I’m going to do something I said I don’t do and have only done once before. It’s not often and as a general rule, I don’t publish my poetry on this blog or elsewhere until it has found a home in a journal or publication somewhere. I’m making an exception here, the reason of which should become obvious.
I’ll state on the outset that the poem is a free verse poem. As such, it has no metrical pattern. That does not mean, however, that it is without structure. It most certainly has a structure and the close reader will notice it right away.
Furthermore, the poem has a set rhythm. It would be a mistake to say that the reader can place stresses wherever she likes. That isn’t true. Try reading the poem and placing stresses on odd syllables and see what happens. The fact that the poem is free verse does not preclude that metrical sequences are out of the question. The difference between free verse and metered verse is simply that free verse has no set pattern.
Now, I’ll introduce the poem, titled “When I Come Home”:
When I come home, don’t set the table.
Don’t put on your red sash,
or don suede slippers.
Don’t uncurl your curls.
Smiles will fade in time,
don’t paint one on for me.
We’ll hone our day by vis’ting URLs,
typing in mem’ries ne’er were. Pers-
picating pains – brack – sackcloth and ash.
I will hold you if I am able.
Don’t wait up, when I come home.
The Avant Structure Of Free Verse
The structure of this poem is decidedly and assuredly avant-garde, though not completely. There is a formalist element here as well. I think it may properly be best categorized at that which Ron Silliman refers to as “post avant.” The late Reginald Shepherd might have called it a lyric postmodernism, though I don’t like that term. Cole Swensen would likely refer to it as a “hybrid” poem, a term I like even less.
I don’t think it matters what you call it as long as you recognize its innovations, which, in the proper frame of mind, are not really innovations but elements brought forward from the past. The innovation is in the marrying up of elements that typically are not seen side by side.
“Avant” is a term that simply means out in front, or the front line. Borrowed from the French “avant-garde” meaning the advanced guard, the English army used it from the 15th through the 18th centuries to describe its front line soldiers in combat. Common English usage has replaced “vanguard” for the same concept.
The 20th century gave birth to an artistic movement, in literature and the other arts, that was based on this concept. The movers were experimental and considered themselves on the vanguard of new modes of expression. The poets of the movement were entrenched in free verse, not metered verse, after the likes of Whitman and the French symbolists.
The disciples of this movement still consider themselves the harbingers of something new despite the fact that experimental literature has not really caught on with the general public, alive though it has been for 100 years. While the ranks of those practicing in the same vein as early experimenters has grown, the preferred expressions – in literature and the arts – is ingrained in the traditions of the past. Let’s not divorce ourselves from reality.
Still, that’s not to say that experimentation does not have its place. Free verse, in a certain sense, is experimental. For a large part of history, metered verse was the dominant form in poetry, though some poets who wrote in meter could properly be called avant during their times, if such a phrase were applied to the literary arts at all.
It’s interesting to note the parallel histories of blank verse and free verse. The former can be traced back to at least the fourth century, though in English its most renown early practitioner was Christopher Marlowe. After Marlowe, who borrowed from the Earl of Surrey, other English dramatists made wide use of it, including Shakespeare, Milton, Cowper, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. But Marlowe was certainly on the vanguard of the blank verse movement in English literature.
It is commonly thought that Walt Whitman was the earliest practitioner of free verse in English poetry. That, however, is not true. Henry Tompkins Kirby-Smith details the history of free verse in his book The Origins of Free Verse, tracing the form back to Abraham Cowley in the 17th century, which was about the time that both blank verse and iambic pentameter began to take on popular expressions.
The Pindaric odes of the 17th century, patterned after the odes of the Greek poet Pindar, fell into the non-structured form we call free verse, though they were much less loosely structured than much of the free verse of the 20th century, a fact their critics often pointed out. Still, later author’s of Pindaric odes were much more structured while still maintaining a close connection to the free verse style. Cowley, however, was the avant of his day.
Free verse has always been an avant form. It is, despite its growth into a tradition of its own, by nature a vanguard instrument for it relies upon a rebellion of the senses. It always has, always will be.
