Hi, I'm anon. Am I a philistine?
June 24, 2011 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Do you honestly enjoy reading free verse? Can you explain to me why I should enjoy it, too?

This question is partly prompted by a recent AskMe on poetry. I’m in the same boat as many responders, in that I really enjoy pre-twentieth-century poetry, and have read a great deal of it, but find myself completely put off by free verse. Stylistically the last straw seems to drop somewhere between “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” with Sylvia Plath being Right Out.

I have a decent background in literature, and I’m aware that in most literary circles admitting any of this will immediately tag you as the sort of person who thinks that his four-year-old could probably have painted that Jackson Pollack. I’d love to figure out whether that’s actually the case—whether there’s something about free verse I’m “just not getting,” (so that I could potentially be educated into an enjoyment of the form)—or whether I do get it, but just don’t happen to like it, the way I naturally don’t like, you know, licorice.

In terms of poetic taste, I really enjoy logic and structure, get frustrated by seeming randomness, have a good sense of rhythm but probably a below-average ability to appreciate language as simple sound (Waller does nothing for me, for instance), and tend to relate to poetry more as rhetorical craft than as emotional self-expression. Unfortunately, that last point means that the standard defenses of free verse as embodying resistance to The Man, breaking the crusty shackles of tradition, being Lively and Spontaneous, or somehow getting closer to the unmediated outpourings of the human soul don’t resonate at all with me. If it’s really just a political, philosophical, or T-vs.-F thing, then hey, cool. But I do keep wondering whether there’s something else I’m missing that explains why my preferences are seemingly so out of step with those of virtually everyone else in the literary know.

So, question: if you’re someone who sincerely gets pleasure out of reading free verse, what does that experience feel like to you? What is it that you’re enjoying in the process? Based on the impressions above, is there something important I’m missing? And if so, how can I work on developing an appreciation for the form?

[Anonymous because some fairly judgmental co-workers read Metafilter, and I’d prefer not to be outed as That Guy Who Just Doesn’t Get All This Weird Modern Art]
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
"... So, question: if you’re someone who sincerely gets pleasure out of reading free verse, what does that experience feel like to you? ..."

Personally, I like Elizabeth Bishop's work. It's not all free verse, but some of it is. The woman worked her craft, as a poet, pushing her ideas into language that fit them. That's the test for good poetry that reading her work taught me: does the language fit the ideas?

You can always tell, as a reader/speaker of verse, when the words are stretched too far by the ideas they're trying to contain, and (maybe worse) when there are just too many syllables and rhymes for the ideas they contain.
posted by paulsc at 5:17 PM on June 24, 2011

I am not a huge poetry person but I do like it, and I am also not a huge free verse person but I do like it some of the time too. e.e. cummings is one of those who I took a while to get to appreciate but the more I read the better I liked it (try this - it's the one that leaps first to mind as being fairly well structured but also consistently unexpected.)

This is one of my favorite poems ever, and it has neither rhyme nor meter, but I find it totally accessible. People joke about sticking random line breaks in prose but there's a definite logic to the choices. It's about grouping the ideas in ways that have some logic, and pacing the images and concepts in a way that builds and/or releases tension. This has maybe less obvious "poem" aspects, but it's gorgeous, and a good example of a poem that has a tremendous amount of value even if you pull the line breaks out and read it like a short essay.

Usually, the poems that work for me have lines, images, or phrases that resonate emotionally with me. This is true however the poem is structured - I can take pleasure in a clever rhyme or a compelling beat, but it doesn't have anything to do, one way or another, with how I feel about Jeffers' heart-wrenching contemplation of having to live on after his partner died.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:34 PM on June 24, 2011

getting closer to the unmediated outpourings of the human soul don’t resonate at all with me.

maybe free verse from the perspective
of a 'non-human' soul
would help you wrap yourself around it some?

because for me it is truly the advantage
of another perspective
human or no that
rings my bell.
posted by carsonb at 5:40 PM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel written in free verse so it might not be exactly what you're talking about but I really loved it. It felt very fast, very streamlined and I really loved the sense of ambiguity, that every phrase was floating and you had to draw your own connection to the lines before and after. Maybe try that book, as the narrative might help?

disclaimer: I haven't read any other free verse
posted by Brainy at 5:44 PM on June 24, 2011

Try reading some out loud; my husband thought free verse was "stupid" when he read it on the page, but when I read him some out loud he really enjoyed it. While it's not his preferred "thing" (he also prefers the sterner structure of pre-modern poets), he "gets" it now and enjoys at least some of it. You'll have to work at it a few times to get the rhythm and phrasing right, but even hearing yourself read it can help.

