The Origins of Free Verse

H. T. Kirby-Smith
Argues that free verse has deep historical roots, and traces them, from Milton to contemporary poetry


H. T. Kirby-Smith offers a far-ranging and intellectually engaging study of the literary history of the debated genre of free verse, aimed not at perpetuating a particular dispute but instead at discovering the generative points of this often celebrated, often maligned form.

Though free verse became a dominant poetic mode only in the twentieth century, Kirby-Smith finds its roots in seventeenth-century England. Beginning his study with writers such as John Milton---who was considered by T. S. Eliot to be the greatest writer of free verse in English---the author places recent and divisive topics in poetics in context, showing them to be attenuated remnants of issues first broached hundreds of years ago.

The book seeks to establish a consensus on the nature of free verse, with reference to critics and poets including Pound, Eliot, Williams, Amy Lowell, Yvor Winters, and Hugh Kenner. Good free verse, argues Kirby-Smith, arises as a reaction to a well-established set of conventions. Likewise, The Origins of Free Verse goes against the conventions of existing poetic scholarship, offering an encompassing yet fres---and controversial----literary history of free verse.

H. T. Kirby-Smith is Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . a witty and polemical account of the emergence and development of free verse. . . . In the course of this literary history, Kirby-Smith hurls maledictions against both organicists and neoclassicists, against writers of the prose poem, against language poets, and against the prosodically vacuous free verse that fills so many of today's poetry journals. Almost every reader of this book will find, at some point, hackles-raising arguments. At the same time, almost every reader will encounter fresh and fertile ideas, for instance, Kirby-Smith's taxonomy for classifying free verse and his insights into the increasing importance of its typographical dimension of free verse."
  • "In the twentieth century, says H. T. Kirby-Smith, 'no literary topic has proved more divisive than free verse. . . . The only area of agreement,' he continues, 'shared by many whose literary politics differ sharply in other respects, is that no one knows what free verse is. For my purposes that limited consensus is worse than none at all, since the aim of this study is to identify various kinds of free verse and to explain how they originated.' This aim is achieved in this rich and thoughtful book, but in achieving it Kirby-Smith actually delivers rather more than this modest enough agenda of historical description might lead us to expect. As well as the history of a prosodic practice, the book proposes something like a theory of poetry . . . and it relates sometimes tiny and no doubt often unconscious decisions about the shape and weight and order of words in a poetic line to very much larger issues of the intellectual and cultural history of which each written line becomes a part. Kirby-Smith's finely tuned ear seems attached to a brain that never forgets that rhythm is a way of making meaning. His readings of individual poems are always interesting, and The Origins of Free Verse affords the incidental pleasure of watching a good critical mind at work."
    --English Literature in Transition 1880-1920
  • "The best study of free verse I have seen. . . . The Origins of Free Verse is a book that all students of prosody will want to read. "
    --Harvard Review
  • ". . . in its range and detail [The Origins of Free Verse] offers a way of thinking about the history of English-language prosody which recognizes the importance of the poet's individual choices and undercuts our century's vanity. Both metrists and poets might read it with profit. Poetry is a learned art, and Kirby-Smith brings both insight and much learning to reading it."
    --Times Literary Supplement

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 320pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 1998
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08565-1

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  • $29.95 U.S.