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The Importance of Formal Poetry | Episode 60 Table Notes

Welcome to Table Notes. In these posts, I share the latest “Believe to See” podcasts, along with links to extra resources, and maybe an observation or two. Enjoy!

This Table Note is for Episode 60: “The Importance of Formal Poetry.” On this show, Anselm poet Jane Scharl joins the table to share her love of classic poetic forms, and to explain how poetic style reflects your view of the world.

The full episode:

Highlight: Jane explains the philosophical origins of free verse:

Extra notes:

Dana Gioia is the man

I hinted at this on the podcast, but I have a huge intellectual crush on Dana Gioia. He’s a poet, critic, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. His essay collection “Can Poetry Matter?” was my first real step into the world poetic opinions. Here’s a good introduction to his poetry. Here’s his first major criticism essay.

The poems Jane read on the podcast

Richard Wilbur, “A Plain Song for Comadre

Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina

Heather McHugh, “Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun

To read Jane’s own poems and criticism, head to

Final Question

During the episode, I made a heavy-handed disclaimer: great literature can be written in both formal and free verse. I did this partly to remind myself. You see, I like formal verse way more than free verse.

Part of the reason is that I’ve encountered too much of that cloying MFA free verse. The kind that appears in literary magazines read only by MFA students. After a certain point, I decided to stop pretending that I like that stuff. Also, reading only formal verse made me feel like an edgy contrarian…kind of.

But I also prefer formal poetry for the same reason that most “regular readers” prefer it. It’s easier to understand, easier to enjoy, and easier to tell whether it’s good. As a result, most all of my poetry reading comes from formal poets.

Should I make an effort to appreciate free verse?

As Jane pointed out, it’s important for poets to learn how to write both formal and free verse. But does the same go for poetry readers? For casual readers, I don’t suppose it matters much—just read what you like, and don’t worry about it. But for people like me, who reeeaaaaaally want to have Serious Poetic Opinions, is it important to learn the language and cadence of free verse? Am I cheating myself if I only focus on formal poetry?

I’m not sure. But in the meantime, I’m happy to take suggestions on good free verse poets…

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