“SEMI-FORMAL VERSE” AND ITS PROSODY: An essay by Marilyn Taylor

MLT w bricksBIO

Marilyn L. Taylor, former Poet Laureate of Wisconsin (2009 and 2010) and the city of Milwaukee (2004 and 2005) is the author of six poetry collections.  Her award-winning poems and essays have appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Poetry, American Scholar, Measure, and Able Muse.  Marilyn taught poetry and poetics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her column on poetic craft appeared for five years in The Writer magazine.


Over the course of the past several decades, it appears that a subtle, unacknowledged stylistic shift has been taking place in poetry before our eyes—a phenomenon that has managed to substantially blur the boundaries that separate free verse from formal. Many of the poems that confront us now in the literary journals seem unclassifiable as one or the other, but fall instead into a new, quasi-metrical category that welcomes the better elements of both. Such poems have been referred to, in fact, as “semi-formal verse”—i.e. poetry that does not adhere strictly to the rules and restrictions of conventional prosody, but that never strays too far from them, either. Due to the increasing presence of such poetry, it would seem an appropriate time to take a look at it, investigate what it is, and make an attempt to predict its probable future.

I’ll begin on the more slippery side of the slope, if I may, with the prosody of free verse—which, until relatively recently, scarcely anyone considered in terms of its prosodic elements. Matters such as lineation, rhythmic regularity, stress-count per line, and other such minutiae hadn’t been seen as particularly relevant, except, perhaps, to committed linguists. For most of us, the automatic assumption has been that only poetry that is clearly metrical should suffer close rhythmic analysis at all. Why? Because unmetered poetry seems basically impossible to scan.
Back in 1935, for instance, in his book titled Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry, R. P. Blackmur maintained that with many free-verse poets (D. H. Lawrence served as his object-lesson in this particular essay), “the very intensity of self-expression overwhelm[s] all other considerations, and the disorder alone prevail(s).” Elsewhere: “Lawrence submitted the obsessions of his experience to the heightening fire of hysteria,

and put down the annealed product just as it came.” And furthermore: “Hardy would have been ashamed of the lopsided, uneven metrical architecture.”

It’s clear where Blackmur’s aesthetic proclivities lay at that time, although he must have known by then that he was fighting a losing battle—even while targeting a number of free-verse poets, Lawrence among them, to serve as the whipping-boys and girls for his particular (dying) point of view.

In the end, of course, it was that very “annealed product”—free verse—that became, overwhelmingly, the norm for American and English poetry. The trend gained considerable momentum in the decades following the Second World War, until the poets who would have been commended by Blackmur as “the metrical descendents of Hardy”—the likes of Frost, Millay, Teasdale, Brooks, Merrill, Wilbur, others— were simply dismissed, ignored, and even scorned by the literary tastemakers of the day.

Not surprisingly, this distinct and rather sudden swing of the pendulum from “metrical architecture” to “disorder” was noticed and written about by many critics and literary scholars. It was either the best thing in the world (freedom!) or the worst thing that could possibly have happened to poetry (chaos!), and the clamor on both sides resounded well into the nineteen-seventies and beyond.
For a time, all of this antagonism was seen as exciting, even if occasionally infuriating. What’s more fun, academically speaking, than a small revolution within the ranks? A few skirmishes between the shaggy free-verse stalwarts vs. the tweedy New Formalists? Their disagreements, solemnly written up in journals that included, among others, APR, Hudson Review, and Fence, became known as the Poetry Wars (which in some quarters are still being fought, but mostly by undergraduates encountering the Beats for the very first time). It was gradually becoming clear, however, that where one came

down on these issues was not merely a matter of one’s presumed “philosophy” or even one’s “politics” (in a ludicrous extension of the argument), but one of competing prosodic approaches, as well. A genuine need was developing for an impartial, intelligent analysis of what, exactly, had changed so drastically in English-language poetry over the course of less than half a century, and was continuing to change .
That need was finally addressed in 1980 with the publication of an extraordinary study by Charles O. Hartman titled Free Verse: An Essay On Prosody. It is a splendid take on the “mechanics” of free verse, and a convincing argument in support of the conviction that it is syntax and lineation that govern the rhythmic experience of a poem in the absence of regular meter.

