I think we are all aware that most English poetry today is written in unmetered free verse, with lines of varying length suiting the writer’s whim to convey his meaning. In fact, I have heard it comment about such a production that it is merely prose in staggered lines that fall short of the right page margin. This state of the art, one doesn’t forget, is one evolved from what English poetry used to be, something structured in meter and rhyme. What happened?
Early English poetry, say, that of Chaucer, was rhymed in couplets. This was a device to aid memory and to, in the rhyme, render a rhythm of progression. It was in no ways courtly or sophisticated, but written for ordinary literate folk, of whom Chaucer was one, French being the language of court and Latin that of the church. Ironically, through Chaucer, Italian influences began the sophistication of English poetry, in forms like the sonnet and the ode, generally, the implementation of correct meter and rhyme, most notably the iambic pentameter line that Shakespeare, as prime example, employed in his poems and plays, both rhyming and blank verse forms.
By the twentieth century, there was a tradition of English poetry in rhymed form, which all poets considered what poetry was all about: the genius being in choosing the right rhyming and metric form to fit the theme of the poem; thus achieving perfection. Thus poetry was considered an art form few could master. Rhyming meter was interlocked with the sounds of words themselves to achieve what T S Eliot would define as the objective correlative, whereby the sound of words or phrases communicated the effect. Keats, for example, achieved this in his phrase ‘mossed cottage trees’ (from Ode to Autumn) one rapturous commentator described as the sensation of biting into a crisp apple.
It was Auden who degraded his own early rhetorical poems as not being in ‘the voice of the people’, and determined to change his style for one rendering the common touch. However, T S Eliot always maintained good poetry always contained historical allusion, and, of course, that implied a knowledge of the classics – including foreign masters of poetry, and if they were quoted, their mother tongue.
Free verse was beginning to make inroads into realm of poetic expression, on the grounds that it was the way people talked, and where the market was. Rhymed verse is still used, but its intentions are not sophistication of style, but rather pleasantness of sound to convey a theme in an empathic manner: it is rather like the rhymed pattern of a song, where there is nothing but a sentiment being directly conveyed.
Modern English poetry is a reflection of the modern world whose aspiration is freedom: the style of poets is free, unrestrained by rules because there are none, only in the nature of poetry as a communication to get one’s feelings across to the reader. There are still standards, but they are unwritten: we still require a pleasing effect from a poem, and this involves the correct use of words to that effect. It defines a poem as good as pleasing in its effect on the reader – which means each poet has his audience, and the exceptional poet pleases most everyone.