Hard Line Politics: On the Myth of Free Verse

By Austin AllenNovember 23, 2021

Hard Line Politics: On the Myth of Free Verse

This essay aims to deflate one of the most stubborn myths in modern poetry. Roughly stated, the myth goes like this: Metrical verse is politically regressive unless proven otherwise. Free verse is politically progressive unless proven otherwise.

I love meter. I love free verse. I hate this myth. I hate it as I hate any superficial politics — any pressure to display the proper flag or the correct lapel pin. Stigmatizing meter has never freed a prisoner, fed a hungry person, or benefited anyone who wasn’t a poet. Neither has advocating even the most experimental free verse practice. Renouncing meter doesn’t drive away biases or bad ideas; no verse technique can perform that exorcism. A poem’s politics can’t be neatly deduced from its formal surface, or a poet’s politics from her chosen verse style.

Claims to the contrary stem from many sources, some of them vital to the history of the art; but they are rooted, ultimately, in an American fixation on branding, packaging, and labels. The politicization of the “free” in “free verse” deserves scrutiny as an American marketing ploy: a cliché of the “free market” in the “land of the free.” The contrasting term “formalism,” applied to metrical poetry whether the poet likes it or not, deserves scrutiny as a misleading label: a term almost perfectly contrived to sound staid (“formal”) and ideological (“ism”).

Protesting that meter and freedom are not opposites has become multi-generational work. As A. E. Stallings states emphatically in her 2000 essay from The Alsop Review, “Crooked Roads Without Improvement”: “Form is not ‘patriarchal.’” By “form,” Stallings means the kind of “received” forms (metrical and/or rhyming verse) in which she works herself. She explains:

This seems so self-evident to me that I hardly know how to refute [the misconception]. As a woman, I find the idea that form has some sort of gender bias (is a tool of oppression) particularly offensive, and bizarre. […] What is the logic behind it? That formal poetry has largely been written by men? Poetry has been largely written by men. This does not mean that poetry is a patriarchal genre, or that I as a woman cannot write poetry. […] Does form belong to women? Of course. It belongs to everyone. [… It] springs as naturally from humanity as language itself, from prehistory.

Compelling as this argument is, it’s not “self-evident” among contemporary poets; it remains contentious over 20 years later. This essay will reexamine it, exploring, in the process, the 20th-century politicization of “form”; the resulting critical tendency to equate meter with restriction, and in turn with repression or oppression; and the wealth of nuance and historical context this equation ignores.

In consulting a range of perspectives, I will both affirm and qualify Stallings’s argument. Though the stigmatizing of meter represents a wrong turn in the history of criticism, it produced some revolutionary styles and techniques that might not have emerged otherwise. It opened up a market once dominated by meter — a market whose barriers were easy to conflate with the rules of meter itself. As often happens, however, the successful revolution bred a new establishment, which has grown nearly as rigid as its predecessor.

Metrical poets have complained on this score for decades, but most of their critical responses have focused on aesthetics; few have engaged at length with the political stigma and the market factors driving it. [1] This essay will place politics front and center. While celebrating meter and free verse alike, it will show how the equation of free verse with freedom — from the 19th century onward — has relied on marketing techniques, fictions of American exceptionalism, and whitewashed accounts of literary history. It will argue that, like so many American myths, this one has become unsustainable.

II. Poetic Licensure

Meter predates written literature and survives in poetic traditions around the globe. Before the first 19th-century experiments with vers libre, it was as intrinsic to most Western verse as traditional tonality was to pre-20th-century Western music. [2] Since the Modernist period, the norms in Anglophone poetry, and American poetry especially, have reversed. A few statistics will illustrate the pattern.

The editors of Poetry, the flagship poetry journal of the English-speaking world, pride themselves on their “Open Door” submissions policy. Yet out of 42 poems in Poetry’s December 2017 issue — a special number surveying contemporary Canadian as well as American poetry — just one was composed in “formal” verse. It contained enough metrical variation that it might have been classified as “free” in the Modernists’ day. [3] By 2021, the magazine’s editorship had changed, but its Door remained effectively closed to meter and rhyme; the March 2021 issue contained no examples of either. [4] Meanwhile, in three 2017 issues of KROnline (the web version of the prestigious Kenyon Review), only four of 31 poems contained either meter or consistent rhyme. Again, several of these were loose enough to approximate vers libre as its early practitioners understood it. As of March 2021, the pattern continued: no poems in the previous three issues had used consistent meter or rhyme, though two slipped in and out of pentameter.

The same trend holds in nearly every other major journal, as well as in contemporary anthologies and on the book lists of poetry presses. For the past 30 years, the Big Three book prizes in American poetry have gone almost exclusively to free verse poets; you can count the exceptions on one hand. [5] Likewise, most of the prizes that launch careers have roped off “formalists” from the launchpad. Since 2001, the Whiting Awards, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and the Yale Series of Younger Poets have bestowed just three out of 118 awards on “formalists” — and that is under the broadest definition of “formalist” I could manage. [6] Tellingly, the freeze-out persists even where budget and space constraints are minimal. In a recent search of Poets.org — a vast online archive ostensibly representing the full spectrum of American poetry — I could find work by just two “formalists” under age 40, as compared to dozens of free verse poets in the same cohort.

If the pendulum is swinging back from the anti-formalist extremes of the late 20th century, it’s swinging in slow motion. Reviewing Anthony Madrid’s work for Berfrois in 2020, Amit Majmudar notes that the “highly structured play” of formal craft was once “the basis, not just of light verse, but of poetry itself, across cultures.” Today, though, it’s “perceived as a set of ancient […] chains on the Free Spirit of True Poetic Feeling. About five journals in the whole English-speaking world will publish it.”

Other journals don’t scorn all formal patterns, however. For example, the KROnline issues mentioned above feature numerous poems in meterless, unrhymed couplets. Complex indentation patterns have been in vogue for decades. Such patterns do not afford total freedom, nor does avoiding certain patterns at all costs. (In her “Presto Manifesto!” from the January 2009 issue of Poetry, Stallings wrote: “The freedom to not-rhyme must include the freedom to rhyme. Then verse will be ‘free.’”) Editors know that banning pattern altogether would amount to banning poetry. They’re wary only of particular schemes and devices they consider passé — even guilty by association with historical prejudice. Yet their wariness has no basis in scholarship or public demand. Instead, as we’ll see, it stems from the poetry world’s peculiar inside politics. (Stallings again: “Rhyme annoys people, but only people who write poetry that doesn’t rhyme, and critics.”)