Hartman, who pays considerable attention in his book to Williams, Larkin, and especially to Eliot, successfully lays to rest the Blackmurian idea that the rhythms of free verse are somehow “primitive,” random, or impossible to analyze.

Conversely, the book also takes issue with those who believe that rhythmic regularity automatically leads to excessive artifice and rhythmic monotony. Thus no one from either camp goes home without the need for some degree of accountability.

What seems undeniable is this: in the thirty years since the publication of Hartman’s text, an undeniable lull, if not a truce, in the poetry wars has taken place, along with an increasing willingness for the two sides to co-exist peacefully. I can’t say that the book was directly responsible for this trend, but I do suggest that it was a harbinger of more tolerant times to come. It actually does appear as though a new laissez-faire attitude is affecting American and English poetry scholarship at the present time, along with a discernable blending—or at least a more comfortable commingling—of styles, formerly wildly disparate, in the poems we’re confronting in the latest journals and anthologies.

Simultaneously, a distinct new prosodic hybrid seems to be emerging in the midst of it all.

This new sub-subgenre probably owes its genesis to the more liberal proponents of the New Criticism, and to practitioners of what Graham Hough back in 1960 called “vers libére”, which is not to be confused with “vers libre”. Vers libére, according to Hough, is poetry that is technically free verse, but remains very much informed by traditional meters—unlike “vers libre”, which for the most part is not.

I will interrupt myself at this point to emphasize that there is nothing new about shifting developments and fashions in poetry. Today’s changes are merely a sign, I think, of how the prosodic pendulum—which has never stood still—may have reached the far side of “liberation”, so to speak, from meter. And ever so slightly, it’s beginning to swing back in the opposite direction. (One sure sign: the recent proliferation in the critical literature of descriptors like “anecdotal” and “disjunctive”, used pejoratively.)

Many readers will recall that almost exactly the same thing happened precisely a century ago. Back in 1912, when Ezra Pound successfully nudged the pendulum in the direction of free verse, he did so by insisting upon something he called “absolute rhythm” in poetry. He urged poets to do away entirely with formal metrical conventions, all of which he considered impediments to the sincere expression of emotion. However, there were a significant number of American and British poets who, consciously or unconsciously, didn’t buy the whole package. Think of Masters, Lindsay, Millay, Cummings, Teasdale and Wylie, for example. Despite what many of their more avant-garde contemporaries were doing, the work of these poets was still clearly informed by the conventions of meter. Taking into consideration such elements as the regular placement of stress, the use of rhyme, the uniformity of the line-length, and

patterns of repetition, it’s apparent that even Lawrence owed a great deal—although clearly not everything—to traditional versification.
Not surprisingly, Lawrence never overtly acknowledged using formal devices in his work. He might have had his critics in mind, but it’s also possible that his use of the conventions was unconscious. In a revealing letter to his friend the anthologist Edward Marsh, he said of his own rhythmic approach: “I think I read my poetry more by length than by stress—as a matter of movements in space, rather than footsteps hitting the earth.” But in reality, any careful reader of Lawrence will hear the footsteps anyway. His lines may seldom manifest a regular backbeat, like the pentameters of Frost or Millay, but they can hardly be referred to as haphazard “movements in space” either. One critic, the metrist Hebe Riddick Bair, puts it this way:

“[Lawrence] uses traditional feet as a base meter, extended feet as a variation played against that base, and combinations of these as a third variation played against both.” A demonstration: the first four lines of “The Ship of Death”—that lovely and rather grim extended meditation on mortality that Lawrence wrote in 1929, soon after he learned that he himself was dying:
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.
The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

The excerpt clearly establishes the iambic pentameter as its “base meter”. It features variations, but not radical ones, not the sort that would preclude the use of traditional foot-scansion; but they seem to suggest there will be further irregularities to come. And they do. In fact, the effect of reading the entire poem is not unlike examining one of those unsettling illustrations that demonstrate optical illusions. For a moment you think you’re looking at the outline of a symmetrical vase or urn, and then you blink, and the whole thing has turned into a woman’s head in profile.