The Structure Of ‘When I Come Home’
So let us now look at my poem, “When I Come Home”, a rhymed free verse poem.
Did I say rhyme? Yes, take a look at the last words of each line and see if you see a pattern – there is one. Not a metrical pattern, but a rhymed pattern. It flows as such:
The rhyme scheme is a very important part of the structure of this poem. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t plan it. I happened upon it. As I wrote the sixth line it occurred to me that I had a half-rhyme, an end rhyme where the final two letters of each line were the same. Though the words don’t sound like rhyme – it is indeed a near rhyme – the visual rhyme appealed to me. I decided to see how I could play with that.
In each of these end rhyme cases you’ll notice that the rhyme, if anything, is visual even when not aural. I was able, in the last half of the poem, to take the original word for the corresponding rhyming line and drop the first letters of the rhyming word to create the second rhyme in the sequence. In some manner, this has been a device used by poets of all forms throughout history, but it’s a technique that is very popular among free verse practitioners of the late 20th century. I like it.
Couple the end rhyme sequence with the repeating internal rhyme sequence of the letters “on” within certain words like “don’t”, “don”, “one”, and “hone” and the poem creates its own rhythm. I consider this a hallmark of my style. This is not the first poem I’ve been known to write this way.
You’ll also find evidence of consonance and other rhyme sequences. For instance, “come” and “home”; “suede” and “slippers”; “uncurl” and “curls” – a slight variation with a negative-positive twist; “curls” and “smiles”; “vis’ting”, “typing” and “in” with “perspicating”; “ne’re” and “were”; and “brack” and “sackcloth”. Then there’s the assonance of “perspicating” with “pains”. Word play is something I find irresistible.
It is also noteworthy that there is only one word in the entire poem with more than two syllables. This is not an accident. “Perspicating” is not even a real word. It’s a variant of the word “perspicacious”, an adjective which I have adopted into a verb form for effect. Other words, like “vis’ting” and “mem’ries” would ordinarily be three syllable words, but I am forcing you to read them as two syllable words. This is a classic device borrowed from 17th century metered verse. It’s called elision. I want you to read those words as two syllables, not three, because it fits the musical cadence that is just right for this poem.
To me, the music of a line is very important. In metered verse, rhythm is intrinsic to the metrical pattern established by the form or the poet’s preference in metrical patterns. The only tools a free verse poet has to establish rhythm are word choices, punctuation, and line breaks – enjambment. Proper use of those elements require a careful ear for a free verse poet and in many ways it is easier to write metered verse. If a poet has no ear for music he can always count syllables.
Even in metered verse, the natural rhythms of language will win out unless a poet is clear about where stresses should be placed by using proper elements like elision, caesuras, synaloepha, punctuation and, yes, even word choices. It’s important to understand where a stress falls in natural language. Rarely are words like “of’, “and”, and “but” stressed in common speech. Why should they be stressed in a poem?
It’s not really proper to perform scansion on a free verse poem, but if you were to scan “When I Come Home” I think you’d find a pretty consistent rhythm to it. Not a metered pattern, but a consistent rhythm.
Try saying that first line out loud. There should be a natural flow. Imagine the first clause – “when I come home” – being spoken to a wife who is waiting the return of her husband after a hard day’s work or a mistress awaiting the return of a soldier from war. How would it be spoken in plain speech? I hear it this way:
When I come home
I hear it this way because natural language, it is said, is iambic. Not always, but often in common speech, if you could listen to yourself, you’ll find that your sentences follow a certain rhythmic structure. It’s really natural that this happens. Whether it is inherent to language, or inherent to the English language, or conditioned by social custom is a matter I’ll leave to the linguists and anthropologists. I have observed, however, that it is mostly true. Perhaps you have too.
That first line sounds like iambic tetrameter to my ears, with an extra half foot at the end of the line. If it were written as prose, it would sound the same. Though, truthfully, that third foot could – and perhaps should – be read as trochaic, making this line an imperfect iambic sequence. Even in metered verse, that happens.
