I've always particularly liked poems with very fixed structure (e.g. a Villanelle or Sestina), both to read and to write. However nowadays, I've noticed a remarkable number of poems I come across appear be simply passages of prose with a linebreak inserted every few inches, often without even any metrical consistency. This has set me wondering, there's a pretty clear distinction between structured/unstructured poems, but which format is preferred?

For the sake of precision, I'll clarify the question down to something specific: Given a poem X which has structure, and a poem Y that is "free verse", and assuming both are of equal quality (however that may be judged), is there a bias towards one form over another? Do critics commonly prefer a specific form? Do publishers prefer to publish books of form X or Y? To what degree?

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    Poetry isn't my field, but I suspect there are different types of publication with different preferences/standards. Is that the case? If so, saying something about which part of the poetry market you're interested in would help. Thanks. Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 14:00

3 Answers 3


Let's start with this - what is the purpose of writing in traditional forms and meter? According to Preface to Lyrical Ballads, it is a poetic convention which is fundamentally pleasing to the reader. It is easy for the reader to follow, predictable, and pleasing to the ear.

...the metre obeys certain laws, to which the Poet and Reader both willingly submit because they are certain, and because no interference is made by them with the passion, but such as the concurring testimony of ages has shown to heighten and improve the pleasure which co-exists with it.

I read a recent article that pointed out that, while many leading poets are abandoning meter and traditional forms, the poems that are most popular remain by a huge margin ones written in meter and traditional form. However, it is important to note that by popular this article included many people who don't read poetry on a regular basis, so although these people have read some poetry at some point in the past and can give an opinion on their favorite poem, these people are for the most part not the ones out there buying poetry books and showing up at readings.

So there is, on the one hand, the opinion of a general public who do not vote with their wallets or their time to support poetry in any way, and then the opinion of what The Atlantic in 1991 described https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm:

AMERICAN POETRY now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. ...

Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. To adapt Russell Jacoby's definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals, a "famous" poet now means someone famous only to other poets. ...

Daily newspapers no longer review poetry. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press. From 1984 until this year the National Book Awards dropped poetry as a category. Leading critics rarely review it. In fact, virtually no one reviews it except other poets. Almost no popular collections of contemporary poetry are available except those, like the Norton Anthology, targeting an academic audience.

The full article is well worth the read. It goes on to describe the decline of verse (the correlation between how poets used it less and poetry became less popular with the public), the situation today where there is so little attention paid to poetry outside a specific subculture which is increasing introspective, and that there is a very large amount of bad poetry that is getting published today.

Seven years later, in 2009, Newsweek reported that poetry readership had fallen to a new low.

In 2015, the Washington Post reported that:

Some people are still reading [poetry], although that number has been dropping steadily over the past two decades....

In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. 20 years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent....

Some numbers that speak to that point -- since 2004, the share of all Google searches involving "poetry" has fallen precipitously. Today, poetry searches account for only about one fifth of the total search volume they accounted for ten years ago.

Within the subculture that exists, there is a strong opposition to writing poems in form, as this article from Poetry Foundation explains https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/89288/why-write-in-form:

In poetry, one of the best ways to practice technique is to write in traditional forms. But for many writers—and I’ve been guilty of this as well—this notion can elicit not just avoidance but also outright opposition. It’s easy enough to look at the current literary landscape and say there’s no point to practicing these old forms. Most journals don’t seem interested in publishing formal poetry, and though there are some fantastic poets working in form today, they are in the minority. Even when there is a resurgence of interest in form (such as New Formalism), it’s seen as an outlier, even reactionary.

The distaste for traditional poetic form and techniques by some notable writers has influenced other writers not to completely abandon these techniques, but to hide them so they're not so obvious, as explained in this New York Times article on Margaret Atwood http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/09/03/specials/atwood-oates.html:

... like many modern poets I tend to conceal rhymes by placing them in the middle of lines, and to avoid immediate alliteration and assonance in favor of echoes placed later in the poems.

So, in summary, yes, there is a preference among the subculture, as detailed in the Poetry Foundation quotation above, and that preference is strongly against poems in form (though there are exceptions and some publications which only publish poems in form). At the same time there is an opposite preference among the general public, but they've tuned out.


The general trend in poetry over the last hundred years has clearly been towards the increasing dominance of free verse. However, I don't see any point in trend-chasing when it comes to poetry. Most poems that make it into print are either in self-published chapbooks, or from tiny boutique presses that publish for the love of poetry, not for profit. Given that commercially successful poetry is almost a contradiction in terms, there's absolutely no reason not to write what you like, and what you're good at.

With that said, you shouldn't be contemptuous of free verse, some of it is quite good. I'm also puzzled by the fact that you seem surprised to encounter it, given that it's the dominant format for contemporary poetry (and has been for quite a while --it began its rise to popularity in the early 1900's). Although it typically doesn't have set meter or rhyme, good free verse does have other types of structure --perhaps in the assonances and alliterations, or maybe just in the pattern of metaphors. Consider Billy Collins, one of my favorite living poets --his poems rarely have an identifiable meter or rhyme scheme, but if you read them out loud, it's clear that they aren't without structure of some other, harder-to-identify type.

As to why the older forms have been losing out to free verse --it's probably for the same reason that modernism took over in the world of art. The old styles had been thoroughly explored, and people felt like they weren't saying anything new anymore. With that said, the best free verse poets are typically well-steeped in the old forms, just as the best modernist artists were trained as realists. And just as with art, there will always be an audience for anyone whose work is extraordinary good, no matter what style they choose to work in.


To find out what publishers are looking for it is best to visit the Submission Guidelines on their website, or visit www.writersmarket.com. There is a list of magazines, book publishers, literary agents, ect. and all state what they are looking for. For those that are looking for poetry, they will tell you what form of poetry they are looking for. You can also get this information in book form such as 2015 Writers Market.

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