Line Breaks & Free Verse — a Clarification
While I was attempting last weekend to till the garden (I broke the tiller about a third of the way through the job) I spent some time thinking about reader’s responses, in comments and email, to my control freak post — it seems I sowed confusion there as well — and I want to try to set things at least a little straighter than my garden rows. Please understand that I’m writing particularly about the performance of poems, and I know some poets don’t give a damn about performance. They may be wonderful poets, but not for me. I’m just not interested in poetry written purely for the page. If a poem can’t be read aloud to a competent, comprehending listener, I won’t read more than a few lines and you can’t make me. By the way, “comprehending” includes what happens when we hear “Jabberwocky.”
First, I’ll try to make clear what I mean by metrical versus free verse:
In metrical verse, some aurally distinguishable speech feature is counted to determine when the line breaks. Depending on language and custom, that feature could be stresses, syllables, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, syllables of a certain length, patterns of syllables of certain lengths, tones — it doesn’t matter, as long as native speakers of the language can hear it. They need not be able to identify what it is that’s counted to determine the line break.
If line length is determined by anything other than by counting aurally distinguishable features, then for my purposes here it’s free verse. The poem may be organized in some ferociously complicated manner, but however important such organization may be to the poet and to any students of the poem, if a listening native speaker of the language cannot hear the effects of that organization as the poem is performed aloud, the poem is indistinguishable from free verse in performance, and that’s all I care about here. Obviously that organization is very important in other contexts.
Whatever verse I write, whether free or metrical, I work damned hard to make it sound a certain way. I especially work hard to control the rhythm – the pace and the patterns of emphasis of the poem. And whatever verse I write, most of the tools work in pretty much the same way — length of clauses, kinds of subordination, syntactical jiggery-pokery, assonance and consonance, any rhyme (especially internal rhyme), passive or active verbs, almost everything. The great exception is the enjambed line break.
In metrical verse, enjambment speeds the pace of the poem – it jams the two lines together! In unrhymed metrical verse, particularly in longer lines such as the pentameter, excessive enjambment, just as excessive substitution, can blur the nature of the meter, as Johnson complained of Milton’s blank verse.
In free verse, on the other hand, enjambment slows the pace of the poem — or, if it doesn’t, then it can’t be heard and is imperceptible in performance. When a listener can hear it, it has great expressive potential. To take just one example, by emphasizing both the last phrase of the first of the paired lines and the first phrase of the second, it can cue the reader that the poet intends unusual emphasis on their juxtaposition — an effect difficult to achieve in metrical verse without some typographical cue such as an ellipsis or a dash or a sprinkling of ungrammatical commas.
My complaint with some practitioners of free verse is that they read their work as if it were prose, and all that wonderful suggestion for the eye is lost to the ear. Ironically, free verse is most like chopped up prose when readers ignore the chopping.
This distinction in the function of enjambment in free versus metrical verse is destabilizing to the performance of both kinds — poets working both ways lose some confidence in how someone else will speak the lines. On balance, though, it seems to me I’ve got a better chance of getting a reasonable reading (no such thing as a correct reading) with metrical verse, and that’s one reason I write mostly metrically.
This is not the first time I’ve nattered on about enjambment — I spent most of December 2004 writing about it, and my very last substantive post before moving from Radio to WordPress was on the subject. I don’t anymore agree with everything I wrote then, but it does seem still useful.
Unlike the borrowed tiller. I’ll rent next time.