Not so much rules as guidelines

I’m travelling at the moment, currently in London, Ontario with my friend Barbara, who is having a birthday this week. Last night Barbara read me a poem she had written and asked me to give feedback on it, which I did.

Barbara writes free verse. She’s articulate and thoughtful, and she’s also been my friend for more than half my life. So after giving her feedback, I asked her The Question I always ask about free verse.

“What is it,” I asked, “that makes you call this free verse instead of a piece of meditative, poetic prose?”

“Well, there’s a rhythm to it that I was very conscious of,” she said, “and I tried to choose the words so that they repeated and referred back to each other. Also I think of prose as like a stained glass window, where the pieces come together to make a picture, but where a particular piece probably doesn’t stand by itself. This was images, one after another, more like collage, where each image can stand alone, but together they make a larger, more complex whole. That’s how I think of poetry.”

This was the best, most complete and thoughtful answer I’ve ever had about free verse. She had some specific characteristics in mind by which she judged whether her work was poetry or prose: a sequence of independent and linked images; particular diction; rhythm.

Here’s what really mattered: she knew what she was trying to accomplish, and she had some way of telling whether or not she had accomplished it. If she hadn’t, she could modify what she’d written until she got what she wanted. In order to make something, whether it’s a quilt or a cake or a poem, you have to know what you want to arrive at and how to get there. When a person says “there are no rules to…”, that makes me think that they don’t really know how to tell when they’ve got what they’re going for. If they don’t know that, why should I trust that they can do it? Would you eat a cake made by someone who figured there were no rules to it? They might put in plaster of Paris, or leave out the baking powder, or bake it at five hundred degrees for two hours, or mix it with their feet.

Barbara and I discussed poetry late into the night. We didn’t agree on everything, and what I called rules Barbara preferred to call guidelines. It was a great conversation.

I have two reasons for wanting to know what makes good free verse. One is that I want to be able to tell good from bad aside from the question of whether or not I like it. Personal preference is a separate issue from the quality of a piece of work. The other is that I have embarked on a free-verse project of my own, and I’d prefer to write good free verse rather than bad.

Now I’ve got a start.

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