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Formal Verse: An Introduction and an Invitation
Copyright©2004 by Dick Hayes (Liverpool, UK)

Formal verse: "being subject to and limited by rules of grammar"

These days it's uncommon to find a poetry competition winner or a published poem that isn’t “Verse-libre" or "free verse.” How has this come to be, and why is formal verse out of favor and considered old-fashioned?

Utmost has a useful article on the difficulties of writing good formal verse. I was a little flattered to discover some of my pieces presented as examples of the standard required for inclusion in the Utmost Christian Poets Gallery. This article is my invitation for you and other poets to join me in experimenting and working with formal verse.

Poetic giants of history

If we examine the history of formal verse, we will inevitably read the compositions of poetic giants. All are acknowledged masters of diction—superlative handlers of words and themes—conveyers of emotion and thought and almost to a man their whole canon is constructed within the constraints of formal verse. Yet like ruins that retain their magnificence, these poetic giants are now little visited. Amongst those of great age are Spencer, Donne, Milton and Pope. Then Wordsworth, Byron and Tennyson (and let’s add Longfellow for the North American reader). For a little late flavor add Kipling, Yeats and Auden. But after these giants, post 1945, something strange happens—there is silence and emptiness in formal verse!

The above are only samples of the better known poets, not much read. Much of their work assiduously follows the timing of the iambic pentameter (referred hereafter as IP), 10 beats to a line divided into pairs or iambs with a stress on the second part of each pair.

          (From Shakespeare's "Sonnet CV")

          Let not my love be called idolatry,
          Nor my beloved as an idol show,
          Since all alike my songs and praises be
          To one, of one, still such, and ever so.

These poets often used rhyme, but—please be clear on this—rhyme is a nonessential embellishment.

The demise of formal scansion

I define "scansion" as a line in its entirety that follows a pattern and a certain discernible form. For example, a ballad written in common tetrameter (8 beats per line) with ABAB rhyme.

          (From Richard Hovey's "Unmanifest Destiny")

          I do not know beneath what sky
          Nor on what seas shall be thy fate;
          I only know it shall be high,
          I only know it shall be great.

Around the end of the 19th century the world of art began to break free from established form. In the field of painting, for example, abstraction broke from classical order and the expected line. Amongst the artists' colony, the formal was seen as a straight-jacket limiting the artist to the externals of a thing. Out went the formal as representing the old, and in came the modern.

In poetry something of the same process has taken place. It seems the credo of modern poetry is, "Write what comes out of you—the originality is in the unusual bringing forth." Thus poets have become subject to the leading of inspiration rather than the fitting of form. How natural then to write unshackled, and what better mode than the aptly named free verse?

From Dante to Whitman

Historically, when late medieval writers discovered Italian renaissance poetry (Petrarch, Dante, etc) they recognised the intricacy of the craft as a way to show off their skills (vanity is the poet’s weakness). The repetition of an exact number of beats, lines, rhymes and verses was a way in which to demonstrate poetic excellence (and I’ll surmise, a way to exclude lesser practitioners from the limited patronage.)

From the courtly Elizabethans (Spencer’s "Fairy Queen") to the Edwardians (Rupert Brooke’s "Grantchester") no poem got off the ground unless it obeyed the rules of poetic grammar. Sometimes the mode was ingeniously stretched, as by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but never abandoned. It is not until the late 19th century that we find free verse gaining acceptance (an early proponent was Walt Whitman).

Long live the impression

Browsing the shelves of poetry written today, it appears that few serious poets use any other mode than free verse, or if I may put it another way, “Scansion is dead—long live the impression!”

I recall my first exposure to Goldsmith’s, "The Deserted Village," and my delight in the character studies and the precision of the structure. To read Keats’ "Odes" or "St Agnes Eve," Milton’s "Lycidus" and Wordworth’s "Lines composed above Tintern Abbey" was an eye opener. How many Americans may first have come across Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Raven" when treated as burlesque by a Simpson’s cartoon? The original is one of the darkest, most troubled pieces ever written.

I still enjoy rereading Mathew Arnold’s works such as "Dover Beach" or "The Scholar Gypsy." It remains a fact that the enduring classical English works of poetry are in formal verse. Surely this says something of the importance of the form, so why not have a go?!

A warning to Christians

Great poets of the era of formal verse often acknowledged their inspiration and few gave any glory to the Lord Jesus. The most regular appeal is to the muses (Greek spirit beings) or the Spirit of the Universe. Great talents were offered on pagan and pantheistic alters. In light of this, my practice in reading is to observe the skill of the messenger, but be wary of the message.

An encouragement to Christians

I have read that Charles Wesley, the writer of divine poems (or hymns), is the most prolific writer of English verse ever with 180,000 lines to his credit. The bulk is elegant, skilful, inspiring and original. Unlike most of the other great dead poets, his work is still performed the world over to the everlasting benefit of every nation. He uses approximately 100 different formal measures, almost all rhyming.

