Poetry: Major Methods 2B of 3 :: Blank Verse MMO

Blank Verse:  Old Masters and New

Remember, we’re examining the poems using MMO:  Means, Methods, Opportunity (Aristotle’s Kairos).  This time we won’t have three different forms to analyze.  Blank Verse only has one form.

Old Master 1:  William Shakespeare

Macbeth’s Famous Speech

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
Till the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Patrick Stewart delivers the best version of this speech in a modern adaptation of the play.  Some prefer Michael Fassbender, but I think that one drags too much (Fassbender taking direction from the word “creeps”, just as his whole 2015 film does.  That thing is slooooooow) while Ian McKellan seems too insouciant.

Shakespeare’s MMO

Means: 4 sentences, each expressing the futility of life.  Remember, this is Macbeth talking, not Shakespeare.  Never consider a character’s words as the writer’s personal philosophy.

Method:  alternating lines of 10 and 11 syllables, with the next to last hitting 12 syllables and the last line hitting 6.  Not for nothing is Shakespeare called genius.  In the world of symbols …

  • 10 represents completion (the completion of Macbeth’s life is drawing close).
  • 11 represents transition (and the greatest transition is death, doubled here as Lady Macbeth to whom he speaks is dead and his own death is rapidly approaching).
  • 12 equals man’s relationship with God (and Macbeth will soon be judged for his crimes).
  • 6 represents doubled mystery (and the greatest mystery is Death, again for Lady M and himself).

Opportunity:  Shakespeare is reminding the audience that everything we do in life will have consequences far reaching into our deaths.  Time may seem to pass slowly … until our own death approaches.  We may never understand our lives;  they may seem no more than a shadow or an idiot’s tale with no meaning ~~ but we must still answer for the sins we commit.

Old Master 2: William Cowper, who brought about a revival of Blank Verse in the late 1700s, just in time for the English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Byron.

A few lines from “Winter Morning Walk”, Book V of The Task:

’Tis liberty alone that gives the flow’r
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume,
And we are weeds without it. All constraint,
Except what wisdom lays on evil men,
Is evil; hurts the faculties, impedes
Their progress in the road of science; blinds
The eyesight of discov’ry, and begets,
In those that suffer it, a sordid mind
Bestial, a meagre intellect, unfit
To be the tenant of man’s noble form.

Cowper’s MMO

Means: You can hear the intellectual conversation the poet is having in the rhythm of his words.  While Cowper is writing strict Blank Verse (count the syllables, every line is 10), he avoids the rocking-chair beat.  In this section we hear the conversations of the coffee salons of the 1700s, when people discussed the role of man in society and the ills of society in harming man’s soul.

Method: pure Blank Verse, unrhymed which allows the conversational tone.  Only one line appears to have more than 10 syllables, but if we pronounce “bestial” as “beast-al”, we achieve 10.

Opportunity:  Look at Cowper’s theme:  Liberty/Freedom gives life its beauty.  Only those restrictions which prevent evil should be allowed (as in “no murder”).  Cowper believes restrictions hurt us and hurt progress while those who impose those restrictions are narrow and base.

That’s an interesting juxtaposition to Macbeth’s Famous Speech, isn’t it?

New Master 1: Robert Frost

From “Birches”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Frost’s MMO

Means: “Birches” is a long poem, 60 lines, another one of those poems that high school students hate and adults remember with confusion.  This section is the poet addressing his audience:  Remember when you were a child and had fun ~ until Truth broke into your life.  In this, Frost is like Cowper:  restrictions restrict us.  Where’s our freedom, the freedom we had in childhood, the freedom we have lost and dream of regaining?

Method:  Primarily 10 syllables per line, with others that reach 11 and 12.  Curiously enough, the two lines about Truth are 11 and 12 syllables;  check back up to Macbeth for the meanings of those numbers.  See a sly point by Frost?

Opportunity:  It’s an ice storm that bends the trees down, Truth reminds the speaker, but he would rather it were a boy at play.  And while Frost describes the childhood event, he zings us with two truths:  “He learned all there was / To learn about not launching out too soon” and “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be”.

New Master 2: Wallace Stevens

The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Steven’s MMO

Means: 5 stanzas, each presenting an idea: literal, vacuum, need, silence, potential ~ the great flashiness set aside for a time, we have a chance to think and peruse and rebuild, focused on the essentials rather than the amendments.