An older poet who works primarily in meter, as I do, once told me with a sad smile: “We’re shoeing horses as the cars roll by.” It’s a witty pentameter line. It’s also a flawed metaphor. Both free verse and meter have existed for centuries; the one isn’t a recent improvement on the other. Free verse hasn’t bested its counterpart in any quantifiable sense, like the automobile zooming past the horse. Nor has it triumphed in a truly open market. The “poetry profession” is an idiosyncratic system of patronage and licensure, in which merchants’ connections matter as much as the quality of their products — and their sales hardly matter at all. (Even acclaimed collections rarely become best sellers.) Under such systems, a favored guild may dominate while others struggle to gain credentials, attract patrons, and access venues through which they might shift prevailing taste. Consumers may forget that the beer sold by the licensed Company of Brewers isn’t synonymous with “beer.”

Poets continually innovate, sometimes in response to technological or social change, but poetry as a whole doesn’t advance in a technological sense or progress in a social sense; as Stallings observes in her “Crooked Roads,” “There is no progress in literature […] change, yes. Progress, no.” There are obscure ancient poems that speak wisely to our moment and successful current poems that Homer could have recognized as foolish. Meanwhile, the literary past demands constant reassessment, especially when invoked to justify present fashion.

III. Origin and History

How did the myth begin? How did meter and rhyme come to attract so many sneers? Fully answering this question would require an analysis of “pre-Modern,” “Modernist,” and “post-Modernist” movements across three centuries. [7] I will attempt a shorthand answer by looking back at some exceptional poets who rejected “form” on political grounds. (Or, at least, are widely perceived to have done so.) Returning to these sources will clarify the nature of their dissent and what it can teach us now.

Consider Gertrude Stein, whose landmark “Patriarchal Poetry,” in characteristic Stein fashion, discards every imaginable poetic convention: not only meter and rhyme but also lineation, narrative, standard grammar, and paraphrasable meaning. The text marks a pointed departure from, if not an attempted detonation of, what it calls “Patriarchal poetry their origin their history their origin.” Ulla Dydo suggests that it “free[s] language — and writers — from hierarchical strictures,” while Karen Ford places it “at the center of Stein’s poetics,” finding in it:

[A] treatise on male-dominated Western literature and Stein’s problematic relationship to it. It offers an exposé of literary history and a critique of literary convention at the same time that it advances her own revisionary poetics. [… T]hese stylistics carry forth an argument about patriarchal poetry that analyzes its failures, parodies its conventions, and dismantles its forms in order to prepare the way for new literatures.

It’s possible to celebrate the wit and audacity of Stein’s “exposé” while raising questions about the logic ascribed to it. For example, can a poem written in English, a dominant global language trailing a long imperialist history, free itself completely from “hierarchical strictures”? Does Stein’s work draw on the full range of spoken and written English, or does it privilege some “Englishes” over others? Does it privilege some readers over others? (Harryette Mullen highlighted these issues in the preface to her 2006 collection Recyclopedia, claiming Stein as an influence but adding: “[M]y own prose poems depart from her cryptic code to recycle and reconfigure language from a public sphere that includes mass media and political discourse as well as literature and folklore.”) Finally, to raise a problem we’ll soon revisit: Why does dismantling unjust systems require the sacrifice of poetic form, specifically? Why some forms and not others?

Stein had admirers but few initial followers, among prominent women poets, in her wholesale annihilation of received technique. But in the 1960s, the experiments of poets like Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Gwendolyn Brooks — all of whom began their careers by working in meter and rhyme — helped reinforce the association between freeing one’s verse and liberating oneself politically as a woman. An emerging body of criticism did the same, tagging “form” with a regressive reputation. This story is broadly familiar to many poets, but as with most broad stories about the past, its complexities multiply on close inspection.

Plath trained herself thoroughly in traditional technique before undertaking the dramatic leaps and swerves of Ariel. In both its matter and manner, that book has galvanized generations of readers, writers, and feminist thinkers. Its break from Plath’s prior style does seem to enact an electrifying freedom, as if she’d shattered what she referred to in her journals as the “glass-dam fancy-facade of numb dumb wordage.” Yet even in her wildest work, she kept rhyme close to hand (as in “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” and other classics) and often played variations on standard meters. “Fever 103°,” for instance, is anchored by the pentameter:

Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

“Morning Song” also starts in pentameter, ticking along regularly — “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” — before veering off beat as it charts the disorienting terrain of new motherhood. Here the very shift from one mode to another captures a mood: an effect off-limits (not “freely” available) to pure free verse.

Plath’s example is further complicated by her relationship with Ted Hughes, one of literary history’s great patriarchal villains. Though their marriage broke under the strain of Hughes’s infidelity and abuse, the two poets plainly influenced each other, gravitating in parallel toward a freer verse. Hughes’s debut volume, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), already contains meter that is roughly hewn or craggily irregular (as in the title poem). By Crow (1970), meter has all but vanished. Yet Hughes is no one’s model of a leftist firebrand. In fact, many white male poets of varying politics — e.g., Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, James Wright, and James Dickey — either tacked toward free verse in the same era or favored it to begin with. This broader trend makes it hard to infer a clear politics from Plath’s, or anyone’s, particular stylistic shift. Where she may have sought an escape from patriarchy in freer verse forms, some of her peers may have instead sought novelty, critical attention, interesting sound effects, or other gains entirely. Then, too, Plath’s own poems read unevenly by the lights of current liberal mores. Yoking free verse to progressivism — or any political commitment — turns out to require careful cherry-picking, not only among writers but within a specific writer’s work.

