Saturday, February 16, 2013

Free Verse: My Love In Her Wild Magnificence

Hello again sweet Toads and Toad friends. Fireblossom here. I know that some of you were convinced that I had gone off my nut and abandoned everything I believe in, yesterday, when I set before you a form challenge. Here is my sinister reason: I knew that, today, I would be talking about My Love, also known as free verse. 

Consider the wolf pack on the hunt. I think they would make fine free verse poets, and here's why. They don't run in strict military formation by any means, but neither do they just dash pell mell in all directions without purpose. They are focused and organized, but they are not show horses bound to a fixed program. They run like hell, working together as if their lives depend upon it, which they do. As I said, they would make fine free verse poets!

Let's start by talking about what free verse is NOT. First of all, free verse is NOT prose. Prose is defined in Webster's dictionary as "ordinary writing; not poetry".
So, therefore, simply breaking ordinary writing down into lines does not make it free verse, or poetry at all. 

I went to the store and 
bought eggs, 
I got on the bus and went home 
where I 
made a cup of tea and 
dozed off.

Looks like a poem, doesn't it? It's not, though. It's ordinary writing. A simple test is to remove the line breaks and look at it like this:

I went to the store and bought eggs, then I got on the bus and went home where I made a cup of tea and dozed off.

It's obvious now, isn't it? NOT poetry. All right, let's try this trick again, but this time we'll turn it around. I'll start with ordinary prose:

As a child, i felt invisible to my family, which left me restless, agitated, and feeling as if I'd like to get up and scream to make them notice me. I never did, though. I stayed quiet.

That's fine as prose, but not as poetry. Now, let's see how this same feeling is conveyed by poet Gregory Corso in this section from his poem "This Was My Meal":

I turned to my father,
and he ate my birthday
I drank my milk and saw trees outrun themselves
valleys outdo themselves
and no mountain stood a chance of not walking

Desert came in the spindly hands of stepmother
I wanted to drop fire-engines from my mouth!
But in ran the moonlight and grabbed the prunes.

Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The poetic image and the fresh phrase are two crucial differences between ordinary writing and free verse poetry.

Here's another example. "You're only as old as you feel" and "Do your own thing" are bumper stickers, cliches, greeting card pap. In the hands of Alta, in this excerpt from her poem "i don't know how to play, either", it sounds fresh, like this:

let's frolic, dear friend
tho we're 30 & bitter
& our faces attest to our pain.
let's dance without music
and laugh without reason;
to hell with the circus they gave us."

It can be scary to read something really well done and then wonder, "How can I do that?" One trick is to write down the thought you want to write about, in plain language, first. Then ask yourself, how can I set a match to these words and make them burn brighter? 

Another thing that distinguishes free verse, and any poetry, from ordinary writing, is the use of metaphor. Consider Charles Simic's poem "Fear":

Fear passes from man to man

As one leaf passes its shudder
To another.

All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.

He isn't talking about a tree, or leaves, or wind, not really. And yet, by use of these metaphors, he says more about how fear spreads than he could have with any prose.

Now, let's delve into the free verse toy box, where we will find gadgets and gizmos that lend themselves to free verse better than to any other form. Here is a short piece by Michael Curley, which would seem, at first glance, to be "ordinary writing." It isn't, though. In the space of four lines, he paints a portrait of a type of woman we all know and have encountered, and knocks over the pleasant facade to reveal something more. This is called "Night School Ladies".

Aging housewives pour over a textbook for one course
ruining averages, boring people with their banter,
and pictures of their grown children who are
always doing well.

Brevity, they say, is the soul of wit, and concision can be the soul of fine free verse. Here is another by Michael Curley, entitled "A Teacher's Response To Creativity":


One line, two sentences, and yet it speaks volumes. Free verse also lends itself to the Rant, and can go on for some while without losing its power. A prime example of this is Allen Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl" from which I give you an excerpt here:

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

"Howl" runs to some eleven pages, and far from tiring the reader, it gathers force throughout, slamming aside the complacency of the 1950s in a mighty steamroller of outrage. Got something you feel passionate about? Let it rip. Free verse can accommodate this kind of fury and emotion.

