“On the Free” : On the Free

So people think writing in form is more difficult than writing in free verse, but that assumes some things that aren’t so: first, that free verse is formless.

Free verse, especially good free verse, is, if anything form-complex. Each good free verse poem is a complex nonce form, haunted by the ghost of former nonce forms (meaning other free verse poems) and often by fully metered, formal poetry. Lawlessness is never really part of aesthetic selection: even randomness is a choice. A free verse poem implies it’s laws from the first lines, if I write:

She moves through
tidal flats
from what can never be
wholly flesh made

I’ve just implied several laws: first, the lines are skinny, never more than five mostly monosyllable words. Second they are heavily enjambed, Third, this particular free verse poem allows one word lines. Fourth, the shape is undulating even though the lines are all skinny, which might comment on the subject matter (a shore line, a tidal flat). All these formal laws have been implied in 16 words and six lines. Now, if I should suddenly throw in mutli-syllabic words, or some long lines, I better have a good reason because the poem has already established certain implied laws by which it will proceed.

Free verse is playing tennis with the net down, but that’s not impossible. it’s just harder because, at every second, something temporarily becomes the net. I find formal poems much easier to write. I can write a sonnet in as little as fifteen minutes (it’s much easier to make a pie when the mold already exists). I already have much of my work done for me via pre-existing rules.

Free verse is the law made on the move. Formal verse is the rule of law preceding the poem. One is about finding out what there is to obey (Free verse seeks obedience to a structure that is, at the onset, unknown). Formal verse is about finding out what you can judiciously disobey (in terms of substitutions, enjambments, half rhymes, and so on). I write free verse to obey some spirit I do not yet fully realize. I write formal poems to disobey some principle I know well, but wish to tweak; and obviously, meter is never far from even my free verse lines. If I write:

She moves through tidal flats estranged

I have a rough iambic tetrameter line: four accents, 7 to 9 syllables (in this case, eight). There are metrical ghosts all over free verse. Some may even need to be exorcised.

In my next post I will give examples of free verse poems with a strong haunting of metrical ghosts. Enough for now.