When he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the first anonymous Bristol imprint in 1798 of their collaboration Lyrical Ballads, the “Advertisement” at the beginning of the book read, “The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.”
William Wordsworth wrote in his Preface that “The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men….” This has ever since been the goal of many poets: to write verse that sounds like, but is not, everyday spoken prose.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in America also dreamed of finding a more “natural” language in which to write poetry in the nineteenth century. Even though he found it rather easy to write metrical lines, apparently he was bothered to a frazzle by the exigencies of the verse mode which seemed too “British” for him. He wanted some method of writing, or type of poetry that was more New Worldly, and he complained that there was something too artificial about rhyming and metering.
Should one happen to read Emerson’s early poetry (which nobody ever does), one would discover that he was a capable metrist, a fact one would never stumble upon if all that one read was his “mature,” very rough verse. It was a revelation to this reader to realize that Emerson was capable as a young man of writing perfectly acceptable, standard verse lines in any meter he chose. For some reason, his mature writing style is seemingly more "amateur" than his youthful work. Clearly, he chose to do what he did in his later work, perhaps in the hope that he could find some compromise with prose, or even discover a third mode of writing that was a combination of verse and prose. As Hyatt H. Waggoner wrote in the chapter titled “The Apprentice Years” in his book Emerson as Poet, “…some of the notebook drafts of poems in these years seem less like experiments in free verse than like symptoms of Emerson’s tendency to weaken the conventional boundaries between prose and verse. This is the way the first draft of ‘The Snow Storm’ appears in an 1834 notebook. The images are here, the guiding idea, and even whole lines just as they would be used in the poem, but the passage as a whole seems to exist somewhere in a no man’s land between poetic prose and blank verse.
“Announced by all the trumpets of the winds Arrived the snow & driving o’er the field, seems nowhere to alight The whited air hides hills & woods, the river & the heaven & veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end,”
and so forth. (Note the places in these lines where capitals appear to show where verse lines should start. These were Emerson’s own capitals.)
It’s impossible, of course, to inhabit “a no man’s land between poetic prose and verse,” for one must perforce write any of the genres of literature (fiction, drama, nonfiction, poetry) in one of the two modes of composition, either prose or verse; there is no third way, no such thing as “free” verse although Waggoner thought that Emerson’s struggles toward what he called “organic form” was “more a suggestive metaphor than a precise definition — and a metaphor of which Emerson himself was sometimes a victim, as Whitman would be later” and as modern poets continue to be when they break prose up into lines which somehow magically turns it into “verse.” As a result, just as Wordsworth and Coleridge called for a more “natural” poetry that could be understood and appreciated by the common folk, Emerson called for the same thing except that he wanted it to look and sound more “American” than British. Unfortunately, he had to settle for Walt Whitman, a prose poet who couldn’t stop writing in Romantic period style anyhow.
Wordsworth’s belief that poets ought to write poetry — that is, verse poetry — which was like ordinary prose speech, was not proven possible until the twentieth century in the work of such poets as A. D. Hope, Robert Frost, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur and others whose verse often reads as easily as good prose.
People who maintain that there is such a thing as “free verse” deny that “verse” is measured language and to write it one has to count so many syllables to a line in some way. They cite the derivation of the word from plowing a field and “turning” when one comes to the end of a row. But such folks, I guess, have never watched a farmer plowing a field. The farmer plows to the end of his field, then turns and plows to the other end of the field before he turns again. That farmer’s field has limits, and he plows the WHOLE field, not half a row here, then a third of a row there, and three-quarters of a row next, and so forth. That’s what one does when one writes “free verse.”
Let’s say that the “field” is a paragraph. One begins to write a sentence of that paragraph, but before one gets to the end of the sentence the “plowman” decides to begin a second row after writing a phrase; he continues it to the end of that phrase, then he begins a third row until he finishes a clause. He begins another row and a new clause in row four, and so on until he has finished his poem, until he has finished “plowing his field.” Stand back and look at that field – what do the rows look like? They are uneven; there is unplowed earth at the ends of many of them. They look like a “free verse” poem.
Listen, all you poets who cling to a ridiculous term because you feel as though you cheat when you write a lineated prose poem: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH PROSE POETRY! You don’t have to justify your practice by clinging to a metaphor that won’t hold up against scrutiny simply because you think that the English tradition requires you to write in “verse.” It does not! There have been prose poems written in the English language since the Roman occupation of Britain. Neither Edgar Allan Poe in “Eureka” nor Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” knew anything of “free verse” when they wrote their prose poems; neither did Christopher Smart or William Blake or the translators of the King James Bible. It was the satirical French who invented the term “vers libre,” and they weren’t writing it either.