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Old 02-19-2002, 07:57 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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Can anyone tell me what is good about this poem? (I've disguised the title & author.)


Through the hole in the hut's wall,
he said in his mother's house, growing up,
this fall morning is pretty much
now that we've finally arrived here.

Perhaps there has never before been such an open sea--
the disquieting muses again: what are "leftovers"?
We are walking our very public attraction.

I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.
Thanks for your of already some--

We removed a hand . . .

He has taught the Universe to realize itself,
those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet from the house...

Life, the story goes,
waking himself.

We burn cities.
Someone, if you pay the price, can hypnotize you.

* * *

The moon was like a full cup tonight;
my religion makes no sense.

The war is fought by soldiers in machines.
Be uncovered!

While everything external,
the legend is whispered:

Dead cold spots in the air.
I dreamed a man unknown to me in a city no

the fact of life is it's no life-or-death matter--
Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?

Steady, the evening fades.



<hr size="1" span="95%">

All these lines are from <u>The Body Electric: America's Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review</u>, edited by Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.

As an experiment, I took the first line of the first poem by each of the first sixteen poets in that anthology for the first section; for the second, I skipped the next three, then did the same with the next ten poets: I wanted to establish a randomness and figured this might be one way to do it. Some of the caps beginning the lines and some of the punctuation closing the lines are my editorial changes.

Is this all that is required for most free verse? The mixing of images, syntax, etc., in a fairly "stream-of-consciousness," random, way in order to present what appear to be ecstatic "poems?"--I don't mean to imply that the individual authors of these lines wrote/write poorly, nor that the poems from which these lines came are trash. These are only borrowed lines, of course, not whole poems. I like to read free verse quite often; some of my favorites are "free." The above experiment isn't seamless...but then, isn't that the point from a contemporary free verse perspective? Perhaps the "masters" of free verse do not write this kind of poem, but many published free verse poems seem to have been written this way.

Why not establish a factory somewhere to do this? (Or, would we be depriving every individual his/her "God-given right" to produce such "poetry?")


[This message has been edited by Curtis Gale Weeks (edited February 19, 2002).]
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Old 02-20-2002, 01:20 AM
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Tim Love Tim Love is offline
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> Is this all that is required for most free verse?
> ...
> Perhaps the "masters" of free verse do not write this kind of poem, but many published free verse poems seem to have been written this way.
In "The Poetry Circus", by Stanton A. Coblentz, (Hawthorn: N
ew York, 1967) the author presents some poetry by famous people and invites the reader to guess whether the lines are in reverse order or not. In his chapter "How to Write a Modern Poem" he shows how by starting from a mundane phrase and performing various tricks one might produce something publishable.

> Why not establish a factory somewhere to do this?
Something like that's already been done (haiku-makers
and other poetry makers are online.) People have taken a paragraph from an economics/science essay, replaced the technical terms with words from another field, and have ended up with something Ashbery might have written.

But I don't think it's just a free verse issue - some of Coblentz's reversable examples come from Dylan Thomas etc.

Charlatan-detection isn't easy. Literary hoaxes include Ossian (Scotland), Ern Malley (Australia) and more recently Araki Yasusada (Japan) - all created by skillful hoaxers who are frequently surprised that their work is taken seriously. Some genres/art-forms are easy pickings for charlatans. I think Art is currently more vulnerable than free verse which is in turn more vulnerable than formal verse, but perhaps that's not so much to do with the artform itself as the kind of people involved in the artforms.
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Old 02-20-2002, 05:35 AM
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Kate Benedict Kate Benedict is offline
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Curtis, what in the world are you up to? It's hardly fair to frame a discussion of free verse by mixing up lines like this. I myself put as much brain power into my free verse as my metrical verse, and I listen for the musicality of the lines as well.

I happen also to despise a certain brand of free verse that seems random and free-associative and long-winded -- strange, how some of it wins the big prizes -- but that is a small piece of the picture.

