undisciplined, I do think he may have simply been referring to his own particular predilection for working within certain constraints. And in saying that, I very nearly wrote “certain, self-imposed constraints” but then thought better of it. Frost’s constraints were NOT self-imposed, not really. They were imposed by time and tradition; Frost simply believed that poetry—HIS poetry, anyway—should adhere to the many age-old conventions that got poetry to where it was by 1955. In likening verse libre to playing tennis without a net, Frost backhandedly impugns it (intentionally or not), likely engendering feelings of rage and despair in a generation of earnest young poets.
Whether Frost meant to slam free verse (and those who write it) as lazy and undisciplined is a question I’ll leave to Frost scholars; for me, it’s a bone I don’t have any interest in picking. What does interest me, however, is what Frost’s stance means to contemporary poetry. Like a drag chute on careening funny car, Frost’s aphorism slows us down and tells us—demands of us, even—that we honor the past and not settle for what’s easy.
Personally, I love the constraints that formal poetry places on me as a poet. I love the challenge of adhering to line counts and proscribed meters. I often find myself turning to formal poetry when my free verse gear seems to be stuck in neutral. Writer’s block? Bah. Write a sestina. (Successfully writing a sestina in this day and age is an accomplishment in and of itself, and writing a GOOD one is particularly gratifying. I’ll let you know if, for me, that day ever comes…) Stuck on a revision of that tricky confessional in the first person? Try banging out a villanelle or a sonnet. Rhyming got you down? Maybe you need a few haiku, tanka, or pantoums in your repertoire.
As writers we are disciplined folk. We dedicate a significant chunk of our lives immersed in our passion refining our craft. The requirements of poetic forms are not all that difficult to understand—so why do so many shy away? First, I think people think it’s hard (psst! Here’s a hint… It isn’t!) and second, I think free verse is “easy” (disclaimer here for those who seek to disagree… IT IS EASY! At least, it’s easy to do and be done. Witness the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people who send in their rhymes to the local paper, the church bulletin, or community writers’ groups. These hobbyists aren’t interested in craft or tradition—and that’s okay. But they’re calling themselves poets… Ah, well. Debate for another day…). In my opinion, the larger, overarching issue as concerns free verse is not that it’s as easy as tennis without a net, it’s that the absence of rigid rules and constraints opens the door to a flood of bad poetry–and not just from bad poets. I know I’ve dashed off a poem or six in which I allow verse libre laxity to smooth over that poem’s trouble spots. For all the liberation free verse awards us, I remain convinced that it’s the stricture required of formal poetry that drives me to write smarter, sharper poems. Without the walls and ceiling closing in around me as I make my way through the depths of a dark cave, the joy I feel when fresh air and sunshine greet me at the mouth of the cave falls flat.
Regardless of whether it’s an incendiary indictment or mere personal preference flippantly uttered, Frost’s polemic on free verse stands as a meaningful marker along the slow toll road of poetics. It’s something that needed to be said, something we need to hear from time to time, and something we need to remember. Writing within the constraints of formal poetry keeps us grounded in tradition and humble in the face of that tradition. And while it’s true that I might seem like that guy who’s fallen in love with his very captors, the constraints that formal poetry demands ultimately have me feeling like Harry Houdini when the poem finally does get written. And just like Harry’s illusions, the poem on the page didn’t get there by magic, but by a good bit of hard work, a smattering of talent, and a whole lot of dedication to craft.