Poetry is SOUND before it is SIGHT. This is especially true of songs.
Yet in special cases Poetry is SIGHT before it is SOUND.
The typography of the words can capture us visually before the ideas capture us. If the “shape” of the letter ensnares us, we will stay to read the ideas.
With free verse, it is the SIGHT, the typography, that captures our attention.
Divide to Conquer
The realm of poetry can be divided in two different ways:
1st, the purpose of the poem: lyric (songs of emotion, virtually everything we hear in music), narrative (story songs, lot of the hits by the Eagles: “Lying Eyes” and “Hotel California”), and dramatic (story without exposition, folk ballads like “Lord Randall”).
2nd, the method of the poetic structure: pure verse, blank verse, and free verse. It’s these 3 methods that we’ll examine in this series of blogs.
Pure Verse = Rhyme and rhythm: that’s the poetry we are conditioned to accept. The poems of childhood and the songs of our everyday life fall into this method. Even rap music has an expected rhythm (beat, cadence, meter) as well as rhyme. This is Dolly Parton’s “I will always Love You” or George Harrison’s “What is Life”.
Blank Verse = rhythm without rhyme. This poetry is usually intellectual. Think Shakespeare, especially the major dramatic speeches: Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” and Hamlet’s “What a piece of work man is”. Think Robert Frost at his best and most unexpected, in “Out, Out—” or “Once by the Pacific”.
Free Verse = no rhyme, no rhythm (but plenty of reason). The poet controls the line in other ways than the expected.
A Word on Line Structures
Songs become memorable when key elements are emphasized. Emphasis through unusual punctuation and capitalization are not acceptable means for our minds unless our minds truly love puzzles.
*Emily Dickinson and e.e.cummings break the punctuation and caps “rule”, but they are purposeful with their rule-breaking. It’s not communication anarchy.
Free Verse MMO
While free of rhyme and rhythm, free verse by master poets—and if we want our poetry memorable, we learn from the mastera—gives us Means, Motives, and Opportunities for structuring our poems.
Once we see the MMO in action, we discover free verse is as highly structured as the pure and blank verse forms.
The Old Master: George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”
A first practitioner of shaped verse, Herbert did follow a rhyming pattern. He worked in the early 1600s. How’s that for age?
Our souls, in celebration of the Resurrection at Easter, are enabled to fly up to Heaven.
The New Master: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity”
Ferlinghetti reminds us that poets are performers, risking their public acceptance just as a trapeze artist does. Both work without a safety net. Ferlinghetti’s structure mimics the acrobatic performance as the words walk back and forth across the taut lines of verse.
The Old Master: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself 26” (selected series of lines)
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronoun-cing a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streak-ing engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching car. . . .
The New Master: Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We real cool”
We real cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Simple Form :: Is anything ever simple?
The Old Master: Stephen Crane’s “The Wayfarer”
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
The New Master: Arcelis Girmay’s “Elegy”
What to do with this knowledge
that our living is not guaranteed?
Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.
All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.
Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy” from Kingdom Animalia. Copyright © 2011 by Aracelis Girmay. From Poetry Foundation: poetryfoundation.org/poems/56716/elegy-56d2397a11e87
When we examine these poems, we see interconnections of ideas through the shape, through the catalog, through repetition, and through other rhetorical techniques. In addition to other techniques, Whitman’s catalog uses anaphora, Brooks plays with alliteration, Crane writes a narrative, and Girmay uses repetition and typography and contrast.
Our next blog, 1B of 3, will provide another glimpse of old and new masters working in free verse.
Join us for Carl Sandburg, Charles Simic, Carolyn Forche, and others.
We’re on the 5ths!