More from the Ash Heap of University

Tomorrow morning, some poet may, like Byron, wake to find himself famous—for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem.

–Randall Jarrell

If you thought that last Monday’s update was bad, this week’s blog is even worse: I’ll be posting my free verse poetry from college.

*cue agonized screams*

My feelings on free verse are pretty uncomplicated: I hate it. It has very little understanding of grammar, none at all for structure, and relies heavily on the overuse of the indent key in Microsoft Word.

My dislike for free verse is possibly inborn – or maybe just ingrained. I was five years old when Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and Dad rolled his eyes at the dinner table and said “free verse” in a disgusted sort of voice. Mom followed that up with an annoyed “Maya Angelou” sort of sigh of her own.

However, my first real run-in with free verse happened when I was in fifth grade. The PTA at Lewis & Clark put on a school-wide contest for art, poetry, and writing, to be judged by some of their members. Because I’m enormously dedicated to my two watchers, I actually spent an afternoon digging through my old hope chest until I found my entry. Behold:

I received a participation award and written comments from three judges. One was a very kind note complimenting me on my use of descriptive words, the second was clearly written by someone who was tired of judging (A hastily scrawled, “Very well done!”), and the third contained the following:

“A bit of advice! Did you know you could write poems that don’t always have to rhyme? Read some of Arnold Adoff’s or Jane Yolen’s poetry and see – then go back w/ this idea of flying – and try it out and see if your ideas and words don’t come a little more freely to describe what you want!

“But great poem!”

(I love that “But great poem!” at the end. Oh crap, I forgot I’m supposed to pretend I like all the things I’m judging.)

The note annoyed me, not because she didn’t appreciate my style (that was her prerogative; I was proud of my poem, and nothing she said could take away the pleasure I’d had in writing it), but because I did know that poems don’t always have to rhyme. I’d written a structured poem because I liked structured poems. Rhyming is a kind of magic – fun to read out loud, easy to memorize, and a sort of a puzzle to write (can you fit your ideas into this neat little box?). It was frustrating that I couldn’t explain to this woman that I’d done so purposefully, and not because I was too stupid to know better.

Still, easy enough to brush aside; I thought her silly. One of those adults who looked down on children and the things they liked just because they were children. I shrugged and moved on.

But it seriously angered my father. He was mad for the same reasons I was annoyed (“Of course you know that poems don’t have to rhyme”) but also – now that I look back – probably because he was afraid that she had discouraged me from doing something I had a talent for. But he needn’t have worried. Moms are built-in #1 fans (she’s the reason I still have some of my old artwork and stories from Elementary school), and I’ll always keep that memory of Dad angry at some lady he’d never met, simply because she didn’t like my poem, locked away in my heart. Sometimes I take it out to look at it, and remember that my parents believed in me first.

Now that I’ve gotten older and have been forced into greater contact with free verse through college (though I’ve still never actually heard of Arnold Adoff or Jane Yolen), I’ve discovered that it’s not as bad as it once seemed. In fact, it can be a very clever way to say something concisely (which perhaps also contributed towards my innate dislike for it; like holding up garlic to a vampire. Write this short thing, Andrea. Well, I can try butAAUGH IT BURNSSS).

For example, back when I was still lurking on Deviantart (mostly for art, but sometimes they’d feature writing on the front page), I found a beautiful piece of free verse about a woman who finally consents to date her best friend – the only man to treat her kindly. When he laments over the wasted years (years she spent abused; if not by men, then by herself), she tells him she needed those years to learn that she could love, and be loved. They’d never have made it before then.

Anyways, it was more eloquent than that, but the point is there can be really great stories – especially stories that are as much felt as told – packed into free verse. It’s impressive when done well.

I just wish we wouldn’t call it poetry. Call it short prose, call it lyrical flash fiction (or nonfiction), I don’t care, but stop trying to compare apples with oranges. Sure they’re both fruit, but they grew on entirely different trees. Keeping your ideas short and tapped entirely into feeling takes one kind of skill, and molding an idea into a strict structure bound by rhyme takes another. Some people have an ear for it, others spend years honing it, but making your rhymes flow naturally within a rigid rhythm and verse structure is only restrictive to people who can’t do it.

Mind you, I probably wouldn’t mind sharing a genre type with the free verse folks if they’d just stop discrediting what I do. I took a couple of poetry classes in college, and the most common critique I had from my classmates was, “Well, it’s nice for kids.” And while I have to admit that I do write a lot of poetry for children (and not just because that’s still an acceptable market for rhyme; I also happen to like writing for kids), there’s the odd murder poem I’ve yet to post, a few lines written from my occasionally lonely heart, and at least one politically charged poem in my portfolio.

Oh man, am I off track. Let’s take a U-turn back to my original intention:

In college, all of the poems I presented in class rhymed, but we also had to turn in a workshop journal with a boatload of assignments from my poetry book. As it turns out, free verse takes about a tenth of the time that my usual style does – or at least the way I do it. I am, if nothing else, practical.

(Also, I apologize in advance for the stupid line breaks.)

ASSIGNMENT: What images obsess you?  What can you look at for hours and not get bored?  Contrast with an image you repress or fight.

ASSIGNMENT: Write a short poem that begins and ends with the same line.

ASSIGNMENT: Write an “I believe speech.”

Last few facts: free verse isn’t as modern as it seems. The history of the form actually goes back centuries before I was alive to complain about it. Old Testament psalms, anyone? Then in 1890 the poets Kahn and Laforgue first coined the phrase vers libre in French, though for my part I blame Walt Whitman, who received the credit for writing the first free verse poetry in English.** There’s also something to be said about a man named Richard Aldington, who claimed (a quarter of a century later) in the preface to a 1915 Imagist anthology, that free verse was a principle of liberty.

And we wonder why unstructured poetry comes across as so pretentious.

*Oh my lazy heart, I just realized I have an entire hope chest full of homework I can use for the blog. Next time, on The Story Folder: The cat is ill. The dog is glad.

**There’s some debate as to whether this is true, but poets become famous about half as many times as the continents drift, so any poet who becomes well known for their poetry instead of, say, murdering their wives***, is celebrated for anything they did with the form, whether or not they were first.

***William Burroughs, Louis Althusser, Gu Cheng, and Conrad Aiken to name a few. A risky trade, apparently.