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Saving Poetry From Its Friends.

From time to time, I have been tempted to describe the influence of friends of poetry on poetry these days as "pernicious."  However, in my dictionary "pernicious" is defined as "that which does great harm by insidiously undermining or weakening."  Were it not for "insidiously" (the suggestion that the undermining must be done by treachery or slyness), "pernicious" would fit.  However, I must recognize that poetry's "friends" are doing what they do believing that they are saving poetry or promoting it and are not bent upon poetry's destruction.  The rub is that, because they do not know what poetry (as art) is, the effect of their promotions is to destroy the very art they think they are furthering.

Thus, I have been critical of POETRY Magazine and many other current publications that present "free verse" as poetry.  They are not the only culprits.  According to the Times article referred to below, in 2010 there were 852 degree-conferring creative writing programs on campuses across this nation.  They have done nothing to arrest the notion that "free verse" is not verse, much less poetry.   But it is not just these publications and writing programs that are undermining poetry, it is other well-intentioned promoters of what they believe is poetry.  Just this week, I read an article in Wednesday's The New York Times on "poets laureate," indicating that they are proliferating rapidly.  No longer do we just have a national "poet laureate" appointed by the Library of Congress, but now all but six states have poet laureateships and many cities and towns have followed suit.  There are many reasons why "poets laureate," merely by accepting the position, demonstrate that they are not knowledgeable about what poetry (as art) is and how it is written, among them the facts that (1) they accept to use words to convey a message on behalf of the community that appoints them and (2)  their poems are generally conveyed to their intended audiences through poetry readings


Poetry is not a performing act.  Many people only know "poetry" through poetry readings.  A poetry reading makes invisible the form of the poem - and thus the poem itself is invisible.  A poem written or printed on the page is visible as form, therefore visible as art.  Its faculty as art is precisely because it exists as a perceived and visible body.  Form is always the determinant as to whether a work is art or not.

To observe the qualities of poetry, one must use one's eyes.  Every poem must be seen, not for its own sake (as a painting or sculpture is meant to be seen) but in order that its craft may be noticed and evaluated.  For the craft of a poem resides in the way the lines are run and laid out on the page, and how these lines are turned at the line-break, and how they finally affect a stanza.  "Free verse" generally means "free of verse" (with exceptions; see the blog above on "'Pure Poetry' as Art and  'The Red Wheelbarrow''") so is it really difficult to understand that a "poem" that has no craft of versification is neither a poem nor art?

I should clarify that there is such a thing as poetry as spirit.  Poetry as spirit springs involuntarily from the human heart.  You don't have to do anything for it.  But poetry as art is not automatic or spontaneous - it has to be worked for - into the discipline of form.  Poetry as art is always controlled, conscious and deliberate.  Even prose may be poetic; however that which is not in verse form cannot be considered poetry.

Thus, I have no problem with the many promoters and propagators  of "free verse" regaling in their expressions of poetic feelings, emotions, images and messages.  Please, though, neither confuse yourselves with true poets nor hold yourselves out as such.  You may not realize it, but you are dragging true poetry down with you.  Let us reserve the terms "poet" and "poem" for the work of artists who have studied and practiced the art of writing and crafting lyric poems.     

Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    curious Thursday, 10 October 2013

    Do you distinguish poem from free verse by telling the former having meter, rhyme, versification, tension and suspension of lines, while the latter carrying none? Is it possible that dictioning itself tells a good poem from a bad one? say, irony, paradox, symbol and understatement, etc., that can equally make a free verse quite poetic even though it seemingly uses none of those poetic elements?

  • Bob King
    Bob King Thursday, 10 October 2013

    Dear Curious:

    Meter and rhyme are dispensable, but just as soon as you posit versification as being absent, you disqualify your free verse from being a poem. Verse is the physical structure and form of poetry. Poetry rests primarily on two legs: language and versification. Language is its material and versification its structure. These are the two energy centers of poetry. By contrast, free verse is skinless writing - without skin to hold in its material, an amorphous, sprawling mass of words.

    You need structure to have art - versification technique provides that structure.

    Prose also has irony, paradox, symbol and understatement, etc., but none of these will produce a poem unless versification is present.

  • Guest
    123 Thursday, 07 November 2013

    It's an amazing piece. I remember Emily Dickinson who wrote poems not for publication, which in some level explains why her poems are unique and far more advanced than those of her contemporaries. If you write poetry for bread, for friends or for publication, you can't be a great poet, since poetry has nothing to do with utilitarian ends. Utilitarian concerns can moderate or adjust a poet's way of thinking and writing in ways destructive to writing by the poetic process..

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