It all began with one of my posts on one of my facebook groups. I’ll paste the complete initial post here:
I have a confession, and a doubt that follows it. First the confession that is in form of narration of a set of events. I’ll number them.
- I wrote a sonnet. 2. I sent the sonnet to several magazines for publication. 3. It was rejected everywhere. 4. i did not change a single word of the sonnet, and only hit the enter key roughly after every three stressed syllables. 5. I called the resultant ‘thing’ free verse and sent it again. 6. They liked it and accepted it.
Now my doubt:
In our times, keeping all the other elements constant, can the acceptance of a new poet’s poem depend so much upon its conformity with the current trend, i.e. predominance of free verse?
Have you, the other poets, Indian or not, also experienced something like that?
The responses were varied, one of them advised me to stick with the sonnet form and keep submitting for publication etc. To that I replied that I had not burnt my sonnets but kept them safe for a day when I would be able to get them published because a lightweight like me couldn’t afford to remain unpublished. So, I compromised and sold today, to buy tomorrow.
I then posted a sonnet of mine, and its free version. The sonnet as you can see, although not a very regular one, has many features of a traditional sonnet, including a dash of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme abb1/2a cdd1/2c efe gge, a clear division of flow from octave to sestet etc. yes, I agree that the number of stresses per line is never 5, it has a range of 4-6. There is a lot of enjambment that gives it the flavor of Shakespearean sonnets. With anaphora, alliteration, metaphors, images and symbols galore, the sonnet is not very bad!
Row after row, steps rising from the river,
Row after row, steps falling to the same,
Rising, going westward, falling, coming – a game
Words play on life; and life, a little later Shells the words all down, and leaves
Just the strong impressions, firmly etched,
Deeply carved, with colours true, fetched
From the days of old, when life was lived.
The game, when it’s over; whistles blown,
Feet when tired come over the falling steps,
Tracing back the same old worn out stone –
Steps at the end of a summer-day-long run,
Over them of a never-resting sun –
Lead them gently riverward, down the steps.
The free verse form has a range of stressed syllables per line (1-4 stresses) but majority of lines have 2-3 stresses. The free verse form was liked better and was at least selected on submission, not the fate of its parent sonnet.
Row after row,
steps rising from the river,
row after row,
steps falling to the same,
rising, going westward,
falling, coming – a game
words play on life;
and life, a little later
shells the words all down,
and leaves just the strong impressions,
firmly etched, deeply carved,
with colours true, fetched
from the days of old,
when life was lived.
The game, when it’s over;
feet when tired
come over the falling steps,
tracing back the same
old worn out stone –
steps at the end
of a summer-day-long run,
of a never-resting sun –
lead them gently
down the steps.
My poet friends liked the poem in sonnet form better. To them I said, that I liked the sonnet form better myself. ‘But the trick works. Try it any day. First send your regular form poems to 10 places. The send the same poem converted into free verse to around 10 random (different) magazines/journals and wait for their response’.
Then came an informed comment on my pressing enter key at three syllables: ‘The line is the unit of poetry. Changing the line changes everything. Also, if you broke the line after every three syllables it’s not really ‘free’, is it? Not trying to defend whoever the editors were. There is a lot of seemingly random selection. Subjectivity is not just unavoidable but necessary in the process; obviously they will only publish what they like. But yes, ‘what they like’ can be quite unpredictable’.
To that I pointed out: ‘As you can gather from the example verse give in the comment above, the ‘three syllable’ rule was nearly, or roughly followed. There were many variations. Hence ‘free’ verse. Now, random is characterized by its unpredictability. In this case, it’s highly predictable, hence, not at all random. ‘What they like’ is heavily biased against, e.g. sonnet – a time-tested and respected traditional form’.
At one point the very validity of the form for poetry today was questioned by calling it strait jacket. To that I replied ‘What you call strait jacket, has been seen as string to the flying kite by some. Wordsworth wrote on beauty and necessity of writing even his kind of Romantic verse – spontaneous overflow – in strict sonnet form. A solid foundation of large vocabulary, good grammar, poetic vision and power to think deeply and clearly are from where one should begin composing. Pity, majority today just launches into writing poetry less-than-half-prepared, so they promote poetry less-than-half-made’.
One discussant gave interesting and useful information: ‘I recommend taking a look at sonnets written in the last half-century. Don Paterson’s anthology ‘101 Sonnets’ might be of interest. The modern sonnet does not always stick to the Petrarchan or Shakespearean forms. Of course if one insists that the modern sonnets are not sonnets we descend into an argument about definitions. You might also find Paterson’s introduction to the anthology interesting’. To that was added another informative remark: ‘I am aware of those, but still you will find good quality sonnets with various variations of Elizabethan, Petrarchan, or even terza rima being published in Hudson Review or Texas Review…’. Then came pointers to a contemporary journal focusing exclusively on sonnets. (not been updated since 2011 apparently) , and to Howard Nemerov sonnet contest, which is a prestigious contest held every year.
The valid objections to the form were regarding: following strict restrictions ‘that you may find in the work of 20th century greats like Robert Frost or Howard Nemerov. However a greater multitude have deviated and improvised like Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath. Even Percy Shelly deviated in ‘Ozymandias’. I don’t think a great multitude of folks are breaking the rules for the sake of it, they just don’t bother, and the vers libre movement has legalized free verse or even poetry of the eye, the experiments of Cummings or Hulme will remain inaccessible to such strait jacket schools of thoughts. To summarize, “much of the wisdom of one age is a folly of the next” somebody famously said, can’t recollect’.
This one deserved a detailed reply and got one:
I love Frost’s poems. You are right about his adhering to forms. You are also right about the modern poets’ deviation from norms, and the point is proven when we keep their poems side by side to the vapid Edwardian poetry a little before their time of best poetry, i.e. 1920-30. There actually is no verse that is ‘free’, because the moment the word verse is put before it, it becomes highly constrained to a form – the verse form. I have T S Eliot’s one full essay to support my point, where he proves that there actually is no free verse, only good and bad verse! It’s good that you mention Percy Bysshe Shelley to support the point you were making. He is the master of formal poetry, e.g. his brilliant use of terza rima in ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and then in his Triumph of Life, who wrote formal poetry at its best all his life. His ‘Ozymandias’ has five stresses per line, regular rhyme pattern, and although not Shakespearean sonnet can be divided into two unequal parts etc. I agree with a lot of what you say, but the point I am trying to make is that something is definitely rotten in the poetry judging and publishing scene today, and we may do our bit to improve it.
One poet-critic commented: ‘ Sure, not all publications are friendly to formal verse. I think this hostility is diminishing though. (Possibly the editors have become so illiterate they just can’t tell a poem is in meter. I am not kidding.)’
The discussion ended for the time being with a call for action:
I like the sound of the word poet, specially when they call me that. I suspect, strongly, that you like it too. I have always liked calling myself a poet, but the realization of its actual meaning came late. Anybody (like me) can and may think that he is a poet, but being a poet is not easy. A poet writes poems. One who does not, may think whatever he likes, but can not rightfully own the title/position/name of a poet. We have a moral, aesthetic, collective and personal obligation to create: every day. (Don’t mind my self pep-talk, I s\felt a kindred spirit around so gave vent to it). I say we write poems and show each other what we think is good poetry through our own poems.