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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is Free Verse Easy?

Don't kid yourself. Writing good poetry is very hard work.

Someone on a poetry forum where I'm a member complained the other day that rhymed and metered poetry is harder to write than free verse; that free verse required rather less hard work than, say, iambic pentameter or a sonnet. The person who says that sort of thing is not an experienced poet. I suppose if you were to say poor free verse is easier to write than mediocre rhyme, I might grant you that. I certainly see examples of that rather too frequently. It's tempting to believe that without the structure of rhyme and meter, you can just write freely. Don't let the name fool you. Free verse ain't free.

Here's a sample of free verse well done by one of my favorites - Walt Whitman

“A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space…
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

The truth is that if you are a poet with any craftsmanship at all, you’ve likely sweated bullets trying to make free verse sound like poetry. For free verse to work, one has to have a deep understanding of the rhythm of the language in which you are writing. That is doubly hard in English which has over the centuries, absorbed the words and rhythms of dozens of languages. English is a banquet of riches for a poet. It can be the most beautiful language in the world, but its very richness of linguistic choices can overwhelm new poets. I know. I really sucked at it when I first started as a kid.

There are lots of available resources of language that English has borrowed from every corner of the Earth. European tongues lent us words we’ve Anglo-Saxonized over time. Africa gives us rich baritone words and rhythms. Asian poetic forms with their delicate use of syllables, deep meanings and softly colored language brings with it a tonal musicality. Spanish words themselves have a kind of the music built into the very words themselves. Even various dialects and accents of our own English tongue lend depth to what we may construct as so called free verse.

But free verse is not free. We must pay a price for it. Our words must find a way to sing without artifice. The natural ebb and flow of English words must be woven together using the right words and phrases, the right balance of pause and rush, flow and tumble and all in the correct arrangement that, when you read it aloud, it makes a song of your words.

Poetry can be found even in ordinary prose or speech.  Note how Winston Churchill lifted the spirits of the British people with his epic word poem “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…  Note how there is a kind of poetry in his words and look how very effective they worked, inspiring oppressed people around the world to resist the German onslaught.

Ronald Reagan’s speech the night before the 1980 election ended with this powerful poetic appeal.  Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act "worthy of ourselves;" that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.

Abraham Lincoln was another who knew how to turn prose into verse. At Gettysburg he delivered a speech that surprised the nation for its brevity and its beauty.  It’s worth reading in its entirety because there is such music in it. Note the repetition of rhythms and structures, the parallel themes and the precise choice of words. It’s not sloppy. It’s not slip-shod. It’s the craftsmanship of a brilliant wordsmith.

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth

Free verse is never easy. It is the most difficult of all poetic forms to do well and requires the greatest level of craftsmanship. If you are a new poet, start with rhyme and meter. Master the old poetic forms first before you try your hand at free verse. Learn your craft. Learn how to find and place words so that they sing in English. Poetry sings differently in other languages. French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish and even German can be beautiful, though they often lose something in translation. That’s why translated poetry has to be translated by an accomplished poet or it will not sing properly in English.

Too many new poets think they can fling out some pretty sounding words and poof, it’s a poem. Many wind up committing what I call “poesy”, a hodge-podge of pretty words like April, dawn, heather, entwined and despair with nothing much to hold it up and the flow arrested, no rhythm, no music.

Please don’t do that. Read some good poetry first – the achingly beautiful kind. You’ll be a better poet for it.

Just one old poet’s opinion.

Tom King
© 2018

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