Monday, February 19, 2007

Poetry...Let's Talk (part two)

Okay, I'll put aside the poetry that I learned in high school, college, and which I read occasionally at home. Why dissect Tennyson anyway? Who cares about Coleridge, Yeats, Burns. Screw them. I spit on their brilliance. I sneer at their mad ability to distill human emotion into a few breathtaking phrases while following carefully constructed forms. No, give me instead: Free Verse.

That's not really fair of me, is it? Let's try again. Free Verse, according to some, doesn't follow the classic standard of construction. It doesn't rely on meter or rhyme.

According to the University of Victoria's writers' guide:
"Free verse, on the other hand, has no rules whatsoever. The lines are irregular and may or may not rhyme. Instead of fitting content to form, the poet allows content to shape the form, changing line length and meter to emphasize words and sounds. Free verse develops its own rhythms, most often annotated by the use of the line-break, and is capable of complex effects of rhythmical and syntactical ambiguity."

If we accept the above definition, or the other reactionary definitions I've read (I'll justify the term reactionary presently), then how do we critique free verse? How do we understand it? To what criteria do we hold it accountable to?

Whitman
(pictured to the right)is often held up as a fine example of free verse. Whitman was one of several writers at the time who were seeking to create a culture apart from Europe. They were seeking a new American identity. I would argue that this identity was borne of a major inferiority complex stimulated with just the right amount of jingoism. The poetry that it produced was therefore a reactionary art form (See, I told you I would justify the term).

"You start by experiencing it and using your own emotions as a touchpoint for interpretation."

Freud would have wet himself.

So again, and forgive my sloppy structure here...how do we interpret or judge free verse. And I don't want to hear "I can't tell you, but I know it when I hear it."
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Oh..and here's a little poem I fell in love with. It isn't much, but it touches me for its innocence. And maybe for its sense of time. I could break it down much according to structure, but I'll leave that for others so as not to further detract from the above posting and posed questions:

Jenny Kissed Me

by Leigh Hunt

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I'm growing old, but add-
Jenny kissed me!

17 comments:

Vwriter said...

The following excerpt from the writings of H. A. Voaden, a Canadian teacher, is taken from “New Methods in Teaching Poetry,”

THE SCHOOL, Vol. 21, No. 4, December 1932, pp. 330-336:

"Poetry is intense and finely distilled emotion. In the stress of emotional creation its words become rhythmic; they are said to possess a definite beat. It is only through sensitive oral interpretation that these musical and rhythmic qualities which are the heart of the poem are communicated. Once it is accepted that a poem is apprehended more completely through the ear than through the eye, the importance of training what has been called the "auditory imagination" becomes evident. Even in reading a poem silently one must learn to "listen" to it.

A poem is created in a white heat of emotion. At the time it is written, it consists of phrases that have a strong rhythmic beat. But on the printed page we have merely a colourless record of this emotion and this music. It is the duty of the teacher to recreate and convey to the student this original musical beauty and emotional intensity; for the printed words are only symbols, which may or may not arouse the imagination and feelings of the reader to the required degree."

Voaden did not, of course, directly incorporate Emerson's transcendal thinking, and of course wrote this before the advent of the advent of the electric chain saw, but even so, he brings forward one half of an answer to your question. The other half of the issue can be resolved by Gabi Tolkowsky, the famous Master Diamond Cutter.

Although Voaden does not point specifically to free verse in his article, he describes clearly the poetic "deux machina." All poems, both free verse and structured lyrical creations are formed in the same "white heat of emotion." It is the transcendental state ascribed to Swedonborg, to Morihei Ueshiba, and to Whitman himself. To meet this definition of poetry, that state is a critical determinant. Without it, we have Hallmark and e.e. cummings. Without it, we have imposture. It is not the emotionless state attained by the yogi, but more akin than not to the Dionysian madness. The result of this elevated state of "white hot emotion" is free verse. Free verse is poetry constrained only by distilled intensity and rhythm. According to Jung, such poetic rhythms must, of necessity, match the harmonics of nature or, as the Hermetic doctrines phrase it, "the music of the spheres."

Free verse created like the diamond, where common materials are subjected to intense pressure and heat and are thereby metamorphized to a new, sublime substance. This new substance contains rhythm (intrinsic geometry) and has trapped within its structure the raw power that created it, yet it will not achieve visual brilliance until its form has been brought out by structure.

