Anyone who knows me well probably knows I have several issues with free-verse poetry. That is, I have several questions or ideas about free-verse poetry that are open for discussion. (Anyone who knows me well also knows that I don’t say “issue” when I mean “problem”.)
Some think this means I don’t like free verse, which is wrong. There are pieces I love. One that stuck in my head, and is still one of my favourite poems, is this one by Richard Brautigan. I can’t even remember where I first read it.
If I were to live my life in catfish forms in scaffolds of skin and whiskers at the bottom of a pond and you were to come by one evening when the moon was shining down into my dark home and stand there at the edge of my affection and think, “It’s beautiful here by this pond. I wish somebody loved me," I’d love you and be your catfish friend and drive such lonely thoughts from your mind and suddenly you would be at peace, and ask yourself, “I wonder if there are any catfish in this pond? It seems like a perfect place for them.” There is a lot I love about this poem. I love the texture of the words, the catfish in “scaffolds of skin”. “Whiskers” is also a delightful word. I love the image of a dark, deep pond, the moon shining down into it, and the invisible borders of the catfish’s affection, a psychic as well as physical “home”. And the idea that a lonely person and a solitary catfish might somehow reach and touch on some emotional level is mystical and wonderful. There’s something poignant about the catfish banishing loneliness from the person’s mind, and yet remaining unknown, as the person only wonders if there might be catfish in this pond. It gives me something of the same feeling I got as a child when I first realized that people I saw driving by in cars, or in houses we drove by, had lives of their own, and that I was only a flicker in those lives. It’s a feeling both of distance and kinship. But I can’t understand why it’s a poem, not just a piece of beautiful, moving prose. I don’t even know if it’s a good poem. I know when I think a free-verse poem is bad, or good, but I can’t tell why. I keep asking people who write free verse about the rules, and I keep getting different answers. Is it strictly that it’s broken down into short lines? That can’t be the whole definition of the form. Because I am puzzled by free verse, I tried to understand it by analysing this piece. I started with the structure. This piece is a single long sentence which contains several other sentences in quotation marks, and is broken into lines. The lines seem to me to be random in length and rhythm. Some of the long lines have two stressed syllables, some have three. Some of the breaks fall where a sentence might divide into phrases (“in catfish forms / in scaffolds of skin and whiskers/at the bottom of a pond...”), and some don’t (“I’d love you and be your catfish/friend and drive such lonely...”) The last four lines I would have made into three, breaking at “ask yourself”, “in this pond” and “place for them”, but Brautigan broke them shorter, and I don’t see why. If you wanted to see the short lines as the last lines of stanzas, then the poem is in five stanzas – six lines, four lines, three lines, five lines, four lines (the last without a short line at the end). When I consider them, the first stanza is about the catfish, how he looks and where he lives. The second is about a person arriving at the pond and standing “at the edge of my affection”. The third is the person’s longing for love. The fourth is the catfish’s love for this lonely person, and the fifth is the person’s unconscious realization of the catfish’s love. But these could be prose clauses as well as (or instead of) poetic stanzas. Is it the subject matter that makes a poem? No, because many people have written moving prose on similar subjects – a mysterious connection with something very different from oneself; one who loves from afar and unknown; the beauty of nature; moonlight on water; even the appeal of ungainly or odd things, the beauty in the beast. Perhaps it’s language that makes it a poem, those scaffolds and whiskers and all. But most of the words in this poem are very ordinary, everyday words, which we use in unpoetic ways all the time. “It’s too dark to read,” we say, or, “His headlights were shining right in my eyes.” There are no metaphors aside from “scaffolds of skin”, and no similes or other poetic figures. The organization of the words doesn’t fall into any rhythmic pattern that might tell us it’s poetry, such as, say, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps in this petty pace from day to day”. There’s no internal rhyme; in fact, I don’t think any of the words in this poem rhyme (except where a word is repeated). In trying to apply what I know of poetry to this piece, I find myself frustrated at every turn: no rhyme; no rhythm; no special language; no exclusive subject matter; minimal and ambiguous structure. All my conclusions are negative and I have a ruddy big poem-shaped hole in the middle. Because the thing is, this is a poem. Damned if I can tell you why, except for one thing. When I first read it, something in it caught my heart. I never set out to memorize it but it stuck in my brain. Until I looked it up this morning for this post, I hadn’t read it for over twenty years. I might have recited it half a dozen, or maybe a dozen, times. But every time I thought of it, there it was, scaffolds, whiskers, moon, pond and all. Maybe some of you are going to say, “Isn’t that enough? You know it’s a poem, probably even a good one, certainly one that you love. Won’t that do?” Maybe it would, if I weren’t a poet myself. But I am, and I’d love to write good free verse, maybe even something as good as this. I just don’t think I can do it by fumbling around in the dark. The problem – my problem with free verse – is how am I ever going to do it if I don’t understand what the hell I’m doing?