I also love e.e. cummings; two that jump to mind are "since feeling is first" which makes me giggle because of the punctuation symbolism, while also reaching me emotionally; and "i thank you God for most this amazing" ... we actually stenciled the first stanza in my kids' nursery because we wanted something religious but not twee. (Religion should not be sugary, ugh.) Lines like "and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes" hit me profoundly. It's just such a joyful celebration of that bursting-with-awesomeness feeling that, to me, really expresses religious feeling. You read "the leaping greenly spirits of trees" and you think, "Of course! How did I never realize before that trees have leaping greenly spirits? Of course they do!"

(cummings also has some fantastic poems about sex, in a variety of forms -- loving and tender, visiting a hooker, teenagers hooking up, etc. -- that people often identify with and enjoy.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:55 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I give you Frank O'Hara's "Today" (1950).

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks.
posted by judith at 5:56 PM on June 24, 2011 [10 favorites]

I once sat in front of a Pollock painting for two and a half hours, and every time my eyes moved, I saw something new. And in that time, probably hundreds of people walked by and glanced at it and kept moving. I couldn't have explained it to any of those people if you gave me a decade and tenure. But I don't think any less of them.

I don't like jazz, and I've tried to, on and off, for the better part of thirty years. And I don't think any less of people who do.

You can understand something without liking it. People who don't understand that are the problem, not you.
posted by Etrigan at 5:58 PM on June 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

Free verse, like every other form of artistic expression, isn't something you "should" or "shouldn't" like. You either like it or you don't. Both of those options are totally okay, and they don't reflect on you as a person. Seriously, if your co-workers are judging you based on what kind of art you like, they're probably covering for their own insecurities about not "getting" things.

If you're really interested in learning to like free verse for your own sake, try an anthology so you're getting a variety of different styles and voices. Read the pieces like you would read a short story, or a conversational letter from a friend, rather than as a structured poem. If you grow to like it, great! And if not, no harm done.
posted by amyms at 6:01 PM on June 24, 2011

Douglas Hofstader writes against blank or free verse — he's smart, and he's of the it-ought-to-rhyme persuasion. It's not the end of the world.

I tend to like poetry with strictures. The strictures could be a rhyme scheme, or an internal logic, or something in the sound or the pacing that makes the movement from image to image, sound to sound, seem to follow as it ought to. Or slightly against how it ought to. Or with/against its own logic in some kind of alternation.

A good poem, like any good work of art, will justify itself. Its form will be the only form it could be, and world would be something less without that sort of presentation. In other words, the form of the poem is a discovery that makes its freedom necessary. I had, at one point, a short list of poets who were still at work and met that criterion. Now I only remember David Wagoner.

For what it's worth, I got weary of modern poetry because there's a very specific, moany singsongy way that contemporary poets read every one of their poems aloud. It's like a well-aligned army of zombie readers. If we were in the same room I could imitate it for you — it's profoundly annoying, and it implies there is only one kind of music in contemporary poetry.
posted by argybarg at 6:08 PM on June 24, 2011

Can you explain to me why I should enjoy it, too?

There is no reason why you should enjoy something you don't.

So, question: if you’re someone who sincerely gets pleasure out of reading free verse, what does that experience feel like to you?

This is a hard question to answer in general terms; there are infinitely many different kinds of free verse and they all feel different. Reading huge long lines of Walt Whitman feels different from reading tiny little lines of Kay Ryan.

Here is an example of some free verse that I like, with explanation following:
(her cry
of names
says we are all in Hell.