Whitman and his ilk at their best distilled the white hot intensity of their emotions into rhythmic patterns. Tennysen, Coleridge, and Yeats are such as Gabi Tolkowsky, the famous Master Diamond Cutter, who takes the raw diamond and transforms it by introducing a geometry that refines and empowers its latent beauty through his efforts. They employed structure to amplify their poetry to take it to a higher level.

Free verse is a forest fire raging against a night sky. Structured poetic works at their best are the controlled emotional engines that move forward civilization.

Poetry, therefore, is by its nature distilled emotional power. In the one case (free verse) disciplined only by nature of the transforming force. In the other (structured verse) an effort has been made to include not only the constraining elements of the transforming force (poet's thoughts, dreams, fears, and hopes), but also the precision structuring of a discipline designed to refine and augment its native power to truly bring forth its beauty.

All this was, of course, conceived by the literary community prior to the advent of either beer commercials or blogging.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Rick..why do you not post this sort of sweet essay work on your blog?

I enjoyed this immensely by the way...I like the comparison to the diamond cutter.

So free verse and poetry in general is the stuff of the emotions, the wildness of feeling as opposed to the beautiful reason of intellect that is prose?

"Free verse is a forest fire raging against a night sky. Structured poetic works at their best are the controlled emotional engines that move forward civilization..." This is a statement I can't endorse. Just because something has intensity, it doesn't mean it has meaning. It doesn't necessarily have validity.
If that were true, I could stand outside my house and scream for hours and consider it art.

Voaden's words, and we'll have consider his country of origin, still fail to give us a means to critique, to weigh, to quantify, to qualify poetry. And no, the experience isn't the totality.

Vwriter said...

Post? On a blog? Now you tell me.

Just to clarify a few points- in Voaden's view the criteria for judging poetry is clearly subjective. However, within those parameters, the idea is that poetry, requires a creator and a reader for a successful achievement. Poetry is to be judged, in this view, by the successful re-creation of the intense emotional state discussed in the earlier post in the mind of the reader. It does not stand alone. The critical determinant (according to this view- which is not mine by the way) is therefore emotional response.

It's easy to miss the point_

"Voaden's words, and we'll have consider his country of origin, still fail to give us a means to critique, to weigh, to quantify, to qualify poetry."

Poetry can be neither appreciated, understood, nor critiqued using the mindset of metrology. Its success or failure is purely experiential. Poetry's goal is the conveyance and re-creation of emotional meaning. (This is not, as commonly thought, achieved by using emoticons).

And, of course, emotional intensity by itself has nothing at all to do with meaning. But at its best, when intense emotion is married with elevated thought, the world moves forward. At its worst, the world is set back. As for intense night howling, a friend in the vice division used to say, "and people pay for that."

There is a fear, almost a terror, in literary circles that by allowing the experience of poetry (which includes both its emotional conveyance and re-creation and its meaning) to represent its totality, that the reader (as Walt Whitman prayed) would no longer need interpreters and critiquers with degrees and credentials. You remember Peggy Lee's song? Experience of emtional meaning as a total experience? Is that all there is? Yes, Virginia, it is.

Wait, that leaves no room for the critiquers and weighers and measurers and quantifiers. This is terrible- who will judge and approve and explain poetry to the poor ignorant masses?

Without the critiquers we might even experience this:

"My God, Yeats is expensive this week. Five shilings a word? Why there must be a shortage of quality English poets. Whitman is organic and free range and I can understand why we have to pay more per word for his stuff, but eventually he'll cost less, right? And did I tell you I bought some of Shakespeare's stuff at a garage sale? It's ancient. Must be worth a fortune. Wait til the Antique Word Show gets hold of this."

The poetic experience is not totality? Why, because the critiquers would be out of work? Because the measurers and quantifiers wouldn't be needed any more? Goodness, who would tell us what a poem is worth? Who would explain it to us. Would there no longer be a Consumers Report- Poetry Edition?

Mix the lime and the coconut and what do you get? A doctor, of course.

In other words, poetry is a sexual experience where objective criteria get in the way like a researcher in the bedroom during the act. The researcher wants to record and quantify and measure and critique the sexual experience. Think about it. What's more important? The researcher/metrologist is missing something, don't you think?

Matt said...

While I admire the brilliance of poets who can make English their bitch, I just think anything other than free verse is too constrictive. I've got to think that the writer's meaning is ultimately compromised by the rules. The word he wanted to use is not the one he did.

Lucas Pederson said...

