Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, Free Verse, part 1A of 3

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.

Shaped Verse

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.

Catalog

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
Die soon.

Simple Form :: Is anything ever simple?

The Old Master:  Stephen Crane’s “The Wayfarer”

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

Wrapping Up

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!

4 Requirements of Song :: “Paper Cup”

We’re shifting to the Fifths!

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Starting with 4 Requirements of Song, visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

4 Requirements of Song: Paper Cup

In the 3/15 blog on Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers”, I noted the 4 Requirements of Song:  poetry should 1] speak clearly and 2] from the heart.  Music-driven poetry should also provide 3] strong lines and 4] powerful imagery.

Jimmy Webb’s 1967 “Paper Cup” fulfills these 4 requirements that elevate poetry over types of communication.

Strong Lines

The extended metaphor in Webb’s poem presents a narrowed little world into which we cage ourselves.  This world satisfies us with a shower stall, running water, a den, and refrigerated air, bland walls that make our lives easy.

Then Webb turns this life around with its bleached, waxed-paper world.  We may thing we’re in the catbird’s seat, but one day we’re “going down the drain” and won’t care, for we have so deadened ourselves to reality that we “feel no pain”.  We find “life is kind of / groovy in the gutter”.

Powerful Imagery

Webb tells us that such a life has no purpose;  we are living “without a rudder”.  We follow the currents of life and never stop to consider what we want, what truth is.  The mass declares what is popular and “hot”, and we follow, rat-like, behind the pied piper crowd.

Heart-felt Speech

The Matrix should have awakened us to those myriad things that the mass provides us to keep us distracted from anything higher than mundane existence: drugs, sex, blingy rat-race materialism, taxes, insurance—all the things we worry about instead of the IDEAS and SOULS we should care about >> Click here for “The Matrix” and the Cave, a five-minute precis on the film’s philosophic underpinnings, especially Plato’s anti-materialism.

Webb is preaching to us, much as Tyler Perry does with his Madea films.

Madea preaches that people can make us miserable only if we choose to let them do so.

Webb tells us that we may claim freedom, we may shout Freedom!, but all those material possessions just put us in a bland round cage.  We are “always looking up” since our lives are nothing extraordinary.

Politics of Poetry

As Percy Shelley said, “Poetry is a mirror” reflecting life.  By presenting life, it “awaken[s] and enlarge[s] the mind . . . [to] a 1,000 unapprehended combinations of thought.”

Webb wants us to reflect on what we think life should be by comprehending how bleached-out and bland such a life is.  Like Dolly Parton’s “lost in a crowd” Wildflowers, too afraid to pursue their goals, Webb reminds us that a boring constricted life focused on things is no more than living in a gutter.

A better world is available to us.  Webb points out to us the problems of merely existing in a mundane world, with distractors that keep us on the rat-race wheel.

  • Ha! The wheel in the rat’s cage can be turned sideways to be a round cup that imprisons us.  At least the rat can look through his bars.

Parton’s “Wildflowers” tells us how we can escape that “common and close” existence.  Never forget that we must uproot ourselves from gardens where we will wither and hitch a ride with the wind.  

We have to act to achieve.

4 Requirements of Song :: “Wildflowers” by Dolly Parton

We’re shifting to the Fifths!

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Beginning with 4 Requirements of Song, we are shifting our blogs to publish on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th).  Join us to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Wildflowers :: 4 Requirements of Songs

Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” is structured around an extended metaphor.  The song itself has a catchy tune, one of the best by Parton.  click here for lyrics / no video available

Music with Poetry = County Music

Country music is the venue of poets who love to play with music, much more so than rock and pop, which may occasionally dip into the tropes.  More than rock, which usually depends on a guitar riff or other elements, country music is known for its strong use of imagery and figurative language.

Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” :: click here for video, a live performance by the Old Master

Kathy Mattea’s “Standing Knee Deep in a River” :: Click here for the promotional video

Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” ::

Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” :: Click here for the controversial video that aired only ONCE in its original, Brooks-chosen form

Dolly Parton is one of the great performing songwriters to come out of country music.  More than any other communication, poetry should speak clearly and from the heart.  Music-driven poetry should also provide strong lines and powerful imagery.  “Wildflowers” fits these four requirements of song.

Strong Lines

The extended metaphor keeps everything tied together.  The persona is a wildflower.  Unlike other flowers, she refuses to wither.  She has a dream she is determined to pursue, so the wild mountain rose uproots herself from safety and security.  As she says in her refrain, “When a flower grows wild, it can always survive. / Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.”

Powerful Imagery

Parton’s imagery strengthens the extended metaphor into a powerful message.

Wildflowers that remain in the safe but crippling home garden die in the sun.  Rather than become strong themselves, which is the nature of the wildflower, they allow themselves to be kept weak.  The sun truly will burn up a plant, but I wonder if this is Parton telling women not to be wholly dependent on a man (sun > son).  She is not anti-man; after all, she “hitched a ride with the wind . . . HE was my friend.”

She presents that men who try to stifle women and women who CHOOSE to be stifled are all weak.  As she writes, the weak and stifled lack a strong independent nature:  The flowers that don’t pursue dreams (weak women) are “content to be lost in the crowd / . . . common and close . . . [with] no room for growth. / I wanted so much to branch out.”

Clear Heart-felt Message

Perhaps her “fast and wild” upbringing caused her to “uproot herself and take to the road”.  Perhaps the isolation she felt in the garden “so different from me” drove her decision.

Whether either or both, she “never belonged, I just longed to be gone / so the garden one day set me free”.

Who has not struggled with rebelling against conformity?

Who has not felt isolated from those around us?

And who of us has dreamed—yet hesitated to pursue the dream?  We hesitate, for it requires abandoning our safety net?

Clear Communication Results in Action

When writers connect to audience through these four requirements of song, their words often provide an impetus for us.  “Wildflowers” wants us to let go of whatever withers us, release the anonymity of the mass blob of the crowd, and hitch our dream to the wind.  We are promised room for growth.  We are promised us.

After all,

“Success is a journey, not a destination.  The doing is usually more important than the outcome.” ~ Arthur Ashe Jr. (1943-1993)