This poem is not written as prose for a reason. That’s because it isn’t prose; it’s verse. And verse is poetry that emphasizes specific cadences and language sequences that are often not found in prose. An example of that would be the following three lines:
We’ll hone our day by vis’ting URLs,
typing in mem’ries ne’er were. Pers-
picating pains – brack – sackcloth and ash.
These lines would make no sense in prose. Take out the line breaks and you have a convoluted mess. Without context, poetic lines can be meaningless. The form provides the context. Let’s examine the lines:
The elision is key to understanding the rhythm of these lines. Remember, no accidents.
When analyzing rhythm, and this is true whether you are analyzing a metered poem or free verse, you should first look at the words and sequences that will give you the greatest difficulty. Often, they can provide clues on how the rest of the line should be read. There are only two ways to read “vis’ting”. You can put the stress on the first syllable – vis‘ting – or on the second syllable – vis’ting. Of course, it doesn’t take long to figure out that second option just sounds silly. In normal speech, the stress always falls on the first syllable. Again, it should be so in a poem unless there is a real reason otherwise.
Read the line aloud. It falls into a natural iambic rhythm and if you count the syllables you’ll find it has four feet. Cool, a perfect match with the first line. That wouldn’t have worked out that way had I not included the elision to force you to read it that way.
The next line is a real doozy. Not just one difficulty, but several. First, “mem’ries” is elided, as is the word which follows, and “Pers-”, the first syllable of a made up word ends the line being the first word after a period. Note that perspicacious – the root from which “perspicating” is derived – normally is broken into syllables thus: per ^ spi ^ ca ^ cious – with the first syllable ending after the ‘r’ rather than the ‘s’. But I didn’t break up “perspicating” that way because it would have violated the rules I set forth in the rhyme scheme and the hard ‘s’ sound of “pers” makes the line more musically palatable.
Note the rhythm of the line. Count the syllables. Eight. Do you think this might be a line that follows the iambic tetrameter rhythm sequence? Let’s see.
typing / in mem / ‘ries ne’er / were. Pers- //
Close, but no cigar.
Actually, the answer is yes. With the exception of that first foot, all the others are iambic. “Typing” is a word that would naturally be trochaic. You wouldn’t pronounce it typing. That would sound silly. So we’ll leave it as it is.
“Memories”, however, would naturally be stressed on the first syllable, even without the elision. As would “never”. And “perspicacious” too. All would be stressed on the first syllable. So we’ll leave them as they are.
But the elision is the key to getting the rhythm right on this line. “Memories” – a three-syllable word – becomes “mem’ries” – a two-syllable word. “Never” – a two-syllable word – becomes “ne’er”, a one-syllable word. So the natural rhythms of the language take over and when read with the elision of the two words back-to-back, the line becomes an acceptable iambic tetrameter, fitting in with lines one and seven.
But take a look at the next line.
pica / ting pains / – brack – / sackcloth / and ash.
This is a difficult line for scansion and the perfect evidence for why it isn’t necessary, or customary, in free verse. But if one were to scan it, I think the bold syllables offer the best opportunities for stresses.
Remember, start with the difficulties. The word “brack” right in the middle of the sentence, broken by front and rear dashes, caesuras, means this word is most definitely stressed. It’s got a hard sound and I’m sure most readers couldn’t say it in this context without stressing it.
The second syllable of the line – “ca” – is the third syllable of the word “perspicating” and, again, in natural speech would be stressed. For “sackcloth”, the natural stress falls on the first syllable. The line naturally reads with the stresses on the syllables where I have placed them. No accident.
So am I saying this poem is iambic tetrameter? No, not all. If you examine other lines in the poem they don’t conform to that pattern at all.
- Don’t put on your red sash, = 6 syllables
or don suede slippers. = 5 syllables
Don’t uncurl your curls. = 5 syllables
Smiles will fade in time, = 5 syllables
don’t paint one on for me. = 6 syllables
Wait. Is that another pattern? Right in the middle of the poem? Yes, it’s a small pattern but not a metrical one. None of the lines read the same. The first line, the second line of the poem, could be counted as two feet. The others consist of three. But which words would you naturally stress?