So what defines quality in free verse? The same things that define quality in metrical verse but without the meter! Charged language, focus, tone, momentum, ringing idea, a sense that the poem is the length it as to be, that it isn't padded. Indeed, that's a danger even in metrical poetry, where extraneous words may be added to keep up the beat.

A good free verse poem may even be said to have a type of meter, who knows? Maybe not meter, but a good free verse poem still can be said to display cadence, a flowing language. Free verse poets still take out the old tool kit and use rhyme sometimes, off rhyme, consonance, assonance, an occasional and obvious pentamenter or other metrical line. They come up with nonce forms and hybrid forms. Certain subjects, I think, are simply better realized in free verse too, certain of the wilder frames of mind, certain of the human passions. Put that sort of thing into tidy meter and you may lose the point of the poem -- at least that's what I've discovered in the act of writing all these years.

We've already had some discussions about that whole Ashbery/Graham school of free verse. Most Eratospherians didn't care for it, but there were some who spoke eloquently in its defense.

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Old 02-20-2002, 12:57 PM
Margaret Moore Margaret Moore is offline
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Having read your crits with admiration, I'm really disappointed by your wholesale condemnation of free verse on the basis of a few examples. Oddly, I've The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997 on current loan from my local library. Like some of the free form stuff in it - other pieces leave me cold. Same goes for the annual Forward Book of Poetry (a British equivalent of The Best).
But that's what I expect of anthologies. And whereas I'm a great Louis MacNeice fan I find some current 'metrical' or 'formal' poetry less satisfactory than others. I use quotes because I don't see a sharp distinction between 'formal' poetry and the kind of 'free verse' I like best, in which there is rhythmic patterning but of a complexity that doesn't easily lend itself to analysis.
Here's an example of a poem by Catherine Byron published in her 1993 collection The Fat-Hen Hospital.

Damson-Fall in the Study of Dove Cottage
for Dorothy Wordsworth

An unseen letting-go, as of budscales -
the narrow twigs sigh upwards, straighten,
callouse their circular and crescent scars

A shoal of dark fish in the shallows
stunned, wounds beaded with mites,
the grasses' undulant threads netting them close

Slack and damp to my hands
that comb them out - little minnows,
little plummeted lapwings

I have held them for dseasons after,
their clear blood light in a glass,
their sharp preserve

but these walls hold them truest -
whitewash of blossom from their scrubbed spring
stained with the crush of their dying -


I think the free-flowing rhythms of this piece are well suited to its organic trope and themes. I take the damson-fall to represent the sacrifices of motherhood and poetic
creativity Dorothy made for her brother's sake. The musicality and precision of imagery also reflect the sensitivity and sharp detail of her diaries.
A fine piece ... no? I could write with equal enthusiasm of some formally stricter poems. But why oh why should it be an EITHER/OR? Best, Margaret.
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Old 02-20-2002, 02:07 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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Kate & Margaret,

Actually, I've spent most of my efforts over the last couple of years writing free verse, not formal verse. I agree, Margaret, that the distinction between "free" verse and "formal" verse isn't as clear as some in each camp would like us to believe--all the while understanding that some distinctions are necessary foundations for us when we are deciding how to proceed with writing a particular poem.

So, I'm not condemning "free" verse wholesale.

But there is a problem with much contemporary free verse, IMO. Just looking through the journals, and even at many of the recent postings in the free verse sections of E-Sphere, gives me that chill: BANNED POST"free" is taken to mean "abandonment," and the abandonment is a shucking of coherent method: coherent arguments, imagery, syntax, punctuation, etc. Perhaps it's a dismissal of community, a preference for the great "I" of individuality--This is coming from an ardent individualist, by the way; but I also don't believe that individuals tend to exist separate from society/community.

