in verse # 83 : Christmas in the Bunk-House

To reprise:  “Bunk-House Poetics 1” urged poets to avoid assuming that their audience should “feel” some “feeling.”  Number 2 encouraged poets to embrace “‘the plain-style,’ everyday words, in striking order.”  And number 3 reminded us that the plain-style is written in sentences, “distinguished by syntax.”  Today, I present the next four poems in the series for your delight, instruction and edification.  Essentially, they constitute a defense of free verse in English.  Here’s the first:

Bunk-House Poetics 4

……..I have eaten
…….the plums
…….that were in
…….the icebox
…….…….William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

It’s tempting—and reassuring—to think that
iambic meter and true rhyme are the norm of
English verse (because so many great poems
have been written this way for centuries).
Sorry, “free-verse” is here to stay.

Writing poems outside the limits of rhyme and
meter is not, as Robert Frost famously said,
“like playing tennis without a net.”  It’s
simply a “convention,” another way of
using language for artistic purposes.

Free-verse, so to speak, has now been written
for so long—and so well—that there’s no
turning back. Poems today can be shaped like
hearts, written as prose — lines can be all
over the page and as short as a syllable.

The bottom line is—always has been—
beauty and meaningfulness.  It’s still possible
to write sonnets, blank-verse, and heroic
couplets (like Pope’s).  But achievement in
such forms in English is becoming rare. [i]

I have written in earlier posts about why iambic verse is not an English meter, about why, if it hadn’t been taken up by an impressive number of great poets in the turmoil of Tudor England, we might still be writing alliterative verse.  There is a minor irony in that the last great shudder of alliterative verse shook Scotland in its spasm, and that the house of Stuart followed the death of Elizabeth onto the throne of England.  But iambic verse ruled the poetry of England for the next 300 years, until the American revolution in poetics brought free-verse into being.

Note that Christmas hyphenates both “free-verse” and “blank-verse”.  In this, he is a punctuator after my own heart.  Judging by what I read, Americans seem to be falling into the Germanic habit of stringing out a troop of modifiers before and behind the noun, a habit creeping into journalism as well as academic writing.  It works in German because German is an inflected language, and the changes to the stem of the noun help you detect it in the midst of that herd of syllables.  In English, punctuation has largely replaced inflection in written prose — but is now, unfortunately, disappearing.  Notice how much further Christmas takes my lament in the following poem:

Bunk-House Poetics 5

…….And, in the isolation of the sky,
…….At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
…….Ambiguous undulations as they sink
…….Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
…….…….Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

Nobody’s saying that you can’t—or shouldn’t—write
verse in traditional forms and meters—just
that it’s extraordinarily difficult and requires
patience and talent.  It’s a shame most
poets today can’t write a respectable sonnet.

It’s because they follow iambic convention
too closely—giving accented and unaccented
syllables always the same value—which
makes lines sound monotonous.  Stevens
shows the right way in “Sunday Morning.”

His “feet” (an unaccented syllable followed
by an accented syllable) vary in intensity, or
quality, and some are reversed.  His accents are
sometimes “lighter” than his unaccents—and
note how he varies his caesuras (pauses).

Stevens transcends the iambic “norm” with
ingenious diction and syntax, and creates a
metric equivalent of birds in downward flight.
He’s like a jazz instrumentalist, soloing
without losing touch with the melody.[ii]

In his analysis of Stevens’s use of iambic verse, Christmas here is careful to explain his technical vocabulary:  feet and caesuras.  That’s because these are, indeed, bunk-house poetics, not classroom lectures.   Note how easily Christmas makes the analogy of Stevens’s verse with music — improvisational music at that.  And improvisation may indeed be the closest analogue to free verse.  It is not, however, necessarily what beginning poets write.

