A Linguistic History of English Poetry

By Richard Bradford | Go to book overview

6

Modernism and criticism

WHAT IS FREE VERSE?

This will be the most important and exploratory chapter of the book. The above question has taxed the interpretive resources of critics and poets since the first decade of this century and has resulted in a rich variety of solutions. None of these can claim to be a comprehensive, abstract definition of what free verse is or of how it works and many remain as angry attempts to dismiss the validity of their competitors. Free verse is the most significant contribution by poetry to the formal aesthetics of modernism, and in the following pages I shall attempt to provide a thorough account of how it began, why it persists and of its structural and functional identity. In the process we will be forced to reconsider the standard, conventional perceptions of how language works and more significantly of how poetic language can claim to be different from its non-poetic counterparts.


TO DEFINE THE INDEFINABLE

Consider the following task. Choose a poem and then define the metrical-prosodic form in which it is written. Most people will be able to identify The Rape of the Lock as a sequence of heroic couplets, Paradise Lost as blank verse and Shakespeare's sonnets as indeed sonnets. At the irregular end of the sliding scale, the Romantic ode, Hopkins's sprung rhythm or Coleridge's accentualist experiment in 'Christabel' will make concessions to identifiable patterns of syntax, alliteration, rhythm or rhyme scheme-their irregularity is validated by their invocation of regular precedent. But with Williams's 'The Red Wheelbarrow', Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro' or Eliot's 'Ash Wednesday' we can agree to designate all

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