Formal verse has been out of fashion since before I was born. There are strong reasons for this trend, but I think that anyone with an ear for language has to regret it at times. For all its limitations, there’s no genre like formal verse for teaching you about writing.
The switch to free verse was part of the modernist movement in the arts. However, in English poetry, the switch to modernism was even more urgent than in most of the arts. English is just not a very good language for rhymes. For instance, when you think of it, centuries of English verse have been shaped by the lack of good rhymes for “love.” If you eliminate false rhymes like “cove” and “prove,” and ones of limited use like “gov,” all you are with are “above,” “dove,” “glove” and “of” — hardly a vocabulary to inspire. Yet the same is true of dozens of other common rhymes.
Some early twentieth century poets did their best by using more enjambment (letting the sense spill over the end of the line) and half rhymes like “lave” and “love,” but you can’t blame poets for finally losing their patience and giving up the whole idea of rhyme. It was a reaction like that of the German designers who gave up black letter and upper case alphabets in favor of using entirely lower case letters.
And, just as with the designers, you can’t hold poets responsible for the abuses of their revolutionary ideas in later generations. It’s not the modernists’ fault that anyone who writes in short lines can call themselves a poet today, any more than designers are at fault because trendoids today write their names in lower case without understanding why.
Paul Zimmer, the fantasy writer and Bay Area poet, used to suggest that another reason for the change was that, around the turn of the twentieth century, people stopped listening to poetry. The rhythms and rhyme of formal poetry work best when spoken, and hearing them when you read is a skill that you have to develop. So if most of your audience are going to read your verse, not hear it, why bother with what they aren’t going to notice anyway?
Paul’s answer was to read his work at every opportunity, so that his audience would notice. And I, for one, am grateful that he did, because listening to a expert poetry reader like Paul was not only a pleasure but a a lesson in how powerfully regularly structured language can play on your emotions.
However, I think there’s an even more basic reason: writing thrives on the challenge of technical restrictions. Faced with the problems like the lack of rhymes for “love” poets have two choices. One is to stretch themselves to work with the limitations, by making the standard set of rhymes unobtrusive. The second is to strain to find ways around the narrowness of choice — for instance, by using multi-syllable rhymes like “get rid of” and “mid-love.” Either way, it’s good artistic discipline.
I have nothing against free verse, especially when it becomes a way to explore an alternate rhythm like the alliteration of Old English poems or the structural repetition of the psalms. I’ve written more than my share of it, too. Still, every now and then I like to try my hand at formal verse, just for the discipline.
For instance, here is a sonnet I wrote many years ago, trying to recapture and express the emotions of a crush I had in elementary school. I call it “Love and the Uncanny”:
You trouble me with hints of the uncanny —
Like depths of silence where somebody waits,
Like houses flexing every beam and cranny,
Perturbing me with omens and strange fates.
I sense you now, just at the edge of eyes,
Like scurryings through leaves beneath my feet,
Like hunts that bay above me in the skies,
Like lightning just before it unrolls in a sheet.
Like wolves’ wild wailing, drawing down the moon,
Like presences that walk behind the trees —
Around midnight half-seen, half-guessed by noon,
You trail the hush and grace of mysteries,
And all that thrills with awe, awaking fear,
Must pale and fade when ghosts of you appear.
I’ll leave it as an exercise for the readers to decide whether in the end I am expressing an emotion about a person or talking about the effect of poetry. Really, poetry is an example of the uncanny, although generally a benign one. And that’s an effect that formal verse generally achieves more easily than free verse.
As for my exercise, I admit that some parts of it have a Shakespearean echo, especially the last two lines. But no one in the last four centuries has written a sonnet in English without thinking of Shakespeare in some way.
Anyway, I’m not writing to claim original artistic merit, but to sharpen my writing skills. A sonnet is one of the most challenging forms in English, and if I can write a sonnet that is even borderline respectable, I’m convinced, then all my writing will be better for the practice — even writing in forms as far away from poetry as an online article.