Traditional & Modern Poetry
An ongoing discussion for more than a century concerns the virtues of traditional forms of poetry compared to more modern free verse. Ignoring such styles as shape forms, acrostic, and other novelty forms, many contemporary poets write in free verse. Therefore, here the focus is on free verse compared to the many traditional forms.
In brief, traditional forms have a fixed structure, “rules,” in terms of rhyme, meter, syllabification, line length, lineation, and the number of lines. On the other hand, free verse ignores traditional “rules.” Although some general characteristics such as rhyme may occur in a given work, none are mandatory.
Some writers and readers believe that free verse is more straightforward to write than traditional forms. That is understandable since much free verse is prose written in a poetry-like style, short lines, with or without punctuation or rhyme. However, many contemporary works are written in an ostensibly traditional form, such as sonnets, without any attention to meter or rhyme, leaving only the number of lines and possibly the correct syllabification. Such works are free verse, at least to an extent.
While there is nothing to be said against those poets who prefer traditional forms, free verse allows greater freedom in words, rhyming, and just about everything else.
Another common belief is that the “great” poets wrote in traditional forms only. Indeed, criticism of the great writers of the past for using traditional forms is misplaced. Still, there are undoubtedly great modern poets who wrote in their versions of free verse – Allen Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, e e Cummings, William Carlos Williams, to name a few.
In the early 1900s, all of the arts – painting, sculpture, music, prose, and poetry were in turmoil. Each art form sought a new form of expression. Consider painting: Kandinsky’s emphasis on form, Picasso’s Cubist style, or Dali’s Surrealist developments. Then look at poetry. For instance, consider William Carlos Williams, who exerted such a strong influence on modern poetry with reduced punctuation, lack of rhyme, and rhythm to concentrate on words and syntax. Also, Gertrude Stein, who eschewed traditional forms altogether yet wrote excellent poetry, though oft challenging to understand, at least at first reading.
The important thing is how much interaction there was then and is now between the arts. Painters write about poetry, and poets paint. Everybody, regardless of their particular art form, discussed and continues to discuss the direction of the arts. In the past, such discussions were often in the Paris salons and, more recently, on the internet.
We live in an age of change, although there certainly was change before the current century, but at a much slower pace, such that change – aside from revolutions – was hardly noticeable. Today, with all our modern means of communication, change happens on almost a daily basis. Consider how different life is now compared to life twenty or thirty years ago, before the advent of the information age.
No doubt, traditional poetic forms will exist so long as there is a means to communicate them as will current new forms. They will become traditional forms, as poets create new, as yet undiscovered or un-thought-of, forms.
Revised: May 2020