Recognizing & Using Caesuras, Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines

the end-stopped line

I’ve noticed a number of searches on caesuras, enjambment and end-stopped lines.

Sir Thomas Sackville

Fortunately, these are easy to recognize. When English poets first began writing blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter) one gets the feeling they had their hands full just counting syllables. Their efforts were stiff, wooden, inflexible. The example I always like to use is Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton andThomas Sackville. The play was written in 1561, 3 years before Shakespeare’s birth. For all its limitations, the play was the first (as far as we know) to have been written using blank verse and stands as a template for all the great verse plays to follow, including Shakespeare’s. Two features that make the verse feel wooden, by modern standards, is the strict Iambic beat on one hand (there are practically no variant feet) and the heavily end-stopped lines. End-stopped lines simply means that ones thought ends with the line. If you see that the line’s end is punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc… then the line is end-stopped. The phrasal unit, the syntactic sense, ends with the line.

Interestingly, the on-line text of the play at Luminarium (linked above), doesn’t include much punctuation. This could be because their text is taken from a facsimile or because the scanner (OCR) didn’t pick up on or recognize whatever text they scanned. I put my money on their having transcribed from a facsimile or an earlier, public domain (and relatively unedited) edition. It also means that you can test your ability to recognize end-stopped lines. Imagine you were an editor. How would you punctuate the following verse? If you can correctly punctuate the verse then you can recognized end-stopped lines. (Most end-stopped lines are marked by punctuation but some aren’t. Remember, if you can finish the line without feeling as though some sense is missing, or if you can pause (as though there were a pause in the syntactic sense or comma), then the line is end-stopped.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me?
Is this the honour of a Father’s name?
In vain we travail to assuage their minds
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat
The secret grudge and malice will remain
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. (Act III l. 93)

What follows is an edited version from Drama of the English Renaissance 1:The Tudor Period, edited by Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me? |
Is this the honour of a Father’s name? |
In vain we travail to assuage their minds, |
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love, |
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move, |
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat. |
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line! |
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force |
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides, |
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat, |
The secret grudge and malice will remain. |
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint, |
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame. |
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. |

I added red pipe marks at the end of each end-stopped line and a green one at the only enjambed line. There are 14 lines and only one of them is enjambed. Notice that every one of the end-stopped lines is also punctuated. In this tiny sample, over 90% of the verse is end-stopped. Is that representative of the play? I suspect it’s not far off. The actual figure probably hovers around 90% or less. That makes for very stiff verse. That ratio is typical for beginning poets who have a hard enough time thinking through the meter, let alone the line. Some mature poets never pull it off. (I’ve already named names elsewhere, no reason to beat the horse.)

enjambment

Enjambment is the opposite of the end-stopped line. There is a syntactic or phrasal pause which coincides with the end of the line. The simplest example:

Enjamb| ment makes | the read |er  read |beyond
The end |of a|ny giv|en line |of verse.

This blank |verse line| is not |enjambed |but end-stopped.

Don’t be fooled by the feminine ending in the latter line. It’s still end-stopped. By the time the Elizabethans, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, came into their own, so did blank verse. The judicious and skillful use of enjambment is what makes Shakespeare’s verse so elegantly flexible (and any verse for that matter). Among the loveliest examples is Florizel’s speech from the Winter’s Tale:

Perdita:

No, like a bank for love to lie and play on; |
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried, |
But quick and in mine arms. Come, take your flowers: |
Methinks I play as I have seen them do |
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine |
Does change my disposition. |

Mary Riley and Richard Baird in The Winter’s Tale.

Florizel:

·········································What you do |
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, |
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing, |
I’ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms, |
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs, |
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you |
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do |
Nothing but that; move still, still so, |
And own no other function: each your doing, |
So singular in each particular, |
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds, |
That all your acts are queens. |

The beauty of Shakespeare’s verse is that the enjambment nicely dovetails the passions of the speakers. In Florize’s case, when he is the most passionate and poetic, wishing his lover like a wave o’ the sea, the sense of the poetry washes over the ends of the lines like the wave he describes.

It’s a lovely effect.In the examples above, roughly 30% of the lines are enjambed. And just giving the verse of the play a cursory glance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the play’s overall enjambment closer to 40%. Out of curiosity, I googled shakespeare, enjambment, and percentage to see if any scholar had actually done the work (I know they have), but I couldn’t find anything. I doubt there’s a single aspect of his plays that haven’t been written about – right down to the recipe for the ink on the manuscript of Sir Thomas More.  Who knows?

separating the boys from the men

Where the skill of a poet really shows itself is in the combination of meter and rhyme. The less capable poet will end-stop his or her rhymes. The skilled poet will enjamb their rhymes – not all of them, but enough of them to give their verse a more flexible and natural (unforced) feel. The poet who end-stops their rhymes is the poet who can’t think beyond the rhyme. The habit is typical of beginning poets, and to be expected, but the mature poet should learn to think beyond the line.  Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia, from his book Interrogations at Noon. I marked each end-stopped line with a pipe ‘|’ and left it at that.

Alley Cat Love Song

Come into the garden, Fred, |
For the neighborhood tabby is gone. |
Come into the garden, Fred. |
I have nothing by my flea collar on, |
And the scent of catnip has gone to my head. |
I’ll wait by the screen door till dawn. |

The fireflies court in the sweetgum tree. |
The nightjar calls from the pine, |
And she seems to say in her rhapsody, |
“Oh, mustard-bown Fred, be mine!” |
The full moon lights my whiskers afire, |
And the fur goes erect on my spine. |

I hear the frogs in the muddy lake
Croaking from shore to shore. |
They’ve one swift season to soothe their ache. |
In autumn they sing no more. |
So ignore me now, and you’ll hear my meow
As I scratch all night at the door. |

About 90% of these lines are end-stopped. We’re back to 1561. The lyric is charming enough, but the end-stopped rhymes give the poem a wooden feel. Gioia should have left this kind of verse behind long ago. By comparison, here are two stanza’s from the poet Robert Bagg, from a longer poem called Tandem Ride, a poet who I’ve reviewed elsewhere on PoemShape. Like Gioia, Bagg dispenses with meter but writes a regular, rhyming, verse.

XIX
We search the boathouse on Paradise Pond; |
the window lights of the state asylum
dominate the sweeping skyline beyond, |
radiating a contagious gloom
as if the campus were its anteroom. |
Sensing the madness in our enterprise
we abandon our foundering tandem, |
exhaustion having (at last) made us wise. |
Who’d pump a symbol seven miles but two Amherst guys? |

XX
She pushes a glass door open a crack, |
emerges form a tropical greenhouse, |
shoes squishing, then pauses–almost goes back– |
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally. |
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
–but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree. |

Roughly half the lines are enjambed, giving the stanzas a nice ebb and flow. The  enjambment doesn’t overly emphasize the rhymes. Take a look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and you will notice the same freedom between end-stopped and enjambed lines. The thing to notice, most of all, is how Shakespeare (and other skillful poets) use end-stopping and enjambment to add emphasis to certain lines and thoughts. For instance, the vast majority of his sonnets’ closing couplets are end-stopped. This puts added emphasis on the rhymes which, in turn, brakes the sonnet’s momentum and emphasizes the finality of the couplets argument – the end-stopped lines emphasize the feeling of the epigrammatic sting.

Sonnet 63

Against my love shall be as I am now, |
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn; |
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night; |
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight, |
Stealing away the treasure of his spring; |
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife, |
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life: |
··His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, |
··And they shall live, and he in them still green. |

The best poets will, instinctively, fully exploit end-stopping and enjambment when the opportunity calls for it. Lesser poets won’t.

Tom O’Bedlam

Caesuras

Caesuras are essentially nothing more than breaks in rhythm, thought, or syntax that occur anywhere between the beginning and end of a line. In other words, they’re the same as an end-stopped line except that the “end-stopping” occurs in the middle of the line. That said, they can be trickier to spot. They aren’t associated with the end of a line and aren’t always matched by punctuation.

Caesura’s were a fixture of classical Greek and Latin poetry but Anglo Saxon was the language in which the Caesura came to glory. In the book Creative Poetry by B. Roland Lewis  one finds this little gem tucked away in a footnote:

William Ellery Leonard’s two studies, “Beowulf and the Niebelungen Couplet” and “The Scansion of Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in The University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, for an entirely untraditional view about Anglo-Saxon prosody. Or see is Introduction to his own metrical translations of Beowulf. He holds that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf; and his modernized version of Beowulf is in that meter. Professor E.W. Scripture’s new (1929) Grundzuge der Englischen Verswissensschaft has some closing chapters in Old English and Middle English alliterative verse in the light of laboratory analysis.

