Formal Poetry vs. Free Verse

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Formal poetry versus free verse. The debate is more than a century old and I don’t intend to settle it. But I will confess my bias right up front.

I find myself drawn to poetry with meter and rhyme because that is my heart language–the verse I learned on my mother’s knee.  My parents read nursery rhymes aloud as far back as I can remember, followed by Eugene Field, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley. In school we read Shakespeare and Poe, and memorized Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

And though one high school English teacher did his best instill in us his conviction that Walt Whitman was the greatest of poets, by then it was too late. By that point my ear was trained, and while Whitman’s soaring verse in Leaves of Grass had a certain charm, it was the charm of a foreign language.

Over the years since, I have made an effort to appreciate free verse with some success. Raymond Carver broke through. Marie Howe has landed a punch or two. So did Donald Hall and Hayden Carruth, (and I appreciate the latter’s occasional return to rhyme.) I’ve even attempted to write a few free verse poems myself. But all along, it has been a bit like learning a second language.

One of the best debates about the relative merits of formal poetry and free verse takes place on the pages of a book I recently picked up off the bookshelf in my adult son’s old bedroom. The book is Old School by the American writer Tobias Wolff.

It’s a wickedly funny story about an elite boys prep school set in 1960. The plot turns on the school’s periodic literary contest. The winner of each contest has the honor of a private meeting with the semester’s guest speaker, which has traditionally been a famous and successful author.

Early in the book, Wolff has the audacity invite none other than Robert Frost into his novel and put words into the mouth of the aging poet. With the students and teachers assembled in the school’s chapel. He recited several of his poems, ending on Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, Frost is challenged by one of the young teachers, a Mr. Ramsey, who introduces his question with a critique of formal poetry.

Your work, sir, Mr. Ramsey said, follows a certain tradition. Not the tradition of Whitman, that most American of poets, but a more constrained, shall we say formal tradition, as in that last poem you read, “Stopping in Woods.” I wonder–

After Frost corrects Ramsey about the actual title of the poem, the teacher forges ahead to make his point.

Yes sir. Now that particular poem is not unusual in your work for being written in stanza form, with iambic lines connected by rhyme.

Frost replies, intentionally mistaking Mr. Ramsey for one of the students.

Good for you, Frost said. They must be teaching you boys something here.

Frost’s mischievous “mistake” triggers an outburst of laughter from the students, but when the poet asks him to continue with is question, Mr. Ramsey is undeterred.

Yes sir. The question is whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness. That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?

Modern consciousness, Frost said. What’s that?

Ah! Good question, sir. Well–very roughly speaking I would describe it as the mind’s response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Surely these things have an effect on us. Surely they have changed our thinking.

When Mr. Ramsey finally finished, it was clear he was making more of a statement than asking a question. Frost then responded in kind.

Don’t tell me about science, Frost said. I’m something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn’t know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow towards the light. Everything aspires to the light. You don’t have to chase down a fly to get rid of it–you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out it he goes. Works every time. We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can’t–what was your word? dim?–science can’t dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.

Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kept going.

So don’t tell me about science, and don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in that one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’s always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very find and pleasant to think ourselves the most put upon folk in history–but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I will write poems for him. Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you–with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give us a true account of the loss?

Frost has been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke. Now he broke off and let his eyes roam over the room.

I am thinking of Achilles’s grief, he said. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry–sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry. Does that answer your question?

I suppose we could have expected nothing less from Frost, who once famously compared writing poetry without rhyme and meter “like playing tennis without the net.”

And I must admit, I was cheering on the old curmudgeon as he put the impertinent schoolmaster in his place.

Advertisements

Winter Haiku

Hummingbird

Lone hummingbird comes

to poke our dying blossoms.

All the rest have gone.


NOTES:  This summer we were visited daily by dozens of hummingbirds. We have four species native to Western Washington: Anna’s, Rufous, Calliope, and Black-Chinned. At first I was quite concerned for our persistent cold-weather guest, but I have since learned that the Anna’s Hummingbird is the only one of the four that does not migrate south for the winter. So apparently he knows what he is doing.

I wish I could take its picture, but I have neither the camera nor the skill to catch it.  So an old print will have to do to illustrate today’s haiku.

Sonnet Upon Reading Old Letters

Pile of old letters

The Old House Sure is Quiet

The old house sure is quiet since you’ve gone.
Mom can’t get used to cooking just for two.
You won’t believe how much weight we’ve put on.
We’d hoped to get a note by now from you.

These letters now are half a century old,
Confirm I was a most neglectful son.
No matter how I wish the tale retold,
That page is turned. That episode is done.

And so I write this meager note to you,
Dear Father, only parent I have left.
Your fondness for your prodigal issue
Outlives their fondness, who left me bereft.
May you this orphan never leave alone,
May your fire find and melt this heart of stone.


(2018)

NOTES: Reading old letters is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been going through a box that includes the letters my parents wrote to me during my freshman year of college.

I am older now than they were then, and I am definitely identifying with them in this story.  I was the youngest of their children (by a long shot) and they had become empty nesters after having had children in the house for nearly 40 consecutive years. They were pushing 60, still working hard to make ends meet, and now suddenly living by themselves.

They wrote me several times a month, usually on Sunday evenings. They each filled both sides of a full sheet of paper.

The message that comes through, again and again, is: “Please write and let us know how you are doing.”

I have no idea how many times I wrote them back, but from the plaintive tone of their letters, it couldn’t have been very many.

And that figures. I was off on the Big Adventure of my youth.  Determined to grow up and become my own person and form my own beliefs. Remember, this was 1970.  Maybe not the peak of the counterculture, but you could see it from there.