Lose your inhibitions and find a copy of the 1780 Methodist Hymn Book or Charles Wesley’s collected works. (both quite rare)

Rules for formal verse

Rule 1: A Steady rhythm

I have read somewhere that verse owes its origin to the time when words parted company with music. Was "The Iliad" performed to the accompaniment of the lyre? Passing into two streams: the prosaic operated as a communication of everyday life, while the poetic tended to inspire, entertain and instruct. So it was that verse retained the rhythm and the subject matter of the oral/music traditions—being in effect songs without music. This is why we refer endlessly to rhythms, beat, stress etc.

This distinction was once self evident—you wrote one or the other. But now it has become so unclear, some poems seem like chopped up prose. You must take a conscious effort to separate the two again if you want a formal canon of verse in the 21st century. Observe the simplicity of Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems.

Rule 2: The unbroken line

The golden rule is don’t break up your lines. As far as possible, let each be complete in itself containing a clear and complete idea or image. In my opinion, nothing is worse than running a disjointed thought into a second line without knowing where a full stop will eventually go. In prose the paragraph is used to allow extended ideas but in formal poetry the line must command your attention! This is easier said than done—so we allow for good breaks and call them enjambment—bad breaks are sloppiness. That said, to write the best formal verse you need to master this principle, even if you choose to vary it as you see fit. Your greatest work will be the cleanest and clearest. Read Crabbe’s "The Borough" and look for the tragedy of Peter Grimes.

Rule 3: Suitable Luggage

To go on a short break with a cart load of enormous cases is inappropriate—a weekend bag will do. Formal poetry recognises this. If you're using a verse structure pick one that assists your purpose. Simple and profound insights work well with short verses, narrative suits the steady repetition of long full lines. Mood can be enhanced by selection of verse and metre. Lyric poetry intends to capture the sense of song by lightness and movement. Elegiac, death and loss by slower thoughtful measures. The classic Shakespearean sonnet of 14 lines is designed to pack in enough for a brief stay comprising introduction, argument and finale exemplified by Keat’s “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

Rule 4: Rhyme is a minefield

Rhyme doesn’t rule, it serves (except the limerick which is a party piece). Every rhyme scheme used must follow this dictum… or poet beware. This is a hard saying, but if you're stuck for a rhyme then you’ve lost the plot! When rhyme is subordinate to the thought process, it will take its place easily and naturally but when everything has to stop to make a rhyme work then it grates or glares. Good rhyme enhances never dominates a verse. The secret here is vocabulary. Without an ample supply of unusual words and phrases, the writer falls back on platitudes. Poets should read widely and be interested in many more things than poetry.

Rule 5: Scansion is the key

As you begin and end a piece you should stand by the measure and style that you wish to use and never jump through other hoops to get to the end. You’d be the first to spot when another author strays from the true, so read your own pieces aloud and be brutal with poor lines that don’t meet the chosen metre. Put aside a good image if it doesn’t fit and re-use when it does. Avoid bending your chosen metre to a phrase you think is so good that it must be included, whatever it does to the rhythm.

Rule 6: Originality is still required

Having said so much about form, if you haven’t originality formal verse will expose your limitations very quickly. Unless your thoughts and observations rise above form you will be considered no more than an exponent of method (and a stale one at that). No amount of exact verse science will gain you recognition without the poet's flair. By way of example, Walter De La Mare’s "The Listeners" makes use of poetic diction and metrical tension to achieve a most powerful sense of the unknown without recourse to the obvious and the crude.

Bungee jumping

One more thought. I call it ‘Bungee jumping for maximum effect’. The element of surprise is a fascinating device for the formal poet. The bungee appears to be slack as the body drops into the canyon and then straightens and jerks the fallen back up with a sense of powerful restraint. A verse runs along then explodes and subsides again—sthe scansion holding all together. Read Coleridge’s "Kublai Khan."

I’ve included a few fragments of my own verse. When preparing this article I found it easier to convey some of the issues using my own work. After all I was an observer during the making and am still intimate with the writer! I make no claims as to the merit of these, I can see only too well the failure to follow my own strictures. Each is lifted from a much larger piece—the selection aims to demonstrate the building of form. In "The Short and Sharp" the context is a road accident in the Lancashire Hills.

          Tyres shrieking in contention
          fight to hold the fleeing road,
          reeling from the lost suspension
          like a fat demented toad.
          Dark the object turning, lonely
          over granite, gorse and broom,
          falling down forever, only
          till a dull and distant boom.
          Long the silence after terror
          nothing moves or breaks the calm,
          but a dislocated mirror
          plunging on a broken arm.