Method: This is a loose Blank Verse, meaning that most but not all of the lines are 10 syllables.  “Plain Sense” is not conversational, not philosophical.  It is introspection, one of the few times we can point to master poetry and say, “This is what the poet is thinking.”

Opportunity: “Plain Sense” was published in 1954, a year before the poet’s death.  Is he discussing the loss of his imagination, his creativity with poetry?  Is he discussing the drained feeling of every person who has poured every bit of self into a project and sits back after its completion with a sense of emptiness rather than success?  “After the leaves have fallen”, after the work is finished, what do we have?  Is Stevens capturing that moment before the next project seeds itself?

The Irony of Blank Verse

Most writers launching into poetry as a career will avoid the Blank Verse and Pure Verse methods of expressing themselves.  They seek the freedom of Free Verse without realizing that Free Verse is actually bounded by more rules of structure than Blank and Pure Verses are.

Robert Frost shares with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay a great benefit that is also a detriment:  all three poets make writing poetry look easy.  Their lines are easily understood and accessible.  They don’t find it necessary to twist the words or show off their snobbery.  They make it look so easy that sometimes we don’t really see what they are doing.

And all three poets, along with Wallace Stevens, work in very structured poetic forms, both line and stanza—and rhyme scheme, as we will consider next month.

Free or Blank or Pure?

While I have a great love of Free Verse, especially the challenging poems by e.e. cummings, writers working in poetry make a great mistake in thinking Free Verse is the best method for their writing.

Let me quote Andrew Hamilton in his review of Robert Shaw’s “Blank Verse”, a review you can find here: link opens in a new window.

“In ‘The Problem of Form’, poet J.V. Cunningham spoke in 1962 of the exhaustion of modernism:  “We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new.  We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful.  But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have at last nothing to vary from.  The last variation is regularity.”

When modern poets abandon the structured verse methods and consider themselves edgy and avant-garde by doing so, they forget the very point that Cunningham made in 1962.  Modernism has created a curious situation in which breaking the rules is considered establishment and following rules is considered anti-establishment: rebellious.

So, if you want to be one of the avant-garde poets, you need to write structured verse.

Walt Whitman is laughing at the irony.

Join us in December as we take our last looks at poetry, the method of Pure Verse.  We’re on the 5ths!

Poetry: Major Methods 2A of 3 :: Blank Verse

Blank Verse

Poets who want to appear “intellectual” (cue the snobbish accent) will use Blank Verse.

See, I’m already limiting my readers who are turning off because I’m using the jargon of educational poetry.

“**”

Okay, first, let me talk about “professors” and “educators” of higher content learning.  (I am using “**” here so you will know I am being sarcastic about these terms.  These people aren’t teachers.  Sorry, back to my point.)

These people run the Advanced Placement level courses in high school and many of the higher level college & university courses (for several years, as an adjunct professor, I had to bow to their strictures).  Some of these “people”—not all of them—act as if the knowledge they have is arcane, open to only the privileged few.  They want to keep their content secret.  They present the information in dribs and drabs wrapped around by multiple distractors, so that only a special few will understand it.

Grrr.  These “people” make me mad.  They made me mad when I was part of them;  they still make me mad.

For example, Math “people” hate John Harold Saxon Jr. :: Saxon biography on Wiki  For years they decried his methods.  Now that he’s dead, they’re stealing his methods.  Oh, I thought those methods were worthless.  Guess not!

Poetry

I want you to understand and enjoy poetry as more than mindless words set to music.  From January of this year to now, I have attempted to present various ideas about poetry in a challenging but not a complicated manner.  I’ve truly enjoyed several of these blogs:

“Tigers to be Tamed” about Coldplay’s “Clocks” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/01/21/tigers-to-be-tam…wer-of-inference/

“4 Requirements of Song” about Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/03/15/4-requirements-songs/

“Riddling Allegories” with Carole King’s “Tapestry” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/03/15/4-requirements-songs/

“Poets & the Three Unities” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/08/15/poets-three-unities/

And I still love my blog about Symbolic Colors from 2016 and repeated during September :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/09/25/using-color-symbols-writing/

My point:  Well, it’s simple.

Don’t be intimidated.

Actually, don’t let anything intimidate you.  If you’re struggling, ask for help.  If certain “people” (there’s those “**” again) won’t help, they are not worthy;  move to someone else.  If you’re not struggling, well, have fun!

And with these lessons, I won’t keep it simple, but I will tell you what you need to know.

