To Define The Indefinable

Consider the following task. Choose a poem and then define the metrical-prosodic form in which it is written. Most people will be able to identify The Rape of the Lock as a sequence of heroic couplets, Paradise Lost as blank verse and Shakespeare's sonnets as indeed sonnets. At the irregular end of the sliding scale, the Romantic ode, Hopkins's sprung rhythm or Coleridge's accentualist experiment in 'Christabel' will make concessions to identifiable patterns of syntax, alliteration, rhythm or rhyme scheme—their irregularity is validated by their invocation of regular precedent. But with Williams's 'The Red Wheelbarrow', Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro' or Eliot's 'Ash Wednesday' we can agree to designate all three as free verse only because they persistently evade the abstract patterns of regular verse. We know what they are because of what they are not. It might be possible to draw up a diagram of stress patterns and line lengths, but this would not represent an abstract formula for free verse, only a plan of the particular free verse poem that we happen to be reading.

The only unifying element in the free verse canon is the use of the poetic line—the so-called prose poem can be dismissed as an intriguing aberration. But what is a poetic line? If it does not establish its formal identity in deploying a regular or irregular pattern of sound (metre, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration) it cannot, at least in the abstract, be said to exist. We might shift our perceptual focus from the conventional to the cognitive end of the double pattern and still be disappointed: there is no rule or convention that obliges the free verse poet to construct his line according to any particular syntactic formula. The free verse line might consist of a complete sentence or of a single word (adjective, noun, verb, connective) whose relation to the syntactic structure of preceding and succeeding lines is infinitely flexible. By establishing this peculiar precedent the free versifiers have caused a number of problems for readers, critics and other poets. At the root of these problems is the relation between the tangible presence of the free verse line—it exists on the page and if we cannot hear it the speaker must have chosen to marginalise its graphic status—and its signifying function.

It is not too difficult to identify incompetent writing in regular verse in the sense that an aspiring poet's inability to properly reconcile the twin demands of the double pattern will become painfully evident. But with free verse there are no particular syntactic or metrical rules that the reader might invoke to judge the quality of a poem. As we have already seen (Chapter I, pp. 1314), Jonathan Culler can turn a prose discourse into a free verse poem by visually foregrounding parts of its syntactic framework, and Stanley Fish claims to have distilled impressive naturalisations from his students in response to a poetically 'shaped' list of surnames on the black-board ('How to Recognise a Poem When You See One', 1980). At the less serious end of the aesthetic paradigm Private Eye's resident free versifier, E.J.Thribb ('a poet, 17', though by now probably 47) has produced absurd and amusing examples of 'occasional' free verse.


In my last poem

'Lines on the


In my last poem 'Lines on the 100th Anniversary Of the Birth of W.Somerset Maugham' The word 'Yorkshire' Appeared as Workshire'.

Keith's mum Spotted it

Immediately though I confess I did Not when I read The proofs.

I regret the

Inconvenience this

May have caused to readers.

One mispelt word Like this can Completely destroy A poem.

8 February 1974 Thribb has established himself as a comic institution (four of his works feature in D.J.Enright's Penguin Book of Light Verse, 1980) because we, his amused readers, are still uncertain about what the writing and interpretation of free verse actually involve. The cognitive pattern of the above poem makes its context clear enough: an erratum by an unselfconsciously adolescent poet ('Keith's mum spotted it immediately'). As a prose note this text would function as an engaging, even charming, example of ingenuousness, but it becomes comic because its division into lines projects it into the 'serious' sphere of the poetic. But why do we not find William Carlos Williams's This Is Just To Say' (1934) equally laughable?

This Is Just To Say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast

Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold.

Jonathan Culler (1975), amongst others, offers an admirably straightfaced naturalisation of this poem. It is, he points out, 'a mediating force', it engages the reader in the semantics of 'forgiveness', 'the sensuous experience' of eating fruit, and it foregrounds a situation of domestic intimacy ('I', 'you', 'me') (175). It would not be quite so easy to remain serious about the projected situation of a teenage poet confessing his incompetence as a proofreader and invoking the sagacious vigilance of 'Keith's mum'. The qualitative distinction between these two texts is grounded entirely upon the pre-poetic, cognitive dimension of the double pattern (its syntactic-semantic structure and its imagined context). The poetic function (division into unmetrical lines) plays very little part in the process of naturalisation; rather, it simply recontextualises the original statement, urges us to shift our interpretive focus from the practical and utilitarian to the aesthetic context. A visual arts analogy might be found in the 'framing' of a lavatory seat or Andy Warhol's famous 'picture' of a soup tin. In short it would seem that free verse is the final realisation of Johnson's fears regarding blank verse: it is a cultural-aesthetic sign without substance. Our judgemental resources are based only upon how we grade the appropriateness of recontextualisation: Williams's line divisions foreground the enclosed pleasures of domestic intimacy, Thribb's foreground the farcical dimwittedness of the teenage poet.

Not all free verse poems involve the same structural framework as Thribb's and Williams's and in what follows we will encounter two basic distinctions: poems that draw upon conventional patterns of sound and metre, and poems that demand a redefinition of the line as neither a subsidiary element of syntax nor a measurement of metrical patterning.

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