previous chapter
Notes Apropos "Free Verse"
next chapter

Notes Apropos "Free Verse"

I think the term "free verse" proves awkward just now in that it seems anchored in an opposition to a sense of traditional verse patterns, which are, because of their situation as history, more trusted. "Free" has such a width of associations—"free man," "free fall," "free prizes," etc. Too, it seems relevant that this sense of verse comes largely from American practice and that its primary figure is Whitman.

It nonetheless provokes a real situation. For example, Yvor Winters' tracking of "impulse" as informing principle in Emerson's discussions of poetry, as equally in Whitman's, and then in Crane's, cites the significance of this way of stating oneself in poetry as well as the historical range of its occasion. If one thinks of the literal root of the word verse, "a line, furrow, turning—vertere , to turn . . . ," he will come to a sense of "free verse" as that instance of writing in poetry which "turns" upon an occasion intimate with, in fact, the issue of, its own nature rather than to an abstract decision of "form" taken from a prior instance.

The point is, simply enough, why does the "line" thus "turn" and what does inform it in that movement? Clearly to say that it is "free" or equally that it is "unfree" is to say nothing of much interest. I was impressed a few years ago, reading Joshua Whatmough's Language , to find him saying, as a linguist, that there was no explicit understanding as to why poetry "turns" in any instance at the precise moment it does—that is, no device of measure then defined

Naked Poetry , ed. Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969).


could anticipate the precise articulations of this shifting in verse, no matter the verse be "traditional" or "free." Linguistics has, in other respects, qualified usefully the assumptions of traditional metrical systems in making evident the varying "weights" observable in "stress" (at least four in number) which had previously been dealt with in patterns which qualified syllables as "stressed" or "unstressed"—in short, a very imprecise and clumsy approximation of the activity.

I am myself hopeful that linguistic studies will bring to contemporary criticism a vocabulary and method more sensitive to the basic activity of poetry and less dependent upon assumed senses of literary style. Jakobson's use of "contiguity" and "parallelism" as two primary modes of linguistic coherence interests me. Too, I would like to see a more viable attention paid to syntactical environment, to what I can call crudely "grammartology."

However, these are senses of things still far from my own experience in writing. So, briefly, as to that. I feel, as Robert Duncan put it, "a kind of readiness," much like that makes one feel like taking a walk, some imminence of occasion that has not as yet become literal. I have never, to my own recollection, anticipated the situation of my own writing in the sense of what I was about to say. It is certain enough that preoccupations recur—"themes," as Duncan has called them—but how these might gain statement as writing could not be proposed except as the literal writing then found means. I was struck by a comment Franz Kline once made: "If I paint what I know, I bore myself. If I paint what you know, I bore you. So I paint what I don't know. . . ." I write what I don't know. I feel the situation parallel to what Pollock suggests by his statement, "when I am in my painting. . . ." This, I feel, to be the condition Charles Olson defines in the key essay, "Projective Verse":

From the moment he [a poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—put himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. . . .

Pound notes Yeats' dependence upon "a chune in his head"—and it is that equally, an ordering that is taking place as one writes, which one follows much as he might the melodic line of some song.

The simplest way I have found to make clear my own sense of writing in this respect is to use the analogy of driving. The road, as it were, is creating itself momently in one's attention to it, there, visi-


bly, in front of the car. There is no reason it should go on forever, and if one does so assume it, it very often disappears all too actually. When Pound says, "we must understand what is happening," one sense of his meaning I take to be this necessary attention to what is happening in the writing (the road) one is, in the sense suggested, following. In that way there is nothing mindless about the procedure. It is, rather, a respect for the possibilities of such attention that brings Allen Ginsberg to say, "Mind is shapely." Mind, thus engaged, permits experience of "order" far more various and intensive than habituated and programmed limits of its subtleties can recognize.

I think each man writing will have some way, so to speak, intimate with his own condition. That is, I feel there will be an inherent condition for an ordering intimate to the fact of himself as literal organism. Again, one of the several virtues of Olson's "Projective Verse" was that of returning to poetry its relation with physiological condition.

For my own part I feel a rhythmic possibility, an inherent periodicity in the weights and durations of words, to occur in the first few words, or first line, or lines, of what it is I am writing. Because I am the man I am, and think in the patterns I do, I tend to posit intuitively a balance of four , a foursquare circumstance, be it walls of a room or legs of a table, that reassures me in the movement otherwise to be dealt with. I have, at times, made reference to my own interest when younger (and continuingly) in the music of Charlie Parker—an intensive variation on 'foursquare' patterns such as "I've Got Rhythm." Listening to him play, I found he lengthened the experience of time, or shortened it, gained a very subtle experience of 'weight,' all by some decision made within the context of what was called "improvisation"—but what I should rather call the experience of possibility within the limits of his materials (sounds and durations) and their environment (all that they had as what Pound calls "increment of association" but equally all they had as literal condition, their phenomenological fact). There is an interview with Dizzy Gillespie (in the Paris Review , No. 35) in which he speaks of rhythm particularly in a way I very much respect. If time is measure of change , our sense of it becomes what we can apprehend as significant condition of change —in poetry as well as in music.

In any case, Williams showed me early on that rhythm was a very subtle experience, and that words might share equivalent duration


even though "formally" they seemed in no way to do so. Pound said, "LISTEN to the sound that it makes," and Olson, in like emphasis, made it evident that we could only go "By ear."

Finally, there was and is the fact of, what it was one had to say—in Louis Zukofsky's sense, "Out of deep need. . . ." I never spoke easily and had to write, for the most part, just as adamantly. There is a section of Williams' "The Desert Music" which might be my own:

You seem quite normal. Can you tell me? Why
does one want to write a poem?

                           Because it's there to be written.

Oh. A matter of inspiration then?

                                                  Of necessity.

Oh. But what sets it off?

                  I am that he whose brains
                  are scattered
                              aimlessly . . .

Why after all say any of this—but for some fear one is not "doing it right" and isn't that, even, the occasion for such argument as still can exist on the subject of "free verse," which is at best some "historical" label. Williams, at the end of "The Desert Music," says all that anyone can:

                                                    I  am  a poet! I
am. I am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed

Now the music volleys through as in
a lonely moment I hear it. Now it is all
about me. The dance! The verb detaches itself
seeking to become articulate

        And I could not help thinking
        of the wonders of the brain that
        hears that music and of our
        skill sometimes to record it.

December 11, 1966


previous chapter
Notes Apropos "Free Verse"
next chapter