poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Free Verse Is Not Easy, Either

I started to write this in reply to a comment, but it’s important enough that it should be in a post.

I meant it when I said the problem of a lack of working language to describe competence in free verse was greater for poets than for readers. It may be easier to bullshit your way through a poem in free verse than in meter because until you get the hang of meter it can really push you around. But writing a good poem, or god help you, a book of good poems in free verse seems to me to be much harder than it would be in meter, because you don’t have a partner to dance with. I have nothing but admiration — maybe a little wonder and envy — for poets like Denise Levertov, or Robert Creeley, or Stanley Kunitz, or Franz Wright, or Ted Kooser, or Louise Glück, or a dozen others who consistently produced very good poems without the aid of meter or rhyme.

Great poems — well, they’re a mystery however you work.

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10 comments

1 Patrick Gillespie { 03.28.09 at 10:08 am }

On this one we disagree, Mike.

//But writing a good poem, or god help you, a book of good poems in free verse seems to me to be much harder than it would be in meter//

I don’t believe that for a second. There’s nothing easier than writing a free verse poem. It’s one of the easiest art forms ever created (unless your “painting” white canvasses).

And anybody who wants to challenge me on that. Go ahead. I’ll sit at any desk with any “formal” poet, anywhere, and dash out a free verse poem faster than they’ll write a sonnet – and whose to say whether it’s as good, better or worse? Any takers?

It’s a lot easier to spot a poor poet when they write in form, than when they’re prosing. All you have to think about, in writing free verse, is content, content, content. The best free verse poets are the best because of their content – because they had something to say. The best “formal” poets are those that make you forget you’re reading a formal poem. Now *that* is something. Have something to say, and saying it in meter and rhyme, without drawing attention to the same.

Nah… free verse is tennis without a net.

On that one I won’t budge. None of this is to say that free verse can’t produce great literature, but it’s easier to write than formal verse.

2 Mike { 03.28.09 at 1:33 pm }

I’ll agree this far: it’s easier to write passable free verse, and it’s easier to pass off not-so-good free verse on the strength of its imagery, or passion, or, particularly, its humor. But I can write, in an uninterrupted three hours max, a better than passable sonnet. In the same amount of time or much less I can finish a free verse poem, but I have no idea whether it’s better than passable or not. I don’t know what one does to write a good free verse poem. I know there are writers of free verse whose poetry consistently enriches me, and I don’t have a clue how they do it. There are better sonneteers than me, and I can learn from them, and some of them have generously taught me. How do you teach writing free verse? The poet’s got nothing but mysterious examples and vague (and useless) maxims like “Show, don’t tell.” So yeah, it’s easy to impress your friends and faculty with your cranky free verse. It’s another thing altogether to produce, day after day and year after year, wonderful poems, and to do so with nothing but hard-won sense and sensibility to guide you.

I think it’s a dreadful thing for poetry that the dominant style is free verse, but not because it’s easy or bad. It’s dreadful because it seems easy to do and because it’s so very hard judge its quality on anything but subjective criteria.

3 Patrick Gillespie { 03.28.09 at 6:00 pm }

//It’s another thing altogether to produce, day after day and year after year, wonderful poems, and to do so with nothing but hard-won sense and sensibility to guide you.//

I guess I just don’t share your sense of uncertainty when judging free verse poetry. Just about all of the contemporary poets and poems who have been called great will be forgotten or obscurely anthologized in another hundred years. Perhaps some of your uncertainty arises from the many claims of greatness among critics and poets?

Each generation thinks it has produced a stellar crop, but the pages of history are replete with mediocrity. On average there is a hundred years between one great poet and another. Put another way, there are usually only one or two great poets in any given century – followed by, maybe, half a dozen poets who make it into anthologies. It’s the height of hubris to think that this century is any different .

One might be led to think that the baby boomers had produced dozens and dozens of geniuses, each of uniquely heartbreaking importance, but I mostly see mediocrity. And I see mediocrity among critics and editors as well. But that’s no surprise. It’s always been that way. The 20th Centuries great burst of poetry occurred in the first thirty to forty years.

4 Franz Wright { 03.29.09 at 2:59 am }

Oh for God’s sake, 1)there is no such thing as free verse–there are those who have spend decades studying and mastering English prosody to the point where they can use it, at will, both as improvisation and as work far more somber and formal than any metered doggerel that is produced by the neo-formalists could ever be. It is such an inane discussion in the first place–a battle that took place a long time ago. There is good poetry and bad poetry, and it remains sadly true now, as in previous generations and epochs, that there are probably about a hundred people in the country who can tell the difference. FW

5 Patrick Gillespie { 03.29.09 at 11:50 am }

//Oh for God’s sake, 1)there is no such thing as free verse//

Rubbish. Of *course* there’s such a thing as free verse. Just as there’s such a thing as a Sonnet, a limerick, a prose poem, short story, novel etc… It’s a descriptor, that’s all.

