In the run-up to the election of a new Professor of Poetry, Paul Gittins warns the medium will continue to be muzzled and muddled unless there is a renaissance in its traditional skills.

Heavy cost of free verse

By Paul Gittins (Exeter College, 1964)

Research into recitation, and encouragement of recitation, are helping to stimulate interest in poetry — this much I made clear in a previous Oxford Today article on the direction of modern poetry. But the research also shows that poetry that uses the traditional skills is more conducive to recitation than free verse which makes up the bulk of modern poetry. The reason is obvious. Most modern poetry is unappealing to readers and listeners alike because it is so often obscure and difficult to follow.

This diffuseness is nothing new. Back in 1964, C Day Lewis warned in his Norton Lectures at Harvard (published as The Lyric Impulse) that modern poetry needed ‘aerating’, and he went on to suggest two solutions to make poetry more accessible. Firstly music, because if you ‘write words for a tune, you find the tune clears much of the verbal undergrowth’; and secondly (pre-dating the Poetry Archive’s Poetry by Heart competition by fifty years) recitation, ‘as many people enjoy listening to poetry who seldom or never read it’.

A third solution would be to stop venerating poets as sages, as this inhibits criticism. A poet, after all, is no wiser than most other people. What he or she does have is a heightened sense of feeling and imagination, coupled with a practised skill in arranging words. ‘Poetry’ as Robert Graves said, ‘is the profession of private truth, supported by craftsmanship in the use of words’.

A more sceptical attitude to poets would also weed out the self-promoters and those who regard poetry as a form of psychotherapy, as in a recent number of the American magazine Poets and Writers which elicited such confessions from debut poets as ‘If I could write the poems … I could speak about my trauma’ or ‘I knew I had to write to break into that silence, disarm that solitude.’

Unfortunately, most modern poetry is written in free verse (or prose-poetry as it should be more accurately called) — a hybrid form of writing which is neither prose nor poetry. By turning their backs on the traditional skills of poetry as old-fashioned and restrictive, the prose-poets like to boast that they are freeing themselves from the shackles of ‘formalism’. But with no system of checks and balances to curb their imaginations, the result is the rambling complexity that characterises so much modern poetry. As Robert Frost famously once said: ‘Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.’

Why should prose-poets, or any poet for that matter, think that they are exempt from learning and practising a craft that has resulted in centuries of literary heritage? By all means adapt the diction or prosody to suit the temper of the time; but throwing the baby out with the bath water is wilful and self-defeating.

It is, of course, true (as James Fenton pointed out in his 2003 Introduction to English Poetry) that poetry cannot be practised in the same way as a more physical skill like playing the piano or riding a horse. But by reading and studying the poets of the past, practice is achieved by a form of osmosis, so that the poet will develop an instinctive feeling for the ‘rightness’ of a word in a line of poetry, which is not so crucial an element in the construction of the longer, less tensioned prose line. Then, a poet with something original to say will possess the imbued skill to express it. And if really confident of having written something of value, he or she should offer it for recitation as the ultimate test for approval.

Paul Gittins’ Scratching Around: Selected Poems is published by Editions Illador (2014) in English and bilingual English–French editions.

Also at Oxford Today:

Image © Rasstock / Shutterstock.


By Bob Allaway (Re...

What Paul Gittins says in this and his previous article agrees with my own feelings. I am not a poet, but I am a preacher, and it has often struck me that the language that I use in preaching is more akin to poetry than the prose I would use in a theologial article. Things like rhythm, rhyme and alliteration are not in themselves necessary to poetry, but they function as aids to memory and recitation, and it is this recitation and hearing that is of the essence of poetry.

By Sarah

Yes. And no. For me, the grains of truth are undermined by the generalisations. There are strong free verse poets just as there are strong poets working in more traditional forms. There are 'poets' producing weak creations in traditional metre and rhyme, just as there are 'poets' producing weak creations in free verse.
Knowledge and skills are obviously a good thing. But it's a false assumption to believe all poets choosing to write in free verse don't have those skills just because they make that choice. Likewise, choosing to write in free verse cannot automatically be equated to writing 'with no system of checks and balance'. A good 'poet' will be doing that whatever choices they make in terms of form.