This rather pleasant sense of disorientation was apparent in the work of a number of poets who were publishing between the late nineteen-twenties and the onset of World War II. Think, first, of Eliot’s gradual defection from the free-verse movement, beginning with “The Waste Land” and culminating, metrically speaking, with “Four Quartets.” Others of that era who rejected the sovereignty of free verse included Cummings, Bogan, Millay, MacLeish, and the Fugitive Poets of the American South. The work coming from these poets at that time wasn’t exactly “free”, but much of it wasn’t exactly formal, either; it was both. Here was a hybrid prosody, which brought to vers libre a singular musicality and grace that had been missing for some time.

The interlude of co-existence ended quickly, however. In her insightful 1993 volume titled The Ghost of Meter, poet and critic Annie Finch acknowledges that “[t]hrough the 1930s. . . poets built on Eliot’s idea of meter as a constant presence lurking behind the arras of free verse” (129), but she adds that in the decades that immediately followed World War II, free verse “lost touch with its metrical history” (130).
Using Sexton as her example, Finch further notes that meter was “accessible enough. . . to reject with relative ease” (131). In other words, Sexton and many of her contemporaries were deeply familiar with the traditions and with the rules of traditional prosody, but chose to disregard them. Free verse had indeed won out, and was commencing its decades-long domination of the prosodic landscape. The era of coexistence had clearly ended.

Fashions in poetry, however—as in all of the arts—are cyclical, and an eventual move into the next phase was inevitable. Therefore, after thirty years of near-invisibility, poems in traditional forms—contemporary sonnets, villanelles, rondeaus, etc.–began to emerge again in the late nineteen-seventies and especially in the early eighties, much as they had back in the twenties. So frequently were they appearing in print, in fact, that in 1986 Philip Dacey & David Jauss published their splendid anthology featuring the best of them, entitled Strong Measures.

The more prolific and skilled of these poets—e.g. Timothy Steele, Charles Martin, Dana Gioia, Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter and Mark Jarman, among a number of others—soon became identified as the New Formalists, and were either praised extravagantly or severely taken to task for their traditional aesthetic, which was referred to as both “groundbreaking” and “retrograde”, depending upon the predilections of the critic. In the end, however, formalism thrived, and finally became recognized as a respectable alternative approach to writing poems. The early nineteen-nineties indeed saw what amounted to the completion of a fifty-year cycle, which began during the heyday of free verse, and ended with the acceptance, albeit occasionally grudging, of contemporary poetry in meter.

Now, however, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, a new cycle appears to be gaining some momentum, very different in character from what came before. The earlier cycle, of course, began at a time when formal elements were finding their way into free verse; today’s appears to be evolving the other way around.

In the current variation, the still-precarious foothold of rule-bound “formal” poetry is being artfully undermined by a looser, less obedient aesthetic. Just a few of its practitioners include Molly Peacock, Andrew Hudgins, Kim Addonizio, and Marie Ponsot—whose 1988 sonnet, titled “Out of Eden”, was ahead of its time. It is provided here as an example of formal verse that is being consciously subverted by the poet herself:

Under the May rain over the dug grave a
my mother is given canticles and I who believe b
in everything watch flowers stiffen to new bloom. c

Behind us the rented car fabricates a cave. a
My mother nods: Is he? He is. But, is? Nods. d
Angels shoo witches from this American tomb. c

The nod teaches me. It is something I can save a.
He left days ago. We, so that we too may leave, b
install his old belongings in a bizarre new room. c
I want to kneel indignantly anywhere and rave. a

Well, God help us, now my father’s will is God’s. d
At games and naming he beat Adam. He loved his Eve. b
I knew him and his wicked tongue. What he had, he gave. a

I do not know where to go to do it, but I grieve. b

A scansion of the first three lines yields the following:
Under the May rain over the dug grave a
B ǒ B ô B ô B ǒ B ô B

my mother is given canticles and I who believe b
o B ǒ B o B ǒ o B ǒ B

in everything watch flowers stiffen to new bloom. c
o B ǒ B ô B o B ǒ B ô B

Please note, incidentally, that the scansion method being used here is based upon the system of beats and offbeats devised by the brilliant metrist Derek Attridge. Analyzing these lines via classical foot scansion can certainly be done, but the result might be counter-intuitive at best, near-gibberish at worst. A traditional analysis of the first line alone, perhaps, might serve to illustrate this claim quite clearly:
Under the May rain over the dug grave —a ten-syllable line. That implicative number, coupled with the overall “look” of the poem on the page, might subtly suggest that this is the beginning of a sonnet, and that we

are about to confront the traditional iambic pentameter. However, the only genuine iamb in the line occurs in the position of the second foot. The other four feet all require substitutions, reversals, fusions, truncations, or coalitions.

