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Free

The question “Does censorship destroy freedom?” is, of course, impossible to answer yes or no. Certainly censorship can be a tool of tyranny and oppression, as we are seeing in Myanmar and Hong Kong today. But in a society which strives to be “free,” if the censor respects his or her jurisdiction and acts as an instrument reflecting current standards and (perceived) values, then a particular act of censorship can be appropriate and harmless, at least in the long run. The wealthy and powerful tend to enjoy “more free speech” because they have the means to reach a wider audience with a bigger splash, of course.
Academics have written about the “tyranny of iambic pentameter” in English-language poetics, lasting till late in the 19th century. The expression is figurative, though, as there was no actual “tyranny”: only a centuries-old tradition of taste, a vogue, a zeitgeist. Gerard Manley Hopkins (b. 1844) is frequently credited with breaking through and “freeing” the metric line with his technique of “sprung rhythms.” But Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were writing outside of that tradition as early as the 1830s.
Today, many literary journals refuse to publish, and professors regularly tell their students not to write, rhymed or metric poetry. These practices, too, reflect a current zeitgeist. Still, I have noticed that when editors or poetry professors say “free verse,” they really mean “unrhymed, unmetric, and non-formal.” Verse that is not free to rhyme is not really free verse at all.

Can verse be free when you’re not free

to rhyme or reason metrically?

Let’s call it “unfree verse” and be

the champions of liberty

and truth. Although, ironically,

it’s undeniable that we

who champion “democracy”

take long naps so as not to see

lynchings, not just in history,

but to the present century

and day. There have been two or three

this past year. Terminology

matters; all sorts of tyranny

claim “freedom.” But it puzzles me

when professors of poetry

betray a base hypocrisy

by curbing creativity

and voice with the audacity

to disallow form, rhyme, and meter,

calling what is left: “free.”


James B. Nicola, a returning contributor, is the author of six collections of poetry: Manhattan Plaza (2014), Stage to Page (2016), Wind in the Cave (2017), Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists (2018), Quickening: Poems from Before and Beyond (2019), and Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense (2021). His decades of working in the theater culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award.

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