When poetry became ‘prosetry’: a brief history of free verse
Free verse has come to represent democracy, equal opportunity and self-expression. But in bulk and unaware of the forms from which it has been freed — the iambic pentameter, the alexandrine — it can be extremely depressing. A S Byatt (b1936)
Free verse proliferated in the twentieth century because it was ‘modernistic’, secular and easier to write, but it moved poetry closer and closer to prose until it reached the point when it was no longer possible to tell the difference when read aloud.
Poetry moved inexorably towards what I call prosetry, which remains the default setting today. Free verse looks different from prose on the printed page, in that it’s laid out in lines (often quite arbitrarily), but it usually sounds exactly the same as prose when spoken — this when a major difference between prose and poetry ought to be that poetry must be heard.
Called vers libre by the French since the late nineteenth century, free verse means there is no particular structure, no regular rhyme, metre or line length, no fixed stanza pattern, in a poem, the form depending rather on natural speech rhythms and the counterpoint of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Its popularity in the twentieth century developed initially from the desire on the part of certain poets to free themselves from conventional patterns which they felt, at least for the time being, had outlived their usefulness. Traditional forms were to be displaced in what was a century of displacement. The definition of, and expectations about, poetry were changed irrevocably.
It was a breakdown in discipline — notwithstanding the compromises achieved in half-rhymes, internal rhymes and inspiration found in the rediscovery of sprung rhythm — that also led to an exponential growth in the number of people, at least in the English-speaking world, choosing to write poetry.
Unsurprisingly, writers took to free verse and free-form lyrics in droves. It became ‘the norm’, universally…