Free Verse Mind – Part 6
Some time ago I posted a few times on the topic ‘Free Verse Mind’. I’ve wanted to post further on this topic, but have been stopped by the complexity of what I’m writing about. There are many factors; sociological, political, esthetic. And it is difficult for me to sort them out into something that is coherent. At this point I want to make some observations that may or may not be completely coherent in the sense of a well thought out position.
Several years ago I read Beautiful and Pointless by David Orr. I enjoyed the book. There was one comment Orr made in particular that stuck with me. Orr observes that nothing gets modern poets more agitated than discussions about form. As someone who is keenly interested in poetic form this observation resonated with my own experience. It’s almost like there is some kind of aversion in the wider poetic community to the subject of form. Free verse poets are dismissive, reluctant, or openly hostile to entering into these kinds of discussions. Like Orr, I remain puzzled by this kind of reaction.
I was once at a poetry reading where one of the poets read a poem and then concluded the reading of the poem by saying, ‘That’s a modern sonnet.’ I went over the poem in my mind and my sense of the poem was that it didn’t scan, didn’t rhyme, and I suspected it was not in fourteen lines, and it did not have any turn. At the conclusion of the reading I went up to a table where the poets were displaying their poetry books. I found the book with the ‘modern sonnet’. I was right: the poem that the poet called a ‘modern sonnet’ had zero indicators, or markers, of the sonnet form. I was baffled. Why would she call it a sonnet? Why would she want to?
Christian Wiman made a similar point in his review of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet. Wiman writes, “What is a sonnet? Careful, because if this anthology is a reliable guide, your definition needs to include some poems that have neither meter nor rhyme and aren’t fourteen lines long. The editor, Phillis Levin, states that her own working definition was that a poem ‘act like a sonnet,’ which must have meant that it lay quietly on the page when notified of its inclusion, because there are some contemporary poems here that have in common only ink and English.”
Part of the problem, I think, which I have teased out in conversations and from my reading, is that if someone, like myself, or like Wiman, says that a poem that is called a sonnet is not a sonnet (or some other form), that means that we are saying that the poem is a bad poem. But the issue of form and esthetic value are separable. I could like a poem and still argue that it is not, in fact, a sonnet even if the poet calls it a sonnet. It is my observation that these two evaluations are often confused.
Recently I read a collection by a poet who has achieved a significant following. In his collection there are two sections of ghazals. None of the ghazals follow the traditional formal constraints of the form. There is no refrain. There is no metric unity (either with meter or syllabics). The only carryover from the traditional ghazal is that the poems are written in couplets. The poet does not use either end rhyme, or the rhyme before the refrain which are standard markers of the form. Now and then the poet will take advantage of rhyme; but their appearance is haphazard rather than structural.
Is writing a series of couplets enough to make these poems ghazals? I don’t think so. Again, my remark is not about if these poems are good or bad, pleasing or distasteful, insightful or trivial. My question is simply, why would he want to call these poems ghazals when almost all the markers of the form are absent?
It’s kind of like ‘bait and switch’. For those of you who might not know, bait and switch is a retail technique designed to get customers into the store. The store will advertise that an item is on sale for an incredibly good price. But they will only have a few of those in stock. Or, in really unscrupulous situations, they may not have any in stock at all. When customers come in the salesperson apologizes, informing them that the item has sold out, and then steers the customer to some other item. The sale item was the ‘bait’; the item the customer is steered to is the ‘switch’. The ‘switch’ is more expensive and usually at a higher markup than the bait.
I once worked at such a retail store. Every Thursday they would advertise in local papers items on sale for the weekend. At best our store would get six to ten of the items. I didn’t realize when I first started that this was systematic and intentional. I just found it embarrassing. When I figured out what was going on I found another job.
When modern free verse poets take a formal designation for their poem and then don’t follow through on it, this has many of the features of the retail bait and switch operation. To call a poem a ‘sonnet’ is to set up expectations in the reader. The poet, in fact, may get people to buy their books based on the idea that there are sonnets included. So when the reader goes to the sonnet in the happy expectation that they will read a poem following the formal parameters that they know, and then they discover that not a single one of those parameters is met, it feels to the reader like they have been suckered. I think they are right.
There is another element to consider here: cultural appropriation. This happens when modern free verse, which is a western cultural phenomenon, takes a form from another culture and then eviscerates it of all its distinguishing features. It is then transformed into simply another free verse poem, indistinguishable from western free verse in general. But the name of the form is retained. It’s like serving macaroni and cheese and calling it some special Korean dish, like Bi Bim Bop, and then, if criticized, responding that rice is a carbohydrate and noodles are carbohydrates so what’s the problem?
I became aware of this kind of cultural appropriation from reading the poetry and essays of Agha Shahid Ali; the poet who did more than anyone else to bring the ghazal to the contemporary English speaking world. In Ali’s collection Ravishing DisUnities he writes,
For a seemingly conservative, but to me increasingly a radical, reason – form for form’s sake – I turned politically correct some years ago and forced myself to take back the gift outright: Those claiming to write ghazals in English (usually American poets) had got it quite wrong, far from the letter and farther from the spirit. . . .
. . . I found it tantalizing to strike a playful pose of Third-World arrogance, laced with a Muslim snobbery . . . For a free-verse ghazal is a contradiction in terms. As perhaps a free-verse sonnet, arguably, is not?
(Ravishing DisUnities, pages 2 and 3.)
For Ali, who moved to America from Kashmir, the idea of a free verse ghazal essentially ignores the nature of a ghazal. That is to say that it is the very nature of a ghazal to be formal verse. If it is not formal verse, it is not a ghazal; it may have borrowed elements from the ghazal, but it cannot be called a ghazal in good faith. And to call a free verse poem a ghazal is an act of cultural appropriation or colonization.
