Reverie Forty-Seven: freeing the verse

It’s such a strange feeling to basically have two weekends in a row. I don’t think I’ve had more than three days off in a row since April, and now I’m getting five and a half at once. (And four weeks from now, twelve days! Let’s hear it for taking all the vacation time at the end of the year.) Trying to keep my mind eye on the studious/literary prizes, but simultaneously I have to think about pudding-making tomorrow, and shopping/laundry down here, where it’s cheap. This morning I woke up and instead of thinking, “ah, another day off,” all I could think was “shit, I have X hours until I have to do Y”. And that, I suppose, is what being an adult is all about.

This week: “freeing the verse

This Reverie will be the first in a three-part series to round out the year a bit. In each one, I want to talk about the mechanics of poetic craft, more than just the inspirations, the challenge of form, and finding distinctive ways to use language. Today’s will focus on getting more into free verse, for those of you who struggle to bust out of the standard patterns of language.

Let’s set some ground rules right at the beginning. Poetry is not prose, and it is more acceptable to explore the boundaries of grammar in a poem than in a novel or an essay. (Not that this has stopped some authors: James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, ’nuff said.) The first thing we want to do in this exercise is turn off the copy-editorial switch: not the one main editor-switch that says “this poem is terrible” (which you should try to turn off anyway), but the one that says “this is not the right place for a semicolon”, “you should capitalize this”, etc. That switch doesn’t get enough attention in light of the critical one. I don’t mean to say that you should throw grammar out the window, but take this as a cardinal rule: don’t let grammar stand in the way of your poem. You’ll be surprised at how the tone and meaning of your words can change when you omit or flex different elements of style, in ways that can pinpoint the effect you’re going for more precisely.

(The other cardinal rule I want to introduce now is that it’s your prerogative to take as much of this to heart as you want, or as little.)

Let’s talk about punctuation first. I often tell people that if there’s one thing that has no place in a poem, it’s the ellipsis. Oh, how I loathe that ellipsis. When we think about the point of an ellipsis, what comes to mind? For me, it’s a pause (in prose) to signify that a thought is not yet complete, with the same length as a period/full stop. But we have lots of other tools to signify these two aspects. For a thought that’s not yet complete, a line break mid-sentence will serve just as well; a hyphen or dash will introduce a pause of acceptable length. Visually, the ellipsis also just seems to plod a bit. Consider the difference between this original line of Emily Dickinson’s:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!


How dreary… to be… Somebody!

The first has a clipped, abrupt, manic feel; the second is the pinnacle of angst. An ellipsis waits and drags out, which will force your reader to wait and drag your poem out: usually this is not a great effect. See how a line break can force motion as well:

How dreary
to be

Enjambment could fill a lesson on its own, but for those who struggle with it, here is what I recommend: treat line breaks as punctuation. And furthermore, give punctuation the value it deserves. Punctuation marks are not just laws to be followed; they have presence that adds value to your poem. If you consider that they serve the triplet functions of creating a visual aesthetic, managing the flow of your lines, and portioning out the weight of the thoughts on either side of them, then thinking of the line break as another punctuation mark helps move opinion away from “that’s just something ‘modern’ poets do to look cool”. There should be purpose and intention behind every line break, as much as behind every comma and period. If it manages to help you maintain a form or rhyme scheme, so much the better.

So let’s discuss comma use and period use. It doesn’t work as well for this line (“How dreary, to be, Somebody!” sounds like you’re addressing a person named Somebody), but the overuse of these two bits can result in dramatically different poems. Take a look at these three lines (which have been invented for educational purposes):

The rose in its blooming knows only a circle and the piercing green thorn.

The rose, in its blooming, knows, only a circle, and, the piercing, green, thorn.

The rose. In its blooming. Knows only a circle. And the piercing green. Thorn.

You could use line breaks too at various points, for different effects. But look at the straightforward first line, the liquid flow of the second, and the sharp cadence of the third. “Piercing green. Thorn.” is different from “piercing green thorn” by quite a lot. A poem has more freedom to use sentence fragments and strangely-joined clauses in this way. Conversely, there is also more freedom in the run-on sentence. Try replacing punctuation with conjunctions and watch what happens. This is Amy Lowell’s “Opal”, re-done with “and” instead of commas/periods:

You are ice and fire and
the touch of you burns my hands like snow and
you are cold and flame and
you are the crimson of the amaryllis and
the silver of moon-touched magnolias and
when I am with you and
my heart is a frozen pond and
gleaming with agitated torches.