Adrienne Rich’s development is equally legendary and easy to oversimplify. When W. H. Auden chose her first book for the Yale Younger Poets Award, he declared in an infamous introduction: “Miss Rich, who is, I understand, twenty-one years old, displays a modesty not so common at that age, which disclaims any extraordinary vision.” But the formally traditional poet of A Change of World (the title should have warned Auden) grew into a daring innovator as well as an uncompromising engagé feminist. Her later work evolved from the variable meter and light rhyme of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” to the looser but still meter-haunted “Diving into the Wreck” to the even freer verse of her last decades. In “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (1972), she framed her early metrical technique as a mode of “distanc[ing],” linking it with the “objective, observant tone” of poems like “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”: “In those years formalism was part of the strategy — like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn’t pick up barehanded. (A later strategy was to use the persona of a man, as I did in ‘The Loser.’)” These influential comments tarnished meter’s image, as Ange Mlinko recalled in 2013:

As new movements of liberation and multicultural pride surged in the 1970s, their designated poetries followed — and they generally adopted the rhetorical, free-verse mandate set by Rich when she forsook artifice as a legacy of the patriarchy. Formalism, Rich averred, was a kind of “asbestos gloves” — and for decades after, women poets would speak of form as “distancing.”

Yet these metaphors should be read in their original context. Rich was speaking to her personal experience (not necessarily on behalf of other poets), while grouping formalism with techniques that are by no means inherent in it (clinical tone, male persona). She was critiquing formalism but not bashing it: she cast it as a “strategy” that “allowed” certain effects, even if those effects wore out their interest for her. Most importantly, her craft didn’t remain frozen in 1972 any more than it had in 1951; her views on this subject were a palimpsest, not a dogma. She wrote in a late-life essay on “Format and Form”: “[W]hat really matters is not line lengths or the way meter is handled, but the poet’s voice refusing to be circumscribed or colonized by the tradition, the tradition being just a point of takeoff. In each case the poet refuses to let form become format, pushes at it.” In other words, the true measure of a poem’s radicalism is not its form but its content. Intentionally or otherwise, Rich allows the possibility that free verse — the handling of meter by discarding it — might itself “become format,” harden into “tradition.” Rather than a particular style, she advocates “push[ing]” against the givens of one’s language.

Rich’s own most celebrated work manifests a deep knowledge of the methods it rebelled against. Her American (i.e., unmetered, unrhymed) sonnets in The Dream of a Common Language display the control of a poet thoroughly versed in the Italian and English kinds. “Diving into the Wreck,” meanwhile, draws heavily on her metrical expertise; many of its lines scan as pentameter, and entire passages can be relineated into an approximation of blank verse. Here’s one such relineation with original line (/) and stanza (//) breaks marked:

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair /
streams black, the merman in his armored body /
We circle silently / about the wreck /
we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he //
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes / whose breasts
still bear the stress …

As with Plath, so with Rich: metrical effects receded in her work, but she reached for them whenever she needed them.

Encountering the maelstrom of the ’60s, Gwendolyn Brooks undertook a similar formal departure, along with a fresh commitment to radical politics. In “Brooks’s Prosody: Three Sermons on the Warpland,” poet-critic Carl Phillips recounts Brooks’s transformative experience in 1967, during the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University:

What she seems to have meant was that a different way of feeling, understanding, and writing blackness overcame her. For, to be sure, her work prior to this is grounded in black family, speakers, and issues. But that work was also cast in sonnets, the iambic pentameter line of blank verse, the traditional English prosody — the master’s tools, as I sometimes think of them (“master,” as in “master and slave”) — of which Brooks had shown herself to be a master[.] […] After Fisk, Brooks seems to have had a sort of crisis of prosodic consciousness; it’s as if she has to rethink what it means to use English prosodic tradition, now that she has subscribed to the Black Arts Movement’s imperative to speak specifically to a black audience.

Suspicion of these “master’s tools” was integral to the movement. Etheridge Knight crystallized it in his 1966 elegy for Malcolm X, which pointedly confines itself to “prim” traditional meter: “Make empty anglo tea lace words — / Make them dead white and dry bone bare.” Tellingly, the poem succeeds on these formal terms, and not simply as parody. Even as Knight excoriates “proper verse,” he shapes it with the kind of willed restraint (“Control the burst of angry words”) that has historically yielded its most moving effects. Still, his distrust of such effects was genuine, as was the crisis Phillips identifies in Brooks. Meanwhile, the trend away from rhyme and meter, among marginalized writers especially, was going global. Evan Mwangi recounts its impact on East African literature:

Since the 1960s, when British rule in the region ended, East African poetry in English has asserted independence from colonial verse while using, albeit differently and with localized nuances, the language of imperialism. The poets not only abandoned meter and rhyme to gesture their rejection of Western formal restrictions and imitation, but also incorporated local expressions, images, and idioms to give the poetry a distinctly East African flavor and express local speech rhythms.

In the U.S., a new body of criticism backed the new verse politics, ushering in the “form wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. At its best, this criticism shook out the musty brocade of an old style until the accumulated dust was plain to see. At its worst, it lumped all “formalists” together with the “New Formalists” — a small circle of poets alleged, often falsely, to be politically conservative — and dismissed the whole pack as ghoulish Reaganites. Looking back on this period in “The Closing of the American Line: Expansive Poetry and Ideology” (1992), Thomas B. Byers, a skeptic of the New Formalists (or “Expansivists,” as some called themselves), nevertheless conceded that critics had pigeonholed them as “right wing, un-American, and even satanic.” Even metrical poets occasionally internalized the charges brought against them. Here’s an example from 1987, courtesy of Annie Finch, an ambassador of formalist and feminist poetics:

According to [Sandra] Gilbert and [Susan] Gubar, women writers have traditionally struggled out from the double bind of the “anxiety of authorship” by disguising their own messages within the surface forms of male genres, thus managing “the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards.” […] This observation may begin to explain why Dickinson chose to gnaw at iambic pentameter mostly from a strict metrical framework in the mid-nineteenth century, rather than radically loosening meter as did her contemporary, Whitman. As a male poet, Whitman could completely disregard accentual-syllabic prosody, the entire basis of the patriarchal poetic tradition since Chaucer. As a female poet […] Dickinson could probably not have done so without making her verse impossible — leaving it with no “authority” at all.

