Tolkien & The Possibility of Formal Poetry

Tony Sig

Traditional English poetry, in which meter and sometimes rhyme form the structure around which words must be formed, is dead. Luckily for us poetry itself is dead; by which I mean that nobody really reads it, knows how to read it, or cares much for it; and by “nobody” I mean “most people.” But even among those few who do read it and care about it, traditional poetry is still considered dead at best or nostalgic and quaint at worst. And even among those fewer who care about traditional poetry there is rather persistant talk of needing poetry to “speak to our contemporary age” or “for them” or whatever; whatever else poetry must be it must be contemporary and “speak” to people.

It’s not my purpose to talk about why this is the case or whether it’s good, or bad, or legitimate, or what have you. What I do want to challenge, though, is the idea that the high-formal language necessary for traditional English poetry in a mythic or narrative style cannot actually speak to people. For evidence I present the resurgent interest in Tolkien by large swaths, worldwide, by “normal” people.

Now of course this growth is due in large part to the profound cinematic efforts of Peter Jackson. Yet book sales in response have also been massive. The point being not to detract from the influence of the movies, but to show that the books themselves are readily appreciated by not-insignificant numbers of people. And while The Hobbit is in a more casual dialect (though not even so “low” as Harry Potter), The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are both in a quite high literary style of English, incorporating all kinds of archaic words, syntactical forms, and formal oratorical conventions. (The blog I just linked to, by the way, I highly recommend)

What’s more, one of the most common complaints I hear from friends who aren’t into poetry is that they find it confusing. They don’t know how to read it and find it frustratingly vague. By this, though, they more often than not are referring to modern free verse poetry as they are older traditional poetry. And the advantage here most certainly falls to traditional poetry in that once one learns about how it is constructed, how the meter works, it becomes easier to understand why lines break where they do, and it becomes more comprehensible and “objective” to judge the merits of a poem.

That being said, I don’t believe that art is truly authentic when it is taking pains to pander to an audience. It really doesn’t matter, from art’s perspective, whether “modern people” can “relate” to traditional poetry or not; to care about that is simply to reduce art to a commodity, to fit it for consumption. Yet it doesn’t hurt my own case to point out that there is the cultural space and will for literature with high formal style.


  1. Another counter-example is Robert Frost, who was and continues to be very popular despite using form and meter after it had gone out of fashion. I agree that contemporary free-verse poetry can be even more vague or confusing than older poetry and leave you with that modern-art feeling that perhaps someone is just laughing from the wings that they’ve duped people into thinking it’s deep. But I’ve had poems representing all different forms, non-forms and time periods “speak to me.” Actually I’m not sure I’ve ever read/heard anyone say that poetry doesn’t speak to people simply because it’s in form–seems like it’d be just as easy to make the case that rhyme and rhythm are more appealing to a popular audience, given nursery rhymes, song lyrics, etc, and the fact that as you said no one reads poetry anymore–but then again I’m not really involved in those conversations.


    1. But keep in mind also that Frost, while using form after it was passe, also worked strongly to include colloquialisms in his poetry. It’s part of what I love about it, but it’s not exactly the same thing I’m talking about here. His is “traditional” poetry according to my ad hoc taxonomy but not high-formal.

      Also, I wasn’t quite trying to say that free verse poetry is more difficult to read than traditional poetry, only that given that poetry in general seems confusing to many at least of my friends, if there is an advantage in learning how to read and appreciate poetry, then it is easier to show, in my opinion, how to read it.


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