open forms in poetry

Poets who write in open forms usually insist on the form growing out of the writing process, i.e. the poems follow what the words and phrase suggest during the composition process, rather than being fitted into any pre-existing plan. Some do employ vestiges of traditional devices — rhyme, metre, alliteration — but most regard them as a hindrance to sincerity or creativity. Many open form types exist, and good poets have often mastered several over the same period, even mixing them in the one poem. Distinctions can be overdone, but it may be helpful to have a broad taxonomy: a very simplistic listing:

  1. High Modernism: lines of unequal length: organized by images or themes rather than argument or narrative: metre: stress verse or rhythmic verse: e.g. Eliot's The Waste Land.

  2. Leaves of Grass: as above, but rhythmic verse, broader social register and less reliance on traditional techniques: e.g. Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

  3. Imagism: cadenced rhythmic verse and free-floating images: e.g. T. E. Hulme's :A City Sunset. NNA.

  4. Free Verse of William Carlos Williams: organized by "variable feet" and lines set out with spaces and indents: e.g. William's Patterson.

  5. Projective verse: organized by the physiology of speech and treating words as things in themselves, not simple referents: e.g. Charles Olson's Maximus.

  6. Surrealism: phrases defy rational explanation: e.g. Charles Wright's After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard.

  7. Beat Poetry: rhythmic, rambling and eclectic: e.g. Allen Ginsberg's Howl.

  8. Postmodernist: playful assemblages, free-standing creations whose constituents do not necessarily refer to anything in the "real world": e.g. April Bernard's Pierced.

  9. Postmodernist: random but thoughtful examination of the world around: e.g. Andrew Crozier's High Zero.

  10. Language Poetry: collages of everyday phrases, often fragmented or fissile in meaning: e.g. Charles Bernstein's Stele for Lost Time.

  11. Performance pieces: poems taped or filmed just as the words come: e.g. David Altin's The Noise of Time.

Click on the links above for a fuller treatment of these types (some are Not Now Available), with notes on practitioners and the devices employed. In the rest of the page we look at the theoretical implications of free forms.

Argument One: Form is Imprisoning

Poets writing in open forms argue that their approaches make for greater freedom to find the appropriate expression, and that the words are not regimented into set meanings. The spiritual forefather often quoted is Coleridge, whose Biographia Literaria (1817) distinguished between "form as proceeding" and "shape as superinduced". In following the first, the so-called "organic form", the poet shapes the poem as its meaning suggests, whereas something of "super-induced" form is either the death or imprisonment of the poem. {1}

David Perkins makes the same point. "The 'organic form,' shaping itself 'as it develops itself from within,' comes into existence, Coleridge said, like a naturally growing thing. The poet, in other words, proceeds in the same way as nature; nature works in and through the creative act of the poet. The possibility of this presupposes 'a bond between nature . . and the soul of man.'" {2}

But Coleridge never saw metre as an impediment to expression, quite the opposite, and his small experiments in Christobel were essentially a return to Anglo-Saxon forms, to stress verse where accents and not syllables were counted. "Meter, for him, is the chief vehicle for achieving the aim of poetry, which is pleasure; it quickens passions; it demands technical skill and knowledge of other and older languages. . . Meter draws its power from both the disciplined will and the body's rhythmical energy; it spans the intersection of mind and body and reconciles head and heart, specifically the heart-beat. . . . Metrical poetry rouses the whole soul to activity; it moves at different speeds, it swerves, pauses, and surges forward, quickening the senses and heartbeat. Chapter 18 of the Biographia Literaria insinuates that verse deliberately heightens this physical energy. Despite an opening remark about meter holding "in check the workings of passion" (2.64), Coleridge is more interested in the opposite impulse, the "increased excitement" (2.65), the "vivacity" (2.66), "the continued excitement of surprize" (2.66). Poetry, "accompanied by the natural language of excitement," is "formed into meter artificially, by a voluntary act, with the design and for the purpose of blending delight with emotion, so the traces of present volition should throughout the metrical language be proportionally discernible" (2.64-65)" {3}

Moreover, until we get to Postmodernism, where where words interact with each other more than the outside world, poems offered some viewpoint on society and ourselves. "Elizabeth Bishop shared their skepticism. With the Lowell who in 1957 told William Carlos Williams, "it's great to have no hurdle of rhyme and scansion between yourself and what you want to say most forcibly," Bishop could not agree, because she understood that all forms of poetry, as linguistic confections, offer one or another screen through which the world is experienced." {4}

In fact, poets writing in strict (i.e. closed) forms often find the requirements anything but restricting. Their minds are more sharply focused by the technical difficulties, and the resulting poem is more concentrated and powerful. The formal requirements act as midwife to the poem, the unyielding demands conjuring up the words as some Ouija board.

