The Art of Tea and Poetry

The Art of Tea and Poetry

Spices of Rhyme and Thyme 10

All Spice:  Free Verse Critique

"Free verse" is an oxymoron. Unlike sonnets, villanelle or sestinas; free verse or open form do not follow a fixed structure or pattern. Yet, verse means construct. Hence, the 100 year conundrum.

How is it possible to recognize, let alone, critique free verse and/or open form?

One approach is determining what free-verse isn't through poetic conventions: alliteration / end or internal rhyme patterns, rhythm and meter, couplet, tercet, quatrain, cinquain, sestet, septet or octave. Another would be to define what free verse is, yet, that is a much more difficult task, if not an impossible one, for without conventional structure of designated form how can there be a consensus?

Robert Frost once stated: "I'd sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down." And believed that those who exalted free verse were overly exaggerating its prodigiousness.

Frost like many poets of the past - Metaphysical, Classical and Romantic found their freedom in structure. Frost was a poet that could be considered the last of the Romantics, yet, a precursor of Modern even though he would never admit it. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, H.D (Hilda Doolittle) and Emily Dickenson are the poets who brought free verse into the limelight.

From the moment it was introduced, free verse was challenged and criticized by critics and poets alike. Frost again in a famous statement saw free verse as an "excessive glorification of freedom over structure".

The main reason free verse was hit with such heavy criticism was because practitioners could not explain what free verse actually was, literally. They had to defend it by stating, not what it was, rather, what it wasn't. For example, "the idea of free verse does not authorize a writer to spew out prose, chop it into lines a few inches wide, and call it free verse".

Because of its lack of definition and overt structure, free verse was acclaimed by critics as being one of the greatest motivators of bad poetry.

Yet, Carl Sandburg in what appears to be a response to Frost's claim about free verse's lack of "a net" wrote in defense of this controversial "free of form":

"..The poet without imagination or folly enough to play tennis by serving and returning the ball over an invisible net may see himself as highly disciplined. There have been poets who could and did more than play one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an unsubstantial net, on a frail moonlit fabric of court."

Although, Sandburg credits the poets' craftsmanship as being the fabric that holds the poem together, if free verse doesn't have poetic threads then how can it be distinguished from prose, let alone be critiqued? The only consensus that has been reached over the 100 years that free verse has been practiced is that what distinguishes it is "the line".

So, then, the questions begging to be asked are: What is a line? What defines a line? What is a line's characteristics? What can a line do? What can be done to a line? And when should a line begin and where should it end?

One answer could be the way it "sounds" which in other words is, "intuition" which could work, but, only if you have a seasoned ear. 
Another may be syllable or stress count or that each line carries an image or thought. There are even those who claim that a line is simply a breath. And then there are those who believe that the line is a natural pause in everyday speech: " all depends upon the "pause", the natural pause, the natural lingering of the voice according to the feeling..." - D.H. Lawrence

In everyday speech we tend to utter or exhale three to eight syllables a breath.

William Carlos Williams considered the line as measure. He wrote: "There is actually no "free verse". All verse is measure. We may not be able to measure it, we may not know how, but, finally, it is measured."

So then how can free verse be critiqued, criticized and/or acclaimed great, if there is no agreement of what the line itself must contain or convey?

The following features of free verse were noted by literary critic, poetry scholar and author Marjorie Perloff:

1.  The free verse, in its variability (both of stress and of syllable count) and its avoidance of obtrusive patterns of recurrence, tracks the speaking voice (in conjunction with the moving eye) of a perceptive, feeling subject, trying to come to terms with what seems to be an alien, or at least incomprehensible, world.

In other words: free verse speaks to the "mind's eye" drawing a vision with words. For example in the poem: "A Day Begins" by Denise Levertov:

A headless squirrel, some blood
oozing from the unevenly
chewed-off neck
lies in rainsweet grass
near the woodshed door.
Down the driveway
the first irises
have opened since dawn,
ethereal, their mauve
almost a transparent gray,
their dark veins

"A Day Begins" follows the motion of the eye, taking in the frightening sight of the bloody headless squirrel, its location being specified only in the second tercet and in turn juxtaposed to the next thing seen, "the first irises" {that] "have opened since dawn," the poem moving, in the final line, to the "bruise-blue" conjunction between these seeming dissimilars.

2. Free verse is organized by the power of the image, by a construct of images as concrete and specific as possible, that serve as objective correlative for inner states of mind... the free-verse line presents what are often unmediated images, as they appear in the mind's eye of the poet: "A headless squirrel, some blood / oozing from the unevenly / chewed-off neck" (Denise Levertov) "The sun sets in the cold without friend" (W.S. Merwin), "In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal / sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky" (Allen Ginsberg) "Down valley a smoke haze" (Gary Snyder) "The ice ticks seaward like a clock" (Robert Lowell). Perception, discovery, and reaction: free-verse is the form par excellence that strives toward mimesis of individual feeling, as that feeling is generated by sights, sounds, smells, and memories.
3.  Although free verse is speech-based, although it tracks the movement of the breath itself, syntax is regulated, which is to say that the free-verse "I" generally speaks in complete sentences: "the first irises / have opened since dawn," "When it has gone I hear the stream running after it," "staring through my eyeglasses I realized shuddering these thoughts were not eternity," "I cannot remember things I once read," "Chemical air / sweeps in from New Jersey, / and smells of coffee." If, these poems seem to say, there is no metrical recurrence, no rhyme or stanzaic structure, syntax must act as clarifier and binder, bringing units together and establishing their relationships.

In other words: Syntax, which is the rules and formation of grammatical sentences or "grammar" and sentence structure, is form in free verse. It is the very fabric that holds the words together.
4.  A corollary of regulated syntax is that the free-verse poem flows; it is, in more ways than one, linear.
Complicated patterns of repetition (of word, phrase, clause); modulating / tying images together; initial images set the stage for the final lines; thoughts and feelings words and poetic devices move fluidly from line to line.

5.  As a corollary of (4), the rhythm of continuity depends upon the unobtrusiveness of sound structure in free verse, as if to say that what is said must not be obscured by the actual saying.

With that said, it does not mean that free verse does not incorporate poetic devices that have always been valuable tools in the poet's toolbox: alliteration, repetition, end and internal rhyme, iambic (unstressed-stressed syllables), trochee foot (stressed-unstressed syllables) and anapest (unstressed-unstressed-stressed syllables) foot or meter.

6.  Finally, (and this accords with the unobtrusiveness of sound) the free-verse lyric of the fifties and sixties subordinates the visual to the semantic: open tercets, five-line stanzas, strophes, minimal linear units, and loose verse paragraphs--none of these does much to exploit the white space of the page or to utilize the material aspects of typography. Most of the free verse poems of the past have columns of verse centered on the page, with justified left margins, and only minimally jagged right margins, line lengths being variable only within limits. The look of the poem is thus neither more nor less prominent than in metrical verse.

Whereas a characteristic of today's free verse poetry is exploitability of space and page.

Perloff's six features have answered some of the questions asked about free verse. They have also unveiled the construct of "verse" that houses the "free" - grammar and sentence structure. Yet, many questions still remain unanswered. The search for those answers I leave to the "seasoned ears" and poetic perseverance of the members of this readership and the Peppered Poets community. Together we will uncover answers to questions and create our own consensus. Our comments, critiques and suggestions will be of the Peppered Poets kind - with a touch of spice and poetic device. 

© Frecklewood 2018, All rights reserved.

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© Frecklewood 2014, All rights reserved.