Though compelling in many ways, this passage codes meter as "male,” “strict,” and "patriarchal" while glossing over other possibilities: for example, that Dickinson might have proved some literary standards gender-neutral, or that Whitman might have founded the modern free-verse tradition on an equally patriarchal basis. [8] Finch generally condemns the myth that meter is regressive — the book quoted above, The Ghost of Meter, goes on to make this case —but here she seems to concede, despite herself, that it is masculine unless subverted.

Poetry is always too fluid for such reductions. Skilled “formalists” tweak and twist the conventions they honor; good “free verse” poets typically start from a solid grounding in form. What really defines the two modes, moreover, isn’t a difference in “strictness” — or anything so patriarchal — but the difference between songlike and speechlike qualities. For many 20th-century poets, rejecting the expectation of songlike qualities felt like an unburdening, a complement to real-world liberation movements. But that rejection had only so much potential as a political gesture, even before it became an expectation in itself. However fervently they want to drive injustice out of society, poets never actually want to drive music out of verse, so their work tends to generate some internal resistance to the latter project. This very tension between song and speech can prove enormously fruitful — as it did for Plath, Rich, and Brooks.

Analyzing Brooks’s later poetry, Phillips charts the cross-currents of formalism and anti-formalism running through her “Sermons on the Warpland” (1969). Midway through this sequence, the author of some of her century’s finest sonnets deems the form useless in the face of social chaos: “[N]ot the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet, / shall straddle the whirlwind.” And yet, Phillips observes, “having cast aside the sonnet as irrelevant to social change […] she can’t — won’t — let go entirely.” Phillips identifies a half-buried sonnet in the third “Sermon,” its jagged lines and irregular rhymes testifying to the poet’s ambivalence. “[A]cross the three sermons,” he suggests, “we can see […] Brooks’s wrestling with, straddling, and ultimately reconciling the seeming conflict between English prosody and the language of black revolution.” As his essay nears its close, Phillips delivers what could be a summary of every “neo” movement in history:

[Brooks] won’t abandon the traditional English prosody that she so clearly loves. But she seems to have seen its limitations, if not made to adapt to cultural change. Most things revolutionary aren’t so much about newness as about understanding the past enough to know what to save of it, and to shape the rest into what, in effect, can bring the old forward to renewed relevance.

Even this fair-minded summary leaves a key question hanging: was it the prosody that hadn’t adapted to cultural change, or the attitudes of a literary tradition whose first vogue for free verse predated Brooks’s birth?

IV. Questioning Party Lines

Phillips’s remark on Brooks’s skill with the “master’s tools” invokes Audre Lorde’s famous warning: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Surprisingly, Lorde, in her 1979 essay of the same title, never discusses her own poetry or mentions poetry at all. In fact, terms like “formalism,” “free verse,” and “meter” appear nowhere in her essay collection Sister Outsider (1984). Still, Phillips isn’t the first or last poet to apply her warning to the tools of English prosody. [9] The idea seems to align with her revolutionary poetics: in order to banish the rot of oppression, poets must tear their art down to its foundations; in order to do that, they must use new devices, not the ones tradition hands them.

Some progressive and radical poets have questioned this logic, however. Phillips himself qualifies it in his comment about “understanding the past enough to know what to save.” Arguably, Lorde’s own verse resists it on some level, by showing clear evidence of metrical expertise. Annie Finch’s The Ghost of Meter contains an extended reading of metrical lines in Lorde; Finch proposes, for example, that “Lorde associates the iambic pentameter with patriarchal restraints,” but “widens the meter’s associations” — for herself as an artist, that is — “so that it expresses a range of emotion from outrage to grief to joy.” Whether or not Lorde felt “anger at the pentameter and exhilaration at claiming its authority,” as Finch speculates, it’s a fact that some of her most ringing lines, like the following from “Coal,” wouldn’t ring without meter:

Love is | a word | ano- | ther kind | of open —
As a dia- | mond comes | into | a knot | of flame
I am black | because | I come | from the earth’s | inside
Take my word | for jew- | el in | your o- | pen light.

This is iambic pentameter with one common trochaic substitution and a few less common anapestic substitutions. One can find similar variations in Robert Frost. Lorde was clearly a free verse poet, but she was also clearly metrically fluent. A poet who sometimes deploys meter to stirring effect is different from one who shuns meter altogether. In practice, as laid out in her 1981 interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde seems to have viewed received prosody much as she viewed received grammar: as something that “could be freeing as well as restrictive […] like driving a car: once we know it we can choose to discard it or use it, but you can’t know if it has useful or destructive power until you have a handle on it.” Again, in returning to a much-cited source, we find nuance, complexity — poetry — rather than dogma.

Equally instructive is a look back at the early years of Modernism, when its aesthetic precepts held a weaker grip. Claude McKay’s “Author’s Note” from Harlem Shadows (1922) offers a glimpse of how American verse politics might have evolved along different lines. McKay, too, declares independence from white “mastery” and all it implies: “In putting ideas and feelings into poetry, I have tried in each case to use the medium most adaptable to the specific purpose. I own allegiance to no master.” He recalls speaking “the Jamaica Negro dialect” in childhood while learning “England’s English” in school. He then explains, with a respectful nod to his Modernist peers, why he’s avoided the free verse “trends” of his time:

I quite remember making up verses in the dialect and in English for our moonlight ring dances and for our school parties. Of our purely native songs the jammas (field and road), shay-shays (yard and booth), wakes (post-mortem), Anancy tales (transplanted African folk lore), and revivals (religious) are all singularly punctuated by meter and rhyme. And nearly all my own poetic thought has always run naturally into these regular forms.

Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. […]

I have never studied poetics; but the forms I have used I am convinced are the ones I can work in with the highest degree of spontaneity and freedom.

It’s striking, a century later, to see McKay link “meter and rhyme” with the very qualities free verse so often brands as its own: the “natural” and vernacular as opposed to the academic; rootedness in colonized and diasporic communities (but also in “England’s English” — nuance again); the “lawless and revolutionary”; “spontaneity and freedom.”

