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Dear Editor,

The Society for the Preservation of Rhyme and Onomotapea at Squirrel Gap, Mo. meets every month to discuss issues in modern poetry. At our last meeting, as we usually do, we set out refreshments and began our discussion of this month’s topic. Unfortunately, it was a rather contentious topic, especially when discussed after Esther Donnybrook opened a two liter box of wine and the disagreement led to furniture being thrown about. Since there was no resolution to the question we voted (while in the Emergency Room) to present our question to editors of poetic journals to seek an answer. Our question is: Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?


Milicent Barnswallow
President Emeritus

The Squirrel Gap Society for the
Preservation of Rhyme and Onomotopea

Dear Milicent.

Judging from the name of your society, I would say that most of you are of the Robert Frost school of thought that says “free verse is like playing tennis without a net”. It also seems that there are some heretical members who actually believe the contrary. Further, you all need to lay off the sauce, but I guess there is not much to do at Squirrel Gap, Mo. that doesn’t involve drunken disorderly behavior. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The question you pose has been around for over 200 years, reaching it height with the publication of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. Poetry itself has advanced with many writing today as practitioners of free verse. While societies like yours have done exemplary work to preserve poetry as it was in the days of Wordsworth and Poe, the movement toward a freer and looser form continues to grow. “Why is this?” you might ask. Here are a few reasons.

1) Rhyme is hard. When you mix it with meter it’s like juggling bowling balls. Line length, Iambic vs. trochee, metaphors, images…add rhyme to this and it either comes out doggerel or a work of art. Many poets simply give up on rhyme because it is too hard.

2) Sometimes it sounds stupid. For example:

“Softly silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon.”

OK, it rhymes, you have some meter going but what the heck is a shoon? Did you even bother to look it up? It’s a slipper, a lousy silver slipper on a big fat moon foot. Does this make sense? Some poet with a rhyming dictionary or an SAT word list used this word to force a rhyme and make “rhyme sense” but not common sense. I’ll say it again, rhyme can sound stupid.

3) It’s easier to meet women my own age. As one who writes in free verse, I do meet people at readings in my neighborhood and the local prison. I find that people who vehemently oppose free verse are usually of an age where they also wax nostalgic about rumble seats and the Charleston. Though it would be unseemly of me to ask your age I am reasonably sure you are two steps from mummification and do hope the sarcophagus is roomy. In the meantime, I and many others like me will continue to use free verse as a kind of to meet those of a like mind set so we can do the nasty.

4) Free Verse reached the height of its popularity in the 60s and it is extremely difficult to rhyme when you have just smoked a doobie. Everything sounds alike (except ELO and Jefferson Starship) and you don’t want to waste too much time figuring out rhymes when you have such a raging case of the munchies. I believe it was either Charles Simic or Oscar Levant who first mentioned this.

In summary, let me say that my mother said I should have been a lawyer instead of a poet but I didn’t listen. Now I answer letters like this partly out of boredom and partly because the question was too stupid to pass up. Is free verse killing poetry? No, bad free verse is killing poetry, along with small minds and petty societies whose main cultural expression is an alcohol fueled brawl. My suggestion is that at your next meeting, forego the Ernest and Julio endurance run. Sit back, order 9 or 10 pizzas and pass around one of your member’s “medical use only” stash. You’ll appreciate a wider range of poetry and stay out of the Emergency Ward unless you decide to go snowboarding under the influence.

Poetically Yours,

Herculese Merriweather Pensterman

Corresponding Editor (and lackey)
Quill and Parchment Magazine


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