October 18, 2023
A little while ago, I was at a bookstore in the poetry section. Browsing, seeing what was what. Two people were in the section with me. One of them picked up a more recent poetry collection, flipped to a short poem (we’re talking two lines), and read it out loud. It was a lovely poem, very evocative in those two little lines.
And then they both laughed and said, “That’s not poetry.”
I silently seethed and desperately wanted to tell them they were standing beside a poetry editor who, more often than not, works with that style of poetry.
I didn’t (I should have, politely of course), but I did rant about it to my mom afterwards.
Why am I telling you this? I figured it’s a good teaching moment – I’m sure some of you reading this agree with those two people. So much of what’s written today isn’t poetry, you think. What’s gone wrong with the style in the 21st century? Others may be thinking, it is poetry, dammit, why can’t people understand that?
Welcome to my defence of and roundabout love letter to free verse and other styles like it.
I think the sentiment of “that’s not poetry” largely comes down to three false beliefs, whether held in tandem or separately:
1. Euro- (or Western-) centric views on poetry are the right views
2. Something isn’t a poem unless it follows a definitive, rigid structure and set of rules
3. Poetry is not allowed to evolve
Euro- (or Western-) centric views on poetry are the right views
I’m in no way saying this is a conscious belief. A lot of the time, in North American schools at least, we’re only introduced to old, Western European styles of poetry (barring haiku). We’re essentially told from a young age this is poetry!
But there’s more than just “traditional European” poetry (and haiku). Some of the styles you’ll find more often today have roots in other cultures and countries and regions, and simply don’t look or feel like what you’re used to. That doesn’t make it not poetry; it makes education systems undoubtedly limited.
Take some time to look at different types of poetry other than the ones you’re used to. You can check out my blog post on styles you may not have heard of to start, but I encourage you to venture beyond that and see what else you can discover!
Something isn’t a poem unless it follows a definitive, rigid structure and set of rules
Poetry is about more than rules and rigidity. In fact, only certain styles adhere to either or both. Yes, a sonnet is only a sonnet if it has x, y, and z. But poetry is more about evoking emotions through words. A novel can do that, too, but it does that over a sweeping narrative. Not every line is chosen for maximum impact – only strategic ones. But a poem selects every word, every line, with care. Think about it – how cool is it that, in two lines, that poem the two people laughed at got me to feel something? No build up, no explanations – just two lines on a page. Yes, the language was simple, but that makes it even more impressive.
Poetry still has rhythm, whether there’s a rigid structure and rules or not. It needs to feel good as well as sound good. That happens through alliteration, metaphor, word length, line breaks, etc. These sentences here are by no means poetry – reading them out loud may be fine, but they’re not written in a way that evokes anything, let alone sounds musical and lasting to the ear. But that rhythm exists in poetry, and it can exist without rhyme and meter and rules.
I believe the primary point of poetry is evocation through play. It’s that connection to your reader. It’s conveying your thoughts and experiences through words that work together, play off of each other. Rules are sometimes just an added feature.
Poetry is not allowed to evolve
I remember in second year university, my Canadian Literature professor introduced us to the poetry of 1960s Canada. He explained it was going to be different than what we were likely used to. And it was – it was highly experimental. It didn’t look like the ballads and sonnets we’d been studying up to that point in practically every other class. But, he said, it’s still poetry. (See the points above about what makes poetry poetry.)
In my time as an editor, and before that as a student, I’ve really come to notice something – a lot of people refuse to accept shifts in language and literature. They view certain things as absolutes, when in reality, very little about either truly is. Both are changing all the time. That doesn’t mean what came before is necessarily forfeit. But it does mean there are new things to appreciate and study and learn from. Humans love to play with words, love to experiment with translating what we feel into something shareable. That’s going to inevitably lead to change from time to time.
Interestingly, too, is how slow we are to accept these changes. Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass is free verse, and it was published in 1855. I doubt you’d find many people who claim that his work isn’t poetry – so why do those same people discount today’s iteration of the style?
If we take my view of poetry – it’s about the sentiment and play more than rules – and apply it to different forms, we see that it holds true, even if the sentiment is simply awe at the turn of a phrase. Evolution of poetry is needed for humanity because we are a continually evolving species. It’s alright if your favourites were written in the 1600s – there were some wonderful poems to come out of that century! But just because it’s your favourite, and you like the rules and structure of those poems, doesn’t mean poetry that doesn’t look like it is any less a poem. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” does a beautiful job of conveying sentiments of love, but so do poems in Catarine Hancock’s 2023 collection I Gave Myself the World.
I invite you all to think for a moment and ask yourselves what poetry means to you. Perhaps you’ll still answer with “a piece of literature following a rigid set of rules around form and language.” And you know what, that’s ok. If that’s your view of poetry, you can hold on to it. But please, keep in mind that it won’t be everyone’s definition. And next time you’re in a bookstore, consider keeping comments like “that’s not poetry” to yourself. You may not be so lucky as to find yourself next to a poetry editor who silently seethes – you may find yourself next to a poet who get deflated, just a little, every time they hear those words.