- Susan Howe, from Pythagorean Silence

This passage is tough to understand outside the context of the long poem it's taken from ("R" is Rachel, weeping for her children in exile), but what I like about the rhythmic construction is the way the clipped short lines in the beginning, where each word or phrase is isolated in its own line (emphasizing the silencing of names, the shattering of language), modulate into the two somewhat longer lines at the end of the passage, where TALKATIVE generalizes R's personal grief into a universal predicament. Again, there are ironies and ambiguities here that really only become clear in the context of the whole poem, but I like the way the rhythm of the lines shifts in response to, or in tandem with, the content.

If I were to propose a general defense of free verse, this would be it--it provides an extra degree of freedom for the poet to manipulate, so that changes in rhythm and meter can interact with changes in imagery, tone, diction, etc. Of course this happens in bound verse, too--take the play of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of iambic pentameter, for example--but with free verse you have a wider field of rhythmic possibilities to play with.

Note that this doesn't have anything to do with "self-expression" or "unmediated outpouring"--rhythm is an aspect of rhetoric, and free verse gives the poet greater control over that aspect.

Anyway, as I said, if you don't like free verse, that's fine, and if anyone gives you grief about it, fuck 'em. This is just a quick report from one reader who likes the stuff!
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:10 PM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

There is really no such thing as "free verse." That is, it's not the name of one specific kind of poetic form but rather a loose and baggy term for poetry that doesn't fit in other categories. You might well like some things that fit the category and hate others, as most people do, but you're not going to be able to develop an appreciation for "the" form, because it isn't one. If the name means anything, it means the absence of at least a metronome-like regularity of meter, but that doesn't just mean there's no structure at all to the sound. Even the most seemingly sprawling and shambolic line — Ginsberg's, say — is often very carefully patterned, and much "free" verse is actually just arranged in a form that doesn't have centuries of convention behind it. But "it's not a sonnet" is not a form: you have to discover the form that the poem takes in reading it.

From what you say about your focus on the rhetoric and your lacking an enjoyment of the sound, I think the remedy is obvious: read aloud more, and read with your mind's ear as well. Slow down and sound it out! Listen to recordings of poets reading and others performing poetry. There's no better way to develop a sense of the possibilities of performance and the subtleties of sound than by treating what you read a bit more like an oral medium — even if you don't like the way many poets read (many poets are terrible readers) or the sounds of poetry slams (many poetry slams are terrible).
posted by RogerB at 6:14 PM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is there a specific type of free verse you object to (e.g., the Beats, Language poetry, etc.) or is it just all un-metered verse?

Because, while most all the poetry I like is free verse, I don't like most free verse poetry. I don't like Plath, I don't like Eliot. In fact, I don't like most poetry.

I like poems that have an interesting use of language or employ creative linguistic play. I like poems that favor disruption of meaning, or syntactical structure over semantic meaning. I like poems that employ unusual typography, like the early concrete poetry of Eugen Gomringer or Haroldo de Campos.

I like poets like Zachary Schomburg or Heather Christle, Ben Lerner or Christian Bok, Rosmarie Waldrop or Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrout or Lyn Hejinian. All those poets have written in free verse, but none have used it in exactly the same way or for the same reason or to get the same effect. And certainly not in the same way that it's original practitioner, Walt Whitman, did. If they "used" free verse at all, it was to simply to disregard standard meters, and to follow their own internal logic or structure.

I like the experience of reading poems like these, and engaging with their use of language, but I don't think there's anything to "get" in them. I don't think there's a secret key that, once known, will unlock some hidden level of meaning ('oh, "that's" what this poem is "really" about' kind of bullshit). I think a poem is something someone should experience, and enjoy that experience, nothing more.

If you don't like free verse, you don't like free verse. Don't take shit for not enjoying some particular aesthetic experience.
posted by fryman at 6:21 PM on June 24, 2011

Your question is mine too, but I do feel that I can point out one thing you may be overlooking: free verse does not equal modern. Two important examples: (1) the Bible, e.g., Isaiah, the Song of Solomon, Job; and (2) Walt Whitman. They're in free verse. I must say I like them.
posted by Paquda at 6:58 PM on June 24, 2011

I got into modern poetry by translating a Constantine Cavafy poem into English as a language exercise. You can't really translate a poem unless you are a poet (which I am not), so what appealed to me wasn't the intricate language but the thoughts on the page. Reading his other poems in translation, I'd feel they gave me a lot to think about, encapsulating an interesting idea in a few words.