More recently, “Owning the Masters” (1994), in which Marilyn Nelson contemplates “the tradition” as a Black woman writing in form, reexamines Lorde’s metaphor:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” […] But why should we dismantle the house? Why toss the baby over the porch railing, with its bathful of soapy water? Why don’t we instead take possession of, why don’t we own, the tradition? Own the masters, all of them. Wordsworth and Wheatley, Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden. As we own the masters and learn to use more and more levels of this language we love, for whose continued evolution we share responsibility, the signifiers become ours. We must not stand, like trembling slaves, at the back door of the master’s house. We must recognize, as Cornelius Eady does in a poem called “Gratitude,” that “I am a brick in a house / that is being built / around your house.”

Nelson’s approach involves what activist parlance might call claiming and holding space. It contrasts not only with dismantling the house or standing at the back door but also with repudiating the house: the tactic she calls, elsewhere in her essay, “literary separatism.”

None of these counterstatements lessens the achievement, or the daring, of the great midcentury free verse poets. The rebel factions they led in the 1960s and ’70s — the Black Arts Movement, the New York School, the “women’s poetry and publishing movement” (Rich’s phrase in What Is Found There) — broke the art wide open. Their styles and subjects reshaped the humanities. No serious poet would dismiss the tools they forged or the history they made. Still, honoring their work doesn’t have to mean prescribing its aesthetics as doctrine. The more established those aesthetics become, the more they invite fresh questions.

To add to those Stallings has posed: Why shun meter and rhyme, specifically, as relics of the patriarchal past? Why not the line break, the stanza, or the title? If poets can subvert (“write against”) the history of English by wielding it with radical intent, why can’t they do the same with meter and rhyme? If a new movement shunned “page poetry” on the grounds that access to print — far more than access to meter — has historically been limited to privileged groups, would “page poets” find this fair? Would they migrate en masse to spoken-word poetry? If they did, would global politics improve? Why is form judged elitist in “literary” poetry but not in song lyrics, children’s verse, or protest slogans? (Can you imagine joining the nearest crowd of protesters chanting in rhymed couplets, raising a bullhorn, and announcing that you admire their message but consider its form regressive?) If free verse is inherently liberating, why, in its first generations of dominance, did the poetry establishment remain overwhelmingly white and male?

With the passage of time, it’s become clearer that this “establishment” is defined not by a fixed aesthetic but by a heavily gated market. What Knight called “proper verse” had all but cornered this market before Modernism; as late as the ’60s, rejecting it was still rebellious. Then free verse seized the few, humble heights of the poetry economy. By the late ’70s, according to Kunitz, it had “swept the field.”[10] It’s rarely ceded an inch since. “Proper verse” — academic poetry, the style of the age — is no longer formalism but vers libre: conceived in the West and exported to the globe.

V. The Brand Image: A Counter-History

So far, I’ve reassessed the kinds of stories free verse poets like to tell about free verse: stories of aesthetic innovation twined with political liberation. While these stories offer much to celebrate, they fail to justify the denigration of “form.” I’d like to turn, now, to stories that are less flattering to the free verse tradition, and are less often told. (Or, if told, never held to implicate free verse as a whole.) Suppose we flip the usual questions on their head: Is free verse patriarchal? Elitist? Regressive?

The pivotal figure in the history of modern free verse is Walt Whitman. For Stallings, unlike Finch, this fact undercuts the charge that form is masculine: “[O]f the two greatest nineteenth-century American poets, the male, Walt Whitman, is working in free verse. The woman, Emily Dickinson, is working in an idiolect of form.” To gain an audience for his bold new style, Whitman fashioned himself into a cocksure self-promoter. Simultaneously, he became an outspoken advocate for his young nation, writing in the “Preface” to Leaves of Grass (1855) that “[t]he United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” In “Song of Myself,” the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass, he proudly exclaims: “I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy, / By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”

The Civil War did much to dim his outlook and complicate his patriotic pride. At the same time, he began to backslide from the humane, universalist stance that animates his best-loved work. His postwar remarks and writings (e.g., “Song of the Redwood-Tree”) evince a growing belief in Manifest Destiny, as well as cruel disregard for populations whose erasure from the continent he deemed inevitable. In a late-life conversation with Horace Traubel, he asserted that Black Americans and Indigenous peoples (not the terms he used) “will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not.”

Even at the height of his democratic vision, Whitman is a notably phallocentric poet, obsessed with virility despite occasional tributes to women. This focus stems partly from his joyous homoeroticism, but at times it risks absurdity: “On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes, / (This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.)” I can’t think of a more literally patriarchal image, in all of American poetry, than this boast about fathering children and nations by whomever the poet deems “fit.” Yes, it can be read as a jest, one of Whitman’s poses or guises. (He had no children.) But it dovetails uncomfortably with his later Social Darwinism, and it reflects a weakness for blustering machismo that has troubled even his admirers.

Whitman’s poetry at its best was genuinely radical, democratic, and — to borrow one of his own words — “compassionating.” But he was a flawed human being, not the Good Gray Poet of legend. Surveying his “Racial Attitudes” in 1998, George Hutchinson and David Drews note that “[o]nly in the mid-twentieth century” were Whitman’s more brutal views “recognized by both white and black readers, mainly specialists in American literature.” With a nod to “Song of Myself” (“Very well then I contradict myself”), the authors summarize: “Whitman could not consistently reconcile the ingrained, even foundational, racist character of the United States with its egalitarian ideals. He could not even reconcile such contradictions in his own psyche.”

After Whitman, free verse receded in English-language poetry until the early 20th century. Its first Modernist proponents did not see themselves as destroyers of the patriarchy — often quite the opposite. In his influential “Lecture on Modern Poetry” (1908), a talk on free verse delivered to the Poets’ Club of London, T. E. Hulme framed the new aesthetic as a retort to “whimper[ing]” women poets:

The latter stages in the decay of an art form are very interesting and worth study because they are peculiarly applicable to the state of poetry at the present day. […] The carcass is dead, and all the flies are upon it. Imitative poetry springs up like weeds, and women whimper and whine of you and I alas, and roses, roses all the way. It becomes the expression of sentimentality rather than of virile thought.

