Have you made your New Year’s Resolutions yet? How many items did you mark off your list because they were too hard? How many items have you switched around because “I can’t do that in January: the time’s not right”?
Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, part 3B of 3
It’s our last blog on Poetry!
Here at Christmas, we’re looking back over our year.
We’ve had a long journey from modern songs: “Clocks” and “Counting Stars”, favorites like “Wildflowers” and “Tapestry”, unexpected connections to classical music with “Hotel California”, and detours to occasional poems and Aristotle’s three unities and the annual Summer Symbols blogs.
In October we looked at Free Verse, my favorite method of poetry. The gravitas of November, as the year closes and we consider everything for which we are grateful, called for a look at Blank Verse. Now, on Christmas Day, we have the second of our two blogs on Pure Verse.
Pure Verse contains rhyme and rhythm. This is the method people think of when they hear the word “poetry”. This is the method newbie poets and hacks use when they are writing and post their own poems in various forums and on sites like poemhunter .
(Wannabes think they are avant garde by writing free verse. Nope, sorry: the tide has changed. We have become so used to breaking the rules with free verse that it is now avant garde to write pure verse, especially such fixed forms as the sonnet and the ballad. For a modern ballad, try “The Stone” by Wilfred Wilson Gibson: The Stone by Wilfred Wilson Gibson.)
But I have digressed—twice.
On the 25th of October and November we examined the MMO—Means, Methods, Opportunity—of Free and Blank Verse forms. We guided ourselves through those blogs by contrasting an Old Master with a New One.
This time, we’ll still look at the MMO of Pure Verse, but we’re only going to examine 3 poems. And since it’s Christmas Day, that will be our focus
BTW, all our Christmas carols and songs are Pure Verse!
What Do We Think of When We Think of Christmas?
“This Section is a Christmas Tree” by Vachel Lindsay
This section is a Christmas tree: Loaded with pretty toys for you. Behold the blocks, the Noah’s arks, The popguns painted red and blue. No solemn pine-cone forest-fruit, But silver horns and candy sacks, And many little tinsel hearts And cherubs pink and jumping-jacks. For every child a gift I hope. The doll upon the topmost bough Is mine. But all the rest are yours. And I will light the candles now.
This poem brings to mind “Silver Bells”. This version is sung by Burl Ives, whom I have a soft place in my heart for. He opens my favorite Christmas movie with Rudolph and the Abominable Snow Monster.
This dramatic monologue appears to be one child showing other children around at Christmas. Where are they? The last three lines suggest they are at the first child’s home: her doll, her privilege to light the candles. Since she also hopes that every child will receive a gift, we can assume that her (wealthy) family is hosting an open house for less fortunate children. The house is decorated in different styles, with one room devoted to the Christmas tree.
While it looks like a single stanza, a closer look shows that it’s actually three stanzas, with an ABCB rhyme scheme. Occasionally, Lindsay tosses in slant rhyme (blocks/arks) and alliteration (popguns painted / forest-fruit).
What is Lindsay telling us here? That we should open our houses to the less fortunate? That, in doing so, we offer glimpses to an abundance that those of us who are less fortunate can only dream about? I think that’s over-thinking—but my mind went there, didn’t it? I have also decided I don’t particularly care for our little guide. I am certain that was NOT his intent.
Lindsay is doing very little more than listing the types of Christmas ornaments that would please children: “No solemn pine-cone forest-fruit” but “silver horns and candy sacks” and “popguns painted” and “jumping jacks” and “blocks” and “arks”. This Christmas afternoon is going to be LOUD.
Remember the Reason for the Season
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The song that I grew up with has a melancholic melody. Casting Crowns has created an updated version, not quite so doleful, which you can listen to as you read the lyrics:
Each stanza is a separate sentence, each presenting the situation, the problem, the emotion about the problem, the solution to the problem, and the result when the solution is implemented. This is classic essay form that Longfellow has used (and as usual, Longfellow makes it look easy when it’s not).
Longfellow forms each stanza by opening with a couplet, a third line that uses internal rhyme, and the fourth line repeating throughout the poem.
Internal rhyme is a clever way to create the additional rhyme per stanza that people subconsciously listen for: 1) sweet/repeat, 2) along/song, 3) strong/song, 4) fail/prevail, and 5) chime/sublime. I could write an interpretive essay on how Longfellow’s choices for the internal rhyme echo his theme … but I won’t.
The bells, in the fourth of five stanzas, are personified by giving, through their “wild and sweet” sounds, the solution to the speaker’s problem: If we treat each other as Christ would have us do, with love and harmony and cooperation (rather than hate and discord and competition), then the “wrong will fail, the right prevail”.
Longfellow uses Christmastide to remind us of the reason for the season. While we love the presents and the cooking and the reunion with families and friends, we should focus on our fellow man and how we can improve their lives.