But that's the thing-- I didn't set out to like modern poetry. I just came across something, read it, and thought to myself, "hey, I like that!"
posted by deanc at 7:16 PM on June 24, 2011

There is no such thing as free verse. If it is verse, it is written with a sense of rhythm, such that the line breaks are slight notated pauses. They're a kind of extra punctuation that, in concordance with the natural flow of the sentences, make the speech of the line into

Your problem is that most free verse is crap and not very well done. Don't worry, this was true when most poems rhymed and were traditionally metered too. We just don't read the crappy majority anymore.

As Paquada points out: Walt Whitman wrote in what is know as "Bible cadence" which uses a looser breath-like unit of composition but is nevertheless demonstrably "in a meter". Lots of great modern free verse uses this style (look for long lines like Allan Ginsberg and James Dickey).

Others take conventions of formal verse like the quatrain or heroic couplet and bend conventional speech into those shapes, which sometimes sounds odd but still generally obeys the rules of those stanzas since those rules are deep deep in our culture's brain's bones (Charles Simic and Mark Strand are especially adept at this.)

Still others like, Stephen Dunn and Denise Duhamel, write in what is essentially prose, but with just enough tricky enjambment and musical turns of phrase to make them rise about their confused meters (most iambic pentameter with lots of caesuras and extra long lines sometimes) into truly unique voices (I put Bukowski and Raymond Carver in this category too--they're absurd but utterly real minimalist masters of understated spoken meter).

Basically what I'm trying to say is that poetry encodes methods of speech for the reader to reproduce in order to experience not just what the poet was saying, but how. Some encodes it into beautiful music with rhymes and meter. Some encodes utterly conversational speech that can be ugly or funny or scary. And some, the greatest, can do both. But if it's got lines, it's got rhythm, whether or not they've got the blues.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:38 PM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:38 PM on June 24, 2011

I've had poetry published, once in a formerly sorta-kinda big deal print journal, and once on a webzine. Written lots and lots of it, and still moderate a poetry e-mail list (that I wish I could get out from under, because I'm just not really writing much anymore). So I think I've been "of that world" enough to appreciate what goes into those who really like it, and yet I totally get why most people identify as not liking any of it, because even with my background I dislike about 95% of it.

That sounds totally contradictory, right? Might be easier to compare it to novels or movies, "accessible" art forms that most of us enjoy at least to some extent. And yet, how many movies are there that you wouldn't care to watch? How many books? For me, it's about - 95% of them.

The brevity of most modern poems would seem to suggest that well, if you don't like one poem, on to the next page. But that can be a drag because while a good poem is a literary orgasm, bad poetry is pretty bad (a subjective, prescriptive, and perhaps philistine view on my part: I'm speaking in terms of how it affects ME, not how it may affect another) . A movie or novel can have passages that don't blow your socks off; much modern/post-modern poetry to me doesn't connect at all, and I find it tedious to read page after page (either on a web site, in an anthology, or in a book that you bought because the poet wrote ONE poem you liked) looking for another nugget.

I have similar issues with modern and post-modern art music (i.e. "classical" or chamber), but that's another topic.

Now, if you like those few nuggets well enough to keep at it, some ways to even the odds might be to look for web sites you like the "curation" of, such as, in my case, www.poems.com (Poetry Daily). And don't feel bad if you really like a poem and then wade into that author's other stuff and it's hit and miss. Poetry is like that.

What would really help, IMO, but isn't likely to happen is a more reliable "filter" in the publishing world. Poetry is dominated by academics, best I can tell. You can't make a living writing it, so many/most/all "professional poets" are teachers/professors. All too many seem to find themselves teaching MFA programs and workshops where people's creativity seems to go to die. Which leads to a lot of circle-jerking in the area of publishing and contests. Even a lot of academic poet types admit this is pretty messed up, but they don't really know how to stop it. Again, similar situation in the world of art music, although I sometimes think at least it's harder to fake knowing how to play an instrument than it is to fake being able to write.

