So Mike Snider is talking about how “It’s easier to recognize and discuss basic competence in a metrical poem” The point being that it’s difficult to argue the merits of free verse and therefore bad free verse is, perhaps, slightly more likely to slide under the critical radar. In other words, metrical verse has an objective standard that must be met or at least nodded to in passing, while free verse has no objective standard. Any significant debate about the merit of a particular piece of free verse then, being subjective, is likely to devolve into a mere shouting match, with no way of determining the “winner.”
He leaves us with the question “how can you tell the difference between bullshit and real depth” with regard to free verse. I think though, that the question applies equally well to metrical verse. Certainly, with metrical verse, we can apply the objective (or at least semi-objective) standard, and weed out the completely incompetent, but once the poet has mastered meter, do they magically get a pass simply because the author is technically competent? In fact, I think that “bad” metrical poetry may get a pass as often as bad free verse because once it has passed the metrical standard it is passed over 1, at least this has been my experience in work-shopping my own poetry. In other words, once it has passed the additional standards imposed by form, a formal poem ought still to be subject to the same standard of critique as a free verse poem is initially.2 Which leaves us back at square one, but now looking at the whole range of poetry: “How can you tell the difference between bullshit and real depth?”
Assuming we want to apply some sort of standard, that we’ll agree with Poe that poetry is “the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” but disagree with him as to whether or not “Its sole arbiter is Taste,” we have our work cut out for us. Because, if we accept that poetry is entirely subjective, then ALL criticism becomes pointless. But if we attempt to define poetry or to set a standard, then we face a task which has made greater minds than mine blanch at the prospect. When Boswell asked him, “Then, Sir, what is poetry?” Samuel Johnson replied, “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.” Poetry seems to hover on the border of the indefinable, on the tip of the tongue. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”, though beautiful, and despite my love for Dickinson, hardly works as a standard for argument. Or to take a less emotional definition, neither does Amy Lowell’s “Concentration is the very essence of poetry.”
There are things that we can look at, though, whether in free or formal verse. We can examine the aural structure of the poem and determine whether it supports or distracts from the message of the poem.3 Ditto the visual structure. We can look at the metaphor (or metaphors) that are used and see how well they hold up throughout the piece. We can look at the images that are chosen and judge them both on originality and on specificity or concreteness. I could list more, but I think the point is made: There are objective standards by which arguments can be made as to the quality of a poem, over and above its technical competence, for both formal and free verse, arguments which ought to, in an unemotional venue, be able to stand up well to any attack(1 again), even when made about the work of an “established” poet. The question is a good one, and I will be interested to see what other responses and opinions it generates.
3Assuming of course that we can find a message or image or whatever that the poem is supposed to be about. If we can’t then either we are incapable of examining that poem, or it is really really bad. I don’t buy the “you don’t have to understand it to experience it” philosophy.