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Poetry Prompt 15 – Free Verse

 

 

Let's Write Some Whitman-Style Free Verse! 

 

Well, now I've gone and messed up the concept. The goal of these poetry prompts is to introduce set forms of poetry, and here prose poetry, or 'free verse,' is often seen as being free of the metre, rhymes and patterns that make up other types of poetry.

 

Only part of that is true, and this partial misconception is why I felt we should dive into it with some critical examination. The best way to do that is start with its inventor, and arguably, still one of its brightest luminaries: Walt Whitman.

 

It also helps that Whitman was one of the most open and sensual of same-sex loving poets in modern times. He published almost fearlessly in the middle of the 19th century about the young men he loved.[1]

 

For me the interest in him as a person lies in knowing that he started off his writing career as a bon vivant, silk-scarf-wearing, opera-going critic for the newspapers, but one who reinvented himself as a working-class man among other sweaty men in the streets and taverns. How and why did he do this? It's a bit of an unknown, except that by 1855, his first volume of poetry was ready for the press: The Leaves of Grass.

 

Whitman's great 'yawp' hit the world with not much reaction, except for those anonymous reviews penned by none other than Walt himself praising the book as the greatest volume of poetry ever published. And success was not far behind either, for by 1860 and the third edition, the book and poet were reckoned as formidable.[2]

 

As I have hinted at before, The Leaves of Grass introduced something new to the English language, prose poetry, which is also known as free verse. At first glance Whitman's poems seem to lack structure, or pay only passing interest to the rat-a-rat semantics of metre and poetic 'feet.' And so it is, mostly. But let's look at some examples and examine his internal structure at closer range.

 

Here's one as it appears in print:

 

I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully

stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then

averts his face,

Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.[3]

 

But, if we break it down by the natural cadence, which I will show you with the syllable counts at the start of each line (yes, horror upon horrors – its metre, lol), the following reading becomes the way the poem is experienced:

 

v.    I am a man who,

v.    sauntering along,

vi.   without fully stopping,

viii.  turns a casual look upon you,

vi.   and then averts his face,

v.    Leaving it to you

vi.   to prove and define it,

viii.  Expecting the main things from you.

 

So here you can see the free-form has a very definite form indeed, and it's a lovely one; 5-5 6-8 6-5 6-8. The flow is built in, and poem is rock-solid because of it, no matter how it is shown on the page. This is the type of internal structure I hope to show you exists, and which you can become aware of as you write your own prose poems.

 

Let's look at another example. 

 

You would wish long and long to be with him – you

would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you

and he might touch each other.[4]

 

And the natural breakdown…?

 

x.   You would wish long and long to be with him –

x.   you would wish to sit by him in the boat,

ix.  that you and he might touch each other.

         

Sometimes you encounter prose that is extremely poetic. If you stop to examine why you think that is the case, you will often discover it is due to exactly this type of internal structure of syllable counts, or its metre. Here's an example from an author whose work I believe inspired Whitman to invent prose poetry in the first place.

 

Appalling is the soul of a man! Better might one be pushed off into the material spaces beyond the uttermost orbit of our sun, than once feel himself fairly afloat in himself![5]    

 

And the natural breakdown…?

 

ix.  Appalling is the soul of a man!

ix.  Better might one be pushed off into

ix.  the material spaces beyond the

ix.  uttermost orbit of our sun, than once

x.   feel himself fairly afloat in himself!

 

You can bring a sharper focus to your prose poems by being cognizant of how the internal structure is formed. And you can use this new outlook to enhance your reading enjoyment of other free verse pieces. To that end, let's look at one of Whitman's best known and admired pieces; one he wrote to sum up his feelings on the assignation of President Lincoln.

 

Passing the visions, passing the night,

Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,

Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,

Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,

As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,

Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,

Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,

As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,

Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,

I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.[6]

 

 

The prompt: write at least one Free Verse poem based on your personal reaction to the following scenes from the 1985 film, Room with a View. Use any syllable count you like or number of lines that come to you, but please keep in mind the internal structure of your prose poem.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-gFsXfbF08

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKbBwrsEV5A

 

 

 

 

 

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------

 

[1] Whitman's adult life spanned the age of total innocence where men could live in relative openness with one another without fear that their love would be demeaned, to the hysteria, criminalization, and total debasement Gay men faced by the end of that century. See Jonathan Ned Katz's Love Stories, Chicago 2001.   

[2] An inexpensive, and unabridged version is available. Get Leaves of Grass, 1860, Jason Stacy, introduction, Iowa University Press 2009. All citation for the quotes will refer to the 1860 page numbers where the poems can be found.    

[3] Pg. 187.

[4] Pg. 294.

[5] From Book XXI, Pierre by Herman Melville, New York 1852

[6] This poem first appeared in the 4th edition of Leaves of Grass in 1865 as part of the 'Captain, O my captain!' set of mourning poems. Few people realize or comment on the fact that 'Oh, my Captain! my Captain!' is a direct quote from Melville's Moby-Dick. In chapter 132 Starbuck reaches out for one final connection to Ahab's humanity by reminding the man about their families waiting for them back on Nantucket. The attempt proves to be too late.   