By Laurence Copeland

The famous Robert Frost dismissal of blank verse gets things the wrong way round. It seems harder to write lines which resonate in free form. An Eliot or Auden can manage it, lesser poets rarely can and would in my opinion be better off accepting the constraints of traditional forms.

By Clifford Peterson

I believe it was Robert Frost who said, "Free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."

By Peter

Thank God someone is saying this before poetry dies of fundamental strangulation.

By Philip Moore

I found Paul's article really inspiring. I once entered a poetry competition and my (and those of others) entry was criticised because it used rhyme and metre. I would not have minded if it had been criticised for being rubbish (well, I would...) but the assumption that rhyme and metre necessarily make a poem poor I found disappointing. I accept that free verse challenges the writer's mastery of what I see as being the most important poetic skill - using words to create imagery, especially aural and visual - but I feel too much free verse does not actually do that for me.

By Merryn Williams

I absolutely agree. Poems sometimes demand to be written in free verse, but it is rhyme which draws the reader in.

By David Kovacs

O bards of rhyme and meter free,
My gratitude goes out to ye
For all your deathless lines. Ahem,
Let's see now . . . What is one of them?
F. P. Adams, To a Vers Librist

By Edward Lavender...

Dear Professor Gitting,

I was very interested in the above article, and also the 1964 article in the previous Oxford Today.

As regards TS Eliot: I believe he once wrote "I write for the four hundred most educated men in Europe", which leaves most of us in barbarian territory. However, he was a genius with words, and his poetry is widely loved by many of us who do not understand a lot of what he wrote, purely for its music..perhaps like the natives in the Amazon who were spell-bound by Mozart. However, there are obscure poets who do not have his genius, and how can we appreciate poetry which we do not understand?

I think linking 'free'' with 'verse' creates the same dilemma as that which arises as in Art in general, where something is a piece of art if the artist says it is. Boundaries between verse and chopped- up prose, and between Art and the rest of the world dissolve.

Yours truly,

Edward Lavender

One of the Romantics, I cannot recall who or where, said that nothing should not be written in verse which can be better expressed in prose..

By Robert Hanrott ...

I would like to offer the following verse in support of the views of Paul Gittens, writing about modern poetry:

The Rhyme​

​Poets now despise the rhyme,
Or that’s the affectation.
But nonsense is as nonsense does
And what is worse than bad blank verse? -
Gibberish strung upon a line,
Conforming to the fashion?
The wish being father to the thought,
It’s promptly
To be

Rhymes outdated? That’s just rot!
Some can rhyme, and some can not.

It’s content, not the form, that counts,
And mastery of meaning.
A certain discipline of mind
Is requisite when using rhyme.
So don’t reject the tools at hand,
Misused as they may be.
The means can justify the end.
My point is penned.
The End!​


By Scirard Lancely...

I cannot love a poem if I don't know where it's going, and it's usually the metre that the poet ought to see to, and add a rhyme, from time to time. I thoroughly agree that 'free' verse is rambling and boring and tends to go on and on without usually saying anything much and anyway I'm not sure if should be called poetry at all. So junk the lot, and have a shot at metric verse that's brief and terse.

By Ross Anderson

The most valuable thing that is said in this article is - 'most modern poetry is unappealing to readers and listeners alike because it is so often obscure and difficult to follow.' Secondly this - 'and if really confident of having written something of value, he or she should offer it for recitation as the ultimate test for approval'.

There is almost a cult of obscurantism in so much of poetry today. And it seems that the poets of today have become reluctant to express emotion or to reveal their true thoughts and emotions - it seems that having a heart of flint is the most valued quality today, not being soft-hearted or vulnerable in any way. Poetry is the victim of a post-modern cynicism and self-centered 'I myself and me' society. Reading Robert Burns the pathos and empathy shines through, the humanity of the poet shines brilliantly and unequivocally, unafraid to speak his heart and to love his fellow man with all his heart, worldly things are mere emptiness to him - that is the whole of the law as taught by Jesus. True poetry is a physical visceral experience, the poet shares his state of consciousness, and the art of poetry is to do so with CLARITY not obscurantism - 'Poetry is words charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree' - Ezra Pound.

