Poetry is the unique expression, commonly in verse form, of universal experience.
If you don’t know what I mean by ‘verse form’, then go now and read some other blog, as it is beyond the power of this one to help you. For those of you who remain (and let us pause to celebrate your intellectual prowess!), let’s talk about verse.
Obviously, the original reason that poetry began in verse form was to facilitate rhyme and meter. But given the virus-like prevalence of free verse (I will vent more about this later), why, then, do we continue to arrange poetry in verse form?
It’s for the same reason that we use rhyme and meter, which, incidentally, is the same reason that comics are arranged in panels, rather than just splayed out all over the page: to structure the reader’s absorption of the text. Take a look at Shakespeare, for instance: he arranges most of his poetry in sonnet form, because his purpose is to convey a wholeness of emotion. Therefore he gives you a predictable rhythmic cadence, in which not only the words, but the beat of the words lead you to a particular emotional place, usually one of romance and wonder.
In contrast, my man E.E. Cummings tends toward very jagged arrangements of phrases. Because his general oeuvre deals with dissonant topics like pretension and alienation, his cadence is likewise dissonant, forcing you to consider each assertion, rather than gulp the concept down whole. Shakespeare caresses, Cummings challenges; Shakespeare wants you to feel, Cummings wants you to think.
Now, although I’m biased towards E.E. myself, my point here is not that one form is superior to the other. My point, rather, is that we do not arrange poetry in verse form in order to fit on the page or to achieve maximum cuteness; ideally, we do it in such a way as to further the agenda of our writing, whatever that may be.
In other words, just because you put a notion into stanza form, it doesn’t automatically qualify as free verse. Any sort of verse only counts as verse if the form of the thing (be it structured or unstructured) is as critical in conveying the message as the words themselves are. Otherwise, what you have is not a poem—it’s just a bunch of phrases or sentences arranged rather oddly on a page.
As with all my little online ruminations, take this with a sack of salt: I’m not really an authority, and I could be wrong. If, however, you ask me—as people seem to do—to critique your work, then expect me to apply the above criteria as I’ve explained it. And whatever you do, do not ask me to read the kind of poem where the first word of every line spells out a phrase or, worse, somebody’s name. Because then I will have to make you eat it. Even if you send it to me in soft copy… I will print it out and hunt you down. You have been warned.