Free Verse Mind: Part 2
To place this group of posts in context, what I am exploring, or trying to uncover, is a certain type of free verse mind. I’m not trying to make free verse wrong, or less than formal verse. But there is a type of free verse poet who, in my opinion, is simply blind to the beauty of form. When I say ‘beauty of form’ I mean that the form itself, independent of any particular instance, has an attractiveness to it. And my sense is that some free verse advocates are simply deaf to this kind of beauty.
After a lot of thinking about this, the one word I would use to describe this approach is the word ‘disembodied’. It is a word that free verse poets sometimes use to describe their own approach: see, for example, the ‘Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics’. In other words, there is a certain type of free verse poet who strives to be disembodied; it is an esthetic ideal. And I believe there is a connection to being disembodied and being unable to appreciate the transcendental beauty of form.
Formal verse, whether metrical or syllabic, is embodied poetry. It is embodied because it is shaped by counting. In metrical verse what is counted are poetic feet. In syllabic verse what is counted are syllables. But both types of formal poetry rely on counting.
My view here is that counting is of the body and that therefore formal verse is embodied in a basic, almost biological, way. People count on their fingers, tap the beat of the music with their feet. Musicians count the pulse of the piece they are playing. In Japan, when Japanese poets compose Haiku or Tanka, they count on their fingers. Counting is intimately embedded, embodied, in our biology; our heartbeat, our walk, our sense of time. Because of this kind of connection formal verse is never very far from the body of the poet, even if the subject matter appears to be ethereal.
In contrast, free verse has a tendency towards the disembodied. The word ‘tendency’ is crucial here. The Psalms in their reformation translation versions, the best of Whitman, and many other examples, are embodied. They have a kind of rhythm. I believe in these cases the rhythmic embodiment emerges often from the use of parallel structures, which creates a kind of pulse even with highly irregular line counts.
But once poetry is cut loose from counting, it is easy to slip into a disembodied poetic state. A disembodied poem is one that has no sense of pulse, no rhythm. It not only is created without counting, in a sense it is uncountable; in the sense that the listener does not get a feel in their body of units to count. This type of poetry is more akin to the essay or the diary in its impact. The essay is trying to communicate an idea; it is primarily mental. I often get the same feeling from much of contemporary free verse; it strikes me as highly mental, abstract. This may, at first, be unclear as the ideal from which this kind of free verse emerges is often one of self-expression. The result is a kind of revelation of the poet’s feelings, likes and dislikes, opinions, and free associations. I would suggest, though, that this is also primarily mental, primarily centered on the mind and represents a kind of self-fascination as an ideal to be pursued.
There is another aspect to the sometimes disembodied nature of free verse: it is disembodied, i.e. disconnected, from history and community. When I say disembodied from history I mean that free verse poetry, as I mentioned in my previous post, does not relate to its past as a resource for its own expression. In contrast, formal verse is embedded in a relationship with past poets who have written in the same form.
How does this impact the emerging field of English syllabic verse? The primary impact is that a disembodied approach to poetry will ignore the formal parameters of a verse form, even when the history of that form is clear to all and historically established beyond question. A good example of this is the way Tanka has been treated in the U.S. Tanka is a formal verse tradition. It has a written history of about 1400 years. During all this time the syllabic pattern has remained the same: a five line poem of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, for a total of 31. Yet all Tanka organizations, and journals, I am aware of in the U.S. have abandoned these formal parameters. It is very easy to see that modern American Tanka Journals are simply free verse journals and that any relationship they have to the Japanese form has been severed. At first this is a startling. Yet it makes sense that if you are form deaf, if you are cut off from a living sense of the poetic past, then the pretense of ignoring the formal parameters of a tradition, and yet adopting its name and claiming its heritage, would not generate a sense of incoherence. It resembles someone who is tone deaf trying to sing a song; it just isn’t going to resemble the song as actually written, but if the person singing is not aware of their own tone-deafness they won’t see this as a problem or hindrance.
At another level, I am aware, as I mentioned before, that many younger poets have never encountered formal verse. They may have a vague awareness that people counted something-or-other in the past to write their poems. But they have not actually done so themselves and no one has encouraged them to do so. For this group the idea of Tanka as free verse would be an almost default position. The sad thing is that it should be Tanka Journals and Tanka organizations job to introduce people to the formal nature of Tanka; yet they have not assumed that obligation. In fact the opposite has occurred and they have often taken an antagonistic stance toward formal Tanka.
Yet, it is intriguing to me, that syllabic Tanka has taken on a life of its own; in a way that is similar to syllabic Haiku. That is to say I have noticed publications, almost always done through print-on-demand technologies, and some blogs, which are rooted in Tanka as formal verse; that is to say they are connected to the actual Tanka tradition. And here I suspect the reason is that embodied poetry is inherently attractive. Counting syllables, shaping lines, to a shared formal structure embodies the poem, connects it to our breath, our walking, the beat of a melody, the rhythm of our days. There is no formal organization or Journal advocating for a formal approach to Tanka, which is also true for syllabic Haiku. Yet a formal approach to these two forms in English continues to attract a variety of poets. At first I was puzzled by this because I thought that the free verse advocacy by official organizations and journals would simply overwhelm a syllabic, formal, approach to these borrowed forms. But I think the key here is that the embodied nature of formal verse is its own reward. Just as we enjoy singing a song in the shower, or humming a tune while engaged in chores, so also formal syllabic verse is inherently something human beings do. You can hear it on playgrounds and while listening to people in every-day conversations. Basho wrote a haiku about this where he points to the root of poetry as found in the rice-planting songs of rice farmers:
Roots of elegance
On this trip to the far north
(Basho: The Complete Haiku, Jane Reichhold translation, page 136)
Here Basho is connecting the rhythmic, embodied, work of planting rice, the song sung during this work, and the nature of elegance and of poetry. In some translations of this hokku (it was an opening verse to a Renga), the translator says “The root of poetry”. But regardless of whether or not Basho meant poetry in particular, or elegance in general, what Basho is pointing to is the embodied nature of his own work; that Basho never lost sight of how this embodiment is the root that nourishes art. This is a teaching which, I think, is foundational for a syllabic approach to English language poetry, one that will bear rich rewards.