One motivating factor for my posting of this thread here, rather than at General Talk or The Discerning Eye, is the dearth of constructive conversation or debate in this "Musing on Free Verse Mastery" forum. I suspect that the Tower of Babylon of Free Verse prevents it, because any attempt to come to a consensus on what are the most effective methods for producing good free verse...would be speedily decried as attempts to formalize the genre. On a more psychosocial level, many free verse poets would feel that their independence is threatened; and, thus, they'd feel that their muses are being threated with chains.

Kate, I believe that the best free verse poets currently writing pay attention to all the things you've mentioned; but then, why aren't assonance, consonance, rhythm, rhyme, etc., ever the focus of the critiques in the above free verse forums, aside from the occasional, "I really like your sounds, man!"? Content, voice, and argument seem to be the primary values discussed; and of course, imagery. Forget structures: I also suspect that the ever present statute of Freedom of Muse allows much incoherence to remain, even in these things. (I'm not including your critiques in this assessment, because they seem to be among the best.)

As for mixing up lines like this: I'm not sure that I don't like my random poem; it has a certain something, and with a little tweaking might make an interesting love poem...This is why I've used it as an example. These were all lines constructed by free verse poets who were deemed to be "real poets" by critics/publishers, whatever that is, who also deemed these lines to be worthy of inclusion in poems. The lines are not bad: Which is also why some free verse poets (not these, necessarily) focus on strong lines/images and disregard coherence as a whole for their poems.

I wonder if "Musing on Free Verse Mastery" even needs to be included on E-Sphere if no recognizable threads can be discerned in the genre. If "anything goes," then nothing is distinct. And, if nothing is distinct--if we can't isolate free verse technique for fear of chaining muses--then why bother musing on free verse mastery? Perhaps "mastery" doesn't exist in free verse?--what's to master, anyway?


Tim: Yes, "charlatanism" mastery exists and is one side effect of this "problem" with free verse. My question was intended to focus on the problem of whether or not "free verse" poets can justify themselves coherently, consensually, a la Plato's argument against poetry.

[This message has been edited by Curtis Gale Weeks (edited February 20, 2002).]
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Old 02-20-2002, 07:21 PM
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Kate Benedict Kate Benedict is offline
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FYI, originally there was just one Musing on Mastery thread, bundled under the Metrical section of the forum. Members cried out for an opportunity to discuss free verse masters too, so the FV Masters was born. Unfortunately, the new Moderator found that her schedule didn't allow for much of a presence here, so it languished a bit.

I would have preferred a mixed Mastery forum myself, and that may still happen. It is under discussion.

As for contemporary free verse, despite my defense of it, and my love for the form (or the un-form!), I don't like much of what I read in the journals. A journal called Fence debuted recently with great fanfare, by an organization here in NYC well heeled enough to offer an annual book prize too. I received two complimentary issues and "recycled" them almost immediately. I honestly thought that it was all crapola. Vague, rambly, obscure, ill-wrought stuff that didn't seem to address the human condition at all. Possibly the catatonic human condition. Mondo bizarro. Clearly, many poets write poetry for completely different reasons than I do, and they derive different pleasures.
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Old 02-21-2002, 12:14 AM
Margaret Moore Margaret Moore is offline
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Curtis, Kate.

I too was disappointed about the lack of debate or even browsing here and would welcome a mixed forum.
Hopefully, the sight of your name, Curtis, may draw people to this thread.

But again, C, I must challenge your generalisations re crits on the FV boards. Don't think I'm being egotistical - it's just that I remember my own comments more clearly than others'. However, my moans about unnecessary syntactical distortions relate in part to rhythm. I recently congratulated a poet on her highly appropriate clustering of hard consonants. I've pointed out to a couple of poets that introducing one full-rhymed stanza in the middle of an otherwise unrhymed piece will emphasise that stanza to a degree that may not be justified by the meaning. Feel sure that numerous other critters could provide evidence in their own defence - but remember, we've recently acquired some very young FV participants who have probably yet to hone their critical skills.