I don't blame you for not being able to enjoy writing which seems random and wherein you can't detect a discernible story or pattern of events, nor writing which doesn't demonstrate some conscious sense of craft. That's my beef with a lot of modern/post-modern poetry myself, and I'll admit to having written the stuff. One of the reasons I rarely do write anymore is that it feels like a waste of time.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:49 PM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Two Things:

1) You don't have to enjoy something that you don't enjoy. It has to capture your imagination. You don't have to feel compelled to force yourself to appreciate it.

2) You could look at almost anything close enough and find subtleties in the details to appreciate, but only if you are motivated to make the effort, and this doesn't apply to everything, only to things that you are interested in.
posted by ovvl at 8:14 PM on June 24, 2011

2nding that you should read it out loud. Poetry is really meant to be heard, and without actually hearing it, you don't get the way the words bounce off each other. If you read "I have eaten the plums that were in the ice box," you might not think to much of it. But if you say it, it sort of trips off the tongue in a very fun manner.
*The line is William Carlos Williams, of course, not me.
posted by Gilbert at 8:27 PM on June 24, 2011

I have an MFA in poetry and it eventually mostly turned me off to the stuff because I was in a traditional, meter-focused program, but am a free-verse lovin' poetess at heart.

The very first poet I ever loved was Sandburg. Then, shortly after, Ginsberg. My expectations about poetry were never particularly concerned with metrics but rather the following:
  • The vividness of imagery. I like poetry that is evocative of a certain time or place, that is deeply set and utilizes all the senses.
  • The absolute appropriateness of every word. This is where metered verse often loses me. To me, what's magical about poetry is the micro focus on the line and word level. To me, a good poet chooses every word absolutely deliberately to evoke all those things mentioned in the first point. Meter is, of course, by nature constricting. It's sort of the point, that meter forces you to choose words you otherwise would not. But deep down, I don't dig that. I want the poet to pick the absolute best word for the idea she's trying to communicate, rather than trying to pick the word because the sound fits with the line.
  • Profundity. I read poems for big, universe, wonderful ideas. Not cleverness. Metrical poetry seems to me to often be trying to look smart--it's communicating in the vocabulary of the educated, so that other people familiar with things like, I don't know, trochaic inversions can be struck by a particularly clever one. This made sense when readers were educated about verse, but today, this means ivory tower poets talking to ivory tower poets, rather than the language of real people being used to talk to other real people about the Significant Things of Life.
But, okay, maybe what it all boils down to is that I read David Lerner's Mein Kampf when I was sixteen and I got it into my head that poetry should make people weep, scream, disappear, start bleeding, eat their television sets, beat each other to death with swords and go out and get riotously drunk on someone else's money, and also that maybe poetry is terror and wild beauty, not a grab-bag of clever wordplay and sensitive thoughts and gracious theories about how many ambiguities can dance on the head of a machine gun. Maybe it's that.

I don't know. Maybe try giving up on form altogether. Throw out the line. Read some prose poetry. A few glasses of wine or a jay and Richard Siken's You Are Jeff. If that doesn't help you, I don't know what will.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:44 PM on June 24, 2011 [8 favorites]

Here's a poem by Paul Celan, translated from the German:
There was earth inside them, and
they dug.

They dug and they dug, so their day
went by for them, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, knew all this.

They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not grow wise, invented no song,
thought up for themselves no language.
They dug.

There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.

O one, o none, o no one, o you:
where did the way lead when it led nowhere?
O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes.
The poem has no rhyme scheme or consistent meter, but it's highly ordered in other ways, notably the heavy use of repetition. Most of the line breaks occur at a natural pause; the first line break, which isn't natural, emphasizes the phrase "they dug" and sets up the forceful repetition of that phrase at the end of the third stanza. The poem has an overall structure: the first stanza states the theme; the second and third stanzas develop it; the fourth intensifies it with a catastrophe and a switch from third to first person and from past to present tense; and the fifth moves from an epitome ("where did the way lead when it led nowhere?") to a surprising, evocative conclusion that forces you to stop and consider the shape of the poem as a whole -- that last line resonates, but you have to re-read the whole poem at least once to even begin to make sense of it. The language is simple but highly concentrated, and the imagery is intense despite the intentional elusiveness. In other words, this poem is the furthest thing in the world from the randomness and spontaneity of the free verse you dislike. It simply doesn't need rhyme or meter to achieve its effects.
posted by twirlip at 2:15 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you get the chance, I really recommend you take a look at The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Voigt. She does an excellent job of showing how, in verse both free and constricted, syntax interacts with line, meter, and stress to create meaning and emphasis in poetry beyond the meaning of the words themselves. It's a really great read that gave me an in to how to appreciate and pick apart free verse.

