Free Verse: Old Masters and New
We’re having a brief concentration this time on the MMO of free verse: the poet’s means, method, and opportunity, or kairos, as Aristotle called it.
The Old Master: Roger McGough, “40 Love”
Means: lobbing the words back and forth, just as a tennis ball does.
Method: the shape of a tennis game.
Opportunity: the couple stays together, even though they may bicker, even though they may no longer love each other, they have lost the connection between them (a barrier is there, invisible to us but relevant to them).
The New Master: well, this is an interesting problem.
It’s hard to find contemporary shaped poetry that doesn’t devolve into sentimentality or juvenile wish fulfillment. Let’s try the Prose Poem.
Carolyn Forché’s “Ancapagari” (found on Poetry Foundation)
In the morning of the tribe this name Ancapagari was given to these mountains. The name, then alive, spread into the world and never returned. Ancapagari: no foot-step ever spoken, no mule deer killed from its foothold, left for dead. Ancapagari opened the stones. Pine roots gripped peak rock with their claws. Water dug into the earth and vanished, boiling up again in another place. The water was bitten by aspen, generations of aspen shot their light colored trunks into space. Ancapagari. At that time, if the whisper was in your mouth, you were lighted.
Now these people are buried. The root-taking, finished. Buried in everything, thousands taken root. The roots swell, nesting. Openings widen for the roots to surface.
They sway within you in steady wind of your breath. You are forever swinging between this being and another, one being and another. There is a word for it crawling in your mouth each night. Speak it.
Ancapagari has circled, returned to these highlands. The yellow pines deathless, the sparrow hawks scull, the waters are going numb. Ancapagari longs to be spoken in each tongue. It is the name of the god who has come from among us.
Means: four paragraphs. Fragmented sentences alternated with complete ones.
Method: It looks like any other prose; however, it reads as poetry, compact ideas with rhetorical repetition and climatic ordering.
Opportunity: the resurgence of life once gone yet never departed, the power of the cyclical eternal to influence us when we allow ourselves to open and “speak it”.
The Old Master: Walt Whitman again. “I Hear America Singing”.
Means: a list of common people going about their work.
Method: extended lines that briefly describe an array of everyday jobs.
Opportunity: celebration of the everyday worker that makes America great.
Two New Masters: Let’s starT with Maya Angelou’s “Women Work”
Means: a list of jobs that every married mother must do.
Method: short lines listing the jobs, one after another, until they are all done and the persona can sing / enjoy the free things of life.
Opportunity: Getting the chores done, the good and the bad, often leaves little time for reflection. Slow down and enjoy the free things of life: good and bad, sunshine and rain, dew and storm, all necessary to know we are living. The only things that we can truly call our own are the moments we take to enjoy.
Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”
Means: presenting the reactions a poet wants to hear from the audience.
Method: the catalog across stanzas.
Opportunity: Collins wants students to enjoy the poem, not analyze it to death. Literature classes often over-analyze. As Archibald MacLeish says, perhaps the poem “should not mean / But be.”
Old Master: Carl Sandburg’s “Bones”
Means: a dramatic monologue of someone who died at sea.
Method: the speaking voice contrasts the mundane grave with the “song of thunder, crash of sea”.
Opportunity: if we cannot live an extraordinary life, we can give our bones an extraordinary death.
New Master: Charles Simic’s “Stone”
Means: a simple imagining of the life of a stone.
Method: three unrhymed stanzas, repetition, anaphora and other devices.
Opportunity: Like Sandburg’s “Bones”, this poem is about transformation. Simic, however, imagines the serene existence of the stone only to wonder if it hides a more volatile existence beneath a cold, hard covering ~ as we often encounter with people, the difference between their exterior and interior lives.
Coming in November: We look at Blank Verse. Part 2A will introduce considerations with Blank Verse; part 2B will provide more examples.
We’re on the 5ths! Join us.
More old-style poetry, but with Pure Verse, we can return to SONGS!