Free verse can be written in lines which are dense or spare, gentle or manic, and can take almost any form in terms of stanzas, punctuation, or premise. The thing to remember is, never let it be ordinary. Never write poetry in dull language. Keep writing and changing and experimenting and challenging yourself until you have something with the power and surprising newness of the best free verse.

I'll leave you with a section from Judy Grahn's "A Woman Is Talking To Death." I love how she packs this with so much of what really matters, and twists what we expect into something more:

4. A Mock Interrogation

Have you ever held hands with a woman?

Yes, many times--women about to deliver,women about to have breasts removed, miscarriages, women having epileptic fits, having asthsma, cancer, women having breast bone marrow sucked out of them by nervous or indifferent interns, women with heart condition, who were vomiting, overdosed, depressed, drunk, lonely to the point of extinction; women who had been run over, beaten up. deserted. starved. women who had been bitten by rats; and women who were happy, who were celebrating, who were dancing with me in large circles or alone, women who were climbing mountains or up and down walls, or trucks or roofs and needed a boost up, or I did; women who simply wanted to hold my hand because they liked me, some women who wanted to hold my hand because they liked me better than anyone.

Thanks for letting me talk about free verse! I will include a linky in case anyone would like to link their free verse poem. Today, it does not have to be a new poem, though it would be cool if it were; it simply has to be free verse, and to incorporate some of what has been discussed here in this article. I look forward to reading. 



Kerry O'Connor said...

I found this so instructive, Shay, and love how you made a lesson in free verse so entertaining and inspiring.

I wrote something in free verse today, intending to link it up on Monday. It was inspired by Susan's 'First and Last Lines' but fell a little outside the parameters of her challenge, but I could not let Valentine's week go by without writing something about love.

Thanks for the opportunity to share this here, and I, too, look forward to reading other poems linked up this weekend.

Fireblossom said...

A small note about the Corso poem I quoted; in my copy of "Gasoline", the Corso collection from City Lights Books that I copied it from, it does say "desert" not "dessert", so I have to assume that's correct.

hedgewitch said...

Thanks for the excellent article, Shay. You define the very important distinctions between prose and poetry, and between traditional poetic forms and free verse. I especially liked the examples you chose. I was going to link an older one, since we so seldom get that chance at toads, but instead went with one I've been holding off on for a long time simply because it is *such* free verse, so seemed appropriate.

I'll be around later to read.

LLM Calling said...

I find free verse so hard and although you helped a lot with your post I still don't think I'm destined to do very well with it. but I've tried and its been an interesting and informing experience

Hannah said...

I agree with Kerry fully, Shay!! What a great post this is...I feel like I understand free-verse a little bit more.

Thank you! :)

Ella said...

I love your prompt-great info and guidance! Thanks Shay :D

Helen said...

Yes! Yes! Like sitting in an advanced poetry writing class.

Fireblossom said...

Susan, your link was to a wiki page about hawks. I'm deleting it, but hope you'll come back with the correct link.

Susan said...

Whoops! Sorry about the link. Thanks for fixing it. I see my comment is lost in the ether as well--I said how great your explanation of free verse is and how Judy Grahn was a hero of mine in the 1970s and that instead of a new poem I was giving you an excerpt of the personal challenge Kerry gave me so it was ok not to comment. Thank you Shay.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shay - it was a wonderful article - free verse is very hard for me - too many choices, I guess, and I contradict myself every which way, so I thought to make the content kind of free - but between the time I first thought of the poem and then got a pen - a few hours - I had forgotten the free parts! Anyway, it's what it is - it is not really free verse, but it is also not in a form, and it is something freshly written. Perhaps that too was not the right idea - agh. I am not having the best day.

