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Free Verse in 2017

Martin Langford 1 February 2017

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One feature of the period covered by the anthology – easy to overlook, it’s so obvious – is the quality of the free verse it contains. It isn’t the only type of poetry in the anthology, and even for those who used it, not everyone wished to explore all its capabilities, some preferring to focus only on aspects of it necessary for their particular style. There is, however, a great deal of very skilful free verse on show, and it is difficult to read contemporary Australian poetry (or the poetry of other Western-sourced traditions) without feeling that free verse has become the predominant mode of poetic expression. The range and quality it now displays hasn’t always been the case. There was, after all, a long period when people weren’t really sure what free verse might be capable of. Because it also featured in work which was involved in other arguments, those other concerns sometimes took our attention, and we read the free-verse a little uncritically, without considering whether it had actually been well-handled.

A couple of examples from American verse:

When Charles Reznikoff explored the limits of economy in works such as Holocaust1, or Testimony2 (a record of often violent American court-cases), the minimalism took the reader’s focus. The events the poems described, moreover, were so horrific, it could seem impertinent –at the very least, inappropriate – to ask for more: for, say, a tensioning of the voice. The Reznikoff texts pushed minimalist verse as far as it could go towards being prose – to the point, perhaps, where it became pointless to ask whether it was one or the other. They made little attempt to let the language take the weight of the events, implying that even that level of attention would be an aesthetic impiety.  The reader may respond personally to the horrors described, but beyond making the events available, there is no further mediation by the poet. It was an important experiment, but it didn’t tell us very much about what free verse was capable of, beyond showing us what a text might look like when the rhetoric was pared to a minimum.

 Pound’s is another ouevre which doesn’t, for me, always show free verse at its most compelling. Pound understood that free verse enabled him to play with ideas with speed. Those sudden changes of tone which are so characteristic of his work would have been more difficult to achieve within the constraints of metrical expectation. That said, Pound didn’t always create the most satisfying music to my ear. Some of this, I think, has to do with the fact that the most interesting music tends to occur when a poet is aware of his or her own resistances: the music is a function of the interaction between the voice and its counter-voices. Pound often didn’t allow much in the way of counter-voice – he could be pretty declamatory, and one-dimensional, in terms of the impulses that he permitted to speak within the poem (at his most strident, he is a lone voice speaking into a vacuum). He has a wonderful ear, but it is an unusual one: it is as if it is tuned not to the poem, but to the speaker. It speeds up, it slows down; it knows when to be brief for effect. It can read as a modernist oratory for the page – but oratory does not always make satisfying poetry. Some of his assertiveness, no doubt, is a function of how aware he is of being offside with much of his potential readership. One can forgive him, because so many other things are going on in his verse. But that is to read it as historical or cultural text, and at some point, one wants to read it as poetry.

At worst, people sometimes wrote as if the mere use of free verse was a self-validating sign of innovation – without considering whether economy, musicality and overall shapeliness were things that might matter as well.

As tends to happen, however, when people have a lot of time to work with a form – and free verse is, by now, a very well-established form – expectations about craftsmanship emerge: people learn what can be done with it. It goes without saying that we wouldn’t be where we are if poets like Pound and Reznikoff hadn’t experimented in the way they did. But compared even to such major figures, there now seems to be an astonishing sophistication, and ease, in the way people use free verse – to say nothing of the distinctiveness with which they employ it. There has been good free verse before in Australia, but never so much, and never with so much variety.

People sometimes nominate particular forms as being great and productive modes of expression – alliterative verse, blank verse, the sonnet etc. It may now be possible to argue that free verse has become the most productive and varied of them all.

 

  1. Charles Reznikoff, Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1965
  2. Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1975
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