So, if we were to lineate Sing a Song of Six-Pence as Beowulf’s author might have, it might look like this  (caesuras marked):

Sing a song of sixpence, || a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, || the birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, || to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house, || counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour, || eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden, || hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird || and pecked off her nose.

If you click the link to Leonard’s translation, you’ll see how this translates when applied to Beowulf. You might get an idea as to how the Anglo Saxons would have “heard” the great poem (and how the caesura was an integral part of the poem’s rhythm and structure). I always favor translations which try to capture, not just the sense, but the sound and structure of the original — something which is altogether too rare with the near total dominance of free verse.

The caesura’s importance to English poetry faded with the language’s modernization.  Still, examples can be found. Wikipedia offers an example from the ballad Tom O’Bedlam. I’ll give another from the same poem (which you can read in its entirety in Harold Bloom’s book The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost):

When I short have shorn my sow’s face
·······And swigged my horny barrel,
At an oaken inn || I impound my skin
·······In a suit of gilt apparel.
The moon’s my constant mistress
·······And the lovely owl my marrow.
The flaming drake || and the night-crow make
·······Me music to my sorrow.
While I do sing || “Any food, any feeding
·······Feeding, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, || be not afraid:
·······Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Notice that only the final caesura coincides with any sort of punctuation. (Is the rhythm of the ballad a faint echo of the ancient Anglo Saxon poetry? Possibly.) The caesura, in the stanza above, indicate rhythmic pauses. Also, all of the caesuras would be masculine caesuras. They each occur after a stressed syllable. Here are the first two stanzas from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, || while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious || volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, || suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, || rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ || I muttered, || `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember || it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember|| wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – || vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – || sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden || whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Once again, some of  the caesura are marked by punctuation, some aren’t. Most native English speakers will instinctively pause mid-line, even without punctuation. The combination of the internal rhymes (dreary/weary, napping/tapping) and the trochaic meter encourages us to read the lines as bipartite. Normally, for example, one wouldn’t pause between curious and volume in the second line, but the poem’s rhyme and meter strongly encourage us to divide the line (if only to reinforce the rhythm of the others). Try it. See if you agree. Conversely, we want to read through pauses that we normally wouldn’t. For instance, the heavy mid-line caesuras make us want to ignore the syntactic breaks in the first stanza’s third, fifth and last line::

While I nodded, nearly napping

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered…
Only this, and nothing more.

We might be more hard-pressed to ignore the natural break in ‘Tis some visitor,‘ I muttered…, but we could. In Poe’s poem, unlike Tom O’Bedlam, all the Caesura are feminine caesuras because they each occur after unstressed syllables.

In the following, another passage from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, you will find caesuras and what’s called an epic caesura (generally in reference to a feminine caesuras within an iambic line – I highlighted the epic caesura in red.

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, || nine, || and some five;
If this prove true, || they’ll pay for’t. || By mine honour. (Act II, sc. I :142-148)

The fifth line contains the epic caesura. The unstressed syllable -ers at the end of daughters is hypermetrical (because the line immediately continues with the unaccented ‘the’ instead of an expected strong accent.). In other words, it’s an extra unaccented syllable. Below, the blue represents an anapestic foot and the green represents a feminine endings (the colors I use in all my scansions). Notice how Shakespeare, ever the dramatist, uses the unusually frequent caesuras and end-stopped lines to denote an agitated mind. Not all uses of caesura create the same sense of agitation. Context is everything and a good poets uses whatever tools are available.

I have | three daugh |ters; the eld| est is | eleven

The other way to scan it is to treat the epic caesura as its own feminine ending within the line.

I have | three daugh ters; |the eld| est is | eleven

My habit has been to use the second scansion (having learned to read and write Iambic Pentameter with George T. Wright’s book Shakespeare’s Metrical Art). Shakespeare’s line, therefore, has twelve syllables, unlike the expected ten of iambic pentameter, but nevertheless falls within the graces of standard practice.

A second kind of feminine Caesura would be the lyric caesura. This is probably the most obscure of all caesuras (and the one you’ll forget the quickest). Give something a name for the sake of giving it a name. This term refers to a caesura which occurs after an expected unstressed syllable. Got that? Four examples can be found in Dickinson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death–. I’ve highlighted them in red.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess || – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather || – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet || – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice || – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

free verse

The use of enjambment and end-stopping can be very useful to the free verse poet and for similar reasons. T.S. Eliot, in his poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, skillfully uses a combination of enjambment and end-stopping to control the ebb and flow of the verse and thought. Writing free verse, he could have broken his lines anywhere, but clearly manipulated the lines in such a way that they suggested a kind of rhythm.

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said,
“Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.” (….)

Notice, in the second stanza above, how the first four lines are end-stopped, emphasizing and slowing down the verse with a kind of childlike, mother goose-ish feel. Then notice how, when the street lamp speaks, the lines are enjambed and the verse has the feeling of spaciousness. The voice feels different.  The effect is accomplished both through enjambment and the lack of rhyme.

It’s an effect, however, that the vast majority of free verse poets are unaware of or have chosen to ignore. The result is that their poetry is nothing more than lineated prose. While their lines may be end-stopped or enjambed, the effect feels completely arbitrary.

The caesura loses all it’s effect in free verse. After all, if the verse is regular enough to make the reader aware of such a syntactic feature, then the verse by definition isn’t free. If the verse has structure, then it’s not free. I’ve had this argument with practitioners of free verse and they either get that glazed look of breathtaking denial or they lose the ability to speak. Free verse can’t be both free and “structured” (in the sense of a regular pattern). Can’t happen.

Anyway, that’s that. If the post has been helpful, let me know. If not, I’m always ready to improve.

up in Vermont • March 26 2011

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57 responses

  1. Great insights! Thanks for this.

    Just a side note: Being an avid reader and writer of both metrical and nonmetrical poems, I rarely set one type against the other as poetic antagonists (though I did when I wrote little but “free verse” in college). These days, rather, I recognize them as the two basic modes of poetic language: verse and prose. And both can be used skillfully in a single poem, as Eliot sometimes does.

    I do, however, like Timothy Steele’s metaphor of verse as the trunk of the tree that is poetry’s history in English, with free verse and syllabics as two of the branches. If we chop down the trunk then the branches will fall. I observe, too, that “free verse” poets who show a deep understanding of metrics often write strong and well-structured prose poems, though the obverse might also be true today, where the most skillful metrists show a deep understanding of what Robert Pinsky and others have called the “prose virtues.”

    That said, I’m uncertain if verse has any inherent primacy over prose for creating the poetic experience, especially in a literary (as opposed to oral) context. I could go on, but I’ll leave it there for now.

    • Being an avid reader and writer of both metrical and nonmetrical poems, I rarely set one type against the other as poetic antagonists…

      I don’t pit them against each other, but I don’t recognize free verse as descended from poetry. Free verse, as practiced by the majority of poets, is descended from prose, not poetry. What distinguished poetry, historically, wasn’t its subject matter or length, but regular linguistic patterning. All the other techniques found in poetry can be found in prose. When poets divested their “verse” of all linguistic patterning, then they were writing prose or a species of lineated prose – a typographical imitation of a traditional poem. I’m not arguing that free verse shouldn’t be called poetry, only that calling something a poem is separate from whether its descended from the poetic tradition.

      I’m always ready to read poetry and free verse with equal avidity, but free verse rarely holds my interest by the time I’m done reading.

    • I don’t want to square off as at odds on this, since it’s an incredibly complex subject with its roots in protoverbal patterning that could spin us in a multitude of directions. Simply put, I remain amazed by language.

      And what is poetry, anyway? When and how does utterance become statement, or sound become music? Our brains, it seems, have evolved to make the paradigm shift instantly and to register very subtle distinctions — one (in some contexts) we call “prose,” another (sometimes in the very same contexts) we call “poetry,” still another “gibberish.”

      I’m not sure one can successfully argue that certain poets have divested their verse of all linguistic patterning by eschewing meter. This is not the case with the vast majority of modern and contemporary poets I’ve read. To my mind, we’re seeing different shades and degrees of rhythmic expectation established and then executed between one poem and another.

