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.
[ 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.