          • Note the rhythm, the beats are 8,7,8,7 per verse and
          the rhyme ABAB establishing hypnotic repetition.
          • The rhymes are hard feeling words: Toad, Boom, Terror.
          • The stress is on the first, third, fifth, etc forcing the
          reader to speed along by immediate involvement.
          • Each verse is in two parts. Lines 1 & 2 raise a question,
          3 & 4 give an answer.
          • Thus the verses undulate, again conveying movement.

This sort of verse is commonly found in the ballad and the rules of grammar are those which bring a tight, hurrying and energetic movement. Think of folk songs you’ve heard.

In "The Stately Progress" the context is a thunder storm.

          The bad air leaps to punch the panelled eaves
          moans in the pane and skits above the ground
          along the iron pipe it ducks and weaves
          and Kelly woken by the frantic sound
          frightened that evil elements are loose
          (the room is upside down and moving round)
          gathers her duvet tighter than a noose.

          • This is in IP with the stress on beats 2,4,6 etc. The
          reader can step gently into the movement, thus rising
          up and down steadily.
          • The line length demands a longer breath and so a
          longer pause.
           • The sense of control is maintained, despite the content
          of the piece, by the sense of walking through—rather
          than running as in the ballad. (the iamb is Greek for
          foot, and feet are made mostly for walking)
          • The rhyme scheme is used to further assist the control
          by softer sounds such as weaves, eaves—so anchoring
          the lines rather than letting them fly.
          • The rhyme scheme is ABABCBC the B rhyme provides
          for unity reinforcing the whole, while the A and C provide
          for opening and closing observations. none steals the
          limelight. I have emphasised ‘steady control’ as this is
          the strength of this mode. Where a a pair of rhyming IP
          lines is used with this steadying effect, these can be
          referred to as an Heroic couplet, indicating the suitability
          for dealing with big themes. This measure does not need
          rhyme though, and without such is called blank verse. It
          soars in the determined and fatalistic discourse of Satan’s
          speech in "Pandemonium" (Milton’s "Paradise Lost") or in
          the subtle and compelling appeals by "Henry the Fifth" on
          the eve of Agincourt (William Shakespeare). In each case,
          images are built up steadily and forcefully through the
          content of the line and stretching forth of horizons.

In "The Adventure of Variety" the context is breaking with the old life.

          Those days were sadness, had there been some grace
          I surely would have stayed, but chose to go
          the multitude said nothing to my face
          but set a space
          between our ebb and flow
          or thus it seemed, mistrust would have it so:
          though one perplexed, appealed for delay
          I said “what shall be gained in choosing ‘no’
          when troubles overwhelm me day by day.”
           For I had snapped my fingers at the man
          and wouldn’t just go back - and less he chide
          “he couldn’t finish what he first began”
          I fled and ran
          with no one else beside:
          and most considered this a suicide;
          but then it hardly mattered for they shut
          their eyes so tight—and mine felt open wide
          and brooked no argument, dissent or but.

          • The measure is IP and the rhyme is ABAABBCBC—
          again the B rhyme is important in sustaining continuity
          and the steady drive forward. This verse scheme required
          significant discipline to sustain—if any reader has come
          across it before please let me know.
          • There are in fact 8 lines, but here I have departed into
          variety. Dividing down the 4th into a 4 beat and a 6 beat
          contrast. This 4 beat phrase, deliberately rhyming with line
          3 is used as a spring mechanism (the rhyme arriving
          sooner then expected breaks the flow—so pitching the
          reader into the second half of the poem. This creates an
          uneasy tension suitable to a verse that deals with travelling
          and uncertainty (both literal and metaphorical )
          • Note the breaking of the line in stanza 2 (shut/their eyes).
          Does it work? I hope so—it is however the exception.
           • Note the use of speech, now a rarity—so useful where a
          story needs to be told, a third party looking in can sometimes
          be the only way to convey a particular sensation

Be a reader

Get reading! Discover the enormous variety of forms and familiarise yourself with their use and limitations. Don’t be put off by the so called politically incorrect. Kipling is despised by some for his "imperialist leanings," but his "Barrack Room Ballads" show a sympathy and understanding of humanity. T.S. Elliot borrowed freely from Kipling’s metres to shape his "Old Possums Book of Practical Cats"—the inspiration for the musical "Cats." I suggest the enquirer seek out a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse—the earlier the edition the better.

Enlarge your vocabulary!

With free form it is easier to bring together all sorts of language, even from a limited stock, as you are not hemmed in by the same stress patterns. But bad formal verse invariably provokes the howl of doggerel, so it is one of the hardest disciplines to master and a rich vocabulary is essential.

Practice and imitate

Originality only comes when you push the boundaries further and that means travelling some distance with the best proponents before you branch off on your own. But whatever you do, have fun—and watch those formal verse come!

What do you think of Dick's ideas? Please write and let me know.