What is it about poetry?
It’s bad enough that so many people think they can write good prose without practice, like the brain surgeon who remarked to Margaret Atwood that he’d like to write when he retired. (Her rejoinder? “I’d like to do brain surgery when I retire.”)
In the “everybody can write it” category, poetry gets the prize. Oddly, I’ve noticed that people who assume they can write poetry never start with sonnets, villanelles, triolets and other classic forms. They go straight for the free verse.
I want to be clear right here – I’m not saying there’s no such thing as good free verse. There’s just a lot of bad free verse. There’s a lot of bad rhymed poetry, too, but it’s easier to spot when something is supposed to rhyme and scan, and doesn’t.
“There are no rules in free verse!” I was told by someone in response to a critique of his poem. Another poet of my acquaintance said that he wrote free verse because he couldn’t be bothered with the structures of traditional poetry.
“Where’s the fun in that?” I wondered.
It’s rules that make a game worth playing. Imagine Scrabble without rules, everybody putting their seven-letter words like “blimfck” on the triple word scores. Basketball? Hug the ball to your chest and charge down the court like a footballer. Poetry? Write anything and break it up into arbitrary lines. Bingo! It’s a poem!
I like rules for poetry – they are the trellis that supports the poem. The rules spur my imagination; I haul out words I haven’t given an airing for a while. I play with sentence structure and different ways to say the same thing until I get something that scans, rhymes and makes sense.
Rhyme – whether end-rhyme or alliterative – scansion, rhythm, image, wordplay and the other qualities of good poetry are like a glue that makes the poem stick in your head. Shakespeare used a lot of that glue, and so did Edna St Vincent Millay and any other poet, famous or obscure, whose works are loved and quoted.
I memorized Richard Brautigan’s poem “Your Catfish Friend” when I was in university. I can quote it to this day. It stuck in my mind.
I am sure there are more knowledgeable poets out there who have the rules to free verse down perfectly, and could enlighten me on them. Please do – I hope they have something to do with form as well as content.
This year a sonnet cycle of mine took second place in a poetry competition. The judge wondered what I might accomplish if I freed myself from the traditional forms. I figure, not much. I can’t write free verse worth crap, because I really don’t know what I’m doing, and I’ll admit it.
I’ll stick to writing my rhymed poems and light verse. That, at least, I’ve practised, and I know I can do it well. Pass the glue.