Interestingly, Ali does not see the same necessarily applying to the sonnet. Here I think Ali may, in fact, be blinded by what he refers to as his own ‘Muslim snobbery’. My guess is that Ali was not as acquainted with the history and place that the sonnet holds in English language poetry, and how closely that place resembles the place that the ghazal holds in the Urdu and Farsi speaking worlds.
What I have found puzzling about free verse appropriations of forms is trying to unpack why there is this tendency to appropriate a name, and implicitly a tradition. At times I have suspected bad faith; I mean wanting to stand on a venerable tradition without actually being qualified to do so. But I know from discussions with free verse poets who engage in this kind of appropriation that they do not see themselves as doing this and would, I think, be angry at the idea that they are engaged in such appropriation. Is this simply a blind spot on their part? I’m not sure.
I have said before, in previous posts, that free verse poets are ‘form deaf’. This deafness resembles a musician not comprehending the difference between different time signatures. Such a musician would be inclined to play a waltz which lacked any distinguishing rhythmic features and would not be able to see anything wrong with that. In a similar way, because free verse poets are form deaf they are unable to feel the distinguishing rhythm of a particular form and therefore feel no constraints at doing away with that feature; because they literally lack the ability to sense that feature. This lack resembles colorblindness. Just as a colorblind person lacks the capacity to perceive certain features in the world, so also the free verse poets seems to lack the capacity to perceive the rhythmic shape which makes a formal verse distinguishable from a free verse poem.
I don’t know if this is a physiological deficit, like colorblindness; I suspect that it isn’t. But here’s the thing: if a poet does not exercise this capacity for hearing form, then that capacity will atrophy. This is true of many of our capacities which explains why many people exercise regularly.
And I think this partially answers Orr’s inquiry as to why poets today become so agitated regarding the subject of form: because they sense that they have lost the capacity for hearing form and this is, at some level, embarrassing.
The end result of this rejection of all distinguishing features of a form is that all the poems in that form, but lacking the formal distinctives of that form, look simply like standard free verse poetry. They are, in fact, indistinguishable from ordinary free verse. A free verse ‘ghazal’ simply looks like, and reads like, an ordinary free verse poem. The same is true of free verse haiku, or free verse sonnets. They all become assimilated into the free verse collective understanding of how modern poetry should be written. All distinctions as to type vanish and we are left with an undifferentiated fog of featureless pseudo-forms. This procedure resembles that of the Borg Collective, from the Star Trek Next Generation series. The Borg would search out sentient life forms and then assimilate them into the Borg Collective (symbolized by a spaceworthy gigantic high-tech cube). If a life form tried to resist they would be overwhelmed by the superior technology of the Borg and forced to become a part of the collective. The Borg would announce, ‘Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.’ And then the Borg would proceed to do just that.
In a similar way, free verse has combed the poetry of the world, finding forms here and there, and then absorbing them into the Free Verse Collective understanding. Free verse has done this by ejecting all the distinguishable features of particular forms (like metrics or syllabics, rhyme, and other formal markers) and then forcing the form into the standard parameters of modernist free verse. And they have been very successful in doing this. Free verse haiku, free verse tanka, free verse ghazal, free verse sonnets; they all more closely resemble each other and standard free verse than they do the forms that they would like to think they are connected to. In this way they are assimilated into the Free Verse Collective.
Using language like ‘The Free Verse Collective’, and comparing them to the Borg, is, admittedly, hyperbolic. I don’t believe there is an actual free verse collective engaging in the practice of cultural appropriation and imposing its will on any and all cultures of formal verse that dare to resist. I hope that is clear; but in case it isn’t, and in our overly literal time people have difficulty spotting this kind of thing, I so clearly state.
Rather, I am describing a frame of mind that simply sees its way of doing things as naturally superior and therefore cannot see any negative consequences in the kind of cultural assimilation described. No doubt the Borg considered themselves superior as well and, if they gave it a thought, would think that their absorbing peoples into their collective to be uplifting them.
I once gave a reading of my poetry, focusing on my collection of quatrains, Hiking the Quatrain Range. I was reading from my quatrains that mimic the formal parameters of the Chinese quatrain tradition: that is to say I used five or seven count lines with a traditional rhyme scheme of A-B-C-B. I read excerpts from several sequences. Then I paused for questions and comments.
A woman in the audience, a free verse poet I slightly know, asked why I used so much rhyme. I responded by saying that rhyme was an essential feature of traditional Chinese poetry and my goal was to mimic as closely as possible the parameters of the Chinese form. She didn’t understand what I was saying. The conversation continued politely, but for the most part we were talking past each other.
The difficulty was that she could not understand why I would want to impose constraints upon my poetry, why not just write a free verse line? This is what I mean by being deaf to form. For the most part, free verse poets lack the capacity to perceive the beauty that underlies a particular instance of formal verse; to perceive the form beneath the manifestation.
But I don’t think the situation regarding formal verse is hopeless. To see what is going on with formal verse at this time you have to pull your gaze away from what I call ‘official poetry’; those organizations and journals and MFA programs that are representatives of elitist culture. When you do lift your gaze you find a remarkable outpouring of formal verse scattered here and there. There is Cowboy Poetry, the emergence of a huge variety of new forms, small groups dedicated to particular forms found here and there, the lyrics of popular song, and dedicated individuals who persist in composing in forms which the elites have either rejected or absorbed into the free verse Borg. When I look at this wide variety of emerging poetry I think of it as a ‘yearning for form’ which the elite poetry institutions no longer satisfy. Form provides us with a deeper dimension of the poetic experience, a dimension that has been lost among the elites, but which ordinary people find appealing and beautiful. The beautiful is, by definition, attractive. And it is by turning to beauty that form is found.