Poetry wannabees, and even poets that I respect, complain to me constantly about my definition of "verse" in The Book of Forms as "metered language"; of "prose" as "unmetered language," and of "free verse" as prose. They especially hate my definition of "free verse," but I explain to them, if they will listen, that there is no such term listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, at least in the print edition I have which was published in 1971.

This is an on-line dialogue I had in February 2014:

Reader : [What you say] would be true if the word "verse" had not done what so many words have done, to the consternation of those who grew attached to earlier usages, and evolved into a word that has additional meanings. I may well agree with you that this evolution is a shame, and together we may lament it, but neither one of us has control over the language.

Turco: Check the OED.

Reader : I don't have the OED, Lew, but are you seriously telling me that the OED does not supply a definition of the term "free verse," and does not define it, more or less, as poetry that isn't metrical?

Turco: There is a definition of verse, and one of prose, but not of "free verse" because it's not even an oxymoron.

Reader : Every online dictionary I have found, including Merriam-Webster and other "brand" names, has a definition of "free verse," so even if the OED omits it (which I'll take your word for, but find extremely odd given that the term is definitely out there and used all the time, which should be enough for any unabridged dictionary at least to acknowledge if not to approve of), here in the good old US of A the lexicographers definitely embrace the term. http://www.merriam -webster.com/dictionary/free%20verse. I just found a definition of "free verse" in the Oxford Dictionaries, which is published online by Oxford. University: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/.../american.../free-verse

Turco: "Poetry" is a genre of literature, like fiction and drama, it is not "verse," which is one of two modes of writing, the other of which is "prose." Even prose has rhythms; what it doesn't have is "meters," which is what verse has. Whoever wrote that definition is a moron. Every other "definition" of "free" (unmetered) "verse" (metered) is equally moronic. One may write any of the genres in either of the modes. Here is the correct definition of " free verse": prose.

Reader : Lew, I know that is your position, and I may well agree with you that the terminology you stand by is the most sensible and useful terminology for discussing such matters, but my point is that sense, consistency and academic rigor do not always govern the way terms evolve or come to be used and generally accepted. You are indeed a leading scholar and authority on prosody and poetics, but even a leading scholar cannot single-handedly control the trajectory and development of words in the English language. You yourself referred me to the OED in support of your position, thus acknowledging the relevance of dictionary definitions, and so I counter-referred you to several other dictionaries that define "free verse" in the way that you reject. But the term "free verse" most certainly does exist, even if it shouldn't, and even if it introduces confusion into discussions regarding poetry. This is a fact, like it or not, which you can verify by consulting the very dictionaries you told me to consult, or simply by listening to the way I am sure you have heard countless people speak and write about it (whether or not to your consternation). You've lost the battle of terminology, no matter how noble or sensible your cause.

Turco: This definition [that you referred me to on-line] is for "vers libre," and it applies to French which classically required that poetry be written in syllabic prosody only. We do not have such a requirement in English. If the French write poetry in non-syllabic verse, it is "vers libre," which in French would also be prose, not verse.

Reader : Lew, that is simply not correct. The dictionaries, including the Oxford Dictionaries, have definitions for "free verse," and the definitions are *not* for "vers libre" but, again, for "free verse." I really don't know what you're talking about if you are suggesting that the definitions I have cited from numerous dictionaries are for "vers libre" and not "free verse." I'm not talking about French, I'm talking about English, and once again I must point out that language is a living thing, a moving target, that no single eminent scholar can control or harness. In addition to dictionaries of standard usage, I might add, "free verse" is recognized and the term which you reject is used in a wide variety of scholarly sources on poetry, such as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

Turco: Read the definition to which you referred me. It says VERS LIBRE. [This is the on-line definition to which Reader referred me: "NOUN. poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter. Also called vers libre ]." As to definitions, please read what I say about them in The Book of Literary Terms" [Each word is an aural — heard, or indited — written sign that stands for something else. An agreement on the meaning of a word or other language unit is a definition. For example, if one were to say to someone else, "I blygle your mordalpot," the other person might say, " What are you talking about?"

"Well, where I come from blygle means 'a strong feeling of admiration and caring,' and mordalpot means 'the filaments that grow on one's head.'"

"Oh, you mean you love my hair! Thank you. Your hairdo is nice too."

If, as you say, my terminology makes more sense than those in circulation, then my definition is the correct one, whether others agree with me or not. One of the major reasons I wrote The Book of Forms was to clear up the misprisions and confusions in English poetic terminology.

Reader : No, Lew, read the definitions again. They are not definitions for VERS LIBRE. They are definitions for "free verse." And the Princeton Encyclopedia constantly refers to "free verse," not "vers libre." It's not a question of "whether others agree with me or not," but what the terms have come to mean in widespread usage. You are free, of course, to lobby for the abandonment of the term, or to point out your sensible reasons for objecting to it, but that doesn't change the fact that the term is not meaningless, and not absent from the dictionary as you claimed, but is part of the language and used to denote poetry that isn't metrical. I don't have The Book of Literary Terms handy, but nothing you could possibly say about definitions could possibly erase the term "free verse" from dictionaries. And my disagreement with you was on the relatively narrow question of whether the term "free verse" exists and is recognized in common usage, a question that obviously must be answered in the affirmative.

Turco: I never said that the term "free verse" does not exist, I simply say that the term is a contradiction in terms. In fact, in the print edition of the OED that was published in 1971 that I cite there is not even an entry for the French term "vers libre," which was invented in 1886 by the French Symbolists including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue and Corbiere to describe poetry which was not written in the traditional French prosody of syllabics. Thus, any poem not written in syllabics was, perforce, "vers libre" or "free verse," which is a contradiction in terms even in French and is therefore prose poetry in that language as well.