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Hey Tim

 

I read the Prompt as you suggested. It was very interesting and informative, but I still find it all very complicated.   I guess my brain is just not wired for such a structured way of writing. Nor am I patient enough to stick to the rules. 

 

I certainly appreciate the work and thought involved regarding the poems that you and Gary bring to life and in such a short window of time too... :thumbup:

 

PS: I think I might check out that movie if I can find it online.

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Hey Tim

 

I read the Prompt as you suggested. It was very interesting and informative, but I still find it all very complicated.   I guess my brain is just not wired for such a structured way of writing. Nor am I patient enough to stick to the rules. 

 

I certainly appreciate the work and thought involved regarding the poems that you and Gary bring to life and in such a short window of time too... :thumbup:

 

PS: I think I might check out that movie if I can find it online.

Wasn't suggestig u write em.. just thought it might interest you

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Wasn't suggestig u write em.. just thought it might interest you

 

Oh, I know. I was just showing my appeciation for the work (and talent) required that goes into the writing of a poem. It's not something I could do, but I do admire those who do take up the challenge and and do it really well to boot. :thumbup:

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Here's my reaction to the bathing scene:

 

men

bathing

having fun

without reserve

nature has no shame

from the day one is born

forming becomes deforming

molding clay after our likeness

generation to generation

a parasolled woman sees a

man in his utmost beauty

show shame instead of pride

for it is instilled

without question

do not show

naked

self

 

 

Peter.

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Another contribution. Find it at https://www.gayauthors.org/story/parker-owens/occasionalpoetry/2

 

It's also pasted below...

 

 

Student Memorial

 

Seven cold inches lie

               upon them now;

their bricks, their stones, sink down

               below deep white.

Smiling once, under skies

               so blue all the

Earth seemed pale in contrast;

               innocent, the

youthful brows furrowed by

               the need to learn.

Beneath night's newest pale

               cover, I still see

them all, lithe, laughing; so

               unaware they're

eternally eighteen.

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Another contribution. Find it at https://www.gayauthors.org/story/parker-owens/occasionalpoetry/2

 

It's also pasted below...

 

 

Student Memorial

 

Seven cold inches lie

               upon them now;

their bricks, their stones, sink down

               below deep white.

Smiling once, under skies

               so blue all the

Earth seemed pale in contrast;

               innocent, the

youthful brows furrowed by

               the need to learn.

Beneath night's newest pale

               cover, I still see

them all, lithe, laughing; so

               unaware they're

eternally eighteen.

 

Bittersweet, and very evocative. I really liked it!

 

Now if only I could get the hang of this entire poetry thing, lol... and mastery of cool indents like you did. My prose-oriented mind rebels against them!

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Here's my reaction to the bathing scene:

 

men

bathing

having fun

without reserve

nature has no shame

from the day one is born

forming becomes deforming

molding clay after our likeness

generation to generation

a parasolled woman sees a

man in his utmost beauty

show shame instead of pride

for it is instilled

without question

do not show

naked

self

 

 

Peter.

Thanks, Peter. I really like this poem; it paints its own picture, and the internal structure of syllables is decisive yet subtle.

 

Thanks for taking the challenge!  

Another contribution. Find it at https://www.gayauthors.org/story/parker-owens/occasionalpoetry/2

 

It's also pasted below...

 

 

Student Memorial

 

Seven cold inches lie

               upon them now;

their bricks, their stones, sink down

               below deep white.

Smiling once, under skies

               so blue all the

Earth seemed pale in contrast;

               innocent, the

youthful brows furrowed by

               the need to learn.

Beneath night's newest pale

               cover, I still see

them all, lithe, laughing; so

               unaware they're

eternally eighteen.

Thanks for posting this here, Parker. I think it's a truly beautiful and moving poem. 

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Here's my take on this prompt! :D

 

The Field

Thanks for taking the challenge, and for posting a great poem. One thing that's enjoyable for me reading it is how your lines seem to ungulate in rhythm. That's very appropriate and evocative in a poem about a field being animated by the breeze. 

 

Thank you once again!  

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Added this today https://www.gayauthors.org/story/parker-owens/occasionalpoetry/3

 

Boredom

 

Boredom floats, oily jetsam on

                time's darkly opaque waters;

 

Veiling all sight of bright day,

                the mind's dancing obscured;

 

Sings its chant, monotone played to

                fluorescent fixtures humming.

 

Count each turn the bladed fan makes,

                number ev'ry full circuit;

 

Reckon up and classify the

                mottled, stained square ceiling tiles;

 

Carefully map brick-bordered

                wall cracks; where do they go?

 

Inhale, exhale, deeply sigh, weary

                lungs uninterested by

 

The endless parade of minutes

                swimming blind in the sea.

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