First published: Feb. 2, 2012
First revision: Mar. 2017
Poetry has lost its artistry. It’s become an intellectual handicraft rather than a truly expressive art form. The dullest people have proclaimed themselves authorities on poetry. They don’t have any depth or expressiveness. They judge solely on discrete aspects of poetry such as form and execution—it becomes too difficult for such people to judge without. It would require a breadth and depth beyond the scope of the prig. Without merely looking at execution, one would not be able to critique poetry through the lens of detached intellectualization quite so easily. One would not be able to take a reductionist approach to poetry. Yet isn’t poetry meant to express the inexpressible? You can’t break the inexpressible down into pieces and declare those pieces equivalent to the sum of their parts. If poetry is solely reduced to discrete pieces, you may as well forget the inexpressible; it’ll be shut out.
Free verse is not truly free. The self-proclaimed authorities on poetry have stated that something must substitute for the lack of traditional structure.
[T]here is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.
-T.S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre”1
Thus, one must make a logical handicraft out of writing—consciously choosing the stress on each word, where to introduce rhythm, where to break up the line, etc. One must ensure a high enough level of difficulty because poetry must satisfy some arbitrary level of complexity.
The ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the 'freest' verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.
-T.S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre”
T.S. Elliot wrote, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”2 However, art in its purest form is not about doing “a good job.” It is about expressing the inexpressible.
Let's look at art from a biological perspective. What purpose did art serve early humans? Being beautiful served a purpose. It gave humans something in their darker times. Capturing the intangible was important. Art relayed something that couldn’t be relayed without. Even being entertaining served a purpose. But doing “a good job”? Did this serve a purpose beyond someone with a similar mindset complimenting, “Good job!”? Art that sits around to be praised on technical merits alone serves no real purpose. It’s antipathic to why humans create art. Being a good craftsman is important, but a well-forged weapon is not art. Additionally, at least a weapon serves a purpose. “Art” that is merely created to be technically “good” does not.
Thus, I’ve created my own form of poetry, though it doesn’t really have any particular form at all. I call it expressive verse or true free verse. Under "Free verse" in the The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, it is written: “Being an art form, verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles.”3 And this is where I introduce the most important analogy to expressive verse: modern dance.
(Image: Isadora Duncan4)
The dancer’s body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.
Angela Isadora Duncan was born in San Francisco, California, in 1877 as the youngest of four siblings. In her early years, after her family moved to Oakland, she attended school but dropped out because she found it stifling to her individuality. In 1895, Duncan became part of Augustin Daly's theater company in New York. She soon became disillusioned with the form. Duncan believed that classical ballet, with its strict rules of posture and formation, was "ugly and against nature." In 1899, she decided to move to Europe, first to London and then, a year later, to Paris. Within two years, she achieved both notoriety and success. Many critics thought she was “wild, formless, and improvised all the time.” She is now considered by many to be the creator of modern dance.
So how does this relate to poetry? Expressive verse gives the same freedom to poetry that Duncan gave to dance. Expressive verse’s primary goal is expression: to express the inexpressible or create something beautiful. If the poet has achieved those ends, then that’s enough. Expressive verse has no rules. It breaks all rules. One can use clichés, old language, and flout the conventions of English to achieve the aim of expression. One can cut up prose and arrange the fragments. It’s based on whatever one feels is right. It can still employ rhythm and rhyme if the artist sees fit. It is not like free verse where one intellectually chooses each step along the way (which, when it truly comes down to it, is still based on what one feels is appropriate.)
Expressive verse has no limitations or guiding principles, but that’s not to say it’s not guided. Though upsetting to those who like clear-cut definitions, expressive verse is guided only by the soul.
When Isadora Duncan defied the strict form of traditional dance, how did she pick her movements? Was she just wildly flailing her arms and legs? Absolutely not. Her soul and her desire for human and artistic expression were guiding her movements. Her legs were acting as an extension of the natural inner rhythm that exists within all of us. The movement of her arms flowed from a feeling of beauty inside her. Is it any coincidence that her movements resembled those of figures in classical Greek and Renaissance art?
Duncan was not consciously or "logically" choosing each movement. It sprang from the deep human need for expression that has been lost in our modern society. To those who only knew how to judge on the forms and movements associated with classical ballet, Duncan’s movements may have seemed as if she was wildly flinging her arms and legs around. Those people would have preferred more discrete criteria to quantify and critique. The average person who judged based on what they saw and liked had an easier time accepting Duncan’s dancing style than those who considered themselves professionals.
Look at the picture below. It’s beautiful. But what guides her to do that?
The same thing that guides her is what guides expressive verse. And just like Duncan’s movements which have a potency and power to them, expressive verse aims to achieve the same. Not only is beauty an objective but also intensity!
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
The same is true for expressive verse. In fact, it may be the only thing that is true for expressive verse. Whether something poetry is not defined by metre or rhyme. It’s defined by expression. Many of Dickinson’s poems make me feel as if a large stack of bricks has slammed into my core. The same holds true for when I watch Martyrs by Pascal Laugier, who himself said he tried to infuse something into Martyrs that was largely missing in film: emotion. That’s one of the aims of expressive verse, and that’s why I also like to call it express verse.
‘Express verse’ is a good short-hand because the message is often delivered quickly—instantaneously—almost psychically—and with “high velocity” impact for those who have felt the same way for a long time but were yet to find any piece of work to capture the experience. It’s interesting how when I connect to one of Dickinson’s poems, the whole poem makes sense—even the parts that logically and grammatically don’t make sense make sense. I think something similar might exist for express/expressive verse. In general, people get it quickly or they don’t—the same way people could quickly tell if they liked Duncan’s dancing.
Expressive verse should be liberating. Strict traditional dance forms to Duncan probably felt as constrictive as traditional poetic forms do to many new artists. Many would argue that without metre and rhythm, poetry is not poetry because it can’t be distinguished from prose. The need for such strict and convenient definitions is foolish in the arts—art itself being almost impossible to define and dealing with intangible content. As Emily Dickinson wrote:
He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow —
The Broad are too broad to define
Some people naturally get upset when things don’t come in easy to understand packets with discrete definitions that are easy to work with. The same people of the dance world accused Duncan of not truly dancing. If she doesn’t conform to traditional modes of dance, what truly differentiates her movements from wild flailing? Well, how about our intuitions? Our intuitions can distinguish poetry from prose and dancing from flailing regardless of metre, rhyme, or other traditional forms. It’s only people with poor intuitive abilities who can’t handle breadth and who need strict criteria to critique others who have problems with real expression.
- 1. Eliot, Thomas S. “Reflections on Vers Libre”. New Statesman. 3 Mar. 1917.
- 2. Eliot, Thomas S. “The Music of Poetry.” 24 Feb. 1942.
- 3. "Free Verse." The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Perminger, Alex et al. Princeton University Press, 1965. p. 289.
- 4. Photo by Arnold Genthe. "Duncan performing barefoot during her 1915–18 American tour." Library of Congress. Turn of the 19/20th century, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isadora_Duncan#/media/File:Isadora_Duncan_(grayscale).jpg. Accessed 3 May 2017.