by James A. Tweedie

 

If a Contemporary Free-Verse Poet Wrote a Sonnet

Today, because I’m early for Pilates,
__I stop at Starbucks for a cappuccino,
__But change my mind because the mocha lattes
__Don’t keep me up as much at night, or so
It seems to me. So, in walks Thad, my neighbor.
__“What’s up?” I ask. “Oh, hi, Denise,” he tells me.
__“I think my girlfriend just went into labor.”
__“You THINK?” I scream. “What’s wrong with you! Where is she?”
“At home. Her water broke and then she kicked me
__Outside to see if you would help her through it.”
__“I’m honored, but surprised to hear she picked me,”
__I said. “Of course, I will be glad to do it.”
“You’re hard to find,” he said. “We’d better go.
“I left the house about four hours ago . . .”

 

Note of Explanation

The idea for this poem emerged shortly after I received the latest issue of a national poetry magazine.
I quickly noticed a pattern and the pattern made me think of people taking “selfies.” Here are the opening words (or, in one case, the third line) of the first fourteen poems in the magazine, all written in free verse:

“I wish…”
“I sit here…”
“I’m in love…”
“Does it make you gasp to see this fissure in my naked torso…”
At the dinner party I didn’t want to attend…”
“Broken and waving, I…”
“I was born…”
“I ask the obvious…”
“No one calls me that anymore…”
“It was my fault…”
“I was ten when I learned…”
“…I have been arrested…”
“I was charmed by your mother…”
“I’m gonna offend a lot of white people…”

It got worse. Consider the following excerpts from one the poems:

“I didn’t want…”
“I didn’t know…”
“I didn’t know…”
“I am paraphrasing…”
“I heard…”
“I didn’t know…”
“I was…”
“I wish…”
“I had…”
“I just laugh…”
“I am…”
“I don’t plan…”
“I did…”
“I arrived…”
“I’m still…”
“I am a [library]…”
“I went hungry…”
“I let my hair grow…”
“I was a snarl of a thing…”
“I ate everything…”
“I could never become full.”

My response was to ask, “Who cares what this person wants, knows, doesn’t know, talks like, listens to, wishes for, laughs at, doesn’t plan for, feels like, or whether or not the person paraphrases, laughs, arrives, is hungry, lets his hair grow, snarls, ate everything, or never becomes full?”

I don’t care. Do you care? Does anybody care? And if so, why?

This isn’t poetry. It’s someone staring at their navel, looking in the mirror, lying on their analyst’s couch, and rambling about things that even Jerry Seinfeld would find uninteresting.

Joseph Salemi (in his recent SCP essay on “Moralistic Authenticity”) puts it this way: “Poems aren’t about you and your feelings and your experiences. Poems are about being poems.”

I’m not one who complains very often, but all of this struck me as being beyond sad, beyond the pale, and way beyond jumping the shark. The poetry featured in this magazine was the equivalent of a black hole.

Empty, void, meaningless.

Vapid.

I wrote the editor a letter.

“You can do better,” I said. “You must do better.”

Hopefully, here at SCP, we are trying to do better.

Caveat: These words are not to be understood as a critique of free-verse poetry, per se, for there are many contemporary poets, including several personal acquaintances and friends, who are writing and publishing exceptionally trenchant poetry in this form.

 

 


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17 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Love this post – great expose, James – excellent work and witty too in its parodic fashion. Let’s call it what it is!

    Reply
  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Good poem, needed commentary. I admire the use feminine and masculine (ok words?) in line endings. Also the repetition of “me” in line endings.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    The list of excerpts is utterly damning. “I… I… I… me… me…me…” Free-verse poetry has reached the point of total narcissistic self-absorption.

    Reply
  4. Peter Tardiff

    I can think of a lot of great poems that seem to be a poet talking about his personal feelings. For example, Frost: “I have been one acquainted with the night” or Wordsworth: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” or Hopkins: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee.” It seems like all three of these great poets (and I’m sure there are more examples) are writing about their feelings. What’s the difference?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a poet writing about his feelings, but when it becomes a monomaniacal requirement (as has happened in most free verse today) it is a disease.