It can also be argued (if foot-scansion is used for the analysis) that the line consists entirely of two “extended” double-iambs. This may be correct. Or perhaps “under the” and “over the” are both dactyls, and “May rain” and ”dug grave” are both spondees, so there are therefore only four feet in the line altogether. This could be correct, too. These several acceptable metrical analyses of the line show exactly why traditional scansion does not succeed here, and the Attridge system does.

To return to the poem itself: it’s interesting to note how Ponsot toys here with the structure of the sonnet. Ostensibly Petrarchan, it really isn’t, quite. The poem is divided into five sections—most unusual for a sonnet; and the rhyme scheme is aberrational, but not at all arbitrary: abc, adc, abca, dba, b.

But for all that, “Out of Eden” is a far cry from free verse. For one thing, it consists of fourteen lines. For another, it presents a recognizable, if not quite conventional, rhyme scheme. The clincher: it features a discernable sonnet-like “turn” between the tenth and eleventh lines. Nor is the poem an example of what Dana Gioia has called “pseudo-formal” poetry, i.e. free verse that has been tricked out with regularly recurring stanza breaks and uniform line-lengths for the sole purpose of achieving an attractively symmetrical, “formal” look on the page. (See Gioia’s astute 1991 essay titled Notes on the New Formalism for more on this issue.) The care that Ponsot took to retain certain aspects of the sonnet form while eliminating others would seem to eliminate this possibility.

Rather, the poem appears to be an amalgam, a fusion, a “semi-formal” poem. It owes a great deal to traditional prosody, but it also exploits the expressive potential of free verse, achieving for itself a middle-of-the-road flexibility that retains much of the grace of form, along with the unstudied aesthetic of vers libre.

Is “Out of Eden” more successful by virtue of its reluctance to conform, by refusing to wear the traditional tuxedo to the poetry prom? Probably. It is, after all, a poem that expresses indignity, anger, despair. The speaker seems in no mood to follow old conventions to the letter, even though she is loosely bound by them: “Well, God help us,” she grumbles—“now my father’s will is God’s.”
There are countless other contemporary poems of this kind in print. I’ve listed a very few of them below, and more are being published every year. I do not intend to imply that their looser prosodic character will succeed in outshining the poetry that adheres to all of the rules of form. Nor will these poems have much of a chance of toppling the dominance of free verse. But I do suggest that such poems are already re-defining and enlarging the scope and breadth of what we think of nowadays as “formal poetry”.

I further suggest that they may well encourage the use of a newer and vastly more practical mechanism than foot-scansion for the prosodic study of contemporary verse—the Attridge system—which allows those of us who are interested in such things to more easily keep tabs on the latest developments. Finally, I predict that this carefully “integrated” manner of writing will help usher in a new willingness to accommodate poetry’s infinite variety—present, past, and still unwritten.

* * * * *


Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
B ǒ B ǒ B o B o B

and the long journey towards oblivion.
ǒ B ô B o B o B ǒ

The apples falling like great drops of dew
o B o B ǒ B ô B o B

to bruise themselves an exit from themselves
o B o B o B o B o B
from “The Ship of Death”, D. H. Lawrence (1929)



Allen, Dick: “Veteran’s Day”
Alvarez, Julia: “Sonnet I”
Dove, Rita: “Parsley”
Ewart, Gavin: “The Last Things”
Gluck, Louise: “Bridal Piece”
Gorham, Sarah: “The White Tiger Leaps”
Heffernan, Michael: “A Colloquy of Silences”
Jenkins, Alan: “Murphy’s Law”
Klappert, Peter: “Ellie Mae Leaves in a Hurry”
Meinke, Peter: “Rage”
Wojahn, David: “The Assassination of John Lennon as Depicted by the Madame Toussaud Wax Museum, Niagara Falls, Ontario, 1987”

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