Also, it's worth noting that free verse doesn't throw out all of the formal structures that you see in traditionally metered and rhyming verse, and in fact the one it keeps is the most important structure in any poetic form: the line. That realization really helped me when I was trying to get into free verse poetry.
posted by invitapriore at 12:40 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually I guess my last statement about the universality of the line isn't always true, but it's helpful for free verse poetry where the line is still important, which is a lot of it.
posted by invitapriore at 12:42 PM on June 25, 2011

[Anonymous because some fairly judgmental co-workers read Metafilter, and I’d prefer not to be outed as That Guy Who Just Doesn’t Get All This Weird Modern Art]

Also, I'll trade you workplaces.
posted by invitapriore at 7:26 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not an answer, but maybe useful on the way to one: It's very hard to come up with criteria for determining that something is poetry or not. When meter was used, that was an important and clear criterion. But now it's not, so what is poetry? Wallace Stevens says in an essay that it is the task of the poet to figure out what the definition of poetry is for him or herself and to disclose that definition. But--he goes on--the disclosures of the poet are disclosures of poetry, not disclosures of definitions of poetry (yes, Stevens talks like Stevens even in his prose). Interesting but recursive: What is poetry?--Whatever poets make. But flipping open books on the visual arts, you see that that's the same kind of answer they give, when pressed to, to the question 'what is art?'. So the problem isn't unique to poetry.

As far as how to engage and come to enjoy a poem, one way that works is to come into contact with a friend who really enjoys a particular poet and who shares their enthusiasm with you. Part of that sharing might be them reading to you, part of it might be them offering partial paraphrases of a poem according to interpretations they've arrived at. And then after a while (maybe years later), a poem is yours and you enjoy it and re-read it often, and it's rich for you, always generating new ideas, always giving pleasure with the music of its words.
posted by Paquda at 9:15 AM on June 27, 2011

Hi, you're me. I also like poetry that rhymes (especially villanelles! Ooh, and Wendy Cope's Orange!). I am not, in general, a huge fan of free verse.

Except that one of my very favorite poets is Billy Collins. Your question made me wonder, what is it about Billy Collins that I like?

I think these are important parts of the answer:

* many of his poems are celebratory. He's not all about death, violence, and the general awfulness of everything. (He does write about death, sometimes - I think one of his poems says that that's the job of a poet, heh - but it's not his main theme. At least, not in the poems I like best.)

* he has a sense of humor

Let me point you to a few of his poems and tell you what I like about them.

First up - just because it's Canada Day - his poem Canada. (Go read the whole thing - I'm quoting lots, but not all of it.)
I am writing this on a strip of white birch bark
that I cut from a tree with a penknife.
There is no other way to express adequately
the immensity of the clouds that are passing over the farms
and wooded lakes of Ontario and the endless visibility
that hands you the horizon on a platter.
This is one thing I love about poetry in general, something I do get out of Billy Collins's poems that I don't always find in other poetry: it expresses the things there is no other way to express. "This is Canada," he says, "MY Canada," and I get a glimpse of what he means and what he feels and remembers.
O Canada, as the anthem goes,
scene of my boyhood summers,
you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table,
you are the dove-soft train whistle in the night,
you are the empty chair at the end of an empty dock.
You are the shelves of books in a lakeside cottage:
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh,
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson,
He does this a lot - he lists things. "you are THIS, and you are also THIS, and you are also this other thing," and we sense and understand how one thing is many things, and how the essence of a beloved thing is reflected in the essences of other things.

And look - he does it again in the last verse, and oh - the last three lines: history, memory, self, all of which sounds ordinary and uninteresting when you say "history, memory, self," but which becomes (to me) beautiful and personal and precious and vivid in those three lines.

* * *

Next up: since I was just talking about how he lists things - "you are this, and this, and also this" - I have to point you to Litany, one of my favorite Billy Collins poems. I've been in the audience when he read this, and it's GREAT.