      Metric poems can be measured in the accentual or accentual-syllabic friction between meter and syntax, between line and sentence. Nonmetric or syllabic poems cannot be measured in this way, at least without straining to the point of futility, but their rhythmic and syntactic patterns can be tracked and compared/contrasted with other poems’ rhythmic and syntactic patterns.

      Again, I’m not refuting your position, exactly; I’m simply expressing my own reluctance to alienate prose from verse.

    • And what is poetry, anyway?

      Yes, but the question, to me, isn’t what is poetry, but what is the difference between traditional poetry and free verse.

      one (in some contexts) we call “prose,” another (sometimes in the very same contexts) we call “poetry,” still another “gibberish.”

      That may be true of the term poetry, but not free verse. Free verse means something.

      I’m not sure one can successfully argue that certain poets have divested their verse of all linguistic patterning by eschewing meter.

      We don’t have to. Poets themselves have explicitly made these claims. Repeatedly.

      Also, eschewing any sort of linguistic pattern is not the same as “eschewing meter”. A regular linguistic pattern can also be rhyme, parallelism, syllabics or accentual poetry. (Syllabics are unrecognizable to the ear but a “pattern” nonetheless, I suppose.)

      To my mind, we’re seeing different shades and degrees of rhythmic expectation established and then executed between one poem and another.

      You are using the term rhythm figuratively. As a literal matter, a rhythm is a regular pattern. A free verse poem cannot, by definition, have a rhythm or else it’s not free. In a figurative sense, anything can have rhythm. And, as far as that goes, there is no difference between the rhythm of free verse and prose. They are the same.

      As to shades and degrees, the test is black and white. If a sonnet were presented as a prose paragraph, could you reconstruct it? Yes. A sonnet has a regular pattern. You can’t reconstruct free verse because, once it’s been lifted from the page, there’s nothing that differentiates it from prose. History strongly suggests that traditional poetry’s roots are in song. Song has a regular beat. The practitioners of free verse explicitly rejected that tradition. It’s roots are to be found in prose.

      ….their rhythmic and syntactic patterns can be tracked and compared/contrasted with other poems’ rhythmic and syntactic patterns.

      This doesn’t differentiate free verse from prose. Prose also has “rhythmic” (figurative sense) and syntactic “patterns” (figurative sense) that can be tracked and compared, and those “rhythms and patterns” will be identical to free verse. Free verse and prose are the same. But who cares? It strikes me that some writers of free verse want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to write free verse, because its demonstrably easier, but they don’t want their free verse to be treated like prose.

      I’m simply expressing my own reluctance to alienate prose from verse.

      :-) Don’t worry, I can have a discussion like this without taking it personally. That said, I think using the term “alienate” is loaded. I’m just being factual. Prose and traditional verse are two different things.

  2. I think you’re confusing rhythm with meter. Meter is the abstract measurable pattern underlying rhythm; rhythm is the vocal reality that cannot be measured anywhere near as neatly in verse or prose (though many have tried).

    I’m influenced in my thinking by Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter and All the fun’s in how you say a thing. And also by Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry. The political differences (how free is “free”? how constrictive is meter?) don’t matter to me as much as what I hear when I say aloud or listen to a metrical or nonmetrical poem.

    • I think you’re confusing rhythm with meter.

      No I’m not. I’m making a distinction between the literal and figurative use of the word rhythm. Here are five definitions of rhythm taken from Artha:

      1. the basic rhythmic unit in a piece of music the piece has a fast rhythm; the conductor set the beat
      2. recurring at regular intervals
      3. an interval during which a recurring sequence of events occurs the never-ending cycle of the seasons
      4. the arrangement of spoken words alternating stressed and unstressed elements the rhythm of Frost’s poetry
      5. natural family planning in which ovulation is assumed to occur 14 days before the onset of a period (the fertile period would be assumed to extend from day 10 through day 18 of her cycle)

      In every case, a rhythm is something with a regular and identifiable pattern – emphasis on regular. I’m drawing a clear distinction between the figurative meaning of rhythm and its literal meaning. I think you’re confusing the two. For example, when you write:

      …rhythm is the vocal reality that cannot be measured anywhere near as neatly in verse or prose…

      You’re using rhythm in it’s figurative sense. As a literal matter, rhythm can’t be applied to free verse or prose. Again, if free verse has a regular rhythm (a redundancy), then it’s not free verse.

  3. Also, rhyme and stanza — and all other tropes and devices — are secondary or even inessential considerations in differentiating verse (metrical) poems from prose (nonmetrical) poems. (I’ll toss away the terms vers libre or free verse as merely political labels for the purposes of this discussion.) Meter is the dividing line.

    • Also, rhyme and stanza — and all other tropes and devices — are secondary or even inessential considerations in differentiating verse (metrical) poems from prose (nonmetrical) poems.

      Yes, if all you’re doing is differentiating metrical poems from non-metrical prose, then it goes without saying that meter is the dividing line. That’s somewhat tautological. :-) But meter is not the dividing line between traditional verse and prose or free verse. The dividing line is a regular, linguistic pattern.

  4. We’ll have to agree to disagree, I guess, but I trust that Steele and Pinsky know more than I do about meter and rhythm, and these are the conclusions I glean from my own experience and reading their criticism and instructive works. And Steele and Pinsky both admit that their thinking about the two terms fly in the face of accepted definitions. Which is one reason why there is so much miscommunication between poets.

    • I trust that Steele and Pinsky know more than I do about meter and rhythm

      :-) I’m not so sure. If you mean as an academic, then Steele probably does. Pinsky? I know more than Pinsky does. So do you.

      As an academic, I respect Steele. He’s first rate. That said, I don’t see how his writing pertains to our discussion. From Chapter 3 onward (I have his book in my lap and read it years ago) he turns to the distinction between verse and poetry. I have a strong practical bent so, for me, the latter two thirds of Steele’s book doesn’t offer much – reading about how poet after poet, after critic, after philosopher defined poetry and verse is excruciatingly dull and irrelevant.

      If a poet truly understands meter (and rhythm) and has something to say about it, he says it in his art. That’s where the rubber hits the road.

      From that standpoint, Pinsky is a nobody. The day he writes a metrical poem with any understanding will be the day I care. As to Steele, his meter is wooden and stiff. He’s the poster child for how to not write meter. I wrote about him here. He’s an above average poet, but barely.

      As to Steele and our discussion, I don’t see where we would disagree.

      He does take issue with the characterization of free verse as “free” in a figurative (political for example) sense, but says nothing I would disagree with in terms of distinguishing traditional poetry from free verse. Much of his book actually confirms (see page 80-90 for example, and page 102) the historical connection between free verse and prose. So, I guess, I’m not sure what you’re referring to when referring to Steele.

    • Meter is specific to poetry and refers to a regular accentual syllabic pattern. There is discussion as to whether accentual verse is “a meter”. In either case, it’s not free verse.

      As to rhythm, it’s better to not apply the word rhythm to poetry (in my opinion). It leads to nothing but trouble because, for the most part, the term is used figuratively and in that sense it can mean anything. Steele’s book is ‘exhibit A’. He devotes dozens of pages to the troubled history of the word.

  5. Sorry to draw this out because I think we’re basically in agreement, just arguing about semantics, but my wife asked that I point out that any two sonnets by Shakespeare will have the same meter and basic form (iambic pentameter over 14 lines with a set rhyme scheme), but each sonnet will have a distinctive rhythm, which is influenced by the unique choice and order of syllables, words, phrases, and clauses; shifts in pitch, weight of stress/accent, and duration; pauses, end-stops and enjambments, etc.

    The complexity and variability of a pentameter rhythm (literally or figuratively) are staggering. If the rhythm were fixed and regular — as the metrical pattern is — all Shakespearean sonnets would read more or less identically, would they not?

    • …but each sonnet will have a distinctive rhythm, which is influenced by the unique choice and order of syllables, words, phrases, and clauses; shifts in pitch, weight of stress/accent, and duration; pauses, end-stops and enjambments, etc.

      Hence, the reason I don’t like the word rhythm. When used in this sense it’s being misused.

