poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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I’m a Control Freak

I took part in a mailing-list discussion of how some poem should/could be scanned, and it made clear to me why I choose to write in meter. It isn’t because I believe metrical verse is inherently superior to free verse: I believe no such thing. It’s because, in this regard, I am a control freak.

Natural-sounding speech, even a good imitation of very colloquial speech, can be written in fairly strict meter by any moderately intelligent person who’s worked hard enough, but it isn’t natural speech. In metrical verse there’s a dance between the rhythms of ordinary speech and the rhythm suggested by the meter, which is why we can speak of metrical promotion and demotion: in a metrical line, syllables unaccented in ordinary speech can be nudged by the meter to slightly greater prominence, and accented syllables can be nudged to slightly lesser prominence. The key words there are “nudged” and “slightly,” but they make a big difference in the music of the line.

In free verse, all bets are off. Some poets pause at the ends of their lines; some don’t. Some chant their verses; some speak plainly. Some acknowledge white space; some don’t. Some deliberately make oral
performance of their poems nearly impossible.

And that‘s actually the reason I choose to write in meter — I want to have at least a fighting chance of getting a reader to hear a poem the way I mean it to sound, to write so as to have the best chance of conveying the music I intended to put in the poem, and with free verse, unless the reader has heard the author read a particular poem, the odds ain’t good.

That is not a denigration of free verse. It just means that what I want to accomplish is unlikely to happen using free verse. The spoken performance of a free verse poem is underdetermined in comparison to that of a well-made metrical poem. Again, that is not a value judgement – it just means there will be more variance in a set of performances of a given free verse poem than in a set of performances of a given metrical poem. Of course there are variations even in my readings of my own poems, some of which depend on my mood, some on the reaction of any audience, some on the nature of the audience. I sometimes change words on the fly. It’s not the fact, but the degree of variance that matters to me.

Take a look at this poem in today’s Slate, by Lucas Howell, and then listen to him read it.

[ For those who don’t want navigate, here are the first few lines:

Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam’s
                                            hundred-thousand tons of overburden,

out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
                                        or down from the powder blue

derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.


In his reading, there’s absolutely no audible indication of any break where there is no punctuation – no pause at all, for instance, between “seam’s” and “hundred-thousand tons.”]

Now I like this poem, especially when I hear him read it. But suppose I didn’t have that recording. How would I know that such visual violence should be completely undetectable in performance? Looking at that poem, a reasonable performer might very well try to respect the author’s intention by respecting the author’s layout of the poem.

This is a pretty extreme example, but it applies to almost all free verse – consider Sharon Olds’ tick of breaking lines after a definite article. That’s not in her performances. And then Jorie Graham, who does expect layout to affect performance.

Certainly people unfamiliar with the metrical tradition may bend metrical verse as they read aloud (mostly by banging on the beats and the rhymes), but the printed poem is not going to be so different from the spoken one as it is above.

See? I’m a control freak.

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1 Chris L { 05.05.09 at 9:45 pm }

Can’t some things be done on the page that aren’t meant to influence the reading when read aloud? For me, the breaks in the first example influence the way I apprehend the poem in my head, which has only a partial overlap with the way I would read it aloud (or listen to it being read to me). It just feels obvious to me that there’s quite a difference between what happens when we apprehend a poem on the page and what happens when we read it.

2 Mike { 05.05.09 at 9:57 pm }

Sure, Chris — I’ve got no argument with you here. But when I write a poem, I want to convey my stage directions, for want of a better term, as economically as possible to my readers. I work hard to make a poem sound a certain way, and I want my readers to have as good a sense as possible of my intentions without having to write an accompanying essay.

3 Mike { 05.06.09 at 8:48 am }

Actually, Chris, it’s not just that I’ve got no argument with you – you help make my point that in free verse the text gives relatively less guidance for performance than it does in metrical verse.

4 Chris L { 05.07.09 at 11:56 am }

I think that’s clearly true. But the visual formatting does guide us in a different and important way. Howell’s poem might ‘be read’ the same way it were laid out with straight line breaks and no indentation, but it wouldn’t ‘read’ the same way… and that’s kind of the crux of the issue of where poetry has gone in the age of print, no?

5 Chris L { 05.07.09 at 11:57 am }

Of course, the other possibility is that Howell doesn’t read his own poem correctly– or at least not as he hears it in his head. It’s not my poem, but I’d be inclined to perform the poem in a different manner than I read it to myself.

6 Mike { 05.07.09 at 6:38 pm }

Yeah, the experience of reading that poem silently is certainly different from what it would be without the line breaks. My question, which neither you nor I can answer, of course, is why he doesn’t want it to affect a performance of the poem?

It seems to me that poetry loses when it’s divorced from the voice.

7 Allen Taylor { 05.08.09 at 9:21 pm }

I’m not sure I buy your premise. Free verse should be read no differently than form poetry. All the same elements are there. You can do some things in one that you can’t do in the other and vice-versa. But as far as reading, line breaks are line breaks; commas are commas; and periods are periods. I think the real issue is that many free verse poets don’t really know how to read poetry so they write free verse as a cop out. As someone who feels comfortable writing both styles, I don’t see the difference in reading them aloud. I use metrical patterns in my free verse.

8 Mike { 05.08.09 at 11:14 pm }

Allen, you’re not the first to show me how unclear I was. I agree, in principle, with everything you say above — including “the real issue is that many free verse poets don’t really know how to read poetry so they write free verse as a cop out,” though I wouldn’t use as strong a term as “cop out,” since that implies they’re writing in bad faith.

Clarification tomorrow, an the creek don’t rise.

9 Bob Grumman { 10.17.11 at 9:03 am }

Lucas Howell doesn’t know how to read poetry, that’s all. If you read free verse and ignore line breaks, you have prose, just as youwould have prose if, like many readers, you read metrical verse and pronounced all the words the way you would if they were in a prose text, and ignored the line ends.


10 Mike { 10.19.11 at 10:58 pm }

I’d agree that Lucas Howell doesn’t know how to read his own texts, Bob — but one of the primary distinctions between free verse and metrical verse is that in metrical verse the line break is, at most, a nudge to the rhythm – the rhythm is created by the pattern of stresses in the naturally speaking the line – while in free verse the line break creates the rhythm. One of the delightful properties of metrical verse is that an enjambed line means there is no pause at the end of the line, so that there is an additional source of variation, beyond the substitution of feet or the natural variation of levels of stress in ordinary speech, in the local velocity of the poem. Line breaks in metrical poetry allow accelerations/decelerations to modify the poem’s rhythm in a way impossible in non-metrical verse.

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