[To be inserted soon into my definition of poetry]
Separating poetry from verse was not just a natural organic adaptation of established forms to fit the needs of the day. Certain Poets with Intention and Malice Aforethought sought the redefinition of Poetry to remove Verse from its canon and thus to set in motion the genre of Poetry’s quick and brutal demise. [Leave it to the French, hein?]
The Shame is Real
Joyce Kilmer, author of the “Trees”, speaks of the shame brought to “the rhymer’s honest trade” in his To Certain Poets. The shame is real, and though it took over 100 years, the Separation Movement has brought down the Mighty Oak. As USA Today observes, “Trees” no longer works as poetry in an educational setting. It is no longer a “trans-generational glue” [note the special ridicule given to the verse’s meter]:
“Trees’ demise began in the late 1960s. It had something to alienate everyone — feminization of nature, sing-song cadence, metaphors that had the tree’s mouth pressing down while her head’s up in the air, hosting robins.”
And look at how poetry readings are depicted now in pop culture. This is not flattering.
Another shameful example, from LiteraryDevices.com :
“There are a few definitions of verse which are relevant to literature. Originally, a verse referred to a single line of a poem. It has also come to mean any grouping of words in a poem, for example a stanza or, indeed, an entire poem. When used to refer to a poem, verse can be a bit of a derogatory term, as it signifies a work which is not quite good enough aesthetically to be classified as a poem.”
Wow. See where Kilmer was going, yet? This appears to have been going on for a long time.
Kilmer leaves unnamed the Certain Poets he castigates for the shame they brought to “the rhymer’s honest trade”. But I can think of one or two: Whitman and Mallarmé . Whitman is the real powerhouse here, never asking permission from The Accademy to forge his own style [Leave it to the American, right?]. As he said in his 1872 address to a joint session of congress, “Democracy was not invented to watch my Free Verse suffer and die while Oxford University discusses this separation in a committee!” He had likely also seen enough of war and wanted no more part of it it, thank you.
So, I admire Mallarmé for his courageous attempt to come to grips with Free Verse and how the divorce of poetry from verse would ultimately bring doom, or at least shame to poets everywhere. In the winter of 1894, Stéphane Mallarmé takes it to the Ivory Tower. Liesl Yamaguchi recounts the event:
“I do indeed bring news,” [Mallarmé] declared to the crowd assembled at Oxford’s Taylorian Institution on the first of March: “Verse has been tampered with.” A fissure had emerged within the ancient unity long known indifferently as verse or as poetry, and Mallarmé, tracing it, had deduced the magnitude of its implications with astonishing prescience. Standing before the fault line that would bring untold reconfigurations, he marked the moment. He pointed. “That is where we are, right now,” he observed. “The Separation.”
“There is no such thing as prose. There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.” – Mallarmé, 1891
Great news. Poetry is not verse, but Prose is! Except that the definition of verse just got stretched beyond the point of recognition. We have New Poetry, to go along with New Math, but how do you teach it? And if, like the New Math, you can’t teach it, where will our future poets learn their craft, and eventually their art? Engineering students (and engineers) benefit from clear definitions of terms. So do poetry students and, yes, even poets.
I will not attempt to summarize Yamaguchi’s brilliantly detailed explication of Mallarmé’s attempted definition of verse in the New Poetry. It is the most technically detailed definition I have yet encountered. Tortured, twisted and utterly unworkable, but a valient attempt. Yamaguchi gives it as much justice as it deserves, just enough rope with which to hang itself, and after the vaporous fogs of the lecture had begun to drift back across the Atlantic, this scene was unfolding somewhere in the vast stretches of America’s heartland:
[DARTH POE cuts off Walt’s writing hand. Walt attempts to escape by climbing out onto a grassy knoll.]
DARTH POE: There is no escape! Don’t make me destroy you. Walt, you do not yet realize your importance. You’ve only begun to discover your power! Join me, and I will complete your versification! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the Poetry.
WALT GRASSWALKER: [angrily] I’ll never join you!
DARTH POE: If only you knew the power of the Verse Side! Emerson never told you what happened to your father.
WALT GRASSWALKER: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
DARTH POE: No. I am your father!
WALT GRASSWALKER [shocked] No… No! That’s not true! That’s impossible!
DARTH POE: Search your feelings, you know it to be true!
WALT GRASSWALKER: [overwhelmed, crying] NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! NOOOO…!!
DARTH POE: Walt, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny! Join me, and together, we can rule the Poetry as father and son! Come with me. It is the only way.
Unfortunately, we know how the movie ends. #MayTheVerseBeWithYou
Read Yamaguchi. Read Edward Hirsch’s equally tortured entry for poetry in his A Poet’s Glossary. In separating poetry from verse, observe the lengths to which one must go to then define poetry. It is not verse that gets lost in this attempt, but the poem, for having lost its singular defining trait, it becomes undefined, both everything and nothing.
The idea of verse being a sort of untidy step-child and sub-standard, lesser, not quite poetry is ludicrous and backward, since a poem does not exist in the absence of verse – in its traditional, rhythmic sense. Something does exist, and we call it prose.
A special tribute to enjambment is warranted, and now is as good a time as any. PoetryFoundation.org defines it here:
The running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped. William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjambed lines:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
The key words in that definition are “a sentence or phrase”. Williams did not write verse. He wrote a sentence. It is prose, and prose is not made into poetry by the insertion of arbitrary line breaks. Lines in poetry, we poets sometimes call them verses, encapsulate an instance of a rhythmical unit. Sometimes the physical page (or the poet’s own arbitrarily set margin) is too narrow to contain the entire unit. Enjambment allows the poet to explicitly indicate to the reader where the rhythmic unit (or a unit of meaning) begins and ends, while staying within the margins. Prose Enjambment is an attempt to usurp this Natural Law with the purpose of turning a prose into a poem by making it appear visually like verse. If it reads like a sentence, however, with line breaks that indicate nothing, Nature is not fooled.
Nor are we amused. Frankly, we grow weary and annoyed [I’d go so far as to say that Kilmer was downright Angry]. We chafe at the implication that writing actual Verse has now become somehow less than poetry, especially given the types of devices used by The New Poetry [enjambment] to counterfeit the real thing. Poetry, when it attempts to abandon verse, itself becomes less than poetry. As it reverts itself to prose, it attempts to cast about itself the mantle of mysticism, for only a mystic could claim to define the New Poetry. By lack of a proper definition, Poetry becomes a pretender to the throne of art. Poetry is lost.
THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES.
 canon – 3. the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study or art: *The neoclassical canon.* (Origin: “church law,” Old English canon, from Old French canon or directly from Late Latin canon “Church law,” in classical Latin, “measuring line, rule,” from Greek kanon “any straight rod or bar; rule; standard of excellence,” perhaps from kanna “reed” (see cane (n.)).)
 Mallarmé, Stéphane (1842-1898), Although he was recognized during his lifetime as one of France’s four major poets of the late 1800’s, much of his poetry was acknowledged to be difficult to understand because of its tortuous syntax, ambiguous expressions, and obscure imagery. Since his lifetime, critics have continued to disagree as to the precise interpretations of many of his later works.
Timeline of Poets mentioned above:
1803-1882 – Emerson, Ralph Waldo
1809-1849 – Poe, Edgar Allan
1819-1892 – Whitman, Walt
1842-1898 – Mallarmé, Stéphane
1874-1963 – Frost, Robert [included just for good measure]
1886-1918 – Kilmer, Joyce