Howard Owens, proprietor of a fine blog, gets himself into hot water with a couple of pomo poets. “Poetry must be at least as well written as prose,” said Ezra Pound, and says Howard, and I agree. Howard’s critics, practicing contemporary poets God help us, would not know a good poem if it walked up and punched them in the mouth. One of them, Mike Finley, praises this (scroll to the bottom if you insist on following the link) by Charles Potts. I will spare you most of it; here’s the beginning of the last stanza:
Down a lazy river to the polluted sea
The flotsam jettisons thoughtlessly along,
Contributory to a natural disaster.
“Lazy” is the laziest possible adjective. “Jettison” is a transitive verb, and the accidental association with “jetsam” is doubly unfortunate. “Contributory” would mar a business memo, let alone a poem. Someone who praises this has at best a nodding acquaintance with English.
I never thought Michiko would come back after she died. But if she did, I knew, it would be as a lady in a long white dress. It is strange that she has returned as somebody’s Dalmatian. I meet the man walking her on a leash almost every week. He says good morning and I stoop down to calm her. He said once that she was never like that with other people. Sometimes she is tethered on their lawn when I go by. If nobody is around, I sit on the grass. When she finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper in her soft ears. She cares nothing about the mystery. She likes it best when I touch her head and tell her small things about my days and our friends. That makes her happy the way it always did.
This is prose. The reader may insert line breaks where he chooses. They won’t be any better than Gilbert’s, or any worse.
Unfortunately Howard himself goes in for similar stuff. He quotes with favor this bit from Richard Howard:
… Everyone knows my history,
complete with goddesses, islands, all those hoary lies!
I have no tales to tell, I have only
echoes. The real Ulysses puts in his appearance
between other men’s lines, the true Odysseus
shows up in unspeakable pauses, the gaps and blanks
where life hasn’t already been turned into
“my” wanderings, “my” homecoming, even “my” dog!
This is prose too, loosely iambic like most prose, dotted with random chunks of blank verse. The second line and first half of the third form two nearly perfect pentameter lines, and then suddenly the iambs disappear. That’s not a poem, no matter where you break the lines.
Free verse, like all verse, can be scanned. If there’s no proper scansion then it isn’t verse. Free verse is syllabic, with a regular number of primary accents per line — anywhere from one, as in H.D.’s Orchard, to three, as in Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man; more than three is unmanageable. There is a varying number of secondarily accented and unaccented syllables and an occasional half or double line. It’s real verse, and even without understanding the technical details — consult Yvor Winters’ essay in Primitivism and Decadence, “The Influence of Meter on Poetic Convention,” if you care — a competent reader who takes the trouble to read carefully the two poems I cite will hear the difference.
(Update: Blogosphere laureate Will Warren, a poet with actual talent, is retiring. He reminds me a lot of the fine and nearly forgotten 19th century comic poet W.M. Praed. Some of these rhyming haikus are my favorite things of his.)