It all depends what kind of feel you are going for. “Opal” is full of natural curves and crooks like a stream; this re-do is a cataract with a torrent of water rushing through it. It is perfectly acceptable to mix and match both ways in one poem, too:

You are ice and fire.
And the touch of you burns my hands like snow.
And you are cold and flame and
you are the crimson of the amaryllis.
And the silver of moon-touched magnolias.
And when I am with you,
my heart is a frozen pond.
Gleaming with agitated torches.

You have to decide for the voice of your poem how you want the images to stand in relation to each other. Remember that a subject or a verb can weaken an image as easily as it can strengthen it; there is a time and a place for the -ing participle; and adjectives are wonderful wrapping paper for your nouns. Don’t worry so much about how the images must fit together with punctuation and grammar; let the images speak for themselves, and then come back to fill in where needed.

A couple more thoughts on this process: it isn’t all-or-nothing. Historically, the development of messing around with the skeleton of grammar has evolved over decades (even centuries), through Whitman, Dickinson, Cummings, and so on. (If you want some truly wacky ideas, check out Gertrude Stein.) I dislike the term “free verse”, because there are shades and gradations of it. There is free verse which is essentially prose, with periods dropped in like depth charges, and the limbs cut off with scimitar commas, dangled into a poem. But then there is free verse that sings with its imagery and has internal rhyme, there is free verse that is simply a flood of language, and there is free verse that is basically iambic pentameter, with a twist. What I want to get across to you is that the grammar should be probably your least concern when crafting a free verse poem. There are plenty of forms that require discrete clauses, and you are welcome to use them in free verse, but the latter does not require them. Try breaking out a bit!

Here are three poems I recommend reading that get, um, inventive:
1. e.e. cummings, “i sing of Olaf glad and big
2. W.S. Merwin, “Yesterday
3. Ben Mirov, “Black Glass Soliloquy

If this Reverie is like “Breaking the Rules 101″, these three poets are Professors Emeritus of the topic. Don’t feel obligated to follow all of the stream of consciousness in the first, the complete lack of punctuation in the second, or the typographical acrobatics of the third, but let them inspire you and show you the variety that can be had. Then, write a response to one of them, where you examine the thoughts, separate out the images, and jot down how you think each punctuation anomaly serves the flow and message. Finally, either take a pre-existing poem (of yours or someone else’s) or write a new one, and break it out of its grammatical mold. Mess around with the punctuation, where the lines end, and let yourself get carried away.

Then come back and share! Next week we will talk more about such things.

11 thoughts on “Reverie Forty-Seven: freeing the verse

  1. Misky says:

    Joseph, are the two final lines of “Black Glass Soliloquy” supposed to be blackened?

  2. barbara_ says:

    Got to disagree. Elipses can’t be both the same length as a full stop and something that “waits and drags out, which will force your reader to wait and drag your poem out.” When you need them, you need them. Agree that any use should be sparing, but so should Dickinson’s everloving exclamations and dashes (ugh!)

    • To me, they hold the same length of time in their pause, but the full stop feels like a completed thought, while the ellipsis leaves you hanging. You should use them when you need them, but I find that they are usually the least appealing option out of all the other punctuation tools, in my work. I think the issue is that often people use them because they’re in a prose mindset, and sometimes what they’re trying to get across would be better served by a different mark.

      And yes, Dickinson probably could have varied a little. :)

  3. [...] the endand they sway ‘til fell to heap…..Jospeh Harker’s Reverie #47, Freeing the Verse Jospeh Harker’s Reverie #47, Freeing the Verse and Sunday Whirl Wordle [...]

  4. Dhyan says:

    Brilliant Joseph.
    Do you know
    how can I turn on
    that copy-editorial switch?
    Going to print.
    This Reverie.

  5. margo roby says:

    Hi! Hyphens are not for time elements, merely for linking, unless something radical happened when my back was turned.

    Love that you are giving us a series on this. I find mechanics such fun to play with.

  6. margo roby says:

    ‘This morning I woke up and instead of thinking, “ah, another day off,” all I could think was “shit, I have X hours until I have to do Y”. And that, I suppose, is what being an adult is all about.’
    Yep. The good news is that there is a post-adult [we need a new name for this phase in life] time, when we realise that being a real adult means we respond to the above thought with ‘Enh’ and a mental shrug.

  7. [...] Reverie Forty-seven: freeing the verse,  Joseph suggests that we don’t let grammar stand in the way of [y]our poem. I know. Pretty [...]

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