So he starts by quoting another poem that uses this form, which has become a bit cliched (and which, as I've said, Collins does a lot, so perhaps there's also a bit of gentle self-mockery here):
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
... and then he turns it on its head. It's delightful, and funny, and, depending on the tone you choose to adopt, sweet.

* * *

One that completely took me by surprise is The Lanyard. I'm not positive, but I think the first time I encountered it was at that reading when I heard "Litany", and hearing it spoken was perfect, in the way that hearing music is perfect, because it's time-based: you can't skip ahead. You don't know what's coming. My habit of skimming sometimes ruins poetry for me, and hearing something read keeps that from happening.

There are a lot of things I like about this poem - the way he describes his movements in the first verse ("ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room", "moving as if underwater"), the literary allusion in the second verse that makes me feel smart (yes, that's all it takes to make me feel smart, heh) and immediately conjures up how a mundane thing can plunge us back into a world of memory. But best of all I love the repetition in the fourth, fifth, and sixth verses. No rhyme, no obvious form - but we love repetition, which is why pop songs are often so satisfying.

And then the payoff - "not the worn truth that ..." - not the thing you were expecting, not the trite thing everybody says and everybody sees coming from a mile away, but something ELSE. Something maybe Collins learned about himself IN THE VERY ACT OF WRITING THAT POEM. (Or maybe not - but I've definitely had the experience of writing a song and having it end up saying something I didn't even know I felt until the song went someplace I hadn't expected it to go.)

To me, this is one of the things that makes poetry so wonderful: it tells you things other than the thing you expected.

And also, of course, it presents the universal within the very specific, individual, personal story.

* * *

And then there's Questions About Angels, which seems to me like a good illustration of what free verse brings to what would otherwise be prose. This could almost be a blog post: imagine it in standard paragraph form. I can read the first three verses as a paragraph, the next three as paragraph two - then, right in the middle of the second-to-last paragraph, it CAN'T be a blog post any longer, because it's shifted into something surprising, something mysterious and personal and bigger than the page. (Not that no one could ever write a blog post with that kind of magical shift into something unexpected and quietly wonderful; it's just that it's much harder in prose, because people are plowing along reading the surface of your words. Setting it in free verse prompts you to slow down and read it as poetry, with a little extra attention to the lovely phrases: "fly through God's body and come out singing"; "diet of unfiltered divine light"; "whistle up the driveway reading the postcards".)

* * *

There are lots and lots of other Billy Collins poems I like a lot: The History Teacher, On Turning Ten, As If To Demonstrate an Eclipse, and oh, oh how I love Metamorphosis.

And I really like a lot of Kay Ryan's poems, too. (I wish I could find a link to "Why Isn't it All More Marked?")

And one more to add to the list: Archibald MacLeish's Ars Poetica, which I am not alone in appreciating.
posted by kristi at 5:53 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few others I like a lot:

Did I Miss Anything?

Unit of Measure

The Printer's Error


What I Would Do

Morning (Mary Oliver)

How to Like It

At the Poetry Reading

And to answer your questions directly:
if you’re someone who sincerely gets pleasure out of reading free verse, what does that experience feel like to you? What is it that you’re enjoying in the process? Based on the impressions above, is there something important I’m missing? And if so, how can I work on developing an appreciation for the form?
It feels like attention to the thing in front of me. It feels like pleasure. It feels like being pulled into a film, or a great piece of music - I'm not thinking about work, or politics, or traffic, or the grocery list; I'm thinking about a cat leaping lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn, or a long sheet of aluminum foil spread over a huge collection of pots and pans. It feels like heightened reality; it feels like joy.

I'm enjoying the language - the transformation of ordinary words (salt, shining, glass, blue, bowl, linoleum) into things worthy of attention. I'm enjoying the pictures painted for me ('my 12" flathead screwdriver And my hickory-handle hammer'). I'm enjoying the story the poet is telling me or the moment that's being evoked.

I don't know if you're missing something or if you just haven't yet found the particular poems that speak to you. As others have said better above, it's perfectly fine if you don't develop an appreciation for it - but if you'd like to, try a wide variety of poets. There really is a lot of good stuff out there.
posted by kristi at 7:21 PM on July 1, 2011

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