Moreover, I don't think one should weigh in too soon with detailed critiques of technique before a beginning poet has imposed ANY structure on a piece. Better, I'd say to get across the notion that SOME shaping is desirable.
Do answer back in the hope that others will join in! Best, Margaret.
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Old 02-21-2002, 09:20 AM
SteveWal SteveWal is offline
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From an English perspective - I've seen Fence too and also Verse (I was in it once) and New American Writing, and what strikes me is not simply the lack of rhythm etc as the avoidance of feeling. A lot of the "poems" felt more like theses than anything that came from the gut or the heart, through the head and out through the teeth (as Scottish poet Douglas Dunn once described to me.)

In the end, a poetry that reflects only one's reading (whether one reads Spivak or Sidney) or is merely theoretical is pretty poor stuff; which doesn't mean you can't be informed by these things, just that there should be an openness to feelings, and also to the unexpected. I love the way that Ashbery can real out free verse then unexpectedly come out with sestinas and pantoums, for instance.

Steve Waling
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Old 02-23-2002, 05:08 PM
JohnBoddie JohnBoddie is offline
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Let us start by stating as a fact that there is a problem with contemporary free verse.

With that in hand, we should be able to demonstrate that "The Prairie as a Valid Provider" by Jane Mead is inferior to modern metric verse - Rhina Espaillat's sonnet "Almost" should do as an example - or older free verse, for example Sandburg's "To a Contemporary Bunkshooter".

This should be a reasonable test. All three authors are American. All have received some degree of recognition for their poetry.

My suspicion is that nobody would want to undertake a demonstration of this sort. The statement that there is a problem with contemporary free verse is not an empirical argument. Both the case for and the case against will be advanced using anecdotal evidence: Berrigan versus Corso? Ashbery versus cummings?

The issue of a "problem with contemporary free verse" is that it's a general answer to what is, at best, a non-generalizable problem.

Perhaps we should just get on with our reading. If we feel an overpowering need to weigh in on the issue, I suggest we do it by increasing the flow of royalties to authors whose work avoids these "contemporary free verse problems." Whatever it is that they are.

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Old 02-23-2002, 07:22 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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Undoubtedly, I've oversimplified my impressions of the critique in the free verse forums, mostly due to the onslaught of new visitors and general grumpiness. Sometimes I jump the gun. I think one problem with FV critique is that FV comes in so many "forms." Honestly, I know people who love Hallmark cards; and, I'd support the nomination of David Bowie as a FV poet (his earlier songs), although not as a "master." What devices are important for a poem might be debated by critics and poets, so how can we stress suggestions in critiques?


I'm not a big fan of most rap songs, but many people love them. Jorie Graham is nowhere near the top of my favorites list, although perhaps someday she'll be edged upward...I prefer both Merwin and Ashbery to Graham. I don't like most L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poems I've encountered, not the most extreme variety, anyway. I think, however, that it's not an impossible task to discern techniques which all of these and others use to one degree or another, and contemplate the effectiveness of these techniques.


"The avoidance of feeling" is signal. I wonder: does tight structure help promote the impression of sincere feeling in a poem? The lackadaisical approach used by some FV poets leaves me cold. I am all for finding non-metrical orders used well, even if the order is one of well-wrought metaphor or imagery and not argument, but provided that the presentation does not ignore the larger picture (the world, i.e.)--connections, but not connections which do not relate back to humanity along the way.


The things you mentioned are up for debate. I think it's fair to say that so many beginning poets begin with FV because it seems easier to write well than metrical verse (maybe after they've attempted metrical verse and been rebuffed.) I've a question: BANNED POSTWhy does FV appear so easy to do well? Surely, this question might lead to the "Problem with Free Verse" and why so many poor poems are published. Of course, it's not easy to do well; but then again, why?

Thanks for responding, everyone.


[This message has been edited by Curtis Gale Weeks (edited February 23, 2002).]
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