At the beginning of the new period, which was more than a renaissance, we were all for fixed forms, and overdid them. Every high school journal resounded with ballads, rondeaus and triolets, sometimes of a propitious merit, sometimes otherwise. Fashions in literature as much as fashions used to be in clothes: a lunge in one direction, and then a lunge in reverse. Reaction from too much formalism lunged now toward no form at all and the world was regaled with the singular manifestation that is called free verse.
As this cacophony so plainly falls outside the definition with which we started [Edmund Clarence Stedman’s definition: "Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion and insight of the human soul"] it might well be omitted from consideration but for the extraordinary space it long occupied in the public view and for the unusual length of its visitation. As a psychological curiosity it may be deemed of incomparable interest: as literature it has another aspect. Luckily, what free verse really means, the essence and heart of it, is not a matter of opinion but of cold fact: an opinion of it would hardly be worth bothering with here. The fact involved stares at us, first blankly, then comically, as soon as the obvious test is applied. Suppose this morning we were to read in our newspaper this paragraph:
"He rounded the house toward the road seaward. They saw him between the low oak-bush and the log wall, moving his arms as if a multitude waited outside the gap-roofed shed."
Not one human being, however minded about art and literature, and whether reading these lines once and indifferently, or many times and heedfully, would imagine them to be poetry. Not one would fail to scorn the suggestion that they should be called poetry.
Yet restore these lines to the book from which they were taken and to the manner in which they were printed there, and observe:
He rounded the house toward the road seaward. They saw him between the low oak-bush and the log wall, Moving his arms as if a multitude waited Outside the gap-roofed sheds.
Now, by this simple magic, the lines heretofore merest prose are in the view of this delusion transformed into unquestionable poetry and the writer of them is crowned with a prize.
To accept such a doctrine we must believe that the only difference between poetry and prose lies in a sufficiency of capital letters in the printer’s type case. At once then, with only the printer’s artful aid, any work hitherto classed as prose becomes poetry, from the Germania of Tacitus to the reports of the stock market.
Free verse was not the only emotional malaria that came with this period and had its febrile exhaustion and passed. For a time we were hot upon the trail of the adjective and furnished forth our poetic tables with fantastical banquets of strange verbal dishes. This quaint faddism went so far that poems came to be judged upon no other basis than their supply of epithets that sent us scurrying to the dictionary, sometimes to search in vain there, sometimes to be rewarded with discoveries more startling than joyous.
Other phases of the Jugend Bewegung [German: "youth movement," but with the sense of "boy wonders"] were not so diverting. A cynical writer of the times discerned a new definition of poetry. He said it meant two quatrains, the first incomprehensible, the second indecent. This, in truth, was a gross exaggeration. Yet it must be admitted that among the practitioners of emancipated thought were some that went far, being adrift between mysticism and pornography, and others that went still farther. Some of their verse making was mawkish, some morbid, and some plainly pathological, with revelations of stigmata familiar to alienists. Yet the bulk of the poetic output remained uninfected by all this, and, considering the times, was conspicuously wholesome and sound.