Don’t put / on your / red sash,
or don / suede slip / pers.
Don’t un / curl your / curls.
Smiles will / fade in / time,
don’t paint / one on / for me.
Whenever in doubt, read a poem as you would speak in natural conversation. You’ll often hear the rhythm that the poet intended.
What’s the point? Free verse has no prosody. Scanning it is pointless, right? Well, it isn’t customary. I’ll give you that. But if it helps understand the rhythm of the poem then it’s an exercise worth undertaking. In this case, it simply proves that there is no metrical pattern, but we knew that. Didn’t we? Still, did you notice the two-line trochaic sequence?
But What’s The Poem MEAN?
I’m going to pretend for a minute that I didn’t write this poem, that I only found it in some obscure poetry journal and don’t know who the author is. I’ll talk a little bit about what the poem might mean based on the plain language of the poem. And I’ll try not to reveal any secrets. I’m just going to analyze it based on the words and the structure.
I agree with Archibald MacLeish: A poem doesn’t need to mean anything. It should just be what it is. But we humans like things to be pat so we tend to look for meanings.
Let’s start with the basics. The narrator is “I”, but not just any “I”. It’s a very specific “I” who is speaking to a very specific “you”, though “you” is never mentioned in the poem. It’s implied by lines like “(You) Don’t put on your red sash.” We know the person in the poem is talking to someone. And that someone is very familiar to the speaker.
I imagine a man returning from somewhere and speaking to his wife or significant other in a letter or a phone call, maybe an instant chat session. Maybe I’m sexist, but that’s what I imagine. It could be a woman talking to her house husband. Or it could be someone talking to his mother. Or the maid. But I’d say that judging by the language of the poem, it’s someone who is more familiar than a maid.
The speaker tells his listener, “Don’t put on your red sash or don suede slippers.” Why red sash? Why suede slippers?
The color red is generally associated with romance or love, sex and passion. And a sash is simply a type of garment worn around the waist, or it can be worn over the shoulder as a symbol of rank. To me, it signifies someone who is important. A red sash likely means the person being spoken to has a very special and significant place in the speaker’s world. It tells me that the person being spoken to is probably a familiar other – a lover, spouse, or maybe a parental figure.
But “suede slippers” says something different. It moves the relationship between speaker and subject a little closer. I’d say it rules out the parental figure and almost clinches the deal on the lover. Slippers are comfortable and worn in a familiar setting, a home. Suede is smooth and soft. The lines says we are very familiar and comfortable with each other. Nevertheless, don’t make yourself comfortable for me – don’t set the table and put on something special just because I’m coming home.
“Don’t uncurl your curls.”
Now we’re getting personal. We’ve moved from outside of the individual to actually talking about body parts. And this is what makes me think it’s a man talking to a woman. He doesn’t want her taking down her hair, or uncurling her curls.
The next two lines say a lot. People smile when they are happy. But people can often fake a smile and when they do it can often be noticed. Is the speaker saying to this familiar person, “don’t pretend to be happy to see me?” This is the implication.
But the next lines are somewhat difficult to interpret. There’s a mystery here. What is meant by “vis’ting URLs?” It’s an obvious reference to playing around on the Internet, but what are those URLs they will visit? We aren’t told, but we know they are important to the speaker. But “typing in mem’ries ne’er were” takes the poem to a new level. Are they going to be Googling their memories? The ones that didn’t happen? Are those memories positive or negative? I think the next line is a clue.
“Perspicating pains” – Perspicacious means discerning, or exercising keen mental judgment. This is what the speaker intends to do with “pains”. To seek a better understanding of their troubles.
“Brack” is very significant. It sounds like “break” and in this poem actually looks like one. Enclosed within two breaks – dashes – that give the word a harder sound than it otherwise would and draw attention to it like a bad bruise. Brack actually means a crack or flaw in something. It is a clear indication of a fissure in this relationship. Did the couple have an argument? Is the speaker still holding a grudge?
