Trying to sort it out

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.”
three worlds
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 

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? 


This entry was posted in Fumbling towards competence, Going on About Words and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Trying to sort it out

  1. pdunning says:

    Nice Elizabeth.
    Now.. why does your impressive list of publications and accomplishments insist on covering the right hand quarter of the page so that I have to slide sideways to read the end of each line?😏

    • ecreith says:

      I guess because it has to go somewhere. I had some formatting trouble with this post – I actually had to break up the lines with hard returns, as the site insisted on setting up each paragraph as a single very long line. I have no idea why it did this. It’s a tech thing, and it mystifies me. Hasn’t happened before, may not happen again, God willing and the crick don’t rise.

  2. palfreyman1414 says:

    I thought about this a lot yesterday, Lilibet, and wrote long essays in my head, since this is the first time in years (decades?) that I have tried to think formally about poetry. Eventually I came up with three (utterly indefensible of course) rules of thumb.

    1. With free verse an experienced reader of poetry gets the sense that the poet has mastered the craft of more formal verse but has chosen not to use a particular form here.

    2. If you take away the line breaks and rewrite it as “prose”, and you give it to an experienced reader of poetry who has never read it before, the way it sounds in that person’s mouth will not just not sound like poetry, it will sound weird. That is, the line breaks are very important.

    3. The imagery and ideas thickly populate the poem in a way that would be overwhelming in a novel, short story or essay.

    Or, to illustrate with a counter-example. I have attended quite a few poetry “slams” over the last couple of years (I have a friend who fancies herself a poet and she drags me along). I have noticed a lot of “free verse” infesting these occasions. It took me time but I realised it was not poetry at all. These were young people talking about relationships. They were monologues that might have worked better as one person shows (My Struggle:One Person’s Story ?) than masquerading as poetry on the excuse that it is “free verse”.

    There is no sense that any of them has ever crafted a sonnet, no feeling that they half pause at the end of a line (or pause for anything except to take a breath), and no feeling that I’d like to hear it again to more fully explore any of the ideas or images used.

    They were using “free verse” as therapy – to unburden themselves of their feelings, rather than crafting something that would be a gift to us, the audience.

    Anyway, them’s my first thoughts. Feel free to point out all their infelicities – I offer them as jumping off points, not strict definitions.

  3. ecreith says:

    I read this out loud to David and he said you had some very good points there. I think that’s something really in your favour, as David is not a poetry reader, nor a writer of any stripe. I really like your first point, that a piece of free verse should give you the feeling that this poet can use traditional forms, but has chosen not to. I’m going to try out a couple of pieces with your second point, see if that bears out. The idea that thoughts, images and ideas are thick in a poem, thicker than in other forms of writing, is one that has occurred to me from time to time, although never particularly with respect to free verse. Thinking that one over. No infelicities here.
    I’m also glad I’m not the only person who writes essays in her head!

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