Free is a word that gets used a lot. Politically, everyone wants to be free. Economically, people want free goods and services. Or free money. And poetically, some of us like free verse. Some people give away sex for free. To anybody. Isn’t that gross?
But what I’ve noticed when people use the word ‘free’ in most contexts is that they use it in a loaded way. You’ll often hear people say of government services – education would be a good example – that it’s ‘free’. Actually, it’s not. But it appears to be free so they think it is. That’s what might be called an optical illusion. It should more accurately be called a mental perception illusion.
The nature of free is such that there contains within it a duality that cannot be escaped. All freedom consists of freedom to and freedom from. It can be likened to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or dichotomy. We’ll call it the To/From dichotomy.
The To aspect of ‘free’ (re: freedom) is an expression of liberty within an individual’s range of choices. Being in a state of ‘free’ gives an individual a right to make decisions regarding X without restriction. In other words, all options are open.
The From aspect of ‘free’ is the expression of restraint upon an external force that has the power or authority to restrict an individual’s range of choices regarding X.
Let’s put these definitions into the context of the political realm. If an individual is free then he or she is said to be free to do something yet free from something else. The X factor in the To aspect of free as it relates to the context of politics is the right to perform actions that do not injure another party who is also free. The X factor in the From aspect of free as it relates to the context of politics refers to a legal restraint on the external force of government to restrict an individual’s choices. That is, From freedom stops government from restricting individuals from exercising their To freedom rights.
How about some examples:
- Religion – To: Choose one; From: Congress has no right to respect one religion over another or prohibit the free exercise of any religious practice.
- Press – To: Write what you will; From: Government cannot stop you from writing.
- Speech – To: Speak your mind; From: Government cannot stop you from speaking your mind.
- Sex – To: Pick a partner; From: Government cannot stop you from choosing a partner, even a partner of the same sex or a partner that someone else has not approved.
- Firearms – To: Maintain a posture of self defense through ownership of guns and weapons for that purpose; From: Government cannot stop you from protecting yourself and your family.
- Employment – To: Choose your occupation; From: Government cannot choose your occupation for you.
I hope I have made these distinctions clear with these illustrations. Now, I’d like to turn them over into the context of poetics.
The To/From Dichotomy In The Free Of Poetics
Whenever poets and literary critics discuss free in the context of poetics, as in ‘free verse’, it is usually in the aspect of From. They are most often making a comment that asserts that free verse is free from meter. And it is. To some extent. Not completely.
In actuality, the From aspect of free verse is not a complete break from meter. That is the common conception, but it denies the To aspect of free. What the From aspect of free verse is, and not just on the surface, is a freedom from the constraints of meter. That’s a far cry different than ‘free from meter’.
Meter, it’s raw character, that is, is a constraint. It restricts the freedom of a poet to do as he pleases. The poet may want to write a sonnet that ignores the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter, but if he does so then he won’t be writing a sonnet. The constraint of the form – the meter – restricts the poet from exercising his freedom to do otherwise.
The To nature of free verse, however, allows a poet a full range of choices. It does not close off the choice to employ meter when and if desired. It simply places a restriction upon the constraint of meter just as the From aspect of political freedom places restrictions upon government to place legal constraints upon citizens.
Seen this way, poets who write free verse can exercise more options.
How ‘To’ Freedom Can Make Poetry Better
I believe poets, particularly free verse poets, who consider the ‘free’ in free verse to be an expression of the From aspect of freedom are limiting themselves and their abilities to create. Of course, a poet who writes only in meter isn’t writing free verse. That’s obvious. But a poet that mixes it up, with a little meter here and there thrown in with free verse lines here and there, is exercising a full range of options.
Poets who see themselves as free from the constraints of meter will likely not pay much attention to the traditional modes of expression that made poetry what it was prior to the 20th century. But poets who see themselves as free to exercise all options do not have such a restriction. They have the latitude to be more creative.
This is the basic building block of Millennial Poetics. The ‘free’ in free verse is an expression of To as much as From. The free verse poet does not have to employ meter and may never do so, but he leaves that option on the table. Not just from poem to poem, but from sequence to sequence and from line to line. Free verse is a To/From proposition.
Consider the following lines, trite though they may be:
I dropped my dolly in the dirt
I asked my dolly if she hurt
And all my dolly would she say
Was, “How the hell would you feel asshole?
It feels pretty crappy!”
Silly as these lines are, you can see the obvious metrical pattern in the first three lines. Each consists of four metered feet consisting of iambs – iambic tetrameter. But the last two lines of this sequence do not fit the pattern. The reader is free to emphasize the words of choice. One reader may emphasize “How”, “hell” and “you” while another may emphasize “Was”, “the” and “feel” in the penultimate line.
This is effectively what Ezra Pound meant when he said, “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.” The intent was not to break free of meter completely, though that has been the effect in free verse circles.
Poetry is best when it carries a melody. Music. Cadence. Even without the meter. Poetry that has no rhythm is failing to do its job. It’s like candy without sugar.
The poetry of the 21st century needs to move back toward the musical and away from the blandly philosophical. Poets should study meter, not to employ its constraints, but to engage in its possibilities. By re-engaging with the poetry of the past, the poetics of the future can invigorate itself with greater freedom, a higher level of creativity, and an expanded range of choices for the poet. Free will once again be free rather than relegated to the chains of Un.