Archive for May 6th, 2007

In Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel (a book I first discovered through Allan Chalmers, my most memorable high school teacher), the main character is reincarnated as a cockroach for having written free verse in his previous life. He continues to do so in his present life, unable to use upper case letters because he can’t work the shift key on the typewriter and doubtlessly generating more bad karma for himself. I wouldn’t go so far as Marquis in visiting Kafkaesque doom upon writers of free verse, but at times I can appreciate his point.

The greatest strength of free verse is its versatility. A standard verse form like a sonnet allows only minor deviations — an anapest foot instead of an iambic one, or eleven syllables instead of ten per line — even in the hands of a master like Shakespeare or Keats. By contrast, in free verse, you can alter the line length or meter any time you like. You don’t need to warp your thoughts or tap them carefully into place to fit the rhythm or verse form, and everything can be varied to fit your needs.

The trouble is, versatility is also free verse’s greatest weakness. In the hands of amateurs, the ability to change rhythm at will too easily turns into no rhythm at all. From there, it is only a small step to throwing out all poetic technique until, today, most people would probably say that the main characteristic of poetry is usually a short line length. The paradox of free verse is that, although it looks like the easiest of all verse forms, it is actually the hardest to do well. The truth, as T. S. Eliot said, is that “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”

If you have the skill, free verse allows you to experiment with all sorts of different rythmns: rhythms made from parallelism in sentence structure, from a count of syllables, from the number of accents per line or the numbers of lines per verse, from alliteration, from assonance or consonance, breath groups, or practically everything else you can think of. You can combine techniques, switching between them as you like, or conduct other experiments, such as seeing what is the least amount of structure you can get away with and still produce something that can be called a poem. At this level, free verse is a playground of poetic technique.

Of course, most writers of free verse are unaware of these possibilities, as hard drives and blogs full of teenage angst will attest worldwide. I sometimes wonder whether the fact that the prevalance of free verse coincided with the rise of popular music is a coincidence, if people have not unconsciously looking for the rhythms of poetry elsewhere.

If archy is any indication, my own experiments in free verse will probably have me doing time in insect form well into the fourth millennium. I went through a long period in which I was fascinated by the alliterative lines of Old English poetry. For example, in this piece, I graft my work on to Beowulf, imagining what it must have been like in Hrothgar’s hall when everyone lived in terror of the nightly attacks from the monster Grendel:

Lament in the reign of Grendel

I’ve walked cold and wind-chewed,
doubt-fed known dark, unsleeping,
tasted hunger and been fare for horror,
gnawed away roads, nibbled by home-loss.
That passed; this perhaps, too.

To barter in butchery with bloodied men
pumped strength from my arm with each pulse in my youth.
Knees buckled with waiting, but to bolt seemed worse.
That passed; this perhaps, too.

Wrapped in ruin, I rave in song:
I’d a falter-limbed father, folded with age,
and a boy in first beard. Broken by Grendel,
they slouch in sleep, stretched under hill.
That passed; I, perhaps, too.

In another piece, I used repetition in three lines and alliteration in two more:

False knight on the road

“I’m not a good man,” he said. I said, “Did I ask?”
“I’ll blow it on beer,” he said. I said, “Have one for me.”
How tell him of the charm, my coins in his cup
purchased to make me cleaner than passers-by?
“God bless,” he said. I said, “Not likely.”

In still another, I controlled the poem by using three-line stanzas and two or three accented syllables per line:

Taking the omens

Common sense derides me,
I am reduced to omens,
and they become disparaging.

Your messages come like dispatches to an outpost,
late and never long enough
nor with reprieve from exile;

I shelter in my own words again:
a furtive comfort,
coy and abbreviated.

Now as this silence lengthens,
I turn back to cards and runes,
never drawing the future I desire

I make no claims for any more than artisan-like competence in these examples. But I think the variety in these examples illustrates what’s fascinating about free verse: the fact that, even more than any other form of writing, when you write free verse, you are defining your artistic world afresh. And, at the risk of encouraging amateurs without any technique to keep writing, the pleasure of making that definition is enough to risk any number of years as a cockroach.

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