Hulme was addressing a small, closed audience. The new movement might have foundered if not for an American member of that audience: Ezra Pound, whose promotional talents exceeded even Whitman’s. Brashly, Pound claimed Whitman’s mantle in “A Pact” (1913), telling the now-dead poet: “Let there be commerce between us.” Bristling with macho swagger and capitalistic ambition, the poem casts Whitman as poetic “father” and Pound as rightful male heir, destined to carve the “new wood” the elder poet “broke.” Pound’s own phallic obsessions have been much explored elsewhere; one relevant example, courtesy of Wayne Koestenbaum, will suffice: “Pound likens the phallus ‘charging, head-on,’ into ‘female chaos,’ to the frustration of ‘driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London.’ Trying to create a revolution in poetry was a phallic act.”

His complaints notwithstanding, Pound’s maxims on technique — including the instruction “regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” — soon became rallying cries for the new movement. As rigid in his theories as he was devoted in his friendships, Pound established himself as the great Modernist impresario, keen to publish, promote, and canonize his peers’ work and his own. In the process, he infused Modernist poetry with a distinctly American and missionary strain. (Stein dryly called him the “village explainer.”)

Another Pound dictum instructs: “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.” If he and fellow Modernists often disobeyed this advice in their poetry, they all but discarded it in their criticism. “Make It New” was Pound’s credo and the title of one of his best-known critical texts (1935). In Spring and All (1923), a book full of postwar American exuberance, William Carlos Williams proclaimed: “THE WORLD IS NEW […] Yes, hope has awakened once more in men’s hearts. It is the NEW! Let us go forward!” In her essay on “Modern Poetry” (1925), the British-born Mina Loy exulted: “It was inevitable that the renaissance of poetry should proceed out of America […] [f]or the true American appears to be ashamed to say anything in the way it has been said before. Every moment he ingeniously coins new words for old ideas.”

Though poetic Modernism began in Europe, Americans adopted it most fervently, as any comparison of mid-20th-century British and American poetry will show. Its emphasis on experimentation and rejection of the past found especially fertile soil in the “New World,” where it grew tangled with advertising culture and exceptionalist myths. Williams’s bombastic lyrical history of the Americas, In the American Grain (1925), is a case in point: sentimentally enthralled by white male “conquerors,” it raises the suspicion that Williams fancied himself a literary pioneer after their example. [11] Meanwhile, Pound (and to some degree T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats) began associating “modern” progress with European fascism. Stallings makes devastating note of this development:

Popularity is certainly not a measure of quality, or lack thereof. But if charges of elitism must be leveled, it is easier to do so at free verse, which originates from a High Modernism that was deliberately elitist (if not Fascist), and is often written for a limited, academic audience, and which does not contain those elements (meter, rhyme) which originate from the people, for the pleasure of the people.

Stallings is, of course, getting one back at critics who reflexively link “formalism” with snobbery or worse. She doesn’t reverse the caricature; she just points up its ironies. The modern free verse tradition wasn’t born of some immaculate departure from historical prejudice. In many ways, it’s due for a reckoning with its blemishes.

America’s two most famous free verse revolutionaries wound up flirting — in Pound’s case, more than flirting — with genocidal politics. Pound’s radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini, along with his postwar mentorship of Klansman John Kasper, remain the worst political scandal in the history of American literature. If he is the father of Modernism, he is also the namesake of a current Italian fascist movement, CasaPound. These facts are widely known but routinely soft-pedaled within the field (for much of the past decade, Poetry treated “Ezra” as something of a social-media mascot). The image that Pound the “Imagist” helped craft for free verse — a brand image of endless innovation, a political image of radical progress — has stuck for over a century, despite Pound’s actual views being as regressive as humanly possible.

Nor is it clear that American free verse since Pound has shed all traces of its reactionary past. (How could it, when America has done nothing of the kind?) It’s as easy to cherry-pick embarrassments here as it has been for critics to frame particular hidebound poets as representative of “formalism” generally. The Beat movement — another origin point for the conflation of free verse with progressive politics — helped usher a number of queer and Jewish American voices into the repressed 1950s mainstream, but it remained almost entirely white and male. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the central poem of the movement, seems to exclude Black artists from its tribute to the “best minds of my generation”: in an unfortunate juxtaposition, it extols its doomed heroes for having “jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes.” An anti-Black slur mars the title poem of Plath’s Ariel, whose heroine seems to glory in her “White[ness]” — an aspect of Plath’s legacy that most of her critics have been quick to gloss over. In our own time, the omnipresence of free verse has not rid poetry of these hostile eruptions; witness Tony Hoagland’s infamous “The Change” and his scorn at the backlash it received.

My aim here is not to cast Whitman, Ginsberg, Plath, Hoagland, or even Pound out of anyone’s “pantheon” (or into anyone’s inferno). It’s not to whack free verse with the cudgel so often wielded against form. It’s to illustrate Stallings’s point that patriarchy and prejudice haunt poetry in general — or language in general.

If Whitman’s worst statements can’t erase his finest work, neither can the myth of Whitman as all-loving revolutionary persist as a halo over modern free verse. Critics should acknowledge this when discussing the politics of form. They should shine a candid light on the underbelly of Modernism, whose fiercest apostle became American poetry’s most florid bigot. They should recall, as Michael North reminded us in a 2013 essay in Guernica, where Pound first encountered his “Make It New” credo and what he ultimately did with it:

Pound had in fact taken [the slogan] quite a way from its Chinese origins, which emphasized the necessity of self-renewal, not the forced renewal of others, and he had removed it even farther from any association with avant-garde agitation. The renovation demanded by the slogan was now the dictator Benito Mussolini’s “rivoluzione continua,” and the “rubbish” to be cleared away was not excess verbiage but a whole people.

Together, these examples are warnings against the fallacy of the tabula rasa, the clean revolutionary break from the errors of the past. Such miracles are not possible in history or literature. As Stallings affirms, “The term ‘neo formalism’ […] is absurd. There is nothing new about form, nor has it ever ceased from being written, making a break between old and new.” The misleading nature of this “formalism”/“free verse” distinction helps explain the unpopularity of these terms among metrical poets. [12] “Formalism” sounds starchy and patriarchal — especially compared to freedom! — but no one should confuse an unflattering label with the unvarnished truth about centuries of literature. Calling verse “free” doesn’t place it in the service of liberty any more than calling America “the land of the free” made it so.