Free verse is what i use when I decided to jot a poem. I agree with Matt. The other stuff is just too constrictive and it's harder to express what the poet is trying to say. Although I do love Yeats, free verse is the way for me. I liked that little peom about Jenny. Good stuff.
I just recently posted a new peom on my blog, complete with drawing, if you care to take a gander. I did it in light of your posts here. Thanks. You inspired me.
Later.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Well, Rick, if I may, and I always do, this sounds like one big rationalization to me. So the experience of the poetry is its totality? Hmmm. No. Not in my book.

You wrote that poetry is recreation of emotion. Well, then someday poetry will surely be dead. It will be replaced by machines that can plug into one person's brain, record their emotional responses, and transmit them to a receiver. No need for words then. Just a little electricity. Digital emotions.

One thing that comes to mind is the artist who sweats and pours over theory and practice. She dedicates herself to her craft, understanding how to use color, design, etc. And then an amateur comes forward, with little or no understanding of the medium's esthetics and presents an acrylic painting, a slash or two of color. Something that for him represents ART. And what is she to do? Should she applaud this work? Should she accept it as one would from a child who seeks immediate gratification and approval?

I think the writer grapples with the same dilemna. Look at what Matt and Lucas said...the rules of poetry are too confining. And so they invent their own art. One might argue that the rules of creating a portait, of understanding light shadow and perspective are too confining. What then? What then?

I am not casting aspersions, but truly struggling with this concept.

I am unsettled.

Matt, one thing you said interested me..the writer is frustrated because the word can't convey the intended meaning. That's the frustration of all writers and the delight of writing in general. The challenge.

Lucas, I will visit your blog and read your poem. Brave man.

miller580 said...

I wanted to really sit and think how to respond, but I can't keep up with you Stewart. By the time I can answer a question (with slight intelligence) you are on to the next. I have ten minutes so I will just throw out a few thoughts. I will say this. Today's poetry, yes is an outpouring of emotion. But it's not supposed to stop there. Here is where (in my opinion) poetry is like prose. Revision. That initial outpouring. That is a rough draft. And I think thats where alot of "poets" think it is done. But its not. They need to revise, revise, revise. Poetry is wordplay. It is work! A poet has to pour over each word and decide is this the word I want. Is this where I want the speaker to stop. Every comma, semi-colon, and period is planned. "Free-verse" is technically not a license to ooze out a few sentences and call it done. It requires discipline. While there are no "rules" the writer should still look for some sort of cohesiveness that sings out to the reader. Anyway, there are a few rushed thoughts.

Vwriter said...

Ask yourself this: Why must there must be more to successful poetry than the shared emotianally meaninful experience between the poet and his reader?

And why in the world would poetry created in the heat of overpowering emotion, then be conveyed to a reader who experiences something similar lead to the idea that poetry would be dead due to electrical stimulation of some sort?

Poetry isn't dead because of those kind of fears- it's dead because by and large no one is interested in poetry anymore. It truly is the vinyl record of literature lying dust-covered in the attic. Face it Stewart, poetry is no longer sexy. In today's culture, the un-sexy die.

The profit motive has killed poetry. I'm surprised you haven't brought this forward, my good friend. Poets don't make money. Patronage is the last of hope of keeping poetry alive beyond the next generation.

Imagine: "I'm so excited. Harold turned down going to Harvard to be a poet! He's going to starve to death. This is great, wait til Dad finds out."

Imagine: "I hear you write poetry. That really turns me on."

Imagine: The news: "Global warming is causing the ice pack to melt, but hot damn we've got poets, so who cares?"

Imagine: "Yep, that's my daughter. Writes poetry from them cards in the drugstore. They's all lined up under 'Colonoscopy- under 40 Get Well.' Gonna get some free verse in the 'Happy Hangover' section someday. Nothin like havin' a poet in the family."

There's no money in poetry, it ain't sexy, and yes, the finally explanation of why poetry is dead- it's dead- it's hard work. Why do you think today's poet's write free verse. They're lazy. Substitute the phrase "I don't wanna. Structure is hard" for the more frequently used phrase "I don't wanna be constrained." The point is clear. It's why there are so few diamond cutters.

Poetry is hard work, not sexy, and the pay is jack-all.

Hence we have free verse.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Rick, I bow. That was actually going to be part of the thrust of part three..the idea of venues for poetry. And reward. But you've nailed it. Agree entirely.

SQT said...

Yeesh, all I've learned today is that I don't know the difference between poetry and prose and the rest of it is way beyond me.

I need a bath and lots of alcohol.

Vwriter said...

