When poets write manifestos about what poetry is or ought to be, they’re often writing veiled defenses or explanations of their own work. T. S. Eliot is no exception. In his 1921 essay "The Metaphysical Poets," he remarks that "it appears likely that poets in our civilization…must be difficult"— prophetic words, considering that "The Waste Land" would appear a year later. In 1923, Eliot published another essay, "Ulysses, Order, and Myth," in which he asserts that "In manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him," since it was "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Sound familiar? Tiresias, the Grail myth, The Golden Bough—Eliot might as well have been, with a doff of the hat to Walt Whitman, writing a review of his own hot-off-the-presses poem.
Perhaps most telling of all is Eliot’s 1917 essay "Reflections on Vers Libre." Written two years after the publication of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," this essay implicitly warns us not to consider any serious poem not written in a traditional form as "free verse." For, as Eliot explains, "Vers libre does not exist….And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but ‘free,’ it can better be defended under some other label." What keeps memorable free verse from being free, Eliot suggests, is its constant vacillation between adherence to, and departure from, rhyme and regular meter. "It is this contrast between fixity and flux…which is the very life of verse," Eliot claims, concluding that "the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos."
"Prufrock" proves him right. There’s hardly a passage in the poem that does not achieve its effects—its wit and edge and pathos—from this "contrast between fixity and flux." Consider the poem’s opening:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
The first two lines, though they could hardly be mistaken for Alexander Pope, are formally regular: the speaker’s confidently romantic invitation finds its parallel in a strictly rhyming couplet. Granted, the second line is a foot longer than the first, but this alteration only enhances the poem’s passionate expansiveness. But what happens next? Not "And we will link our hands until we die"; not "For I forswear forever being shy!"; but rather the searingly anticlimactic third line, whose bathos, like the happier lines it follows, has a formal analogue: its failure to rhyme with the first two.
Eliot repeats this technique—this "constant evasion and recognition of regularity," as he puts it in the Vers Libre essay—many times throughout "Prufrock." Indeed, in the poem’s most psychologically and thematically raw moments—the times when Prufrock lets his guard down most—Eliot takes his biggest liberties with rhyme and meter. The "overwhelming question" of the first stanza has no answer; fittingly, the line is the only one besides the third that doesn’t rhyme with another one. When Prufrock tremulously asks, thirty or so lines later, "Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" he both uses the first-person pronoun—stripped of its accompanying "you" (line 1) and its protective quotes ("And indeed there will be time / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’"(lines 37-8)—for the first time in the poem, and utters the shortest line in the entire poem. Once again, form breaks down when the poem’s protagonist also falters. Although he is capable, elsewhere in the poem, of basking in the lulling comforts of rhyme—particularly the three "And I have known them all" and the two "And would it have been worth it…" stanzas—Prufrock never finds a formal foothold sturdy enough to cling to for more than a few lines, succumbing to awkward almost-rhymes ("I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas") and sudden stark one-liners: "I do not think that they will sing to me." The result is hardly "chaos," but one of the greatest poems of the last century.
Other poets followed suit. Robert Frost’s endlessly supple blank verse; Elizabeth Bishop’s stanzas with their modulating but ever-present rhymes; E. E. Cummings’ syntactically wild poems that—look closely!—turn out to be sonnets; and so many other poets’ formal experiments give further proof of the validity and importance of Eliot’s insights.
But it’s easy to forget the bright example of Eliot and others shining past the fog of all the recent debates about the purpose and value of form in poetry. I admit a personal stake in the matter: as someone who has been labeled a "New Formalist," I can’t help being irritated at the narrow assumptions that lurk behind this term and its accompanying manifestos. Aren’t all interesting poets interested in form? Haven’t some of my most ambitious poems, miserable failures though they may have been, involved an attempt to achieve the "constant vacillation" that Eliot so powerfully describes? Fortunately, the form versus freedom debate seems to have subsided a bit during the last few years, and poets have gone back to the quieter but infinitely more gratifying business of writing poems. But even so, my own experience of being squeezed into a category I didn’t believe in, as well as the ever-inspiring reading of Eliot and so many other poets I love, prompts me to offer this advice to aspiring young poets: life may be full of painful choices, but as for whether to write in form or free verse …well, this is one you’re really much better off not making.