I recently read an article about the attitudes of college freshmen over the years. The subject being investigated concerned the students’ desire to work towards a good job with security.

The year that scored the absolute lowest was–you guessed it–my year, 1970.  And I was pretty typical.  Despite my long-suffering father’s most excellent advice to “study something practical,” I thought my purpose was to discover Truth, Beauty, and Love.  I remember heading off to school with the express intention to NOT study anything practical that would lead to a regular job. (And I certainly succeeded at that! When I finally graduated five years later with a B.A. in philosophy and classics, I was fully qualified to be a fry cook, and that was about it.)

It took several years and going back to school before I developed any marketable skills.

But back to my folks.

They were such faithful correspondents. They diligently reported news they thought I would be interested in.  Like who they ran into up on the square … which of my old schoolmates were married and having babies … news from the high school.  Who was crowned homecoming queen–that was big news. And they faithfully reported the high school football scores each week.

I didn’t realize how much they had enjoyed going to my games, and although I was no longer playing, they would occasionally take in a game, or at least listen on the radio or read the local newspaper, and they would report the scores to me.

But of course, I was pretty much over all that.

Those days are sort of hazy for me, but I know I was finally off on my own and trying out everything I had refrained from doing in high school for fear of getting kicked off the football team.

My folks were lonely, to be sure. But beyond that, if I may project a little, they were being faced with their own mortality, and their own sense of purpose and meaning.

The more well-off set of their generation cashed out of their suburban homes and headed for Florida or Arizona and retired to a life of relative leisure. And who could blame them? They had put their lives on hold to save the world during WWII, then they had come back and built the greatest economy the world had ever seen.

But my parents weren’t quite in that class.  They had raised 4 boys, helped take care of a handful of grandkids, and now that I was gone, they weren’t sure what to do next. Except they had to keep on baking pies and driving busses and fixing tractors. Retirement really wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the whole society, as reported in TIME magazine, seemed to be turning upside down all around them.

And then, when their prodigal son finally deigned to write from college, he babbled about crazy things. I was studying impractical subjects. I was planning to go to Mississippi to register voters. I was learning yoga and wanting to have serious conversations about serious subjects.

Neither of my parents had been able to get much of a formal education, yet they were patient with their insufferable son. My mother didn’t even get to go to high school because her mother had died during the influenza epidemic early in the last century, leaving her as the eldest daughter (although she was just barely a teenager) to run the household and raise all her younger siblings. My father came of age smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and was forced to drop out of high school to start earning a living, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day.

We had a bit of a generation gap.

And yet, my parents’ hobbies belied their lack of education. My mother read poetry. From an early age, she would recite the verses she loved to me from her beloved volume of the most loved poems of the American people.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She would dutifully clip poems out of the Capper’s Weekly and stuff them into the letter she sent to me each week.

My father, meanwhile, was a serious student of the Bible and ancient history. He would order Bible commentaries and translations of ancient writers such as Josephus and Philo to supplement his Bible reading.

Looking back with the perspective of time, I see a couple of very intelligent people who had their potential abbreviated by circumstance. I also see I was a very lucky kid who was in grave danger of pissing away great opportunity.

And most of all I see a clueless teenager who had no idea of the hopes and fears and heartaches of his parents.

Many years later, when my own children played their last high school games, graduated and went off to college … when they were thousands of miles away in another country and didn’t check in as often as I would have liked … only then did I have a glimpse of what must have been running through my own parents’ hearts so many years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Cold Autumn Poem

Autumn scene

Autumn Song

Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.

When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?

Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.


(1979)

Notes:  Took a walk this evening and it finally felt cold for the first time.  Cold enough to pull this old poem out, dust it off, and trot it out again.

Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate.  My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all too well.

I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis.  We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder.  We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.

Autumn has its beauty.  “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.

But the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors.  And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.

All Saint’s Haiku

Ginko tree in October

The modest ginkgo
adorns herself in splendor
for All Hallows’ Eve.


NOTES: All Hallows’ Eve begins the 3-day observance of All Hallows’ Tide, dedicated to remembering the dead, including the saints, martyrs, and faithful departed.

According to current statistics from Open Doors, each month around the world, 322 Christians are killed for their faith,

Poem for Autumn

October's blaze adorns the lawn

Autumn Lament

September’s sun has come and gone
++++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn,
++++The swan song of the year.

The bonfires of my autumns past
++++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last
++++Beyond the end of fall.

Out on the gridiron battlefield,
++++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed,
++++Now flags and glory fade.

Our friends and kinsmen now are few.
++++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through
++++Cannot be counted on.

When we were young we loved the fall.
++++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall.
++++Those days, what did we know?


(2018)

NOTES: Something about autumn makes me want to return to the poems of British poet A.E. Housman.

Housman once said in a lecture that the special function of poetry was “to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.”

There is something in so many of his poems that vibrates on the same wavelength with the sense of loss I feel when fall arrives. So when the nights began to cool and the leaves began to turn, I picked up my old copy of A Shropshire Lad and relished Housman’s lean, direct, and delicious verse once again.

One of the forms he used was a type of ballad that alternates lines of 8 syllables with lines of 6 syllables.  It’s the form Housman used in one of my favorites, Number XXXVI in Shropshire, a poem that opens:

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies,
That leads me from my love.

It’s a seemingly simple form, but ideal for conveying emotion in a concise, concentrated way. It’s tricky because the lines are so short. There is no room for filler or fluff. I had tried my hand at it before, but neglected it recently.

So, with my emotion fortified by Housman’s verse, and my memory refreshed regarding a potent poetic form, I sat down this week to try my hand at “transfusing emotion.”

Let me know if you picked up the vibration.