Free the Verse

In college I could often be found in the student union, sipping the black while writing poetry with a ball point pen. In the seven years since graduation, this has continued, only now I use my laptop, and more often than not, I’m writing fiction. But just a few days ago I got out a pen, notebook, and my headphones and jotted down some free verse. After finishing a rough copy I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t do it as much, but poetry will always be my favorite.” We finished up and went home and I logged into to Facebook to see my college poetry instructor had posted this article in which the author declared poetry obsolete.

My professor was not pleased. Those who saw the article and commented were appalled and for good reason. Not only did the author, Alexandra Petri, declare that poetry may very well be dead, she did so with a very weak straw man argument. It goes a little something like this:

Still I think there is a question to be asked. You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?

Can a poem still change anything?

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well.

Well, I’m one of those people. It’s hard for me to buy English poetry while living in Korea, but back in 2011 I bought Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City. It inspired me like nothing I’d read since the first time I picked up Bukowski’s Play the Piano Drunk.

Other than the condescending tone Petri takes, what really got to me is how ridiculous and naïve her argument is: We can tell how vital a medium is by gauging the change it causes? When was the last time a reality show changed the world or is Honey Boo Boo really inspired a whole new generation of women leaders? And fiction: One of the best selling books of all time is Twilight. And sure, the names Bella, Edward, and Jacob are seeing new heights of popularity, but I hardly suppose that’s the type of change Petri meant.

Obviously the six people who enjoy poetry will think this sentiment ridiculous. But what I find more ridiculous is the amount of apathy toward poetry we’ve trained people to have. The only poetry education I received were the same old tired poems by Dickinson, Cummings, or some other widely known semi-old fashioned poets that were either easily teachable or gimmicky enough to gain the interest of restless teenagers. The thinking is that poetry is such a hard subject to teach, so we stick to the tried and true poems that aren’t challenging. And then it becomes stale.

Honesty, I’d love to the teaching of poetry opened up a bit. Poets like Kathleen Graber, whose The Eternal City was nominated for the 2010 National Book Award for poetry, incorporates philosophy, imagery, and story telling while giving us beautiful lines like: “Time, it turns out, is the most common noun in the English language, as if by constant invocation, we could keep it at bay.” She grapples with life and death and meaning while packaging it in a very relatable wrapper. Students (especially those uninterested in poetry) are tired of meter and rhyme. I’m tired of it. Show them something new, something fresh and I guarantee you students will be able to relate to it more. Engage them with the whimsical storytelling of Billy Collins or the give them something a bit more abstract with Merwin. The point here is to give them options so that it’s clear that poetry is an atypical form.

Perhaps that would help people like Petri not make inaccurate declarations about something they plainly do not get:

We know, we think, from high school, the sort of thing a poem is. It is generally in free verse, although it could be a sonnet, if it wanted. It describes something very carefully, or it makes a sound we did not expect, and it has deep layers that we need to analyze. We analyze it. We analyze the heck out of it. How quaint, we think, that people express themselves in this way. Then we put it back in the drawer and go about our lives.

It’s clear she’s confused. And perhaps that pains her, I’m not really sure. But I’ve analyzed novels and film and gone about my life upon finishing, and yet that doesn’t change the impact it’s had on me. Petri continually claims that she’s a part of print media and that she loves print books and that she hopes she’s wrong about poetry, but simply being involved in print media isn’t a reason to like poetry. It means nothing.

I’m going to continue writing poems. And maybe someday I’ll publish a book for those six poetry readers. Just because interest in poetry isn’t going to make a poet rich with book sales, doesn’t mean it’s a dead or even dying craft. What upsets me the most about this article is that it was given so wide an audience by being published on the Washington Post website. It’s not that I think it’s going to negatively impact poetry–it won’t–but it’s a clear attempt raise their view count by ruffling the feathers of poetry lovers. And what pisses me off even more is that it worked.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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3 thoughts on “Free the Verse

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  1. …I’ve never been able to write free verse. I don’t like to analyze things much either! I want it to sound lovely, give me lovely images and ideas, and to add to the well of words in my head. Maybe Petri hasn’t found a poem she really liked?

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