Crap SQT, I was hoping you'd explain it to me!

crunchycarpets said...

Having survived evening classes at Uni covering the 'greats' and 'classics'...
While I loved Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth, etc....I found it really hard to clinically dissect and analyze their works.

I have always found that with all forms of poetry, what I get from a first read, the emotional response, the ease and flow of it, or the thoughts provoked....that is it.

There is nothing more. It either spoke to me or it didn't.

I also find that with poetry, the interest is more with the poet. The person behind the words. Because if poetry is white hot emotion...that emotion belongs to someone.

They wrote the work for a reason.
Something was either bothering them or they felt they had to share something.

So no matter what we 'read' into a work....it is OUR interpretation and not theirs that we are viewing the poetry through.

For me that was the true value of analysis.

I personally don't care what form or mechanics the poet chose...unless again the was an agenda behind it.

I like Leigh Hunt too.

I argued A LOT with my prof's.

Charles Gramlich said...

Why do you need to define it?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I have to define it. I have to. I don't know why. It's anal. It's sick. It's me.

jedimerc said...

I read both posts on this, and I admit, I see why it can be tough to critique poetry, and to sometimes dismiss most contemporary works. As one who makes no bones about being a contemporary poet, I have found it tough to categorize my work on many levels. I know for sure most of the time it is not prose, though I have read plenty of prose-y poetry, as much as I have seen poetic prose, and may like to blur the line. I, for one, do not. Most of the time, I have to have a set structure or rhythm to get the point across. Only rarely do I let myself get caught up in the power of free verse, which, to me, is more of an excuse to write without focus or discipline (and with all due respect to Walt Whitman of course).

Of course, blank verse is a style that is much more common, and certainly what I consider most of my work to be. Basically, how I see blank verse is an intact structure (each stanza having a set number of lines and having or not having refrains) but not adhering to a lot of meter. Frankly, I do not handle meter well, but I can nail structure every time, unless I change something deliberately.

Further, we also have a stream of consciousness movement that to some means not having punctuation or capitalization (for my part I usually capitalize at every line, old habit, really), but that is not the case. Stream of consciousness flows from the emotion of the universe itself and it is meant to be captured in the verse. I suppose, since I seek to capture that every time, I use a lot of this stream of consciousness. Still, I prefer to experiment in style. In my war poetry, I tend to write in a more militaristic marching band form consistent with the feel of the piece and time period written about as a whole. Such is the same with more emotional pieces. They should reach from the depths of the spirit every time. Really, if poetry does not reach from the deepest part of the self, the raw, pure emotion of self, then it always lacks something. My goal every time is to make the reader feel that with my words. If I do not, I feel as if I have failed to an extent for that is the most important part of the poem, to get the reader to connect with the beauty of the words.

I see words in ways that I sometimes do not understand, only that I must put them to page and share them with the world as a whole. It is sort of a gift from the collective unconsciousness in a way. While creating, I am still sharing what has always been. I suppose that is the only philosophy I can bring to poetry.

In any event, great discussion and it is nice to be able to talk about the whys and hows of our writings.

Stewart Sternberg said...

jedimerc, thanks for contributing to this discussion. I found your comments erudite and succinct...probably aided by the fact that I agree with most of what you had to say. I especially nodded smugly at the line about free verse being undisciplined. I would add lazy.

At any rate, good contribution. This discussion has been great, I have completely enjoyed the discussion of all involved. Thoughtful, articulate commments.

Lori Witzel said...

Ah...archy and mehitabel and vers libre.

I think for a moment of a training I had at work this week, discussing structured and unstructured data, and how virtually all data has an implicit structure.

But enough of my ramblings...you see, I'm one of those who enjoy using what some call free verse.

Why?

A predefined metrical structure, especially with end-rhymes, may not work for everything.

In fact, it's hard to find good structured poetry where the container is of a piece with the content, where the form isn't calling more attention to the poet's craft-skill and thus isn't supporting the meat of the poem (unless the "meat" is to dance around a metrical feat.)

I love formal poetic structures -- as a tool. I tend to create new ones within what some call free verse, through alliteration, euphonic and dissonant sounds, images that build and echo other images.

So, like my work training, even the seemingly unstructured stuff in my free verse poems is really semi-structured.

I agree with you, Stewart, that there's a tendency for free verse to be a sloppy sack into which all kinds of lazinesses are crammed.

But that doesn't make it a bad thing, any more than a clunky sonnet is inherently better for being in sonnet form.