In English we do not have any such prosodic requirement because poets have written in many prosodies, beginning with Anglo-Saxon prosody, which is a species of accentual verse; continuing in syllabics, which was traditional to the Celtic bards and to the Normans in the 11th century; then on to accentual-syllabic verse, an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) and his contemporary John Gower (1330-1408) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries because they felt that they needed to reconcile Norman French syllabic prosody with Anglo-Saxon accentual prosody; then podic prosody, written by the Scottish Chaucerians in the 15th century and by John Skelton (1460-1529) in the 16th century; then prose poetry in the King James version of the Bible in the 17th century, and by Christopher Smart (1722-1771) and William Blake (1757-1827) in the 18th century, 100 years before Walt Whitman began writing in the prose poetry forms he found in the King James Bible.

Whitman died in 1892, and "vers libre" was invented as a term in France in 1886. That gives the Good Gray Poet six years to have heard the term before he died, but the first version of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855. That means that Whitman knew he was writing prose poems and had no inkling whatever that he was writing what would be called by the Modernists in the 20th century "free verse." The term was not used in English until after the founding of Harriet Monroe's periodical Poetry in 1912, twenty years after Whitman was in his grave.

Where did I get my definition of "verse"? Here is the OED: "A succession of lines arranged according to natural or recognized rules of prosody [system of versewriting] and forming a complete metrical line [my emphasis]; one of the lines of a poem or a piece of versification."

To "metre" means to count; in versification it means to count all the syllables in a line (syllabic verse), or just the stressed (accented) syllables (strong stress or accentual verse), or both the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables (accentual-syllabic verse) which make up various "verse feet"; i.e., iambs, anapests, trochees, dactyls, spondees, and so forth (thus, three things are counted, including verse feet).

And where did I get my definition of "prose"? Here is the OED: "The ordinary form of written or spoken language, without metrical structure [my emphasis]." Hence, prose is unmetered language and verse is metered language, and they are the only two modes of writing in which something may be written in any of the genres; i.e., fiction, which is the art of written narrative; drama, the art of theatrical narrative; nonfiction, the art of rhetorical exposition, or poetry, the art of language.

Why do I call poetry "the art of language?" Because the poet may write anything at all, in either of the modes of writing, and what he or she is most interested in will be how whatever is being composed is written. The poet concentrates on language primarily, not character, nor plot, nor setting, nor theme, nor argument, but on manipulating language on its four levels: typographical (how it looks on the page), sonic (its language music), sensory (its imagery), and ideational (its permutations of meaning).

Finally, one may write prose drama or verse drama (Shakespeare wrote both and even mixed them); prose fiction or verse fiction (as Robert Service did); prose poetry or verse poetry (Smart, Blake, and Whitman wrote both, though Whitman's verse was incompetent); prose nonfiction or verse nonfiction (as Alexander Pope did).

Yes, Reader, the term does exist, but it describes nothing, although Annie Finch disagrees. She and a few others can't let go of the term, so they defend it by resorting to the argument that, since the derivation of the word "verse," according to the on-line etymological dictionary www.etymonline.com, is from

"verse (n.) c.1050, 'line or section of a psalm or canticle,' later 'line of poetry' (late 14c.), from Anglo-French and Old French vers, from Latinversus 'verse, line of writing,' from PIE root 'wer- (3) "to turn, bend" (see versus). The metaphor is of plowing, of "turning' from one line to another (vertere = "to turn") as a plowman does.'"

It is from the metaphor of "plowing" that Annie gets her defense of the term "free verse." Writing in lines of "verse" is like a farmer plowing his field - he starts at one corner of his field, goes to the end of it, then plows another row, and so on and so forth. Two questions arise from this metaphor:

1. Does the poet need to know ahead of time, as the farmer does, the shape and limits of his field? Not many, if any, "free verse" writers know this.

2. Does he need to lift his plow, return to the spot next to where he started, and plow his next "row" of verse?

Unless he does the latter, he will simply turn around and begin his next row. His poem then will look like this:

Upon the currents of air the raptors fly,
ylf srotpar eht stfardpu gniraos eht nopU
The call of winter is the falcon's cry.

,eil nedrub fo stsaeb eht nialp eht nopU
Out on the grassland the beasts of burden lie.
yks tnelis eht fo tuo sllaf wons terces thT

Onto an inn, a stable and a sty,
.yts a ediseb gnidnats elbats eht otnO
The call of winter is the falcon's cry.

eye gnirettilg a ekil gninihs sdnats rats ehT
Above the stable, gleams like a glittering eye
.yks tnelis eht fo tuo sllaf wons terces elihW

The call of winter is the falcon's cry.
.yks tnelis eht fo tuo sllaf wons terces ehT

-- instead of like this:


Upon the currents of air the raptors fly,
Upon the soaring updrafts the raptors fly —
The call of winter is the falcon's cry.

Upon the plain the beasts of burden lie,
Out on the grassland the beasts of burden lie.
The secret snow falls out of the silent sky

Onto an inn, a stable and a sty,
Onto the stable standing beside a sty.
The call of winter is the falcon's cry.

The star stands shining like a glittering eye
Above the stable, gleams like a glittering eye
While secret snow falls out of the silent sky.

The call of winter is the falcon's cry.
The secret snow falls out of the silent sky.