Monday, August 24, 2020

Hey Logan, what do you think of free verse?

Great question, thanks for asking! I've been wondering that for a while myself. In short, I think that it’s wonderful, and I’m worried it’s ruining everything.

What is free verse?

Actually, let’s back up even further. What is “verse”?

The English word “verse” comes from the Latin word “versus”, which means “turned around or turned back”. Poetry is written with deliberate line breaks, which usually occur with great enough frequency that each line occupies a single row on a normal-sized page. Thus, when you read a poem, your attention is continually “turned back” to the left margin as you begin each line.

“Verse” is a bit of a folksy term that refers to poetry written in meter. There are a lot of kinds of meter, most of which have something to do with stress, syllable count, or both. In metered poetry, sounds are measured out into little parcels that combine to form complex but regular structures.

In some languages (such as English), these larger structures often include rhyme, usually of the final syllable in a line. Some also include a fixed number of lines. Some include double line breaks, resulting in collections of lines called “stanzas”. When the line number is fixed, there are often standard conceptual patterns hung on these structures. Some verse forms even dictate the repetition of entire words or phrases. An example of a form with all of these features at once is the villanelle.

Accentual-syllabic poetry was by far the dominant type of English language poetry from the 1500s through the 1800s. In the 1900s, though, something changed. I guess people got fed up with the rigidity, or maybe literacy rates rose to a point where it was no longer necessary to hear line breaks with your ears in order to recognize them. Whatever the reason, people started writing poetry that conforms to none of the metered poetic structures, at any level, save the continual turning back at the end of each line. This became the dominant type of English language poetry, and it remains so today. It’s called “free verse”.

To understand how I feel about free verse, you have to understand how I feel about metered poetry: At its best, and even at its not-amazing-but-still-pretty-good, I feel that metered poetry is incantatory.

One of my favorite illustrations of poetic incantation is “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Shelley, which speaks to this quite directly. In the poem, Shelley’s all, “I’d really rather be alive forever, and for the whole world to be that way also. How about I use written words to become like the wind that blows around everywhere in gusts and storms and breathes life into all things forever.” He has some interesting content to convey, but he doesn’t just throw it out there. He conveys it through the meter. It has this inexorable rocking rhythm, and if you give yourself over to it, the spell penetrates and takes hold of you as no bit of mere rhetoric could.

And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Different verse forms cast different kinds of spells. They incline us to be more receptive to certain kinds of thoughts and feelings: their rhythms, like the call of a coxswain, line up the pieces of our minds to move all at once toward whatever mental posture the poet has choreographed. Sestinas move us into dream-like spiraling rumination. Ballads move us to look again and again from many angles. Sonnets move us to feel three times the force of a single thought.

Consider "Recuerdo" by Edna Saint Vincent Millay, the first stanza of which goes

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

The imagery in this is at most half of how the poem does what it does. If I were to replace the words with nonsense sounds in the same rhythm, I think it would still make me giddy; I'd be ready to skip, to fall against someone's shoulder in helpless laughter, or to fall in love.

There’s something very basic about how human minds interact with certain rhythms of language. Over the years metered poetry has learned the shape of it and built the keys that turn our thoughts. There is little more I could ask of an art form.

And yet, in a way free verse does offer more. Without losing access to any particular tool from metered poetry, it gains indefinite potential for precision. At its best, free verse finds a new prosodic key for every thought.

Take these two lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, for instance

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

To my ear that’s three troches followed by a double dactyl; then an iamb, a dactyl, and a troche. As far as I know, I’ve never heard that rhythm before, and it doesn't recur anywhere else in the poem.

But I think it's exactly the right rhythm for that exact thought. Starting with three trochees in a row (STREETS that / FO-llow / LIKE a), it feels like following. It feels like walking on a sidewalk down an ordinary quiet street. Then the two dactyls hit you at the end of a line, knocking you down, but in a way that is unexpectedly drawn out. TE-di-ous / AR-gu-ment. There are just more syllables there than you were ready for. Then the next line kicks you around a bit while you’re down. of in-SI-di-ous in-TENT Maybe even without the context of the poem, it’s masterfully done, and it couldn’t happen in accentual syllabic verse without breaking the form.

The thing is, nearly all of free verse is prosodically abysmal.

Which honestly seems kind of inevitable, ya know? When an only moderately skilled person writes in one of the standard verse forms, they’re using a pattern that basically works, and they may manage to cast a decent spell with little more than that.

But casting a spell in free verse, the kind that only poetry can cast, takes extraordinary prosodic sensitivity. I’d be pretty shocked to hear that anyone truly successful at it had not studied verse forms from before the 1900s (or verse forms descended from those). It’s called “free verse”, but in fact you are constrained at every moment to choose exactly the rhythm that fits your precise thought. Otherwise there’s no poetry at all, just pretentious clattering prose with way too many line breaks.

this is not
a poem.
introducing obnoxiously frequent line breaks
some prose does
not make
thing poetry and
this fucking style
die in a fire.

My favorite poetry is written in free verse. I certainly don’t want it to go away. I just worry that over time, if there isn’t a resurgence of accentual syllabic poetry in the next few decades, English will move so far from the best examples of its most hypnotic rhythms that poets will lose the ability to cast powerful prosodic spells at all.