      As a literal matter (in the dictionary sense) what you’re describing isn’t the “rhythm” of the sonnet. Your use of the word rhythm is more poetic than accurate or descriptive. Off the top of my head, I would probably be more apt to use the term ebb and flow. Ebb and flow can be arrhythmic. And when you think about, that’s really what you’re describing. You’re not describing the rhythm of each sonnet, but each sonnet’s arrhythmia (which is what makes each sonnet unique). All free verse is better understood as being uniquely arrhythmic rather than rhythmic.

      The complexity and variability of a pentameter rhythm (literally or figuratively) are staggering.

      Yes, and that argument has been used to dismiss meter as non-existent, but that’s argument by reductio ad absurdem. If a given piece of metrical poetry is too complexly varied, then it ceases to be metrical. This means there are limits to how complex and varied a given metrical poem can be. And this means that all metrical poetry, if it’s to be metrical, must spring from a recognizable and fixed pattern – even if the poetry itself isn’t fixed and regular. The foundational pattern must be recognizable.

      And does this mean I get to draw my wife into the debate? :-)

  6. Thanks for the back-and-forth. It’s very useful for me. But I’ll leave it here for today. I’m a bigger fan of Steele and Pinsky than you are, I suppose, though I see your point about the misuses of “rhythm.”

    And your wife is always welcome to join in. :-)

  7. I believe that all of this discussion about meter and the categorical distinction of free verse is fairly shortsighted. By these terms, we are defining modern poetry by the same concepts that defined it over a hundred years ago. Art is evolutionary, and poetry is not excluded. Just as the modern music we listen to is not the same by definition as it was back then, poetry is not the same as it was.

    In the continual dynamism of poetry, certain aspects have been dropped to provide for a freer form of expression. For instance, with the advent of blank verse (dropping rhyme), we were given a template for Shakespeare’s plays.

    I cannot, in good conscience, believe that free verse is a form descended from prose or, as indicated above, is distinct from poetry, any more than I can believe that such a scholarly poet could think poetry to be defined solely by its use of rhythmic pattern, rhyme, and meter.

    I think this conversation may have been more valid had it occurred closer to the turn of the 20th century. Here in modern times, we acknowledge more poetic devices than meter, rhythm, and rhyme.

    Thank you for your time.

    • Thanks for the comment, Uriah. I don’t often hear from readers in disagreement.

      Art is evolutionary, and poetry is not excluded. Just as the modern music we listen to is not the same by definition as it was back then, poetry is not the same as it was.

      I don’t disagree that art evolves, and I don’t think the observation undercuts what I’ve written in this post or elsewhere.

      In the continual dynamism of poetry, certain aspects have been dropped to provide for a freer form of expression. For instance, with the advent of blank verse (dropping rhyme), we were given a template for Shakespeare’s plays.

      The difference between free verse and traditional poetry can be decided by a simple test. If one de-lineates the poem, turns it into a prose paragraph, can the poem be reconstructed or re-lineated? Blank verse can be re-lineated. If you give me a large enough sample from Milton’s paradise lost as prose, I (or any other reader familiar with the rules of blank verse) will be able to reconstruct it just the way Milton wrote it. No reader is going to be able to re-lineate a free-verse poem, passage or epic (just as the author wrote it) except against astronomical odds. Free verse may have “evolved” from traditional poetry, but free verse writers deliberately rejected all the techniques that linked traditional poetry with its ancient roots in song and dance. By doing so, they turned free-verse into a species of prose. Free verse didn’t evolve from prose, but it has more in common with prose than traditional poetry.

      I cannot, in good conscience, believe that… a scholarly poet could think poetry to be defined solely by its use of rhythmic pattern, rhyme, and meter.

      I don’t think that poetry is defined by its use of “rhythmic pattern, rhyme, and meter”. Free verse is poetry, but it’s not traditional poetry. Free versifiers, in large part, have wholly and consciously rejected the forms and structures of traditional poetry. Free verse and traditional poetry are two different art forms. Traditional poetry adds a layer of discipline that free verse just doesn’t. To paraphrase Frost, poetry was meant to be memorable. Traditionally, poets tried to accomplish this through various kinds of patterning.

      Here in modern times, we acknowledge more poetic devices than meter, rhythm, and rhyme.

      I notice that you don’t provide any examples. That’s OK. I think I know what kinds of examples you would give but, as far as free verse goes, those devices would be identical to those in prose. Give me examples of “poetic” devices (besides lineation) found in free verse that are not found in prose, then we’ll have something.

    • I am sorry, I think I may have misconstrued one of your statements in the earlier conversation. I had interpreted a line in there to be referring to Traditional Poetry as “Poetry,” and everything else as “Verse.” This, as a free verse poet, is mildly insulting.

      I see now that I was mistaken. (On a side note, I admittedly do not comprehend the reasoning behind attributing any shared devices to prose. If a device exists in prose, why does that indicate that poetry is using a device from prose? Why is this not just a literary device? Must the prose label be thrown at a poetic form?) But to continue the conversation, I will not argue that poetry shares many devices with prose. However, there are many differences in the way that these devices are approached and read.

      One instance of this is metaphor. While prose must establish a metaphor’s existence, poetry is read with the assumption of duality and deeper meaning. If we were to “de-lineate” (oh and to rest upon a cliche) Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” would, forgive me, just be a fairly boring prose passage that rhymed less noticeably and was annoyingly rhythmic. RE-insert the line breaks and there is a purpose to it all.

      Another instance is free verse’s tactful and sometimes surprising use of language. A majority of prose does not look to innovate or intrigue with its language. Poetry, in both traditional and free forms, does. This can be found in both Neruda and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name two of the thousands.

      Poetry can, in its essence, be described (but not defined) as using language and all of its intrinsic components to communicate. And to head off the “scansion and rhyme are components” thread, I would like to state that the avoidance of these can be as valid an application as their use.

      Poetry cares about the silence.
      (Cummings even injected silence mid-word via line breaks)

      Forgive me, but I am unsure of how these comment boxes operate.

      “The difference between free verse and traditional poetry can be decided by a simple test. If one de-lineates the poem, turns it into a prose paragraph, can the poem be reconstructed or re-lineated?”

      And here, we find a truth. Free verse is near impossible to re-lineate in this fashion. But does this make it a version of prose that is broken into lines? No. In fact, it might be compared to melting a Van Gogh painting down to a blank canvas and paint. Could the painting be reconstructed exactly as Van Gogh created it? Is it different from traditional forms in this way? yes. This test seems to ignore the fact that a free-verse poet creates line breaks with purpose. This thread, mostly, seems to assume that a free-verse poem is purely accidental instead of written with consciousness and intent.

      I’ll also choose this spot to inject the idea that many, many free verse poets do apply a knowledge of scansion, but not with the same rigidity as traditional forms. An example of this is Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Birch,” which appeared recently in The American Poetry Review. In this poem, rhythm is not nonexistent, but it is subterranean. That is to say, it is used in a way that is not read and understood consciously. It does employ rhythm in ways that are not expected (the last couple lines are very strongly iambic and for that reason very easily got stuck in my head for several days.)

      “Free verse may have “evolved” from traditional poetry, but free verse writers deliberately rejected all the techniques that linked traditional poetry with its ancient roots in song and dance. By doing so, they turned free-verse into a species of prose.”

      This is where we disagree. The declaration operates under the assumption that free-verse poets write without any attention whatsoever to scansion or rhyme or shape. This, at least in the strongest poets, is not the case. It is the ability to modify, to invent, to innovate with these concepts that makes free verse “free.”

      For the sake of this thread, I’ll introduce a term that seems to have been left out for some time: “lyric.” This is where I feel the greatest failing of the debate has been. Most ancient lyric can be related closely to prose that employs rhyme, meter, and rhythm. So, if we perhaps define traditional poetry as poetry that employs lyrical devices, what are we left with that makes it a form of poetry and not a form of lyric?

      The exact same things that make free verse poetry and not a form of prose.

    • I had interpreted a line in there to be referring to Traditional Poetry as “Poetry,” and everything else as “Verse.” This, as a free verse poet, is mildly insulting.

      You might have gotten that from my post But is it Poetry?. The point of the post was that free verse is a new genre of poetry, not that free verse isn’t poetry.

      On a side note, I admittedly do not comprehend the reasoning behind attributing any shared devices to prose. If a device exists in prose, why does that indicate that poetry is using a device from prose? Why is this not just a literary device? Must the prose label be thrown at a poetic form?

