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Why You Learn Formal Before Free
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 20, 2013
– edited on blog, Dec. 10, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"Ars Poetica" by Natania Rosenfeld – Poetry Daily, 2/19/13


from The Gettysburg Review (Spring 2013)
poem found here

first lines:
"Peace," says the soprano,
retired to the sea, "is the tide



free verse and the poetic ear (and grammar)


Note after the fact: I wrote this still early on in finding my sea legs. I rather don't like the tone because it is ambiguous as to whether I am speaking of the poet or the poem – and I generally want to speak of the latter more than the former. Most definitely, the end of the stanza is terrible. But the cause behind the problem I wanted to leave open, and merely posit ideas to ponder. There is benefit to exploring the question of whether a poet is writing above or below their ability: a question I believe one should always be asking oneself. (Also made a couple of text corrections.) – April 16, 2013

I'll begin in grammar . . . for in that the commas in lines 4 and 5 break so far from basic grammar, and because the syntax and the grammar, both before and after, are conventional, those commas are wrong. Incorrect.

Now, normally, I try to avoid using words in the domain of incorrect  – terms that are of the modality of yes/no – when talking about literature. I try to stay in the realm of sophistication and validity – terms that reside in discourse and function only as and towards discourse, rather than truth. But there are time when, flatly, something is incorrect. Here, because

  1. it involves grammar, which is not wholly manipulatable, being part of the medium of the work (specifically, here, the English language);
  2. the work establishes itself within fairly conventional grammar; which is also to say, the work does not make effort to establish variations in conventional grammar;
  3. the break from conventional grammar is severe.

As a sophisticated reader, there are two consequences. First, the reading is greatly disrupted. The lines are as clumsy as a drunk, bow-legged ox on platform shoes. Second, more importantly, I am left with the impression that either (1) the poet doesn't know how to use a semi-colon; or (2) the poet doesn't have a developed enough ear to hear the problem for themselves; or (3) the poet has an attitude toward their art that permits such laxity and apathy that they don't feel the need or obligation to learn their medium, or the need or obligation to give the degree of attention to their art to eliminate such problems. Whichever the reason, it makes the poem something not worth reading (or, greatly less worth reading), and diminishes the interest in the poem's maker. (Which is not a good thing.)

Of course, I could try to say it more simply by saying the writer of such a work is not terribly sophisticated (which is not the same as saying that the work does not show great sophistication, which is true); except that saying such eliminates an important distinction: there is a difference between a person whose work is unsophisticated but still at the level of the poet (or, hopefully, at the level of the poet striving to be better then where they are) and a person who is not bothering, who uses reasons and rationales (or a fundamental apathy) to permit a lackadaisical method and style. Which is why people like me condemn the permissibility in creative writing instruction of free verse: a poet has to develop their ear and ability through formal verse. I will give two general (and associated) reasons:

  • First, it is harder to hear elegance, fluidity, control, in free verse than it is in formal verse (or, in reverse, it is easier to develop your poetic ear through formal verse).
  • Second, it is far easier to develop bad habits – and rationales for inattentiveness – through free verse. (I should say, I have known many instances of such rationales being propagated through workshops and formal classes.)
  • (If you need a more formal reason, then I point you again to Gombrich and his Art and Illusion, to the idea that an artist develops through education through schema, and learns in sophistication to break from schema.)

To sum (and we have been for a while wholly in the general): there is no excuse to not know your medium-language; there is no excuse for getting grammar wrong (which is to say, there is no excuse to not being proficient in grammar, and well-equipped in syntax); and, once again, such errors come off to sophisticated readers wholly to the disfavor of the poet. Always.

Which brings me once again to the question of publication: the editor in this case failed their journal, pure and simple. There is sophistication also in editorship, and, unlike the poem, which speaks only of itself, in terms of editorship such lack of attention speaks to the whole of the publication.


An aside: I toy every once in a while with this question: "is it possible to tell from reading a poem whether the poet is of a lesser sophistication and trying something difficult to them, or whether the poet is simply not trying very hard." Given a large enough sample I think the usual case is yes. On a smaller sample, however, I flip flop. Sometimes it is obvious, as when errors are obviously mistakes (seen in comparison to the rest of the poem), or when the the nature of the attempted work speaks of exploration beyond the poet's current ability. Sometimes it is not so obvious. I am not sure what you can take home with this other than awareness of the question, which I think is more important than you might at first realize. And there you go.