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Poetry Sunday – My Idea of Free-Verse Poetry

April 8, 2012

I’ve made the statement that I am not the biggest fan of free-verse poetry.  It’s not that I do not like it so much as I do not like so much of it.  It seems today it is the ubiquitous form of poetry and it should not be so.  Free-Verse is advanced poetry, and not intended for the novice poet.  It is poetry without the rules of poetry but that does not mean any old thing thrown on a page is poetry, far from it.  Writing without structure is prose, not poetry, even free-verse.

Often, people have a problem knowing just where the line between poetry and prose lives.  Like in Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote 1964 quote[i], I will not attempt to full define it (prose), but I know it when I see it.  Basically, anything that is not poetry is prose in one form or another.  For example, slogans, essays, news articles, and short stories are examples of prose.  Free-verse poetry, like all poetry, requires a flow and sinew binding words and feeling.

For example, this poem by William Butler Yeats illustrates that flow and connectivity:

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Though technically it is an example of blank-verse, it shows well the qualities required for free-verse that repeats end words.  Not to mention it is one of my all-time favorite poems.  The lines repeat talking about the cloth, then about light, and ending on the dreams.  This binds the work.  Moreover, each line sort of “sings” when read aloud, tying the lines internally.

Even abstract writing can qualify as free-verse, even when it has structure.  For example, in my poem Circular Logic I use syllable count, word repetition, as well as words to tie each line and stanza together.  Moreover, the poem as a whole, circles around at the end back to the beginning.  It has balance, and structure but does not follow any recognized form, it does not use rhyme or meter.  It is free-verse:

My eyes see a tarnished world
A world with stain
Stain my soul
Soul

My soul feels an angry world
A world with hurt
Hurt my mind
Mind

My mind needs a better world
A world with delight
Delight my heart
Heart

My heart is a willing world
A world with trust
Trust my eyes
Eyes

While Circular Logic is easily identified as poetry, most free-verse is harder to categorize.  If I write:

I sailed across the oceans like Ahab did before.
It was no beast from the depths that drove me ’round Perdition’s Flame.
I too have given all to a single thought becoming consumed by the sin of it –
my last breath of hate so spat.

It is hard to discern if its poetry or prose.  As it is presented, the vote goes to prose.  It reads well but does not really tie things together any more than a simple paragraph ties a thought together.   While the writing may be somewhat poetic, it does not rise to the level of poetry; that is until I tie it together with other stanzas in the complete poem, Epitaph of a Sailor:

I sailed across the oceans like Ahab did before.
It was no beast from the depths that drove me ’round Perdition’s Flame.
I too have given all to a single thought becoming consumed by the sin of it –
my last breath of hate so spat.
I joined the ancient mariner on his ship of lonely times.
It was no solitary bird, drifting on currents high, which focused all my shame.
I wasted life’s precious gift and watched time mark my soul –
my own folly chained my neck.
I battled fish like the old man, just a speck upon the sea.
It was no noble cause or sustenance for which I fought and landed game.
I reeled sacred lives to me only to watch them be devoured –
my vanity noshed on their souls.
I journeyed with Odysseus in Homeric tails of lore,
offering myself to recklessness, too clever for sing-song sirens to claim.
I faced dangers for no reason, bravado for bravado’s sake –
my vessel wrecked upon the shore.
My tale’s been told ten-thousand times by poets greater than me.
No moral was upheld or redemption did I find as life’s innocence did wane.
I followed a wake of destruction on this life-course that I sailed –
Take heed, my friend, this ten-thousand and one.

Each stanza by itself is prose, but tied together, they give each other form and balance rising the whole to qualify as free-verse poetry.  It shows the elusiveness of a true definition.

In the end, free-verse poetry requires the poet to understand form and meter at a level that goes beyond the mere use of form and meter.  It requires intament knowledge of poetic form to construct a poem that suggests a structure but is not directly supported by it.  While sometimes confused with proses, free-verse poetry employs this sophisticated structures in ways  not always understood or even perceived.

In the end, prose may be nice to read but if it lacks even the suggestion of form, it is not free-verse.  Each poet must decide what form of poetry they wish to create and there are no hard and fast rules, I tend to write one free-verse for every ten formal poems. I live in the formal rhyme and meter of classic poetry most of the time, it keeps me sharp for when I step beyond its bounds.


[i] Stweart, Potter. “Jacobellis v. Ohio.” Cornell University Law School. United States Supreme Court, 22 June 1964. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0378_0184_ZC1.html>.

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7 comments

  1. I think you’re very right to point out the difference between poetry and a passage of writing/prose. I am a victim myself for not being able to easily tell the difference at times. Yet, I appreciate the attempts of individuals especially teenagers and the youth to try to mirror poetry greats. It’s a good sign we are taking interest to it.

    Please visit our poetry circle if you have the time;
    http://seekperfection.wordpress.com/category/poetry-cirlce/


    • You make a very good point Ali. Moreover, it is the youth that will take poetry, and writing in general, to places old guys like me could not even imagine. I will be happy to visit your poetry circle, thank you for the invitation.


  2. I suppose our view of free verse poetry is different and the process for writing poetry. That’s what makes this world lovely – being open to other perspectives.


    • This is very true and contrary to what some critics suggest, the poetry police do not show up if you “break the rules” as it were. Besides, poetry is an evolving art, and my opinion has not necessarily evolved with it. I’ve been told more than once my writing id better suited to the 1800s than today. I guess that explains why Emily Dickinson is a muse to me.


      • I love Emily Dickinson. My favorite is Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Renascence” is a masterpiece, in my humble opinion.


      • She and WB Yeats are my favorites.


      • You, we, have good taste….smile.



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