The relevant history supports Stallings’s claim that, while “[p]oetry has been largely written by men” and so has reflected a patriarchal bias, meter is not inherently elitist or free verse inherently democratic. Poetry is as elitist or democratic as the views of the person writing it. Form and content are subtly intertwined, but critics have too often mischaracterized the second in politicizing the first. [13]

VI. “Yesterday’s Battles,” Tomorrow’s Verse

In the crowded world of “professional” poetry, poets are more diplomatic about aesthetic disagreements than they once were. Nelson acknowledges having been “terribly moved,” in the ’60s, by the “literary separatism […] called the Black Aesthetic,” even if she chose a different path. Writing in 1994, she finds neutral ground in the so-called form wars:

I hesitate to become involved in the current debate between the so-called new formalists (the singers) and the organic poets (the conversationalists). I cannot in good conscience take either side. Certainly free-verse poems can sing. Yet I hear the music more clearly, more compellingly, when I write with an ear to tradition, hearing either the music of my people or the rhyme and meter of the masters’ tradition.

George Szirtes inserts a similar disclaimer in a 2006 essay on the joys of form: “None of this is to decry so-called ‘free verse,’ which is, as has been pointed out, never ‘free’ to those who use it well. I don’t want to fight yesterday’s battles all over again.” The diplomacy works both ways. In Poetry’s 2006 dialogue on “Women’s Poetry,” featuring a trio of free verse poets, Eleanor Wilner states: “I think we three concur […] that the formal, patterned structures of poetry are as ungendered as the waves of the sea.”

Officially, the form wars have ended in rapprochement. “New Formalism,” like “Language poetry,” is a period artifact. Still, the publication numbers I’ve cited speak for themselves. However unofficially, form retains a disreputable aura, while “modern” techniques — of which free verse is only the most visible — remain the default in the field. In some current poetry, these techniques are worn down to the nub, as Joshua Mehigan wittily complains in “Make Make It New New” (2013):

After all, what are these offputting [poetry trends] if not the reductio ad absurdum of Modernism? Each is marked by cargo-cult exaggerations of qualities cultivated by Pound, such as novelty, imaginative priority, fragmentation, and difficulty. […] Modernist cliches go unrecognized because they are cliches of Modernism, enemy of all cliches.

If Pound’s experiments are reproduced in nearly every current poetry journal, so, too, are those of Stein, Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and the rest. These poets began their careers before the Jazz Age. Their movement can’t stay forever young.

Despite its many virtues, free verse can’t credibly serve, in itself, as a badge of rebellion or even dissent. It can’t hitch itself to a stable allegory of liberation while spying the Oppressor in every iambic line. It can’t tag form with an ideological “ism” while floating above the fray (no one speaks of “free versism”), [14] or scapegoat meter for the imperialist history of English while whitewashing its own past. It can’t even claim a patent on merely psychological liberation, as though every poet’s psyche found form confining.

McKay found that meter and rhyme afforded him maximum “spontaneity and freedom.” Paul Muldoon has quipped that “form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.” [15] Striving to write books that channeled the voltage of live performance, Patricia Smith discovered “things you could do with meter and rhyme” that made voice and character leap off the page. [16] Stallings wryly advises that “Rhyme frees the poet from what he wants to say.” Judging meter “not a tyranny but a society with a constitution,” Szirtes jokes that “no one accuses free verse of being a version of rampant individualist capitalism.” And what if critics took this last idea seriously? Suppose there is a link between Pound’s “Make It New” and Madison Avenue’s “New and Improved Formula”? If such allegories are valid, they’re valid on both sides; if unfair, they’re unfair to both.

It would be best to discard the notion of “sides” entirely — to acknowledge, as Eliot did in 1917, that “the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist.” But as long as most poetry gatekeepers snub meter, an artificial divide will remain. Again, this divide operates in an insular setting: by and large, the practitioners of poetry are also its critics, theorists, teachers, publicists, and audience. The field is hyper-competitive, [17] but that competition is less for readership than for patronage, dispensed by the poets who helm presses, prize juries, and academic programs. Fledgling poets are far less accountable to public taste than to fluctuating trends within their field. [18] As a result, the conflict between “form” and “freedom” is rife with motivated reasoning; everyone involved in it — myself included — has poetry to promote, while few non-poets are aware of it at all.

Even within the field, the conflict is largely an underground one: a matter of innuendo rumbling beneath official détente. Again and again one hears that the wars are past, that the pendulum is swinging, that the stray success of some “formal” tour de force reflects a thawing climate for form in general. The submissions guidelines of most journals and presses claim to welcome poetry of all kinds. Only their output makes clear that they generally bar the prevailing techniques of the 14th through the mid-20th centuries. (Although they welcome submissions fees from writers who haven’t caught on.) As poetry has been “professionalized,” abstention from rhyme and meter has become what Rich warned against: a standard “format.” In skilled hands, it remains a powerful tool; in others, it’s mere decorum, an unwritten rule tacked onto the stated guidelines. (Submit each poem on a separate page, in a legible font, and in American-style free verse.)

Analysts in a normal market might call this exclusion anti-competitive and note that it’s given the dominant brand the near-monopoly its rival once enjoyed. They might recognize the equation of free verse with freedom, and meter with repression, as the same kind of logic used to sell blue jeans. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who helped coin the term “cultural capital,” would have recognized it — per his essay “The Field of Cultural Production” (1983) — as one phase of the “continuous struggle for the monopoly of poetic legitimacy” that breeds a series of “successful or abortive revolutions” in the art form. But because most poets claim to abhor cutthroat capitalism — if not power in general — the field resists examining itself through this lens.

As a jaded last defense, free verse partisans might admit that careerist motives are at play (on both sides of this artificial divide) while shrugging that all’s fair in a marketing war. But poetry isn’t just a gated market or patronage contest; it’s also an academic discipline. The scramble for publications, grants, and prizes occurs mostly within or adjacent to academia. And what succeeds as marketing rarely holds up as scholarship, which demands an effort at critical detachment. To frame the history of poetry as Whig history — in which New equals Improved, and the ignorant past forever yields to a more enlightened present — would be scholarly malpractice. Even free verse partisans acknowledge this to some extent: most would concede, for example, that Dickinson was as innovative as Whitman “despite” writing in meter, that Nelson’s metrical poems contain damning critiques of patriarchy, and so on. Simple scansion shows that figures such as Plath and Brooks don’t fit neatly in the “formal” or “free” camps. Beyond innuendo, the partisan arguments crumble.