      But that cuts both ways: Why call it a literary device? Why does it bother you (or any poet) that free verse and prose are dissimilar only in the former’s use of lineation? The fierce reluctance (and refusal) of free verse poets to admit that they are writing lineated prose is, to me, a dishonesty that deliberately glosses over the difference between free verse poetry and traditional poetry. Mind you, I’m not making a value statement (though most poets seem to assume that I am). I’m talking about the literary techniques available to prose and free verse writers. They are the same. The same can’t be said for traditional poetry. Traditional poetry uses meter, rhyme and other patterns that are absolutely distinct from prose. In the final analysis, the prose label doesn’t have to be thrown at a “poetic form”, although that begs the question: why ignore over 2,000 years of Rhetoric? The reluctance to distinguish between the techniques of prose and poetry glosses over that history and serves no other purpose than to protect the egos of free verse poets.

      One instance of this is metaphor. While prose must establish a metaphor’s existence, poetry is read with the assumption of duality and deeper meaning.

      You might be tempted to think so, but the “assumption of duality and deeper meaning” has a long history in prose and is not unique to poetry. This use of metaphor, historically, did not distinguish poetry from prose.

      Another instance is free verse’s tactful and sometimes surprising use of language. A majority of prose does not look to innovate or intrigue with its language.

      If you read the handbooks of classical rhetoricians, you will find all those “figures”, as they were called, carefully categorized and described. The use of innovative words in prose and speech was highly prized and admired. Such usages were not used to differentiate poetry from prose. In the modern day, there are many examples of prose writers who go the extra mile – think of Finnegan’s Wake. Lastly, I would say that the majority of modern verse also does not look to innovate or intrigue with its language.

      And to head off the “scansion and rhyme are components” thread, I would like to state that the avoidance of these can be as valid an application as their use.

      That’s OK. It’s worth pointing out that many 20th and 21rst century poets deliberately rid their verse of anything that found its roots in traditional poetry. Such choices may be “valid”, but they don’t change the end result. Prose by any other name is still prose. Prose that is lineated is called free verse.

      This test seems to ignore the fact that a free-verse poet creates line breaks with purpose.

      Yes, lineation is the only feature that separates free verse from prose. I agree. However, de-lineate any such poem, and you are left with prose. The same can’t be said for a traditional poem.

      In this poem, rhythm is not nonexistent, but it is subterranean. That is to say, it is used in a way that is not read and understood consciously. It does employ rhythm in ways that are not expected (the last couple lines are very strongly iambic and for that reason very easily got stuck in my head for several days.)

      Yes, and there are many prosodists who are mindful of the same effects and subterranean rhythms. Such literary techniques do not differentiate free verse from prose. Also, I tend to avoid words like “rhythm”. A rhythm is a pattern. If a free verse poem has a pattern, then it’s no longer free verse. :-)

      This, at least in the strongest poets, is not the case. It is the ability to modify, to invent, to innovate with these concepts that makes free verse “free.”

      The poet’s intentions are irrelevant to my discussion. I am simply considering what techniques appear in the finished poem. Do they show a pattern, or do they not? If they do not, then the poem is free verse. But for lineation, the poem is a species of prose because the techniques of a free verse poem are no different than the literary techniques available to a prosodist.

      Most ancient lyric can be related closely to prose that employs rhyme, meter, and rhythm.

      The issues isn’t whether prose employed rhyme, meter and rhythm (again, rhythm is a meaningless and misleading descriptor) but whether prose did so via a pattern: prose did not, ancient poetry did. Prose may employ lyrical devices, but such devices are not what distinguish traditional poetry from prose. The use of linguistic patterns, like rhyme and meter, is what distinguished traditional poetry from prose. This is why any knowledgeable reader can re-lineate (reconstruct) a traditional poem that has been de-lineated.

      P.S. Thank you for the conversation. I hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am. :-)

  8. Apologies, but this may take several posts.
    I have taken the liberty of having a look at your poetry. I did not arrive here as a reader or a fan, but as a researcher looking into how others talk about the subject of line breaks in order to articulate it more clearly in a poetry class that I teach. Let me say, first and foremost, that I do not intend this to be as abrasive and insulting as it may be interpreted. I hope that perhaps this comment may open a new chapter in your education, and improve your poetry in general.

    Having a look into the poetry that you put forth here has been elucidating in the context of this conversation. Forgive me, but both the traditional and free forms of poetry that you’ve written seem to very prosaic in nature. It seems that the very things that are overlooked when you establish the opinion that “free verse is a form of lineated prose” are completely absent from your poetry. Free verse, to the understanding of it that you convey here, is a form of lineated prose. This should not be a validation of your prior comments, but a disappointment in the quality of work that is on display. In the world of free verse and public/published poetry in general, we take this to be a failing in our work. Which was one of the concepts that made me double-take at your prior comments. (“If his statement that free verse is a form of lined prose is true, then what in the world are we looking at in a low-quality poem that demands that we declare it lineated prose and not poetry?”) I feel these aspects are indicative of your understanding of poetry as a whole.

    There Was a Woman reads as lineated prose. Again, this is not evidence that this is what free verse is, but evidence of your comprehension of it. The imagery is not approached with any real creativity, imagination, or indulgence in the beauty of language. Prose is often defined as “flat out.” Indeed, telling the reader that the subject’s skirt was “down to her ankles,” her shirt “hung freely,” that she was holding both shoes in one hand for balance and the other to bundle her skirt to her knees,” and a majority of the other lines of this poem (something approaching poetic was promised in the description of her eyes, but this was tragically abandoned before any true poetry began to form) are utterly unimaginative in nature and told in “flat out” statements. In other words, this “poem” reads as a prose passage. This is possibly the most unflattering criticism any poem could receive. (This is also true of your traditional “closer to poetry” poetry. The poems read as prose passages that rhyme often.)

    What seems like an epoch ago, a former mentor of mine wrote a critique for me on “poetry” I’d been writing that appears much like your own (very prosaic and unimaginative, that lacked any form of innovation in the language that it employed and the way in which it was employed.)
    She wrote down a few lines for me and asked what the difference between them was:

    “Whose woods these are I think I know” (Original)

    “I think I know whose woods these are”
    “I think I know who owns these woods”
    (Frost de-Poeticized)

    “Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred” (Original)

    “The six hundred horsemen rode
    into the valley and to their death.”
    (Tennyson de-Poeticized)

    These lines, beyond the deconstruction of their meter and their rhythms, become diluted into prose. This is because they are turned from creatively and surprisingly phrased lines to the boring, mundane lines that are able to be fully interpreted on the liminal level. This should not always be true of poetry (and never expected of it.) Poetry thrives on its ability to be sublime, metaphorical, emotional, logical, rational, irrational, (sometimes philosophical,) and literal all simultaneously. This is not and will never be found in prose.

    Free verse, as it is written by stronger poets, will read at the very least as poetic prose if delineated. The fact that it would not be reconstructable as the same poem is not evidence of structure’s absence, it is evidence that there was not a predefined structure. In fact, the skilled free-verse poet shapes and structures their poem with We will forget, for a moment, all of the free verse poets that do use rhythm, meter, rhyme, write unmetered, unrhythmed sonnets and free-verse interpretations of other traditional forms.

    Yes, I will continue to use this term in the poetic definition, as the “patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables,” how this is confusing to anyone that claims to be a poet is beyond me. And please, forsake the go-to terms of “pattern,” because in the context above it is used to mean “recurring” pattern, and not its true meaning. Really, “linguistic patterning” means attention to those traits (read, rhyme, rhythm, meter, assonance, alliteration,) not “predictable, rigid, repetition of preconstructed templates.” The latter is a rather rudimentary concept of patterning, much like denying the existence of the numerical Pi and Phi, citing their irrationality and non-repetition as reasons for them not to be numbers. Saying that free-verse poets do not pay attention to the acoustics (this is a superior term to “linguistic patterning) of a poem is akin to saying that the only acoustics that traditional poets care about are rhythm and full rhyme. Neither are true.

    I think, perhaps, this excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s editorial of “The Culprit Fay” by Joseph Rodman Drake may shed a little bit of light on what we, as writers should be creating, and as readers want in a poem:

    ” Imagination is its soul.* With the passions of mankind- although it may modify them greatly- although it may exalt, or inflame, or purify, or control them- it would require little ingenuity to prove that it has no inevitable, and indeed no necessary co-existence. We have hitherto spoken of poetry in the abstract: we come now to speak of it in its everyday acceptation- that is to say, of the practical result arising from the sentiment we have considered.

