I have been spending a good portion of this summer doing a lot of reading for my first Ph.D. field exam, which is focusing on William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot. What I have always liked about these poets is their differing views on approaching poetry and form. Williams felt that American poetry should sound distinctly American, and he aimed to capture the American vernacular in verse, and to his ire, Eliot was more of a traditionalist who often referenced Shakespeare, Dante, Greek mythology and other classicist literature, while using more traditional forms in his work, especially in his later work. Williams famously said that The Wasteland set American poetry “back 50 years” for its references to classic literature and its reliance in certain sections on traditional meter. Yet, as experimental as Williams was, certainly more so than Eliot, he did not believe that verse could ever be truly free. In the book William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, by Joel Conarroe, the author makes a great point that for Williams free verse did not exist because poetry requires some sort of measure. This is a little different, however, from Eliot’s belief that behind free verse there lurks a ghost of meter. Williams believed that the measure had to reflect the times and not necessarily rely on tradition. Thus he believed in trying to capture American speech in verse as he heard in such speech a musicality, a sense of measure.
Eliot and Williams’ views on free verse and form are important, especially to anyone teaching a creative writing class. These are two of the most influential and experimental poets of the 20th Century, yet they did believe in establishing some form and structure, though they approached that task rather differently. Whenever I have taught intro to creative writing and even upper level creative writing class, I have encountered students time and time again that believe in no rules. So what separates their poetry from chopped prose? A good exercise regarding form is to take a free verse poem by Williams, or even Walt Whitman, and find some structure in it. Look at the line lengths. Count the syllables. Look at the stanzas. I have done this before, and it helps students to understand that even free verse needs some sort of measure and some backbone of structure.