//It is such an inane discussion in the first place–a battle that took place a long time ago.//

Franz, free verse is easier to write. Demonstrably so. This has nothing to do with the inherent value of free verse – if that’s the battle your referring to. That’s a different argument and I’m not making it.

//There is good poetry and bad poetry//

I agree.

//it remains sadly true now, as in previous generations and epochs, that there are probably about a hundred people in the country who can tell the difference.//

Are you one of them?

6 Mike { 03.29.09 at 12:15 pm }

Franz, by “free verse ” I mean nothing more than “non-metrical”; it is not, for me, a value-laden term or in any way an indicator of how much work a given poet has done . And of course “those who have spend decades studying and mastering English prosody” are the ones who can produce good poetry of whatever kind. I just think that at a certain stage in that long study, poets who have never seriously studied meter have a harder time, if only because they will be less able to understand the choices made by most of the pre-20th century great poets in the long history of our language: at least they will have a harder tine hearing properly the rhythms of that poetry. It seems to me there’s a chance that to this point we agree in general terms.

And we agree that metered doggerel is not good poetry.

But several of the poets from Rebel Angels have written, along with some metered doggerel, a good deal of very fine poetry: Sam Gwynn, Tom Disch, Charles Martin, Marilyn Hacker, Marilyn Nelson, Brad Leithauser, Paul Lake, Greg Williamson, Dana Gioia, and Fred Turner, among them — and so have some who are in other ways associated with the group: Annie Finch, Dick Davis, Alicia Stallings, David Mason, Kim Addonizio, Rhina Espaillat, & Michael Donaghy, to name a few.

BTW, the two books which made me want to write poetry are your father’s 1971 Collected Poems and Richard Wilbur’s The Mind Reader.

7 Judy { 06.07.11 at 6:55 pm }

The major difference I see as to form between the two disciplines is that structured poetry has an exoskeleton and needs to put what it needs to say inside that.

In so-called unstructured poetry the skeleton is inside, and the poem gets its structure from the endoskeleton. and since there are no real named structures for these things, each poem has its own unique form. It sort of shapes itself.

I will admit, I am terminally lazy about structure, although now and then one comes down the pike already dressed and ready to dance; but for the most part the poems I write are definitely structured in the way that a modern dancer makes her own steps to fit the music. The hard part is weeding out the extraneous.

8 Anonymous { 10.05.11 at 11:06 pm }

Free verse is for lazy poets. If your going to shun the idea of a rhyme scheme at least stick to iambic pentameter so it flows properly rather than throwing your thoughts down onto a page all willy nilly. Its an insult to the art of poetry and a statement of the hubris on the part of the poet who would presume to write such a thing. By writing in free verse your essentially admitting that you give up on following any sort of standard, but still demand recognition as an artist for doing what anyone could do.

I don’t care if you write your thoughts and emotions on paper, just don’t call it poetry. Instead call if what it truly is, a short essay.

And for the record, I disagree in that there are hundreds of years between great poets. They all came at once and there hasn’t been a good one for a while. The old poets who rhymed in iambs and studied the Greek and Roman classics for inspiration were truly great poets. Alexander Pope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Chaucer, their predecessors and their contemporaries, these were great poets.

9 Mike { 10.06.11 at 8:36 pm }

I actually think it’s harder to write good poetry without metrical support, and rhyme is easy – rhyming dictionaries are cheap – though not easy to do in interesting ways.

10 Judy { 10.17.11 at 6:50 am }

The best rhymed poetry flows. It rhymes so carefully and precisely that you often don’t even realize it’s doing just that. A good sonnet, or triolet, or any other hard-structured verse form does not announce itself on the page, and avoids the thumping rhythms of really awful poetry. It was years before I realized that Anne Sexton was using end rhyme, and specific structure. She was that good.
I have many more rhymed pieces than I realize, and in looking back am quite surprised by the number of them. Yeah, I’m lazy about it for one reason; if a poem doesn’t work on the page, either because of the form or the subject, it seems pointless to muck about with pulling this wire and tugging at that lever to make it work.
As to writing as such, I’ll spend days on an unrhymed piece to get IT right, and there is no laziness involved at all.

In either discipline, there is discipline.

And most importantly, one line should not suggest the following one, but when you’ve read that next line it should feel that it’s the only way it could have been written.

Sometimes it works, and if not, what then?
Pick up the pieces. Begin again.

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