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An Ode To Free Verse

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LaszloWalrus
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That's an interesting analysis. Can you give me some famous examples of "blank verse"? Is that traditionally the result of translating poems out of the language in which they were written? Or is it a theatrical technique, like when Shakespire had a character talk in iambic-pentameter, but it didn't necessarily rhyme?

Can you recommend a good book defining and examining the different types and techniques of poetry?

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Can you give me some famous examples of "blank verse"?

Milton's Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and lots of Samson Agonistes, Wordsworth's Prelude, Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," Keats' Hyperion, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Tennyson's "Ulysses," and Browning's The Ring and the Book; that's beside its use in drama by such greats as Shakespeare and Marlowe. A number of good moderns have used it too--Frost and Yeats, for example. (And Wallace Stevens for that matter, whom I like very much but whose poetry does require a lot of concentration and a good deal of imaginative sympathy.) In general it's found a lot of use by poets writing extended poetry that's to report dialogue (or monologue), and in some of those cases it's actually arranged as drama though never meant to be performed (Prometheus Unbound, for example).

Can you recommend a good book defining and examining the different types and techniques of poetry?

Give me a day to jog my memory. There are two or three that are just on the tip of my brain but I can't dislodge them right now.

Edited by Adrian Hester
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Give me a day to jog my memory. There are two or three that are just on the tip of my brain but I can't dislodge them right now.

Okay, I think I've got them all. One book that has a good section on poetry and meter is The Enjoyment of Literature by Bernard Grebanier. Two books entirely about poetry that I got quite a bit from are The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver, both well-known poets. Mind you, I haven't read either book in its entirety, only the first two-thirds or so of each, and don't agree with all they say, but for the purpose of getting used to meter and its interaction with stress and word length, they're quite good (especially the Pinsky).

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Okay, I'll admit that the quality of art can't be judged objectively solely on the basis of content. But what about whether a specific work constitutes as art or not? To me, it seems like that's when the form becomes important, and the subject matter less important (temporarily).

I think you can safely say that something is an attempt at artwork if it fulfils the requisite form (even weird abstract paint blobs are identifiable as a "painting", after all). However, it's not art unless it matches the definition of art, and I've yet to see a better one than Ayn Rand's "selective recreation of reality in accordance with the artist's metaphysical value-judgments".

I've seen some downright goofy ones, though, I remember reading once that "fine" art is "art that only a few people can produce". Is that silly or what? Talk about definition by non-essentials.

In addition, a lot of things are artistic without actually being art in and of themselves: computer games, RPG's, decorations, photographs, etc. So in order to really concretize the concept "art" it's useful to look at these borderline cases and see why they don't fall 100% under the definition. I think photography is the most useful example, here. It's a recreation of reality, right? I mean, it'd be hard to get any closer to recreating reality than taking a photograph. And even amateur photographers are selective about something. So why isn't photography art? It's because, in my thinking, even the best, most careful photographer isn't 100% selective about the work. Because they are taking a picture of things that actually exist, there's always going to be something included at random, something they didn't purposefully choose to include or not include in the photo.

Pardon my digression. Anyway, I think that, in order to evaluate whether something is or isn't actually art, you need to ask, "Is this a selective recreation of reality etc." Once you've determined that, you can start worrying about categorizing/judging the artwork on its own merits.

(P.S. just as a side note, it occured to me while I was typing this that movies are art even though they often include accidental tidbits, because their primary artistic "form" is that of the drama. The aspects of the drama-as-artform are selected purposefully. In the case of photographs, however, the primary artistic form is simply visual, and not all the visual aspects of the photo are selectable. I could be wrong, but that's my reasoning. I suppose, then, that photographs that are altered using a computer could indeed be considered art. Hmm.)

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So, basically what you're saying, Hal, is that unlike every other form of art, poetry is JUST content, NOT structure?

Yeah, I'd probably be prepared to go that far. As long as something is written in a manner which I'd call 'poetic', then I view it as poetry. I'm not prepared to draw a rigid boundary here, because I think theres just too many borderline cases. To take an example, I class certain passages from Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" and Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" as being poetry, even though they occur in the middle of works of 'prose' philosophy (that is to say, if you took these passages out of their original context and just wrote them on a bit of paper, I'd call it a poem). I view poetry as being a certain kind of writing style, where an excessive amount of attention is paid to 'word colouring' and tools like metaphor, creating images, and so on, rather than having anything to do with structure. I do agree that most 'free verse' is awful, but I also think that most traditional poetry is equally bad.

edit: I'm not 'against' structure or anything like that - there are many poems which are only good because of their structure/rhyme, and would just be stupid as free-verse. I think this is fantastic for instance, and it would be far less awesome if it didnt have the rhyme scheme and so on. But I prefer to judge each piece on its own merit, and I'm not prepared to say in advance that every poem 'has' to have X, Y or Z. I'd rather just get on with the task of seperating the good from the bad, instead of getting hung up on how to categorise things. I dont see the point in arguing over whether stuff like this is real poetry when we can just agree that its awful, whatever it is, and move on.

