You may have seen Henkki’s question in response to “Yesterday” – he asked me what would be different about the poem if I had written it today. My answer was that it would probably be in free verse. I spoke of the risks of rhythmic, rhyming poems sounding trite or laboured, but on reflection, that puts the focus on the wrong reasons why I prefer free verse now. The key thing for me is that free verse uses language like the brushstrokes of a painting, juxtaposing form and colour to build up an image that moves us.
But some people have difficulty recognising the craft of the strokes or the colours of the canvas. They are not used to poetry or have had negative experiences of it (in school, for example, which is ironically the place where our love of knowledge and appreciation of thought is supposed to be fostered). So they see free verse as anything but “poetry”. For them a prototypical poem must have a rigid rhyme and rhythm – in their view these elements are what make a good poem because they are recognisable elements of craftmanship, but the language disappears from view. So a poem in free verse doesn’t even qualify – and a poet who uses it is just a wannabe.
Poetry, much more than prose, needs to pick up people where they are for them to feel spoken to. The compact, narrowly focused nature of a poem means that we do not offer a broad range of access points for the spectrum of potential readers. So in a school context, to teach someone the playfulness of poetry and heighten their sensitivity for the access points, we need to choose poetry that picks up the pupils where they are, packages it in a medium they can relate to, and even gives them chances to try it out for themselves.
The text of the poem is the texture of its meaning – much more intensely so than prose. So we need to call to mind what using the language entails to our message. This includes its sound, its meaning, its relation to other parts of language, but it also includes our own knowledge, our sensitivities, our culturally conditioned sense of the aesthetic, and our expectations arising from all of this.
As I said in an earlier post, when we respond to words, we are also responding to their sound, and this plays a significant role in poetry. The sounds of the words have a certain tonal quality and length that give the speech a particular stress pattern to create a rhythm or beat. This in turn influences the pace or speed of the text. The sounds combined with their meanings conjure up certain images and emotions and evoke a tone or volume. And this all combines to create a certain cadence, which we “hear”. Can you hear how this poem stumbles and then attempts to flow, echoing the speaker’s state of mind? Can you hear how the images are linked through alliteration?
Scattering the shards of
to pull the pieces into place
Interludes strung in a
Courtship with callousness
to crowd out
What is striking about poetry is its form. Some think of free verse as having no particular form, but this is a mistake. Free verse relies much more on this feature to produce an effect, and uses line breaks to frame and focus on ideas or images, as you can see above. Compare the above to a prose version:
Broken. Jumbled. Scattering the shards of shattered self. Stumbling. Powerless to pull the pieces into place. Interludes strung in a courtship with callousness. Ineffectual effort to crowd out solitude, leaving hope jumbled and broken.
Firstly , in a genuine prose version, who is meant would be more clearly stated and we would be unlikely to be as sparing with the words. As a matter of fact, I like this version, too, since it hasn’t fully conceded to being prose. It still has a poetic quality due to the strong imagery and the literary “sound effects”, but the counterpoint of stopping and starting is obscured. The visual strategy of the line breaks has been removed, and the need for the prose text to express the boundaries of imagery through punctuation, for example, causes a different effect. The line breaks of a poem force a focus and allow us to dispense with punctuation or bend the boarders of a clause or phrase, thus introducing the opportunity to make images merge into each other. You could also dispense with these elements in a prose text, of course, but this would require the reader to engage in a lot more processing for understanding and throws a dense block of undifferentiated text at him.
So to come back to Henkki’s question, I would probably choose free verse today because I savour the sound of the words as they are placed in juxtaposition to each other and I enjoy the opportunity to create an effect and subvert expectation by breaking the “rules”. My poems are my paintings of windows on our lives.
© Cate Kimberley and Word and Affect, 2012.