      Reply
  5. Monty

    Regarding your caveat, James, and your assurance that there’s some “exceptionally trenchant” free-verse stuff flying around, I started to wonder how such poetry is judged. After a matter of seconds, I concluded that it could only be judged by two criterions: clarity of writing/diction.. and subject-matter. Would you agree that that’s the case, or d’you feel there are other criterions by which free-verse can be judged?

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I can give you a partial answer, Monty. Some critics go on and on about the exquisite placement of line breaks, but if the lines are fragmented and/or asemic in the first place, I say, what the hell does it matter? Jared Carter, who made his bones in the arena of formal poetry has some wonderful “free” verse in his recent book, THE LAND ITSELF. The poems in it are rich with images, and there is always satisfying closure in the narrative. It’s real poetry, not the un-poetry in Mr. Tweedie’s lifted example.

      I have often asked myself where the worst free-verse poetry is to be found. I can’t decide whether it’s THE NEW YORKER or POETRY magazine. The problem is that without sound criteria by which to judge, bad examples of this sub-genre, as with critically acclaimed examples, are difficult to rate. Lewis Turco writes that free verse is simply prose poetry, so if a poem reads like good prose, then I guess it’s good free verse.

      Reply
      • James Tweedie

        Monty, I think C.B. has given a good answer. The judgement of whether any given poem is good or not is notoriously subjective. This is especially true when the objective elements of rhyme and rhythm are absent.

        I think that I must agree with you that “clarity of writing/diction and subject-matter” are useful criteria with the first being far more important than the second since virtually any subject can be addressed by any given poem. I would also include the effective use of metaphor/simile/allusion and creative use of adjectives to capture emotion and sense of place without allowing the descriptive elements to become overly literal

        Here is an excerpt from what I consider to be a successful free-verse poem:

        . . . Pried away by mother moon
        That pale-faced angel
        Forever dodging behind clouds
        Paying only indifference to us
        As we, hand and hand,
        Approach the sacred grove

        The old bear is there
        Feasting on red salmon flesh
        While shadows lengthen
        And a one-footed raven
        Dances limb to limb

        These lines invite me to experience the subject of the poem both literally and figuratively in ways that go deeper than mere prose. This is, of course, my own subjective opinion, but there you go.

        It may be worth noting that the author of this except and I are collaborating to create a collection of our nature-descriptive Pacific Northwest poetry. Our poems, both free-verse and formal, will alternate and be illustrated with our photography. We wouldn’t be engaged in the project if we did not possess sincere mutual respect for each other’s poetry.

  6. Jan Darling

    Thank you Gentlemen – I greatly enjoy reading your comments and look forward to my daily dose of erudition. I have one grammatical question which has dogged me for years – the use of the subjunctive. As an example – I automatically read the title of James’ sonnet (yes, I often read aloud to myself, but I don’t open and close my mouth when I use scissors) as “If a Contemporary Free-Verse Poet WERE TO WRITE” a Sonnet.
    My English (who was also my Latin) teacher was very strict about the use of the subjunctive mood and would frequently chant “this use of the Conditional IF takes the third person plural of the verb ‘to be'”. I hear her now. Has this use of the subjunctive been abandoned? I will welcome any advice.

    Reply
  7. James A. Tweedie

    Jan, Grammar is not my strong suit. This is, I believe due to a combination of not having had a strict English teacher and because I was probably not paying attention when the subjective mood was presented. You are, of course, correct oncerning the use of the third person plural verb form in a subjective sentence. My poem’s title should properly have been written as you suggest. I suppose I should have figured this out from, as a child, listening to my parents’ recording of Tevye singing, “If I were a rich man” from Fiddler On the Roof.