Argument Two: Immediacy of Composition

Most open forms are written in free verse, claimed to better preserve the immediacy of composition. The poet is not continually looking for a word with specific properties but can follow the natural flow of his or her creation. The result? "The notion that free verse is a more natural form of expression, and therefore easier to write than fixed verse is, I think, a fallacy. The difficulty in composition which free verse presents is that it does not force the poet to contemplate his thought with an intensity which brings out its fullest possibilities. . . The danger of too much freedom is that poetry may easily become the mere jotting down of very casual thoughts in haphazard rhythm." {5}

But perhaps that haphazardness is a positive virtue. David Perkins again: "The mind of the poet is not, Duncan explains, 'to be diverted by what it wanted to say but to attend to what [is] happening in the poem.'" {6}

For Robert Duncan, a poem grew out of its making. We set in motion certain attitudes, expectations and compositional devices, and the resulting article inevitably reflects them. A poem written in tight rhyming couplets, for example, will not be the same article as one written in some conversational style. Not only will it not look the same, but it will not be 'saying the same thing', having interrogated experience differently. Moreover — the argument generally continues — an interrogation conducted in a everyday language will result in a more genuine poem, since it will operate on readers in ways that are most natural and real to them.

Perhaps so, but there are some assumptions worth looking at:

1. We understand the world through the language in which we describe it.

This is the Whorfian theory of linguistics, which seems only partly true. Some radical theory goes further, of course, and asserts that language is the only reality. The difficulties are that view are truly enormous, however: in deconstruction and analytical philosophy.

The matter is further complicated by perception, reading and speech being distinct abilities, somewhat variously associated in the brain. The assertion seems not only simplistic, therefore, but distinctly unlikely, given current research findings, {7} though language may be necessary for thought. {8}

2. The poetry-writing process largely takes control of our thoughts, or should do so.

Though Yeats experimented with automatic writing, and the Surrealists claimed that the unconscious was the high road to understanding, practically all poets reshape their creations. They periodically step back and ask themselves: What am I trying to say here? Have I got it right? Perhaps what distinguishes the various methods of writing is how often the poet makes these checks, and with what aim.

3. Everyday language is the most powerful.

The claim has often formed the platform of new poetry movements, but is rarely carried through. In general, the language of contemporary poetry is anything but natural, being an mixture of various social registers and fractured syntax. Even the word choice of Ginsberg or William Carlos Williams is guided by aesthetic matters, however disguised. Diction is a complicated matter.

4. The more immediate or instinctive is the more genuine, as it bypasses the stultifying conventions of the socially acceptable, the repressions of the superego, and/or the inherent perversions of language.

The view is a Romantic one, underlying much of nineteenth-century philosophy, and some political excesses in the twentieth.

Inner processes are important, and poetry is often written initially in some half-conscious reverie, inspiration at best. But that reverie does not come wholly from the unconscious, which is a trivializing myth, however marketed by the psychoanalyst schools of Freud and Lacan.

Argument Three: Sensitivity to Word Properties

A sensitivity to words — meanings, connotations, past usages, etymologies, social registers, sound, vowel and stress patterns — is essential to poetry, and an important concern to the serious poet. But open / free verse forms do not necessarily make the task any easier, sometimes the opposite. Strict forms push words closer to each other, emphasizing the overall context in which words are heard and gain their power. That power needs careful handling, and to the extent that it can be misused, or not recognize at all, strict forms tend to make problems for beginners. But matters are reversed with experience, so that the many excellent poems being written in free form today are in some ways a greater accomplishment, given that the vast repertoire of devices to modify the properties of words, built up by four hundred years of metered verse, is unavailable to them.

Argument Four: Open Forms Reflect Contemporary Life

To some extent, no doubt, everyone finds life confusing, incomplete and unsatisfying. Why shouldn't poetry reflect the fact? Robert von Hallberg: "On the other hand are those poets, whom I also admire, like Pound, Olson, and Ashbery who accept the inevitability of incoherence and let economy be damned. For these writers, a principle of coherence is negatively involved; one admires their work despite its moments of apparent incoherence, despite its lack of economy. In fact, incoherence and extravagance are signs that a poem is working at the edges of convention, straining for beauty and meaning that come without coherence." {9}

It's not difficult to make an incoherent poem. Blindfolded selection of words out of dictionary would do the job admirably (and has been resorted to). That the result would not detain us long, does suggest, however, that something more is needed: in this case selection, rearrangement and organization of the random words. And once we do this, however unconsciously, there enters purpose to our actions. Why? To what end? Emphasizing what features? The incoherence of our lives, feelings and reflections are not to be recreated by incoherent procedures, therefore, but by creations that highlight or reflect on that incoherence. That in turn means making things that are intelligible to us: themes, marshalled thoughts, syntax with some semblance of order. Art is not life as it comes, but inevitably some representation of life, and with that representation come rules or codes to read it by.