Today’s poets and critics should trade innuendo for a broad, nuanced view. America’s oldest myths about itself — that it made a clean democratic break from autocratic Europe, that it’s an inherently progressive force in the world — are untenable in 21st-century politics. They’re equally untenable in 21st-century poetics. As poets wrestle with the very real demons of the cultural past, they should retire the bogeyman of “formalism,” and reflect whether the changes they’re writing toward are more a matter of form or substance.


Austin Allen is the author of Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press, 2016), winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poetry has recently appeared in The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review, The Missouri Review, Verse Daily, and The Hopkins Review. His essays and criticism have appeared via Poetry Foundation, Parnassus, 32 Poems, and other outlets.



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[1] See, e.g., Dana Gioia’s “Notes on the New Formalism” (1987), which declares: “Free verse, the creation of an older literary revolution, is now the long-established, ruling orthodoxy; formal poetry the unexpected challenge.” Gioia then rejects the accusation that “form […] is artificial, elitist, retrogressive, right-wing,” noting that “for many writers the discussion of formal and free verse has become an encoded political debate.” Having said this, however, he abandons the subject of politics for the rest of the essay.

[2] Some earlier English-language examples can be found in, e.g., Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (1763) and William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793).

[3] See, e.g., T. S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” 1917. Eliot refuses to recognize any such classifications, but his examples show how they were commonly understood.

[4] An especially notable omission given that this issue featured a selection of “Young People’s Poetry.” In my own experience teaching young poets, many have been exposed to poetry largely through song lyrics and will use rhyme by default until discouraged from doing so.

[5] The Big Three are the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Apart from Stallings, awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2011, and Marilyn Nelson, awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2019, no “formalist” has won a major American literary prize in the past decade. (The quasi-formalist David Ferry, winner of the 2012 National Book Award, writes in meter so loose it can slip under the radar; Patricia Smith, winner of the 2021 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, writes occasionally in form but mainly in free verse.)

[6] The honorees are Eric McHenry, V. Penelope Pelizzon, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Pelizzon and Phillips favor free verse but incorporate meter and rhyme substantially into their work. A few other honorees, such as Jericho Brown and Terrance Hayes, have created original forms and played variations on traditional ones (as in Hayes’s American sonnets), but neither works extensively in meter or rhyme.

[7] For a detailed analysis of this kind, see, e.g., the introduction to Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990).

[8] Finch also elides some important context surrounding both poets’ work: Whitman’s “disregard” for tradition slowed his acceptance into the literary mainstream; Dickinson does not seem to have wrestled with Whitmanian free verse as a serious temptation; H. D. and other women were writing form-busting poems fewer than 25 years after Dickinson died.

[9] See, e.g., Kamran Javadizadeh’s “Mirror Life” (Poetry Foundation, 2021), which lists “blank verse, the heroic meter of English poetry, the line of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Wordsworth” as examples of “the master’s tools.”

[10] “Non-metrical verse has swept the field, so that there is no longer any real adversary from the metricians.” (From a 1978 interview quoted in Steele, Missing Measures, 30.)

[11] One chapter celebrates Cortez as “a conqueror like other conquerors. Courageous almost beyond precedent […] a man of genius superbly suited to his task.” Another thrills at Sir Walter Raleigh’s “thrust[s]” into virgin land: “Then say, O Muse, that now he saw himself afar, that he became — America! that he conceived a voyage from perfection to find — an England new again; to found a colony; the outward thrust, to seek. But it turned out to be a voyage on the body of his Queen: England, Elizabeth — Virginia!”

[12] See, e.g., Marilyn Nelson’s phrase “the so-called new formalists” and George Szirtes’s phrase “so-called ‘free verse’” in the essays quoted below. I once asked Mary Jo Salter how she felt about being labeled a “New Formalist.” She replied, “Well, I take issue with ‘New,’ and I take issue with ‘Formalist.’ Otherwise, I’m fine with it.”

[13] In his 1992 essay on the “Expansivists,” Byers allows that “[t]here is no intrinsic connection between meter and conservatism, poetic or political.” But he promptly adds that “in America there is a strong historical one.” He acknowledges no such connection in the case of free verse, and his essay exemplifies the kind of intellectual contortions this double standard requires. Byers observes (for example) that Pound was no leftist and that Langston Hughes, an innovative metrician, very much was, but in the end, he simply assigns more weight to examples of conservative metricians — such as the minor Southern Agrarians and two “New Formalists” I’ve never heard of — without explaining why.

[14] Where free verse is not treated as progressive, it is generally treated as apolitical, or as so universally inclusive that it’s “the way things are now,” the standard beside which other poetics are obsolete.

[15] Quoted by Ian Duhig in The Irish Times (“Sinéad Morrissey: a maker of intricate poem machines,” October 21, 2017).

[16] Christian McEwen, “Interview with Patricia Smith: The Poet as Storyteller,” Teachers & Writers Magazine, March 21, 2016.

[17] In a 2013 analysis of the most competitive jobs in America, Business Insider ranked “Poets, Lyricists and Creative Writers” number two, behind “Choreographers” and ahead of “Athletes and Sports Competitors.” Competition in the field has only increased since, due to a contracting academic job market and simultaneous “overproduction” of MFA graduates. It’s easy to see how this market might create perverse critical incentives; for example, sidelining a group of perceived competitors by invalidating the mere surface (brand image) of their work — irrespective of content — might substantially benefit oneself and one’s colleagues.

[18] Mehigan recalls his impression after “reading thousands of pages of new, unpublished poetry” for a professional project: “It was as if all the young poets had been told beforehand what six or seven qualities would be rewarded and had gone charging after those alone.”

LARB Contributor

Austin Allen is the author of Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press, 2016), winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poetry has recently appeared in The Yale Review, The Sewanee Review, The Missouri Review, Verse Daily, and The Hopkins Review. His essays and criticism have appeared via Poetry Foundation, Parnassus, 32 Poems, and other outlets. He was a Fellow in poetry at the 2017 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati.


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