Why I write structured poetry rather than free verse.
Today I had a dear and lifelong friend send multiple videos of slam poetry to me.
each of the videos were of young white upper middle class women throwing tantrums about first world problems.
They were talented in their art and the performances were exceptional.
But my friend followed up the links with a comment that only a lifelong friend would feel comfortable saying to someone that writes structured poetry;
“Anyone can string lines together and give them rhyme. But… this to me is poetry”
She unwittingly walked into a whirlwind of strong feelings that I have on this topic.
I kept beginning replies to her and then I’d stop myself saying, “You need to write on this anyway, so just save it.”
So here it is.
We live in an age that “throws off restraint.” We don’t like rules. We don’t like government. We don’t like structure. We care little for the “old landmarks.”
Art imitates life, imitates art.
Our poetry is as unstructured as an Apple office space that’s done away with rooms and partitions.
Abstract expressionist art of paint flung on canvases hangs on the walls of those that take pride in having no structure to their lives or relationships. Our music too has evolved to a place of little discernibility, just as our faith has cast of “religion for relationship.”
I am not writing here to say that an artist throwing paint on a canvas is not art. Nor am I writing here to say that free verse is not poetry. On the contrary, I’ve dabbled in free verse and even have some examples of it in my book of poetry. It is, to me, akin to taking my sleddog team off their leads and letting them run freely. It is a joy to watch.
But when my sled dogs are hitched to the sled, in tandem, each in their designated places, they accomplish something different. Something that could not be accomplished otherwise. Their running becomes directed, toward a goal. Rather than running in circles with no real purpose other than to amuse, we accomplish a mission together in our structure. They travel further. Not only do they get themselves to a destination they would not have otherwise, but they contribute to the delivery of heavy cargo that none of them would have been able to budge on their own.
So why do I write structured and metered poetry? I know it is considered old fashioned.
Why, do I further isolate myself from any hope of a readership by seeking greater and more complicated structures to create in, than to follow the mainstream?
Because I believe in structure.
I believe that structure in life, in art, in faith, is a good thing. I believe in structure for the same reason I held to pure martial art forms when all my comrades abandoned the disciplined for mixed martial arts.
Because I truly am an artist.
I would like for my art to get the readership needed to make an impact, but that is not why I make it. I make it because my soul compels me to. I do not follow the popular abstract expressionist art in both visual and written forms, because I am not a product of the society. The poets soul is to be a prophets soul. A seers soul. And the prophet, the seer, the poet, is set apart from the masses and care nothing for social norms.
Anyone who thinks that “Anyone can string lines together and give them rhyme” has obviously never tried to write a poem using the structure of the Arabian Masnavi or a dan Direach as I have.
Consider for a moment my current project.
The casual reader will say, “Jonathan has written 12 poems on Chivalry. All of them have 4 lines per verse and every other line rhymes… that’s boring.’
But upon closer examination, there appears a solved puzzle to the writer, that is an architectural marvel to a reader in the know.
See, this project is on the Chivalric Code, so I searched until I found a Celtic form from the British isles from the medieval time period I am writing about. Then I superimposed that structure on the things I wanted to write about.
The Dan Direach (or direct verse), has more rules than I care to innumerate, but here are a few.
In addition to the rhyming lines,
Each line must have exactly the same number of syllables.
The second line of each pairing must also end with a word that is one syllable longer than the last word of the line preceding it.
Each verse must be a complete thought on its own.
Each poem must begin and end with the same line.
In addition to the rhyme scheme, you must weave as much alliteration and in stanza rhyming as possible.
And after all of that, I must find my way to write something that, not only flows and makes sense, but that conveys a deep and meaningful truth.
Which is art?
So I put it to my reader now. Does it take less skill for me to write a poem that beautifully conveys the purposeful message I’ve set out to deliver within these artistic parameters than it does for a creator of free verse to say what they want to say with no restrictions whatsoever?
Or course the answer is no.
It is as my dean of music used to say back when I was in college, “You should not go breaking the (musical) rules, until you know what they are, and have a good reason for breaking them.”
Some people would throw stones into a heap, or wood into a pile, and say, “Here is art!”
I do not disagree.
But for me, I’d rather look to the artistic marvels of castles, and cathedrals, pyramids, synagogues and mosques and say, “Here is art!”
I would hate to have to walk onto a slam poetry stage, unprepared, and deliver their art.
But I would suggest, that those who think “anyone can write structured poetry” try their hand at an ancient structured form before casting judgement.