But strangely the metered structure of poetry does not always have to be present - for example in the Bible there is a strange and magical poetry, unforgettable words that resonate with our very souls, these words seem other-worldly - but there is not strict meter there. Perhaps there is some underlying resonance, and perhaps it is within the original Hebrew or Aramaic languages. Translation of poetry into a different language is an important subject - because the sounds of words and their meanings are intimately connected, in ways that go back very far in our history.

Secondly regarding the necessity of strict meter (and I will say I am generally very much in favour of strict meter - I think it is a great craftsmanship of the writer) there is that form of poetry classed as 'stream of consciousness', also to be found in prose (for example the much renowned and remarkable 'Catcher In The Rye' by JD Salinger). This form of writing represents a very pure and unfiltered form of expression, a true experience of consciousness and perception and orientation to and assimilation with the surrounding world and the native's experience within it.

When we edit something we have written we should be making it better, but if all that process means is trying to be clever and outwit the reader and other poets, a kind of one-upmanship, ultimately impressing upon the human ear an empty and hollow experience, a communication of pure ego, then poetry is the ultimate loser, and nobody is the winner.

When T.S. Eliot says in his 'Waste Land'

'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'

these words speak a truth that many have experienced - it is a sad place to be, but the words say that we fight back, we have something we still treasure, there is hope, and if we lose we still did all we could, we did all we could for the people we cared about, and the things we believed in.

Ross Anderson
(Alumni no 8-10199432)

By Jon Stone

"The reason is obvious. Most modern poetry is unappealing to readers and listeners alike because it is so often obscure and difficult to follow."

I'm afraid this is a clanging great clue that the entire piece is an attempt to construct some sort of pseudo-rational framework around Gittins' own subjective feelings. It's an utterly asinine generalisation, and completely laughable when you consider that there's no end of poets alive today writing using traditional forms and traditional techniques who are no less obscure or more well liked for doing so.

By Timothy Adès

I'm a translator-poet working mostly with rhyme and metre. I'm not doctrinaire about this, I just happem to prefer it.

By Paul Gittins

I cannot reply to all the comments made but would like to discuss three of them briefly.
Firstly, Sarah's comment that free verse cannot automatically be equated to writing 'with no system of checks and balances.' I would just like to know what system of checks and balances free verse/prose-poetry might possess other than applying a full stop now and again.
Secondly, Laurence Copeland's use of the word 'constraints.' Traditional forms do not constrain. They are not pre-selected formulae into which the poet squeezes what he or she wants to say. They are the tools of the trade used for making expression more effective.
Thirdly, I welcome Ross Anderson's mention of the importance of feeling in poetry. The first part of the Twentieth Century with its proliferation of academic reviews and joyless critics focused on a more intellectual approach to poetry which is still prevalent. A balance needs to be restored and poetry that is more accessible and enjoyable should be encouraged and valued.

By Philip Anderson

It seems to me that some advocates of free verse are being very narrow in their concept of traditional verse, thinking it means metre and rhyme. Not necessarily. Neither Milton nor Homer rhymed, no Old English poet counted syllables, and blank verse IS traditional not free verse. But all have a form that can be learnt, and that helps the memory (of both reciter and listener).
I suggest the best free verse poets may have actually been trained more traditionally, then chosen a much looser form that is invisible to the innocent eye.
Should I mention explicitly my beliefs that poetry is more than just English poetry (I read more Welsh poetry than English) and that poetry is beat written to be heard?

By Michael Polling

Why no mention of Simon Jarvis, who is writing lengthy, complex and multilayered poems using strict metrical structures and rhyme-schemes? Cambridge isn't that far away.

By Ben Brown

Great free verse is great, and technically demanding; great formal verse is great too. I think what you are railing against is crap free verse; however, it's worth noting that crap formal verse is also without merit.