    * Imagination is, possibly in man, a lesser degree of the creative power in God. What the Deity imagines, is, but was not before. What man imagines, is, but was also. The mind of man cannot imagine what is not. This latter point may be demonstrated.- See Les Premiers Traits de L’Erudition Universelle, par M. Le Baron de Biefield, 1767.

    And now it appears evident, that since Poetry, in this new sense, is the practical result, expressed in language, of this Poetic Sentiment in certain individuals, the only proper method of testing the merits of a poem is by measuring its capabilities of exciting the Poetic Sentiments in others. And to this end we have many aids- in observation, in experience, in ethical analysis, and in the dictates of common sense. Hence the Poeta nascitur, which is indisputably true if we consider the Poetic Sentiment, becomes the merest of absurdities when we regard it in reference to the practical result. We do not hesitate to say that a man highly endowed with the powers of Causality- that is to say, a man of metaphysical acumen- will, even with a very deficient share of Ideality, compose a finer poem (if we test it, as we should, by its measure of exciting the Poetic Sentiment) than one who, without such metaphysical acumen, shall be gifted, in the most extraordinary degree, with the faculty of Ideality. For a poem is not the Poetic faculty, but the means of exciting it in mankind. Now these means the metaphysician may discover by analysis of their effects in other cases than his own, without even conceiving the nature of these effects- thus arriving at a result which the unaided Ideality of his competitor would be utterly unable, except by accident, to attain. It is more than possible that the man who, of all writers, living or dead, has been most successful in writing the purest of all poems- that is to say, poems which excite more purely, most exclusively, and most powerfully the imaginative faculties in men- owed his extraordinary and almost magical preeminence rather to metaphysical than poetical powers. We allude to the author of Christabel, of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and of Love- to Coleridge- whose head, if we mistake not its character, gave no great phrenological tokens of Ideality, while the organs of Causality and Comparison were most singularly developed.”

    In this quotation, indeed, we discover one on the quintessences of poetry: the excitement of poetic sentiment and the creativity with which the poetry approaches their piece.

    A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences.” – Arthur Rimbaud

    One definition of poetry states that it is “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” While this is rudimentary in its denotation, it stumbles upon one word that hints at the true purpose of poetry, “exciting.” Poetry is not about creating the emotion of excitement, but exciting the senses and evoking emotion, thoughts, feelings, and ideas within the reader.

    A better, but perhaps more enigmatic definition states:

    Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.

    This definition also stumbles upon two words that hint at poetry’s meaning, “expression,” and “awareness.” Poetry is a mode of expression that harnesses the beauty and evocative nature of language along with its meaning. This means that unlike most prose, poetry uses all aspects of language that are available to it. Sounds, stresses, associations, and meaning are all aspects that the skilled poet considers with every word.

    Awareness is also a key instrument in writing a poem. A poet must be aware of their poem’s subject matter, their own emotions, and how those emotions are experienced. The best poetry communicates its emotions and meanings in a way that is unique to how the poet experiences them.

    Poetry, unlike prose, is about communicating to the reader on both a conscious and subconscious level. This means that applying the concepts of poetic technique, choosing words that enhance the poem in both the literal and visceral interpretations, and, simultaneously, speaking clearly to the reader’s consciousness are of the utmost priority.

    I hope this lesson helps, and I do hope that you can begin to write real poetry very soon.

    I will leave you with a poem. A great poem. A real poem. A free-verse poem. A poem that is not lineated prose. A poem that is poetry. A poem that maybe it will help you comprehend poetry. A poem that is great and free and sublime. A poem that is real poetry. A poem that helped a man win a Nobel Prize. A poem that demonstrates well the quintessences of poetry. A poem that maybe it will awaken some real poetry in you.

    (for the rather obscure allusion employed here, please see “Portrait of a Lady” by Ernest Hemingway)

    Sexual Water by Pablo Neruda (Translated by Donald D. Walsh)

    Rolling in big solitary drops,
    in drops like teeth,
    in big thick drops of marmalade and blood,
    rolling in big raindrops,
    the water falls,
    like a sword in drops,
    like a tearing river of glass,
    it falls biting,
    striking the axis of symmetry, sticking to the seams of the soul,
    breaking abandoned things, drenching the dark.

    It is only a breath, moister than weeping,
    a liquid, a sweat, a nameless oil,
    a sharp movement,
    forming, thickening,
    the water falls,
    in big slow raindrops,
    toward its sea, toward its dry ocean,
    toward its waterless wave.

    I see the vast summer, and a death rattle coming from a granary,
    stores, locusts,
    towns, stimuli,rooms, girls
    sleeping with their hands on their hearts,
    dreaming of bandits, of fires,
    I see ships,
    I see marrow trees
    bristling like rabid cats,
    I see blood, daggers, and women’s stockings,
    and men’s hair,
    I see beds, I see corridors where a virgin screams,
    I see blankets and organs and hotels.

    I see the silent dreams,
    I accept the final days,
    and also the origins, and also the memories,
    like an eyelid, atrociously and forcibly uplifted
    I am looking.

    And then there is this sound:
    a red noise of bones,
    a clashing of flesh,
    and yellow legs merging like spikes of grain,
    I listen among the smack of kisses,
    I listen, shaken between gasps and sobs.
    I am looking, hearing,
    with half my soul upon the sea and half my soul upon the land,
    and with the two halves of my soul I look at the world.

    And though I close my eyes and cover my heart entirely,
    I see a muffled waterfall,
    in big muffled raindrops.
    It is like a hurricane of gelatine,
    like a waterfall of sperm and jellyfish.
    I see a turbid rainbow form.
    I see its waters pass across the bones.

    • Hi Uriah, thanks for your comment. I have enjoyed reading it and am grateful for it. I took the liberty of formatting it for you (since it’s easier for me to do than anyone commenting). If there’s anything further you would like me to change, let me know. Here are my thoughts:

      There Was a Woman reads as lineated prose. Again, this is not evidence that this is what free verse is, but evidence of your comprehension of it.

      Keep in mind that this poem was finished over 20 years ago. This poem was certainly evidence of my poetic comprehension at that time. I also don’t mind criticism, especially informed criticism. For the most part, I agree that the poem is prosaic. I think I might have originally written the poem when I was nineteen or twenty. Love came easily. Your assertion that it is nothing more than flat free verse overlooks the poem’s internal rhyme (though prose is capable of internal rhyme as well). There’s also more grammatical inversion than one would expect to find in “flat” free verse. I don’t mention these in defense of the poem’s quality, only that your criticism is overstated. There are other reasons to criticize the poem – and more accurate reasons. Mainly, I remember trying to describe something as vividly as possible. The poem is what it is. I won’t defend it too much.

      Curiously, in your “de-Poeticized” examples, what you’re observing is the difference between normal grammer and grammatical inversion. I find those examples curious because this is precisely one of the many techniques many modern free verse poets have assiduously abjured because it’s not plain enough. Richard Wilbur refers to this trick of grammatical inversion as “poetic heightening” and has been criticized for it . I actually agree with you. I don’t share the modern free verse poet’s aversion to grammatical inversion. The rhetorical technique has it’s place and can add to the meaning and beauty of language whether in prose, free verse or traditional poetry. Also, I think you’re observation loses sight of what we’re discussing. It’s this: Free verse does nothing that prose can’t or hasn’t done. If you’ve ever read a play by John Lyly, you will find that his prose (all of his plays are written in prose) use such grammatical inversion with abandon.

      Poetry thrives on its ability to be sublime, metaphorical, emotional, logical, rational, irrational, (sometimes philosophical,) and literal all simultaneously. This is not and will never be found in prose.

      I don’t think there’s a prosodist alive who would agree with you. Do you really want to make that assertion? I guess you’ve never read, well, any of John Lyly’s plays. I suppose if you really put me to it, I could provide hundreds of examples which contradict your claim, beginning with the Bible. There are countless examples of prose that are poetic and beautiful. I get the sense that you’re offended when I compare free verse to prose. That says more about your opinions of prose than my opinion of free verse. Prose is capable of surpassing radiance, and so is free verse. The linguistic techniques they draw from are one and the same. The only difference between free verse and traditional poetry is the use of a “formal” pattern.

      Free verse, as it is written by stronger poets, will read at the very least as poetic prose if delineated.

      Yes.

      The fact that it would not be reconstructable as the same poem is not evidence of structure’s absence, it is evidence that there was not a predefined structure.