“Sackcloth and ash” is a specific reference that can only mean one thing. In ancient Israel, the Jews used to cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes to show penitence for their sins. It was a sign of humility, a way to mourn for the disappointment they have caused their God. The speaker here seems to imply a similar sentiment. Is he returning home to atone for some sin against his lover, the most important person in his life?
We’re not sure. There’s a mystery, but these are clues. Then he says “I will hold you if I am able.” If I am able. Does that mean physically able or emotionally able? I’m banking on the latter. But that final line – “Don’t wait up, when I come home.” – says the speaker is not concerned with being greeted. Perhaps he is not sure when he will come home and doesn’t want her waiting for him. Or maybe he doesn’t want her worrying over his absence. Or maybe …
We’re not sure of all the details. The poet has not given us everything he could. But he’s given us everything we need. The poem hinges on an emotional mystery. Two people have a riff between them, but what caused it? That’s not important. Otherwise, the poet would have mentioned it. What is important is that the speaker in the poem wants to humble himself and fix the break. The question is, can he?
Can The Same Thing Be Accomplished With Prose?
It’s pretty straightforward, really. Those eleven lines. Couldn’t they just be written as prose and achieve the same effect?
Some poets today have reasoned that their poems could just as well be written as prose since all they’re really doing is writing in prose-like sentences. But I think this is a deficiency in thinking.
It’s true that much of the free verse written today looks a lot like prose with line breaks. If you took out the line breaks then you’d simply have a short prosaic piece and it makes you wonder why these poets don’t just write prose. Some of them do and call their poems “prose poems.” Today’s best literary journals are full of poems that look like “lineated prose.” Is that all they are, and nothing more?
I don’t think so. That’s makes the nature of free verse an ontological permanent, which I’m not willing to accept.
“When I Come Home” would fail as prose. It wouldn’t retain the structure that it has now if it were prose. The end rhymes would hardly be noticeable; at best, they would be irrelevant. The rhythm of the poem wouldn’t change if it were prose, but rhythm is not all that free verse has to offer. The visual elements that make the poem a free verse poem, if exploited properly, would cause the poem to fall flat if it were written any other way. Here’s a look at the same lines written as prose:
When I come home, don’t set the table. Don’t put on your red sash, or don suede slippers. Don’t uncurl your curls. Smiles will fade in time, don’t paint one on for me. We’ll hone our day by vis’ting URLs, typing in mem’ries ne’er were. Perspicating pains – brack – sackcloth and ash. I will hold you if I am able. Don’t wait up, when I come home.
As prose, these lines are awkward and squeamish. We’ll deal with the obvious first.
Why the elision? If written as prose, there’d be no need to elide “visiting”, “memories”, or “ne’er”. There’s no rhythmic reason to do so. Furthermore, the sentence these three elided words reside in is missing the word “that” between “mem’ries” and “ne’er”. The correct prosaic way to render these lines would be “We’ll hone our day by visiting URLs, typing in memories that never were.” And there would probably be a better word for “hone” because the internal rhyme scheme is not a necessity and adds nothing to the prosaic nature of the lines.
The next sentence (“Perspicating pains – brack – sackcloth and ash.”) is a fragment. It looks completely out of place and the variation of “perspicacious” is an unnecessary liberty that draw undue attention to itself.
None of the elements that make “When I Come Home” interesting as poetry do the same for it as prose. Even the ominous – brack – looks out of place. It’s a device that, in prose, looks ridiculous but when used to break a poetic line is very effective. I’ve seen other poets do the same thing in similar ways in their free verse poems and it’s an effect, albeit a visual one (though there is a rhythmic component to it), that cannot be accomplished with the same precision in prose.
The New Face Of Free Verse
Ever since Dr. Frederick Turner, a New Formalist, challenged me to study meter while attending the University of Texas at Dallas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I’ve considered that the line between free verse and metered verse is not really all that great. But contemporary poets seem to be trying to make that line greater and greater. I think they’re moving the wrong way.
