Is free verse dead? It has been obvious for some time that the unrhymed, unmetered, anecdotal, or monological personal utterance, distinguished by something known as “voice” (as in “finding your voice”) has gone stale; that some esteemed lyric poets, like Terrance Hayes or Natasha Trethewey, have turned back to time-honored forms (from sonnets to villanelles to blues stanzas), where rules were made to be bent; while a great many others have gravitated toward something loosely known as “the poetic project” or “project book,” in which a governing principle (a subject, a trope) commands an array of forms, from prose poems to word-constellations. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas are only two recent examples, both of them winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors.
They are representative, in more ways than one: the project book is almost always a documentary in which the author is a decentered presence: of the subject, but not the subject (Rankine’s book examines race relations; Soldier’s is a détournement of language used to subjugate Native Americans). But their books are particularly successful because they are attuned to form, not just content. Soldier employs anaphora, specifically the legalese of “whereas,” lifted from government documents; Rankine’s elliptical prose is freighted with repetition and metaphor, as she said in her Paris Review interview: “I was still utilizing…all of the poetic techniques and devices available to me. They were just applied to the sentence, not the line, the paragraph, not the stanza.” It’s a stance that goes back to Emerson:
It is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.
Anaphora, refrain, and metaphor are well-nigh unkillable, as poetic devices go, but the dominant form of these project books has to be collage, the twentieth-century invention that may well be what endures from the “free verse” revolution engendered by Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. No art is free, as most of us sense in our gut. It is through our constraints that we find what we have to say. When a project book ropes in quotations from various sources—drawings and photos, prose and verse, dialogue and dreams—what holds it all together is no longer the individual voice; the author is less creator than curator. The constraint lurks in the writer’s knack for juxtaposing things in order to highlight both their contrast and their similarity—but it is the contrast that surprises.
Jeffrey Yang is a formalist in this mode, and his latest book is called Hey, Marfa. He is a translator of poetry from China and a longtime editor at New Directions (whose roster of innovative poets includes Susan Howe, a…
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