The Trajectory of Free Verse in the 20th Century and Beyond by Gary Wilkens

Free verse, as we use the term today, dates to the 1910s and a small group of poets who wished to “Make it New!.” While its origins can be traced to literary precursors like the vers libre of French poets such as Gustave Kahn and Jules Laforgue, and the cadenced, KJV Bible-influenced verse of Walt Whitman, free verse’s flourishing was a by-product of the most radical changes in human life since bipedalism: between 1900 and 1920 occurred either the invention or popularization of the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the supermarket (and mass-produced consumer goods), the moving picture, the tank, and poison gas. New ways to communicate, travel, eat, entertain oneself and kill the other guy naturally lead to or encouraged new ideas: Darwinism, Freudianism, Marxism, Mechanization, Consumerism and Woman’s Liberation changed mankind’s view of itself forever.


Naturally young poets wanted to imitate and adapt to the New, to separate themselves from the staleness they perceived in their immediate predecessors. Literary modernism strove to break free from old forms, old subject matter, and old mores, just as technology was changing, maps were changing, and social values were changing. Modernism held that the old ways of being human and understanding humanity were dead or dying, and literature must change to remain relevant.


The new horrors and the new possibilities made Victorian sentimentality, prudishness, and bland writing style simply unstomachable to poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Free verse was born in the work of the Imagists, and has grown like a flower patch— or a clump of weeds, depending on your faction in today’s poetry world. It is the dominant form of poetry being written today in the world, with all the advantages and disadvantages that has brought. And yet, the situation is not quite as simple as replacement. The 20th century saw many prominent metrical poets: Auden, Berryman, Hollander, Larkin, and Wilbur, as well occasional ideological revivals like New Formalism. A strong current of poetry has even moved beyond the whole formal vs. free issue in the form of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and other avant garde movements. Indeed, the whole dusty dichotomy may be false- poets today may use meter when they feel the poem needs it, abandon it, stretch it, mix it, etc. So the question is pressing: what will happen to this unruly child as it approaches its Big 1 O O? Will it be replaced by meter, be blended with it, or join it in the Dust Bin of History? In what follows I indulge in some prognosticating on the future of the 100 year old newness.


Despite, as we are told, free verse having been the norm in poetry for about 100 years, both the fabled General Reader and his sister the Educated Non-Poet Reader still take for granted that poetry is metrical and rhymed. If they try to write any, say for a friend’s birthday card, it is sentimental, likely humorous, and features absolute end rhymes. How different then, from

Iseult stands at Tintagel
on the mid stairs between
light and dark symbolism
Does she stand for phonic
human overtone for outlaw
love the dread pull lothly
for weariness actual brute
predestined fact for phobic
falling no one talking too
Tintagel ruin of philosophy
here is known change here
is come crude change wave
wave determinist caparison
Your soul your separation

(Susan Howe, “Rückenfigur”)


Amen. “Professional” poetry’s separation from the public and from any traditional notion of poetry has been the growing trend for the last several decades, notwithstanding the occasional counter-rebellions. I will here go on record as saying this trend has no end in sight and will continue to deepen: poetry will become more and more akin alien messages on a distant planet and less like communication or the evocation of emotions that any of the rest of us actually feel. And “free verse”? It will lose what little coherence it has as a poetry technique and be replaced by unchecked experimentation and abstraction.


(Note: If I believe this, why do I teach and write free verse? ……martyrdom?)


Picture this scene: multiple squabbling factions, factions within factions, deep, unbridgeable divisions, vicious back-stabbing, cronyism, endless old arguments, talking past each other. Politics? No. The contemporary poetry “community”. As poetry gets farther from the public, the camps within it get farther from each other and in their battles no quarter is asked for or given. To attend a certain school, to publish in a certain magazine, to win a certain prize, it is necessary to write in the style of the ruling Powers of that particular venue (this is not cynicism, it’s the advice you get from experience ppets). This will only accelerate: the various methods: formal, free, confessional, avant garde, etc., will circle the wagons and have nothing to do with each other beyond the scathing book review. But Ghost of Poetry Future, must it be this way? Probably.


But what of the style itself, what technical innovations do I see in my crystal paperweight? None. I foresee a period of stagnation (some will say it set in about 1930), free verse having exhausted what is logically possible in its form while being overtaken by the abstract forms mentioned above. It will have a position similar to that occupied by metrical verse today, as Langpo undergoes its own “Modernist” (Postmodernist) co-option to the mainstream. Future movement: New Free Verse. Future anthology: Rebel Demons: 25 Poets of the New Free Verse.


I have painted a bleak picture, at least for fellow partisans. It probably won’t happen exactly this way, but the potential is definitely there for the relevance problems contemporary poetry suffers from becoming much worse. Free verse has gone from squalling toddler to rebellious teenager to anxious middleager. Will it see retirement?




Gary Wilkens,, was born in 1976 in Charleston, SC and raised in North Carolina and Arkansas graduated in 1999 from Hendrix College with a Bachelor’s Degree with Distinction in Philosophy and in 2005 earned a MA in English from Sam Houston State University. In August 2007, he started pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.

2 responses to “The Trajectory of Free Verse in the 20th Century and Beyond by Gary Wilkens

  1. “To attend a certain school, to publish in a certain magazine, to win a certain prize, it is necessary to write in the style of the ruling Powers of that particular venue (this is not cynicism, it’s the advice you get from experience ppets [sic]). ”

    Actually, the advice “experience ppets” give is to write, then find a venue that seems to be a good fit for your work, not to pick a venue, then write for it. You’ve got it backwards.