It does have a nice ladybug in the drawing. k.

Fireblossom said...

Linking to the old post is fine, Loredana! :-)

Margaret said...

I'm truly peeing my pants... THIS is how I so want to write, and truly feel so far from being poetic... I feel I write prose and make it into a "poem". Thank you for the instruction and now I hesitantly tip toe off, afraid that I will not be able to do this... I have to remember, baby steps :) Thank for the instructions and I loved the "Have you ever held hands with a woman" and the Marilyn Monroe quote.

Susie Clevenger said...

Thanks for the lesson on free verse. It was so inspiring. I never know if I have met the challenge, but I jump in and hope I swim.

Dulce said...

Been away so/ too long... so/ too lost... I halted here in search of... who knows!!!??
Thanks for the prompt & invitation, Shay dear.

Maude Lynn said...

Fantastic article, Shay! Nobody does free verse like you do.

Marian said...

gosh, i'm having a bit of a block your challenge this weekend, Shay, which is weird as i'm no stranger to free verse. i want to write something new, though, rather than linking something old. so we'll see what happens on this lovely Sunday. :)

California Girl said...

I read every word of this post. I do not intend to write verse but I enjoy the instruction and examples you've given.

Unknown said...

ARGH! Lots going on in the family realm, here. Doing my best to play catch up, Shay. Have to work on the Friday prompt, then this one; but it is my intention to participate in both. Thank you for going to such lengths to provide creative challenges.

Lolamouse said...

Finally got rid of my headache long enough to read your post on free verse, Shay. It was interesting and instructive. Personally, I'd put your name right up there with the best of the free verse poets!

Right now, I'm rather sick with a nasty headcold/migraine, but want to try the challenge when I'm a little more chipper.

Peggy said...

What an excellent discussion of free verse. Makes me think that probably nothing I have ever written as free verse is really poetry. LOL Well maybe a few. You have given me lots to think about here. I might even try to post something!!

Anonymous said...

Well, this is new-ish, so I don't feel bad about posting it...

Peggy said...

OK I posted one I wrote before but did not post anywhere. I went through and took out some words and made a few changes. My thought is that it could be more metaphorical and that it is perhaps too literal. So I await Shay's comment on whether is is free verse or just ordinary writing broken into lines.

Mixi said...

Top of the morning to you, Toads!

I am a bit late to the party, but I would still like to add my poem to the Free Verse collection.

Wish you all a great week ahead!

Cheers! Mixi :)

Anonymous said...

this is even better than the free verse post you did at One Stop Poetry, SP! really excellent! thanks for all the time and effort you put into this!

sorry i'm so late. it's after 4am now so i'll be back later Monday to visit others.

Lolamouse said...

I FINALLY was able to clear my head enough to post a poem for FB's challenge! Cough, cough, cough....Someone send chicken soup ASAP!

Anonymous said...

“Left To Be Said”

I am left with the WANT to say to you
That I drown in the mist of your eyes,
That you tinge with color my grayest days
And, sow the wildest dreams upon my pillowslip—

I am left with the WANT to say to you,
That I can’t conceive this world if you leave,
That I lose my step just to follow yours
And, my every hope you’d take upon your lips—

~I am left with this WANT, and cannot deny it,
That I’d love for you to love me as I WANT,
With every window shuttering wide and yawning
And all of our senses in their full awakening~

I am left with the WANT to say to you,
That I’ve searched for you on a thousand maps
That all of my projects are breakable,
And, my hunger is fed by your gaze—

I am left with the WANT to say to you,
That I’ve betrayed my creed for your kisses,
That because of your laughter what IS possible
And, because of your tears what has no escape.

~I’m left with this WANT, and cannot deny it,
That I’d love for you to love me as I WANT,
With every window shuttering wide and yawning
And all of our senses in their full awakening~