Poetry: Major Methods, parts 1B of 3 :: Free Verse

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.

Shaped Verse

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.”

Simple Form

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.

Wrapping Up

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!

Occasion: Independence Day

Free-wheeling behavior.  What I want, when I want, how I want.  Places to see, people to do, things to go**. [Yes, I know ;)]  Is this independence?

Not quite.

Let’s try “Self Reliance”, an early idea on what the USofA should be.  A pride in viewing everyone the same because we are the same.  A willingness to stand up and be counted when it matters.  Is this independence?


Independence Day

On the 4th of July America celebrates its beginnings and all the best that this country comes together to be.  Yes, we have problems;  who doesn’t?  We’re working on them.  (Are you working on yours?  Good.  Haven’t got any? Self-analysis is wisdom.)

For Independence Day, I’ve gathered four poems that meet the requirements of the occasion:  a wide-range of poetry, and the last one not even considered a poem by the majority.  In looking at these four poems, we can see directions for our own attempts to celebrate this occasion.

All four use tight construction through repetition, the time-honored rhetorical device when constructing any writing for performance.

Walt Whitman:  Equality, Fraternity, Liberty

First we look at the earliest Voice of America.  Whitman is one of the two great American poets who can be identified by the appearance of their poetic lines alone.  Emily Dickinson is the other.  Like the USofA, Whitman sprawls across the continent, celebrating all of us; Dickinson writes compact poems with introspective individuality.

Perhaps the most well-known of Whitman’s poems is his “I Hear America Singing”.  Free verse with his signature catalog of details, it rejoices in the plain people who began turning America into the powerhouse of industry that it became in the 20th Century.

Walt Whitman

The everyday person, working hard to enjoy the harvest of his own hands: 4th of July speeches should praise this person.  Picnicking, jumping whole-heartedly into games, glorying in the fireworks:  this is the poem to celebrate Independence Day.

Waldo Emerson: The Pillars of Independence Rest on the Colossus of the People

Next, the essayist who wrote the seminal “Self-Reliance” also tried his hand at poetry.

I am not a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  “Concord Hymn”, the usual read for Independence Day with its famous “shot heard round the world”, leaves me cold.  Yet his “A Nation’s Strength” stirs the feelings of pride in our country.

While others applaud the nation or its elected leaders or its industry leaders, Emerson reminds us that nations are nothing without their people standing strong.

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly...
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Wilfred Owen: Defend the Best in order to Live the Best

Third example is Owen, who happens to be British.

What?  I thought we were looking at poems by Americans for Americans.

Owens, who died in World War I, writes of the best of living and therefore reminds us of the reason we need to maintain our independence.  The rule of others who would impose beliefs contrary to the ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would destroy the USofA’s long history of self-reliance and self-industry, equality and freedom for all who wish to join in the great experiment of our self-government.

Here is one of my favorite poems, reveling in nature and life and love.  It’s title is “From My Diary, July 1914”:  fitting for our 4th of July celebrations.

Wilfred Owen, “From My Diary July 1914”

Abraham Lincoln: Sacrifices Necessary to Retain Freedom for All

Our 16th President.  Writer of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Assassinated before the bleeding sides in the War of Brother against Brother.

And he’s a poet working in the form of speeches.

The Gettysburg Address is his best work.  Here it is, taken out of its prose form and constructed as if Whitman had stuck out a finger and shifted the line lengths.

Fourscore and seven years ago
our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,
conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition
that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war,
testing whether that nation or any nation
so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place
for those who here gave their lives
that that nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense,
we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead who struggled here
have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living rather the great task remaining before us—
that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause
for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—
that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,
that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom,
and that government of the people,
by the people,
for the people
shall not perish from the earth.

Writing for Independence Day

  1. Find the reason/purpose for writing.
  2. Identify the audience.  Not old guys, but veterans.  Not family, but my brother who served in Afghanistan.  And not people at my church, but people who pray for those who defend us.
  3. Select the images to use. Seven?
  4. Subtract anything too maudlin.  Are we at three?
  5. Determine the focus idea to convey.
  6. Use repetition and alliteration. Audiences listen for key words.  Their minds chain the keys together to build sense.
  7. Figurative language works in performance only when it controls the entire text. Extended metaphors will carry more power than simple similes.
  8. Subtract anything too maudlin. Yes, again.
  9. Manipulate the line structure.
  10. Practice before performance.

Coming Up

In July, the long-promised “Hotel California”, performed by the Eagles, followed by a short poem with an ironic little twist.

We’re on the 5ths!  Join us.