    In vernacular, I suspect the subjective verb is widely abused these days. In literature, however, editors will (I suspect) still correct the error when they see it. Since formal poetry is literature, I suppose I have no choice but to plead guilty as charged.

    Reply
    • Jan Darling

      Great Heavens James! the only charge I could make against you and The Society would be of distracting me from less lofty pursuits. However, I see that you use the word ‘subjective’ where I would use ‘subjunctive’ and I am trying to figure out why. And then you distracted me again with “Fiddler on the Roof”…………

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        Things like this happen when I try to type and post via my cell phone! The intended word is, of course, “subjunctive.”

  8. Dave Whippman

    Clever witty work. I remember a few years ago in a writers’ group, hearing two rather smug individuals. One said, “Can you believe he actually writes rhyming poetry?” I’ve nothing against free verse, but that kind of arrogance needs a response, and your poem fits the bill.

    Reply
  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Mr. Tweedie, I have read what you’ve said with extreme interest and agree. I believe the main problem is that the vast majority of modern poetry is disconnected from the foundations of our culture. I love poetry and feel that free verse can be every bit as engaging as strict form. When I want to express emotion, I am much more likely to choose free verse for its accessibility. For example, I watched “The Passion of the Christ” and the scene with Mary and her tortured Son tore at my heart. It reminded me of myself going through the difficulties of raising a teenage boy who was beyond his mother’s touch. For me, strict meter and form would have detracted from the gravity of my feelings and I preferred to take a more simplistic approach.

    This is the poem that resulted from that turmoil. It had to be free verse. I adore form, as you can readily see on this site, but strict meter and rhyme just wouldn’t have been able to capture the angst my heart felt. Here is the result:

    A Mother’s Eyes

    She watches
    and burns to bear his burden
    (take the weight)
    but her son is beyond her reach
    (beyond cradling arms
    and steadying hands)
    for these aren’t his first steps
    they’re his last.

    His skin
    (skin she once kissed
    and dressed)
    is raw and flayed
    gouged and bloodied.

    His eyes
    (eyes that once mirrored
    her smile)
    brim with the woe
    of the world.

    Her feet are nailed to the spot.

    Her heart is pierced.

    She watches…

    c r u c i f i e d.

    Mr. Tweedie, is this poetry?

    Reply
  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Here’s my fun definition of poetry:

    Hyacinths & Biscuits

    Inspired by this aural delight of a quote by Carl Sandburg ~
    “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits”
    **********************************************

    “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits”
    It’s the distillate of happiness and pain.
    It’s condensing the comprehensible
    into something far less sensible
    but, nevertheless more beautiful
    than the bow that follows rain

    Poetry is the fusion of illusion and vermillion.
    It’s imagination’s sunset splashed in ink.
    It’s the heart of art’s resistance
    to a grey, mundane existence;
    it’s florescent effervescence
    in a pink, linguistic wink.

    Poetry is the union of molten moon and unicorn;
    it’s the song of wingéd stallion and rose.
    It’s the transcendental view
    in snazzy words with dazzling hue.
    It woos in sequined shoes
    as it tangos over prose.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Susan, The OED would be smart if they took your second poem and inserted it as one of its definitions for the word, “poetry.” It also might make the OED a bit less dry and more entertaining!

      As for your first poem, although I am not convinced that emotion is better served by free verse, I appreciate you illustrating my point that free verse can not only be trenchant but, in hands such as yours, is clearly capable of transcending prose.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Thank you very much for your feedback, James. The OED idea is excellent. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a few flamboyant, poetic definitions under the word “poetry”. I’m sure a whole new crop of budding wordsmiths would be drawn to this wonderful art if there were.

        I have to agree with you on the emotion front. There have been plenty of classical poems that I have related to on an emotional level. I just enjoy using form for humour, but that’s my own personal preference.

        This has been a very interesting post. I have enjoyed your fine poem and your observations, together with the interesting feedback from others.

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