His premise for these poems is that they are most needed not by trained literary critics like me, but by the kind of poets I hear reading almost every Thursday night at the Enliten Café in Provo.  Many of them appear to be high-school students; those who were interested could easily follow Christmas’s explanations.  Judging from what I hear, most of what they read, or recite, is rhymed and tries to apply a regular meter.  These poets could follow Christmas’s ideas — but they could not easily analyze his samples.  Try it.  Read number 6, then apply his analysis to the epigraph [example] that precedes his poem:

Bunk-House Poetics 6

In the beginning (the reasons remain dark)
……..The sugar maples were cast out from the garden.
……..Pliant once and spry, their young green bark
……..Tanned to nubby russet.  Thirst made them harden.
……..……..……..John Talbot

English is such a mixture of Anglo-Saxon,
French, and Latinate words—with thousands
more borrowed from other languages (plus
inconsistent spelling)—that it’s no wonder
there’s no one way to write English poetry.

The closest thing to a natural metrical norm
in English would seem to be a Germanic
line of four accents (with the accents falling
on either side of a caesura) held together
by alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

This is what we find in free-verse today,
no matter the length of the lines, or how
scattered they are on the page; and without
poets even being aware of it—as in the
above example from a recent anthology.

To hear the beat of these ancient accents,
read Talbot’s lines (or these lines) aloud,
chanting—almost singing the words—as if
they were notes of music. The last half of
his last line is an echo from Beowulf.[iii]

If the second stanza above is correct, then this “natural metrical norm” is the oldest form of verse in English — that is, Christmas is arguing that Beowulf is back.  I don’t think his “example” quite bears out this conclusion.  Here is how I would scan it, with the accented syllables represented italics:

In the beginning (the reasons remain dark)
The sugar maples were cast out from the garden.
Pliant once and spry, their young green bark
Tanned to nubby russet.  Thirst made them harden.

Read it aloud, with stresses as indicated.  “Green” may be more of a resolved tail to “young” than a separate stressed syllable, but other than that I think my analysis is accurate, but the comments section in these posts is for you to reply to my gaffes.

Now here is number 7, and it is still about metrical feet.  See if it makes sense to you:

Bunk-House Poetics 7

……..Robes loosely flowing, hair as free:
……..Such sweet neglect more taketh me
……..Than all the adulteries of art,
……..They strike mine eyes, but not my heart.
……..……..……..Ben Jonson

No matter how you choose to write, your
verse must convey a certain artlessness.
Traditional forms, meters, and rhyme
won’t be enough.  Like Dylan Thomas, you
must sing in your “chains like the sea.”

The ancients had a phrase for this quality
(loosely—of course—translated).  They
called it, “a diligent kind of negligence.”
It’s knowing when to follow—and break—
the rules, and make it all look easy.

Metrical feet can be feminized, reversed,
beheaded; plain words become simplicity
itself.  Even strict rhyme must surprise,
seem apt yet off-hand, as if language
itself assents to what has been written.

Think Fred Astaire dancing up walls, or
Sinatra, mike in one hand, cigarette in the
other.  Writing poetry’s a high-wire act—
you’ve got to look like you’re working
without a net even if you have one.[iv]

My favorite part of this poem is in these lines:  “Even strict rhyme must surprise, seem apt yet off-hand, as if language itself assents to what has been written.”  The surprising word here is “assents.”  If you can imagine something as amorphous and shared as language assenting to one person’s use of it, then you can imagine poetry

Now, I call this blog “in verse.”  I do not talk as often of “poetry” as even Christmas does in these poems, but in these seven (so far) poems, I do find both competent discussions of verse and passionate discussions of poetry.  In the last three poems, numbers eight, nine and ten, Christmas focuses on poetry.  Tune in next time.

But hold on, I hear you say.  I have to wait until next time to read poetry?

Your turn (but read this post again first).


[i] Saviors on Mt. Disneyland : New and Collected Poems / by R. A. Christmas;  p. 56.

[ii] Ibid., p. 75.

[iii] Ibid., p. 78.

[iv] Ibid., p. 101.

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