So: if the incoherence of life could be represented by incoherent confections of words, then open forms would win hands down, would indeed be the only way of proceeding. Unfortunately, the random remarks, catch phrases, snippets of articles, puns and like — the constituents of the playful and entertaining poems of Ashbery and others — do not come like leggo blocks with universal attachment points but need great craft to make into something worth reading.

We may indeed be creatures living in insecure expectations and generalities, but that is only one aspect of life, and one that becomes tiresome in less-gifted performers, perhaps even pointless. A self-satisfied and philistine bourgeoisie is not to be woken up by such tactics, given that they hardly read poetry, or not contemporary poetry. What we might ask for, as mankind as always looked for down the centuries, is an art that gives beauty and significance to their lives, which is indeed what the von Hallberg quote ends with: "beauty and meaning that come without coherence."

Much depends what is meant by coherence, of course, which, as von Hallberg observes (contrary to The New Criticism), is never total in any work of art. Perhaps what is being urged, therefore, is a more generous and sensitive understanding, a coherence that makes greater sense of life in its many contemporary and confusing apparitions.


Just as no water-tight argument for traditional verse has ever been constructed, so many will feel that no justification is needed for free verse. The poems "work". Readers enjoy them — as I do — and are suspicious of intellectual commentators, of their pretensions {14} and self-centered attitudes. Freshness and sensitivity to words are to be praised in any writer, and poets can surely find their own way. The pioneers of open forms indeed had no love for academia, and tended to make ad hoc explanations of their work as they went along, a strategy familiar to anyone who reads poetry manifestoes or art gallery catalogues.

While it's not unusual to find editors of very different perspectives making similar selections of poems for a publication, that connoiseurship is acquired over many years of reading, which has been guided by some common beliefs. Many poets today have renounced traditional approaches, and their work is trivial or unintelligible unless we know what they are aiming at. And finally, though some literary commentators do believe that open forms are the only way forward, their critical expositions can be as limiting and/or suspect as any other. {15}

Perhaps the answer lies closer to home: the influence of cinema. Many poems in the twentieth century adopt cinematic devices that are common in novels: "The discontinuity of the Plot and the scenic development, the sudden immersion of the thoughts and moods, the relativity and the inconsistency of the time standards, are what remind us in the works of Proust and Joyce, Dos Passos, and Virginia Woolf of the cuttings, dissolves and interpolations of the film..." {16} Unattributed scenes appear and dissolve in Eliot's Wasteland, cinematic effects of motion in William Carlos Williams {17}, colliding montages in Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore {18}, film reportage in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, {19} and so on — suggesting that it was not theory that won the day, but simple habit: we got used to their viewpoints.

References and Resources

1. Enikö Bolloás, Tradition and Innovation in American Free Verse: Whitman to Duncan. (Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest. 1986), 35.
2. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. (Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987), 491.
3. Anya Taylor, Coleridge and the Pleasures of Verse. Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 40, 2001. Q
4. James Longenbach, Modern Poetry after Modernism (O.U.P., 1997), 9.
5. C.E. Andrews, The Writing and Reading of Verse (D. Appleton & Company, 1918), 317. Q
6. David Perkins, op. cit, 496.
7. Cogprints. Technical papers on psychology, neuroscience and linguistics.
8. Conscious thinking: language or elimination? Peter Carruthers. Jan. 2001. NNA. More philosophy than experimental psychology.
9. Marjorie Perloff and Robert von Hallberg, Dialogue on Evaluation in Poetry. Accessed 10th Sep 2004.
10. Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art. Vol. 4 (Vintage Books, 1958), 244. Q
11. Christopher Collins, The Poetics of the Mind's Eye: Literature and the Psychology of Imagination (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 107. Q
12. Susan Mccabe, The "Ballet Mecanique" of Marianne Moore's Cinematic Modernism Journal; Mosaic, Vol. 33, 2000. Q
13. Larry Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet-At-Large (Smith; Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 118-26. Q
14. Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York, Harper and Row, 1988).
15. Martha Banta, et al., eds., Columbia Literary History of the United States, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). Q
16. On Cole's Island. Note by Don Byrd.
17. William Carlos Williams.
18. Poetry. Marianne Moore (1887-1972). NNA
19. Lawrence Ferlighetti. One of a series on Beat writers.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.