Friday, May 19, 2006

Liberation and Limitations

Robert Frost, whose poems I often adore, once famously quipped that writing free verse is "like playing tennis without a net." Unless I’m mistaken that game is called racquet ball. T.S. Eliot, who—perhaps without merit—garners much of the blame for the pandemic of free verse that struck the modernists, actually implied in "Reflections on Verse Libre" that there is no such thing as free verse:

And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.

Personally, I think my own poems tend toward chaos. Yet, today, unless you are a New Formalist, something that everyone—and their ever loving mothers—thinks of as free verse is the modus operandi. Plus, I often think that many younger poets or students fail to realize that, even when working with free verse, your poems will scan. Syllables will fall into feet and lines will fall into rough approximations of meters. There is simply no way to avoid it. Try it. You can’t. Even if you chopped the last paragraph of prose into line breaks, the—to use Eliot’s term—"shadow" of pentameter would probably remain.

In fact, I think that the overwhelming primacy of something called "free verse" in our poetry actually makes composing and writing about poetry more difficult. Simplistic definitions—which might have held in Victorian England and may still be held by those with limited exposure to poetry—are ineffective. A pronounced meter and rhyme does not a poem make. More, in order to discuss prosody effectively, you might actually need a graduate degree or, at the very least, a great deal of patience.

In college, I took a few courses in linguistics, simply because I found the discipline fascinating. I still do and would read the complete works of Wittgenstein if I didn’t fear that my sleeping schedule would be irreparably harmed. In fact, phonetic transcriptions, which simply describe the audible phonemes of spoken words, are a fantastic way to learn about the variety of sonic techniques that can make a poem interesting and elevate it past the banality of prose. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I think Elizabeth Bishop is the finest poet of the post-war generation. Yet, to study a poem in such a way, you must first learn an entirely new alphabet and an entirely new way of looking at language. You must know, without doubt, what a schwa sounds like. And I’m still not completely sure.

The problem, it seems to me, with free verse is that so often it encourages the kind of lazy composition that must have gotten my work rejected by at least two or three literary magazines. In fact, I remember sitting in computer clusters during college, long ago when many college students couldn’t actually afford a PC, watching peers dash into the cluster half an hour before class began and type away at a "poem" that our professor would likely spend more time critiquing than they spent composing.

And now, as I sit here wondering what I’ve done with my anecdote for the day, it occurs to me: nowadays, even the most finely wrought poem is free verse. We jot them down in our notebooks, tatter away at keypads, and send the little beasties off into the world with a couple of stamps or a click of the mouse. And most of the time, we expect nothing—aside from a contributor’s copy or two—in return. Alas, this is what free verse has done for us. Even our sonnets and ballads are lent for nothing. Verse, at long last, truly is free.


Blogger Les said...

For an overview of New Formalism:

But please, before you take any of it too seriously, remember that Dana Gioia also wrote these lines: "Watch it wiggle/see it jiggle"

2:31 AM  
Blogger Les said...

Here is the full text of T.S. Eliot's "Reflections on Verse Libre":

2:33 AM  

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