Despite Reginald Shepherd’s and Cole Swensen’s studies in this area, even post avant poetics is grounded in avant-garde abnormalities. Even when the poets include elements of formal verse, they do so in such a way that the avant nature of their verse is more evident than the formal. I think this is detrimental to both traditions.
In my view, free verse and metered verse should be joined at the hip. I look forward to reading more free verse that incorporates metered sequences in the midst of freer lines. Not just as two-line sequences as I’ve done in “When I Come Home” but in longer sequences as well.
Is there a precedence for this in poetry? Not really. I don’t know of anyone who has written verse that way on a consistent basis, but there is one poem I can think of right away that does incorporate metrical sequences within an otherwise free verse mode. Examine these lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”:
IN Xan / adu / did Ku/ bla Khan A state / ly plea / sure-dome / decree: Where Alph, / the sa / cred ri / ver, ran Through ca / verns mea / sureless / to man Down to / a sun / less sea. So twice / five miles / of fer / tile ground With walls / and tow/ ers were / girdled / round: And there / were gar/ dens bright / with sin/ uous / rills Where blos/ som'd ma/ ny an in/ cense-bear/ ing tree; And here / were for/ ests an/ cient as / the hills, Enfold / ing sun / ny spots / of green/ ery.
I’ve always thought it was interesting that Coleridge wrote this with a clear metrical pattern in the first four lines and then moves off into a wild abandon afterwards. He was criticized for this in his day, but I quite like his style.
“Kubla Khan” is usually considered a free verse poem, and it is, but there is a clear iambic tetrameter sequence in the first four lines of the poem. Coleridge breaks that in the fifth line with a three-foot line. It’s a great line because as you read “down to a sunless sea”, the meter drops down a beat, a very appropriate rhythmic alteration.
Coleridge picks up the iambic tetrameter rhythm again in the sixth line, but breaks it again in the next with an added syllable. Personally, I think he could have done without “were” and held to the iambic tetrameter rhythm. The word is awkward in that line and adds nothing to the poem contextually. But he wrote what he wrote and that’s that. It has an extra syllable.
But then he quickly moves to a five-foot line in the very next sequence. The first line of the sequence has an extra syllable. That’s OK; I forgive him that. It works for that line. Still, Coleridge maintains his iambic pattern except for one foot buried in line 9.
These sequences all have rhythm. The rhythm is set by a meter, albeit a changing one. I don’t know if Coleridge was aware that he was doing this. He said he was not claiming the poem had any special literary merits so I’m inclined to believe that was aware of it. He just didn’t care. He probably thought that he’d be criticized for it because poets didn’t mix their meter. That would have been an unforgivable sacrilege for his time. Nevertheless, he did it.
Take a look at the next sequence:
But O, / that deep / roman/ tic chas/m which / slanted
Down the / green hill / athwart / a ce / darn co/ ver!
A sav / age place! / as ho/ ly and / enchant / ed
As e’er / beneath / a wan/ ing moon / was haunt / ed
By wo / man wail/ ing for / her de/ mon-lo / ver!
Don’t worry. I’m not going to scan this entire poem. I’ll spare you that. But take note that this metric sequence is dominated by 5-1/2 foot lines carrying an iambic rhythm with a few variant feet here and there. The sequence doesn’t match the previous sequence at all. But it does establish its own pattern. With the exception of the first line, a 6-foot line, the other lines in this sequence all bear a striking resemblance in structure, rhyme, and rhythm. Even that first line conforms to the pattern of the sequence despite its extra syllable. However, it does not conform to the pattern of the sequence before it, or the one before that.
So we can see metrical sequences within the free verse form of “Kubla Khan”. Did Coleridge plan that? Probably not. But he should have. Had he established that as his poetic for this poem he might have been able to tighten a few lines and perfect it. I’m suggesting that free verse poets of the future follow Coleridge’s example and add metrical sequences to their free verse lines. It will establish a new poetic, but it’s not like that’s never been done before. Has it?