      Ok, then let the free verse poet instruct us as to the resultant “structure” and we will see if the knowledgeable reader can reconstruct it. But that misses the point. I’m not saying there is no structure to free verse or prose. You misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that there’s no pattern or form. This is why it’s called free. The latter qualities are unique to traditional poetry. A tree has “structure”, but it is not predictable the way a skyscraper’s structure is predictable (to make a loose analogy).

      …forsake the go-to terms of “pattern,” because in the context above it is used to mean “recurring” pattern, and not its true meaning.

      Pattern: 1. An arrangement of repeated or corresponding parts…
      Rhythm: 1. movement or procedure with uniform or patterned recurrence of a beat, accent, or the like.

      Both pattern and rhythm share the idea of repetition and recurrence – the idea of a form.

      In truth though, it doesn’t really matter to me what word we use. If you prefer a different word to pattern, then let me know what you prefer. I’m not an academic. I know there are probably dozens, if not hundreds of uses to which academia has put the word – some contradictory. I know that when poets refer to rhythm in free verse and prose, what they are really referring to is a unique kind of arrhythmia that is as unique as a fingerprint, but is not rhythm according to any dictionary sense of the word.

      Saying that free-verse poets do not pay attention to the acoustics (this is a superior term to “linguistic patterning) of a poem is akin to saying that the only acoustics that traditional poets care about are rhythm and full rhyme.

      Well, ok, but I never said that. It seems that you are making a straw man out of me. If you want me to play the devil’s advocate, I will; but let’s at least clear up what I really mean. I never said that free verse poets do not pay attention to the accustics. I agree that accoustics is a better word than patterning because accoustics doesn’t imply a regular, recurring, predictable rhythm or pattern. However, having said that, prosodists also pay keen attention to the accoustics of their prose, and the techniques available to them are identical to the techniques available to the free verse poet.

      And now it appears evident, that since Poetry, in this new sense, is the practical result, expressed in language, of this Poetic Sentiment in certain individuals, the only proper method of testing the merits of a poem is by measuring its capabilities of exciting the Poetic Sentiments in others.

      You’re making an aesthetic and artistic distinction between free verse and prose and that goes far beyond my own argument. I don’t disagree with you in your distinctions. The aesthetic aim of free verse and most prose is different – with the exclusion of prose poems; but this has nothing to do with what I’ve written. What I am comparing are the rhetorical techniques (figures as they used to be called) available to prosodists and free verse poets. But for lineation, they are identical. Free verse is prose, prose is free verse. But for lineation, the prosodist (writing a prose poem) can accomplish the same thing and uses precisely the same tools as the free verse poet. Poetry’s meaning is a separate discussion which I’m game to have but I think we would probably agree and get bored with each other.

      Poetry, unlike prose, is about communicating to the reader on both a conscious and subconscious level.

      OK. So… have you tried this argument out with prosodists or poets writing prose poems? Do you really want to make this argument? As a general matter, you may be right; but I have not surveyed enough poetry or prose to throw in my lot with you. Prose is capable of the same effects as the free verse poem. Free verse poetry is mostly capable of the same effects available to traditional poets – but for rhyme, meter, and the play of meaning against a given form.

      I hope this lesson helps, and I do hope that you can begin to write real poetry very soon.

      Thank you for your lesson. :-) I always strive to write real poetry. Besides that, there’s always more to learn and I appreciate the time you’ve taken to comment here. I take that as a compliment.

      I will leave you with a poem.

      I love Neruda and only regret I can’t read him in the original. I don’t presume to judge poems written in languages I can’t speak. I admire them, to paraphrase Cervantes, as a man who looks at the backside of a Persian carpet. I greatly enjoy Neruda’s imagery.

      Here is something for you. It’s prose by Neruda. He called it a prose poem. Are you willing to assert that, apart from lineation, his prose is intrinsically inferior to his free verse because it is prose? – that this prose poem isn’t “about communicating to the reader on both a conscious and subconscious level“, or that this poem can’t be “sublime, metaphorical, emotional, logical, rational, irrational, (sometimes philosophical,) and literal all simultaneously” because “[these things are] not and will never be found in prose“?

      EL DESHABITADO

      Estación invencible! En los lados del cielo un pálido cierzo se acumulaba, un aire desteñido e invasor, y hacia todo lo que los ojos abarcaban, como una espesa leche, como una cortina endurecida existía, continuamente.

      De modo que el ser se sentía aislado, sometido a esa extraña substancia, rodeado de un cielo próximo, con el mástil quebrado frente a un litoral blanquecino, abandonado de lo sólido, frente a un transcurso impenetrable y en una casa de niebla. Condenación y horror! De haber estado herido y abandonado, o haber escogido las arañas, el luto y la sotana. De haberse emboscado, fuertemente ahíto de este mundo, y de haber conversado sobre esfinges y oros y fatídicos destinos. De haber amarrado la ceniza al traje cotidiano, y haber besado el origen terrestre con su sabor a olvido. Pero no. No.

      Materias frías de la lluvia que caen sombríamente, pesares sin resurrección, olvido. En mi alcoba sin retratos, en mi traje sin luz, cuánta cabida eternamente permanece, y el lento rayo recto del día cómo se condensa hasta llegar a ser una sola gota oscura.

      Movimientos tenaces, senderos verticales a cuya flor final a veces se asciende, compañías suaves o brutales, puertas ausentes! Como cada día un pan letárgico, bebo de un agua aislada!

      Aúlla el cerrajero, trota el caballo, el caballejo empapado en lluvia, y el cochero de largo látigo tose, el condenado! Lo demás, hasta muy larga distancia permanece inmóvil, cubierto por el mes de junio y sus vegetaciones mojadas, sus animales callados, se unen como olas. Sí, qué mar de invierno, qué dominio sumergido trata de sobrevivir, y, aparentemente muerto, cruza de largos velámenes mortuorios esta densa superficie?

      A menudo, de atardecer acaecido, arrimo la luz a la ventana, y me miro, sostenido por maderas miserables, tendido en la humedad como un ataúd envejecido, entre paredes bruscamente débiles. Sueño, de una ausencia a otra, y a otra distancia, recibido y amargo.

    • I did not arrive here as a reader or a fan, but as a researcher looking into how others talk about the subject of line breaks in order to articulate it more clearly in a poetry class that I teach.

      I forgot to respond to this portion of your comment.

      The subject of line breaks in free verse is, indeed, an interesting one. When I was in college I knew a fellow poet, Jerry Lafemina, who struggled with this question. As far as I know he never arrived at a satisfactory answer. There have been others who struggled to elucidate the art of linebreaks in free verse but, as far as I know, no poet has ever described anything that is universally applicable. If I were in your position I would provide a plethora of examples, each different from the other, and perhaps examine why the individual poets broke the lines where they did. Start with Walt Whitman. His methodology is easiest to understand.

    • Uriah, after a day or two to reflect, it occurred to me that you are arguing for free verse as a genre as opposed to a species or way of writing. This is why you have been drawing a distinction between Free Verse (as a genre of poetry or, mostly, the lyric) and Prose (capital ‘P’ representing the genre of the Novel, Short Story, Essay, etc.). My argument is limited to Free Verse as a species or way of writing. In terms of the linguistic tools available to the prosodist and free verse poet, there is no difference apart from lineation. Free verse is prose that has been lineated and that’s that. When free verse is read aloud, the listener is unable to distinguish between free verse or prose. Any given free verse could be written as a prose poem and it wouldn’t make one wit of difference to the listener.

  9. Uriah,

    Thanks for the diatribe. If you’re interested in this subject as a teacher then you ought to realize that Patrick isn’t creating the prose/verse distinction. He’s reiterating a well-established notion of verse as a linguistic mode defined by a recognizable metrical pattern or patterns. Key words: recognizable and metrical.

    One hundred years ago, prose poets were told, by some verse poets, that their poems were not poetry. Fifty years ago, verse poets were told, by prose poets, that their poems were not poetry but facile rhymes. The difference today is that a poet’s education can be (though it shouldn’t be) devoid of all but the most basic understanding of the craft of verse. That wasn’t the case a century ago: young poets studied both verse and prose.

    Today, fortunately, the verse/prose divide is not as wide as it was even twenty years ago — at least outside the most myopic circles.

    The perceived quality and the “emotional aura” of a poem have nothing to do with what makes verse different from prose. These are intangibles, whereas “prose” and “verse” are solid categories, both of which have much to teach the poet.