“Jest `Fore Christmas” ~ Eugene Field
I certainly didn’t know who Eugene Field was when I started researching Christmas poems for this blog. Field wrote the classic nursery rhyme “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”. He announces in his title that he is going to have some fun. And he certainly does. Read this one aloud for full appreciation.
Father calls me William, sister calls me Will, Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill! Mighty glad I ain’t a girl—ruther be a boy, Without them sashes, curls, an’ things that ‘s worn by Fauntleroy! Love to chawnk green apples an’ go swimmin’ in the lake— Hate to take the castor-ile they give for bellyache! ‘Most all the time, the whole year round, there ain’t no flies on me, But jest ‘fore Christmas I ‘m as good as I kin be!
Got a yeller dog named Sport, sick him on the cat; First thing she knows she doesn’t know where she is at! Got a clipper sled, an’ when us kids goes out to slide, ‘Long comes the grocery cart, an’ we all hook a ride! But sometimes when the grocery man is worrited an’ cross, He reaches at us with his whip, an’ larrups up his hoss, An’ then I laff an’ holler, “Oh, ye never teched me!” But jest ‘fore Christmas I ‘m as good as I kin be!
Gran’ma says she hopes that when I git to be a man, I ‘ll be a missionarer like her oldest brother, Dan, As was et up by the cannibuls that lives in Ceylon’s Isle, Where every prospeck pleases, an’ only man is vile! But gran’ma she has never been to see a Wild West show, Nor read the Life of Daniel Boone, or else I guess she ‘d know That Buff’lo Bill an’ cowboys is good enough for me! Excep’ jest ‘fore Christmas, when I ‘m good as I kin be!
And then old Sport he hangs around, so solemnlike an’ still, His eyes they seem a-sayin’: “What’s the matter, little Bill?” The old cat sneaks down off her perch an’ wonders what’s become Of them two enemies of hern that used to make things hum! But I am so perlite an’ tend so earnestly to biz, That mother says to father: “How improved our Willie is!” But father, havin’ been a boy hisself, suspicions me When, jest ‘fore Christmas, I ‘m as good as I kin be!
For Christmas, with its lots an’ lots of candies, cakes, an’ toys, Was made, they say, for proper kids an’ not for naughty boys; So wash yer face an’ bresh yer hair, an’ mind yer p’s and q’s, An’ don’t bust out yer pantaloons, and don’t wear out yer shoes; Say “Yessum” to the ladies, and “Yessur” to the men, An’ when they ‘s company, don’t pass yer plate for pie again; But, thinkin’ of the things yer ‘d like to see upon that tree, Jest ‘fore Christmas be as good as yer kin be!
Fields is taking a note from Father Christmas, who gives gifts to the little boys and girls who are good and coal to the ones who are mean. Santa is making his list and checking it twice. Bill, wise to the world, has got Santa’s system figured out.
We see how Bill goes throughout his year—he is all boy, “snips and snails and puppy dog tails”. He’s not having the problems of modern little boys who never go outside to play. And I have great nostalgia for a world I never knew, when the grocery cart delivered to the houses and I didn’t have to spend an hour shopping up one aisle to get one thing then down another aisle to get one thing.
I wonder how far in advance of Christmas that Bill manages to be good. And how long his goodness lasts? Does he make it through Christmas Day?
The dialect is pure boy, running wild most of the year, totally appropriate for Bill’s voice. And the spelling! If I screw up my eyes, I can see a paragraph he wrote at school about his great-uncle Dan, “et up by the cannibuls”, dutifully red-marked by the staid teacher who rolled her eyes and moved to the next paragraph. Field writes in couplets, eight lines per stanza, another appropriate form for a child’s voice.
What opportunity is Fields’ taking? Mother loves her little “Willie” while Father has to correct “William”. And we have a surfeit of reasons for William/Bill to need correction.
Is Fields reminding parents that their little jewels at Christmas are manipulating the system?
Or is he reminding little boys to be nice at Christmas in order to get their presents (reinforcing Santa’s list)?
Or has he created a character that little boys agree with—yes!—and he’s reminding them to be extra nice at Christmas?
And the Traditional
C.C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”
In the past few years a controversy has swirled around and around about the authorship of “Night Before”. You know what? It’s long past copyright. Time to let it go. Just enjoy.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Now a classic, this Christmas story has inspired songs and films and Golden Book stories. Who doesn’t love a good story before bedtime? And Moore? delivers: descriptive, amusing, plenty of favorite lines to choose from.
The poem is a series of couplets, easiest to write and appropriate for a simple story. For all my bashing of the simple couplet, when telling a simple story, it’s best not to overly complicate things. Similes and metaphors and symbols, repetition and alliteration: all abound.
It’s Christmas. Who doesn’t want a good story at Christmas? And when Moore? wrote this, children basically had the Biblical story and very little more. Now, we have an embarrassment of riches, Rudolph in song and film (Abominable Snow Monster!), classic songs like “12 Days of Christmas”, and multiple stories from Charlie Brown to Santa Clause—as well as some unnamed drivel that gets classified with the “riches”.
