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Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part II: The Shape of the Poem
by Lawrence Schimel
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How does a poet find the shape of a poem? The subject of the poem will in many ways determine the shape the poem will take. A narrative poem, which is a poem that tells a story, will usually take more lines to tell than a lyric poem, a term used to name poems that describe a particular moment or event or emotion. A poem meant to evoke an image or feeling will generally have a lot more "white space" on the page around it than, say, a rollicking ballad, which looks as episodic on the page with its regular stanzas as it is in its content. Epics, whether free verse or formal, are highly noncommercial properties these days. You may be driven to write one, but unless you're willing to self publish in order to bring your poem to an audience, know that you'll mostly be writing for self expression rather than communication.
How does the poet decide where to break stanzas? This can be an arbitrary decision, externally imposed upon the poem to give it some structure, or it can be based on thematic or grammatical concerns. Some poems have a stanza break between each sentence, so the grammatical unit becomes a self-contained unit, visually as well as grammatically, in much the same way that Whitman wrote his line lengths based on the breath. Some poets break stanzas the way they would break paragraphs, where each new turn of thought is represented by that extra break. Some poems will break stanzas in the middle of a sentence, in order to create tension between parts of the sentence or create double meanings, or to accentuate both the words and phrase which ends the stanza and those which begin the next.
How do you decide which of these tactics to take? There are no easy rules to follow in these cases, unlike when writing in a traditional form. Trial and error is therefore the only way. Try something. If it doesn't work, you can always go back to your original idea and start over again, trying to shape the poem. Especially with a free verse poem, where the shape of the poem is not expected to adhere to some fixed notion of what the poem should be like, the following axiom is especially apt: a poem is never finished, merely abandoned. You will continue fiddling until you're happy with the poem, until it accomplishes what you want it to.
I find that I, personally, write free verse poems in a big clump, and then massage, prune, and edit them until I'm happy with the shape. I show two drafts of my poem titled "Clotho's Spindle" for an example. (Clotho, as you'll recall, is the name of one of the three Greek fates, who spin, weave, and snip each life as a thread in their tapestry.) Word by word, they are identical. Yet the experience of reading each of them is different.
Having written the first draft, I looked at where I had chosen to break the poem into stanzas, based on thematic content, and thought about how I might break it differently. Since I tend to write formal poetry, I realized that many of the end words worked well together as couplets. I tried a draft like this on my word processor. There was a near-rhyme consonance or visual rhyme (ie echoing) that could be accentuated by breaking the poem into couplets. And a suspense could be added to certain sections by the extra delay and pause of the stanza break. The "couplet" draft also gave a visual impression of the overall poem as a tapestry or perhaps the warp or woof of a loom.
The second draft furthermore requires the reader to slow down, because of the way it's shaped: more attention is paid to the ways stanzas begin and end, and also keeping track of syntax across the stanza breaks; the reader needs to be more thoughtful or at least attentive while reading the poem. The form makes the poem more demanding, and forces the reader to really focus on the poem.
The first draft makes the poem seem more like a story, and I like that aspect of it. The narrative is the same in the second draft, but it seems to read more evocatively, perhaps because of how we're trained to read lyrics or because of the focus that needs to be paid to the poem because of the form, and the additional resonances and tensions the form creates with the content. The couplet version loses something of the frisson at the end, however, because nothing of the narrative is prioritized; each section, being of equal size and length, is of equal narrative weight. In the first draft, the break after "dust" give the last few lines a greater weight, because they are visually distinguished from he rest of the text and narrative, as if to highlight their importance.
I still haven't decided which version of the poem I prefer more. I may wind up trying something entirely new, or perhaps make an arbitrary decision, based on my gut feeling about which tone I think a given market might prefer or based on how I'm feeling that day, and send one or another of them out on submission, and let whatever version gets bought become the final version. I don't mean to sound wishy washy, but there are so many more decisions involved in writing a free verse poem rather than a poem in a traditional form. One of the advantages of choosing a form is that it lets you focus strictly on the content of the poem, and how this interacts with the form you've chosen. (Which, of course, may be the wrong form, and you may wind up rewriting it a different form or one of your own creation.) What I hope that I have shown is that you have all the tools of traditional poetry at your disposal. Free verse is not the dispensation of structure, it is the breaking of some rules, and the reapplication of others.
This article originally appeared in Speculations.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Lawrence Schimel makes his living as a full-time author and anthologist. He has published over 47 books in a wide variety of genres and media; his work has appeared in The Writer, ForeWord, The Saturday Evening Post, the Boston Phoenix, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and others, including numerous international publications. His writing has been translated into Basque, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and Swedish. For more information, visit http://desayunoencama.livejournal.com/.