Okay, here we go.

Blank Verse

Don’t panic.

Part One:  Blank Verse is called “blank” because it doesn’t rhyme.

See, regular poetry rhymes at the end of the line (it’s called “end rhyme”.  That’s not hard.)  Blank Verse doesn’t.

Part Two: Blank Verse has a regular beat.

What?

Regular poetry follows a regular beat:  Remember “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet / And so are you.”  Hear the rocking-chair beat?

Now, I could go all “English teacher” on you and talk about pyrrhic meter or iambs and trochees or anapest and dactylic . . . but I won’t.  I will say that most people will tell you that “Blank Verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter.”  There, that’s out of the way.

All we need to know—unless we’re studying to be English teachers ~ and I worked for years with people who don’t know this and didn’t care to learn it—is that Blank Verse will usually and predominantly have 10 syllables per line.

This is how we distinguish Blank Verse from Free Verse.

Free Verse will NOT have a certain number of syllables on each line.

Caveat:  Shakespeare liked to mess with his syllables to prevent that rocking-chair beat of “Roses are red”.  I don’t blame him.  He was writing some serious stuff, there.  You have to avoid a rocking chair when you’re writing philosophy.

So, Blank Verse is different from Pure Verse because it doesn’t rhyme AND it is different from Free Verse because it will have 10 syllables per line.

Blank Verse in Practice

Now, old-timey poets working in English (they come after Shakespeare, not the decrepit ones before him, ya know) liked to use Blank Verse to give their poetry an “intellectual snobbery”.

And they wound up all their words to sound “intellectual”, too.

Here’s an example:  “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.

If you can make it through the first 72 lines, good for you.  You don’t have to.  Basically, drop over to this link and count the syllables per line on the first ten or so lines, and you’ll see that the majority of lines run about 10 syllables per :: poetry of intimidation

You can take my word for it, if you want to.  With students, we count the syllables out for a bit to prove the point.  Invariably, one will go on looking for more or less syllables than 10 to prove me wrong and wind up proving me right.

Here’s how WCBryant is intellectual:  He says “Thanatopsis” so only a few will know what he’s talking about.  Thanatos is the Greek god of Death;  he’s the one you didn’t want touching you.  (Hades ruled the Land of the Dead;  he wasn’t Death.)  “Opsis” means “looking/seeing”.  So the poem is about looking at death.

The whole first 72 lines basically say
  1. everybody is afraid of death,
  2. we don’t need to be afraid of death,
  3. our bodies are simply manure for plants and everything that comes after us,
  4. everybody is going to wind up the same way:  dead, and
  5. Dead will look just like Life, with people of all ages and professions and economics.

It’s the last stanza that’s important, and I used to have my students memorize it:  “So live that when thy summons comes / To join the innumerable caravan….”

Okay.  Wait.  Let me not punish us all.

Here’s the nutshell:  Live your life in such a way that you are not afraid to die.  Cuz you’re going to, okay?  Okay.

Bryant takes 81 lines to say all of that.  This classic of American literature is the reason high school students hate poetry.  It’s the reason adults look back at high school English classes and say, “I don’t understand poetry.”

Well, geez, slaving through things like WCB’s “Thanatopsis”, none of us understand anything.

I Got Your Back

Not all Blank Verse is like WCBryant, thank God.

Here’s one by Robert Frost, “For Once then, Something” about looking into a deep well, trying to see beyond literally and figuratively, and being mocked for doing so but still trying: Frost and a well

And one really recent, political and accusatory, by Terrence Hayes.  I’m not talking politics;  I just want you to see how Blank Verse is still in action: His title uses “assassins”.

And from Seamus Heaney, “Storm on an Island,” (Now.  This one I like.  This one I think is important.  This is the one that I want people to remember.)  “Storm” speaks to all of us about the elementals of life that dwarf us and give us fear but which we still bow our heads and walk into.  This link provides annotations which provide an interpretation:  No intimidation

Sources

If you go looking for modern blank verse, avoid Poetry Foundation.  They have misidentified pure blank verse, and you’ll find a lot of poems that don’t fit.  PF is usually very good, but they let us down here.

And I stumbled upon a review of a book that I would like to put in my ToBeRead stack, which never seems to go down: a book examining our topic, past and present

Next blog, some Old and New Masters of the Blank Verse form.  Shakespeare, of course.  Who else?  Well, join us on the 25th and be surprised.