In January, we start considering the nuts and bolts that affect all writers.
I like to think that all writers can learn from practicing devices for the different genres. Poets can teach novelists and non-fiction writers quite a good bit about concise communication and repetition keys. And studying the logical arc of non-fiction and the plot/suspense arc of fiction can teach poets how to lead from an inspiring thought to an thoughtful insight.
So, Writers Ink Books remains on the 0s, and Writers Ink Services remains on the 5ths. Join us three times each month (2 x 3 = 6) for promos and writing nuts and bolts.
Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, part 3A of 3
Pure Verse: Seduced by Rhythm and Rhyme
True poets and wannabies and hacks and newbies all work with Pure Verse.
No matter which of the four writers above, rhyme entices us more and more. The quick little rhymes affect (and infect) us all the time.
This the last. We’re going to go fast. Keep up.
Pure Verse Affects Us ~~ our ear listens for similar keys in pretty much everything. When the ear hears one similarity, it listens for more. Advertising uses the Rule of 7, within a single commercial and within a series.
Pure Verse Infects Us ~~ thinking that similarity in sound will make others pay attention, we resort to it over and over. Rhyme, then, can become not a seducer by a raper of our ear.
Pure Verse, remember, is the matching of both rhyme and rhythm within a short work.
Blank Verse is the matching of the rhythm but no matching of rhyme.
Free Verse, which is supposed to be without rhythm and rhyme, uses other methods to tie the poetic lines together.
Problems with Pure Verse
The first thing that a true poet must avoid is the “Rocking Horse Rhythm”: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.
Rocking Horse Rhythm puts every poem on the level of a nursery rhyme.
Once you know that Emily Dickinson’s poems with 8/6 line structure can be sung to the theme song for “Gilligan’s Isle”, you can’t help but try it with everyone one.
“I died for Beauty but was scarce / Adjusted in the Tomb / when one who died for Tru~th / was laid in an adjoining room.”
Geez. Dickinson’s point gets lost in the gimmick. Decades of high school students have been ruined by teachers who would rather destroy the point in order to generate a laugh.
How many students will consider a poem about the power of imagination when they are busy mentally singing the poem to “Gilligan”?
“I never saw a Moor / I never saw the Sea / Yet know I how the heather looks / and what a billow be.” Huh?
How do poets avoid this problem caused by rhythm?
Well, poets can work in the music industry, for music needs strongly rhythmic lines.
Better yet, they can craft such strong words that the rhythm is disguised, as Frost occasionally did: Contrast “Once by the Pacific” with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
We could say that “Stopping by Woods” uses its strong rhythm, especially with the last two lines of “miles to go before I sleep”, for strong rhythms are associated with sleeping.
How could similar-sounding words at the end of lines create problems? Sometimes they don’t.
Working with couplets is problematic. Read the worst poems by hacks and wannabies and newbies, and the problem is quickly evident.
Divided couplets are what poets usually default to: ABAB or ABBA or some such pattern.
Even poems I love display this problem:
“I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree.” ~ Joyce Kilmer
“Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.” ~ Robert Frost.
See how Frost broke the couplet pattern to create AABA . . . but look at the second stanza: “My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.” BBCB. And so the poem continues.
“I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. / So it, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: / Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned / With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay ‘Dirge Without Music”
Millay avoids the close rhyme of her ABAB stanza “ground / mind / crowned / resigned” in two ways.
1] The length of her lines prevent the close reading of the rhyme.
2] She uses unusual rhymes: mind / resigned.
Work Carefully with Pure Verse
Sara Teasdale’s “Christmas Carol” gives us a multitude of examples to avoid problems.
Unusual word choices trick our conscious minds into thinking of those rather than the rhyme (even though our subconscious still registers it).
Another method to trick the conscious mind is to invert the order of words. Using inversion helps the mind focus on the words rather than the rhythm.
Use the divided couplet and keep it changing. ABCB DEFE GHIH JKLK MNON PQRQ
An alternating rhythm that reinforces the divided couplet helps: Teasdale’s is iambic tetrameter with iambic trimester.
Notice how the second stanza repeats similar structures but uses contrast: ermine is contrasted with brown/old coats; gold / had not any gold. Juxtaposition is a powerful pattern for our minds. Teasdale sets up the juxtaposition in stanzas 1 and 2. Then she plays with her contrasting for 3 and 4, showing stronger similarity than difference.
She plays with repeating the primary characters in stanzas 5 and 6. By then, however, she adds in one more element.
That seventh element is Charm. Gets the mommas and children every time. Awwww.
Wrapping Up: Time to Unwrap the Presents
Join us for our last blog of the year, on Christmas Day, for Old Masters and New of Pure Verse.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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
everybody is afraid of death,
we don’t need to be afraid of death,
our bodies are simply manure for plants and everything that comes after us,
everybody is going to wind up the same way: dead, and
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
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.