IIRC the original purpose of structure in poetry was to make it easy to remember so it can be recited. Unlike prose, where rythym is probably your last consideration, in poetry it's actually more important than clarity.
This may be so, but I dont think theres any reason for drawing that distinction today. I suppose we can categorise things as 'poetry geared towards recitation' and 'other', and this may be useful for certain purposes. Edited by Hal
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. I agree that it is on average harder to write a highly structured poem than to write it free verse.
I'm not even convinced this is true. Sure, you can write a piece of awful free verse in a few minutes, but then you could write an awful rhyming poem in the same time. I'd call this free verse, and I dont see why it was easier to write than most sonnets. I know you said 'on average', but I'm honestly not sure what you mean. I'm not a poet so I dont want to start speculating about the construction process, but I would guess that writing terrible poetry takes very little effort and writing great poetry takes a lot, regardless of whether you use free verse or a great deal of structure.

Although there's one sense in which free verse is trivial to write (in that you can just stick whatever you want on a bit of paper and call it a poem), making it interesting to read is quite another matter. Personally, the fact that there's no structure actually makes me assess free verse harsher than I would assess traditional poetry, because it doesnt have anything else to justify it other than the content. If I read an utterly generic love poem written in a 'traditional' form then I'm likely to say something like "this is terrible but at least it makes an effort", whereas with a bad piece of free verse I'm more likely to dismiss it as having no value whatsoever. Actually, I think its possible that writing good free verse is even harder than writing good traditional poetry, just because its so difficult to actually make it worth reading (I would struggle to name more than a handful of free verse poems that I liked)

Edited by Hal
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Sure, you can write a piece of awful free verse in a few minutes, but then you could write an awful rhyming poem in the same time.

What I meant is that no matter which kind of content you have to convey in the first place, putting together a free verse version is easier than putting together one with lots of rhyme, structure, etc. that conveys the content just as good as the free verse.

I'd call this free verse, and I dont see why it was easier to write than most sonnets.

I guess you missed that it rhymes. :D

..., but I would guess that writing terrible poetry takes very little effort and writing great poetry takes a lot, regardless of whether you use free verse or a great deal of structure.

Free verse has to employ great means of conveying its content without using structure. Great structured poetry would have to use structure on top of that.

Personally, the fact that there's no structure actually makes me assess free verse harsher than I would assess traditional poetry, because it doesnt have anything else to justify it other than the content. If I read an utterly generic love poem written in a 'traditional' form then I'm likely to say something like "this is terrible but at least it makes an effort", whereas with a bad piece of free verse I'm more likely to dismiss it as having no value whatsoever.

I'm just guessing here, but could it be that you assess free verse harder because it is less effort not to package it? You said yourself about "traditional" form: "...but at least it makes an effort." Actually, that's been my point.

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  • 2 years later...
As poetry goes it sucks

But that is just my narrow perspective

These days the line

between poetry and essay is almost

totally nonexistent

I think it is funny

that writing a bunch of short lines

and throwing in a blank line

makes stuff poetic

even if it has no rhythmic structure

So the essence of poetry is

the vague content I think

Although I do think there is a rule of poetry still enforced about too long lines

which use up too much ink

And I apologize for rhyming

I was just reading on my Kindle 2, something that I this is very relevant here, though I haven't read all the entries in this thread, I merely wanted to add this thought provoking quote that's made me understand more of Rand's views on poetry, which is taken from the Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol 4, Issue 1, in an article titled Iron Pyrites in the Dickinson Mine written by Lewis Turco:

People in the twentieth century have been calling line-phrased prose "free verse" (a contradiction in terms, since verse is metered language and prose is unmetered language [O.E.D. and T.N.B.O.F., [End Page 110] pp. 8-11 & 203-4])

Dave's lines above are such "line-phrased prose", at least to me, and I am thinking that I might be calling "free-verse" "line-phrased prose" now. But again this is thougt provoking to me, so I still have some thinking to do on it. Perhaps I should look more closely at Rand's views or definition of what poetry is, in order see if this renaming is the correct naming. Right now, I think that it is. I should also check out the reference of the above sometime too.

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