  10. And yes, Patrick, I still think meter is more central to this discussion than any other linguistic pattern. I go back to Timothy Steele’s metaphor: Meter is the trunk of the tree that is the history of poetry; free verse and syllabics and Language poetry are a few of the branches. Don’t chop down the trunk and think you’ll keep the branches alive.

    I believe that simplicity is most useful here; otherwise, we’re mired in a subjective mess. Verse is metric; prose is not metric; poetry is either or both.

    • Meter is the trunk of the tree that is the history of poetry; free verse and syllabics and Language poetry are a few of the branches. Don’t chop down the trunk and think you’ll keep the branches alive.

      You know, I’ve never quite understood that metaphor. It’s not clear to me that free verse, syllabics or Language poetry depend on traditional poetry in any real sense. To say that they spring from the tradition of poetry is one thing, but to say that they depend on meter the way a branch depends on the trunk? I say, convince me. :-)

    • For me it’s as simple as tracing how poetry came to occupy a place in Western culture as descended from song and evolving through ballad and blank verse to the “talky” and “abstracted” developments of the past 100 years. Meter is the nearly ubiquitous constant. And nearly everything nonmetric is, in a very real sense, a reaction to it.

    • Thanks Anon. That’s certainly true of the moderns, but wouldn’t you say, a hundred years later, that nonmetrical poetry is more a convention than reactionary?

  11. “Anon” is me, Steven Withrow.

    No, I don’t think “free verse” has become a sustainable tradition of its own. Meter is too useful and beautiful to be discarded in exchange for a free-for-all of poetic prose. Meter allows the listener to detect a specific sonic pattern (a rhythm) and to trace subtle variations in it. This has all sorts of advantages for poets.

    Nothing yet has supplanted meter as the basis for the existence of the poetic line — and nothing likely ever will.

    As someone who writes poems for children and encourages children to write poetry, I choose to honor the line as a unit of rhythm and not simply as a convention of typography. Basic prosody (and here I mean the craft of metrics) is easy to teach and to remember because it always works no matter the context.

    This is not the case with “line weight” or “organic symmetry” or “line-phrasing”; these other justifications for the line do not exist independently of the words of an individual poem. They are aesthetic theories. They are not practical principles of order that any poet can use to form and shape his or her own poems.

    • I was just looking at it. Rightly or wrongly, this kind of writing exasperates me. It’s too precious and clever by half, for my tastes. It’s as though a farmer were explaining a hundred different varieties of watermelon – their subtle variations in texture, rind, seed, coloration, scent, season, heft, etc…

      At some point I’m saying: Just give me the damn watermelon and let me taste it.

      Interesting quote from Turco: “”The oldest prosody… is based … on grammatically parallel language structures.” (Turco 8)” We don’t know if that’s actually true. Grammatically parallel language structures certainly characterize the oldest prosody, but since pronunciation of ancient languages is ultimately lost to us, some scholars believe that the oldest prosody could also have been characterized by rhyme.

  12. First and foremost I would like to state that I find the very nature of posting a prose poem/prosetry, referring to it as mere prose, then using it to define free verse as a form of lined prose to be the case and point of the entire debate. This is a prose poem. This is not called a vignette or “some random brick of prose.” It is a prose poem. Calling it “prose” is indeed an insidious maneuver. The very definition of the term “prose poem” elucidates my point, and I should not have to elaborate much further. Again, the failure to recognize and comprehend that this is both a form of poetry and a form of prose is either underhanded or on par with the caliber of poetic mind that does not comprehend the elements poetry beyond the base “meter, rhythm, and rhyme.” I tire of attempting to educate decidedly un-poetic and closed minds (the students that come to me are at the least, willing to learn, and that is all they need.)All I need, is one excerpt of your post to support this.

    Curiously, in your “de-Poeticized” examples, what you’re observing is the difference between normal [grammar] and grammatical inversion.

    This, I am ashamed to say, was my response to my former mentor at the time. I was told (I do not recall the exact wording) that my difficulties in writing poetry had been related to my stringent attachment to its tangibles. If poetry were about grammatical inversion, line breaks, scansion, metaphor, et cetera, it would be easily defined and understood. She told me that I was using half of my brain, like only seeing poetry with one eye. These tangibles belong to the left brain, the logical mind. Poetry is an art form that belongs to the whole mind, where the absence of something (tying it in, possibly meter or rhythm (which is still not a confusing term at all)) can be felt just as much as its presence. It is of the heart, the mind, and the soul. This is the reason that a weaker poem All My Telling might display a foundation in those tangibles, but still read very much like prose. (I will not yield to the age of the pieces in question, as they are still pieces used as a representation of your work as a whole. If they are misrepresentational, the simplest solution is removal.)

    So, in conclusion, if we take away those “aesthetic qualities,” the indulgence in the beauty of language, and all of the other poetic undertones, what are we left with? Hollow, soulless poetry that merely reads like weak, lined prose that might rhyme, might have rhythm, meter, or not. A body without a soul might as well be a corpse.

    A good poem is like a man inside a house. Various techniques (tangibles) make up the rooms. It is a true poet can both build this house and draw that man into it. How often he uses each room is less up to the poet than it is to the poem itself. And yes, if you have not gleaned it by now, I am saying that good poetry takes on a life of its own. I am sorry if a majority of the men I have to populate my houses tend to shy away from using that meter room often and for its intended purpose (it’s dusty, there are cobwebs, and it’s practically an unmanned Antiques Roadshow in there, but my those Ming vases are a great place to store their childhood Hot Wheels collections.) But saying that they are not aware of it and never use it is akin to saying that there is an obvious, large, easily accessible room in the house that they live in that they are not aware of and never enter. This would only be true were I supplying the houses with blind, deaf, mutes with hockey pucks instead of arms and legs.

    I have wandered through your poetry section and found houses worthy of a carpenter, but without a man, without a soul, without a spirit or a life to exist within.

    This is tragedy and I cannot preclude its reoccurrence. It is with a sadness that I leave these houses empty, but i cannot bear the sight of them there, empty, termite infested, and rotting.
    This will be my last post. Thank you for whatever it is that several minutes of stern pondering may have manufactured for me to be thankful for.

    (Steven)
    Uriah,

    Thanks for the diatribe.

    You are quite welcome, sir.

    • Again, Uriah, you are making a distinction between Poetry, as a genre, and prose, as a genre, but prose isn’t a genre.

      Prose: 1. the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.
      Poetry: 1. literature in metrical form 2. any communication resembling poetry in beauty or the evocation of feeling…

      You will notice that the definition of prose refers to a mode of writing, spoken or written. The definition of Poetry refers to a type of literature.

      Prose isn’t a genre (or a type of literature), but a mode of writing. You write as though prose and poetry were mutually exclusive, but they are not. You have created a false dichotomy. To call a thing “a poem” is to identify the genre. Within that genre, there are different modes of writing. A poem can be written in a verse form, in free verse, or as prose. Whether you care to admit it or not, Neruda’s prose poem is written in prose, not free verse. It is you, not me, who stated that prose can’t communicate “to the reader on both a conscious and subconscious level“. It is you, not me, who wrote that prose can’t be “sublime, metaphorical, emotional, logical, rational, irrational, (sometimes philosophical,) and literal all simultaneously” because “[these things are] not and will never be found in prose“. These are your words, not mine; and you still haven’t defended them.

      Bottom line: Neruda’s poem is not free verse. It is prose. There’s no getting around that.

      I was told (I do not recall the exact wording) that my difficulties in writing poetry had been related to my stringent attachment to its tangibles. If poetry were about grammatical inversion, line breaks, scansion, metaphor, et cetera, it would be easily defined and understood.

      Ironically and again, it was you, not me, who was attempting to define poetry by these “tangibles”. I only pointed out that these tangibles were also found in prose, a point which you still seem to ignore.

      As to the quality of my poetry, you may be right. You may be wrong. You’ve tried to hit me as hard as you possibly can. I wouldn’t be the first poet who thought too highly of himself. The history of literature is littered with such poets. On the other hand, the history of literature is also littered with the opinions of readers and critics. Take care.

  13. I have a question, in your explanation of the Caesura’s there is one part in Emily Dickinson’s example that you used
    “Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
    Were toward Eternity –”

    Is there not a caesura in the first line? If it is like the others before it there should be, correct?
    Thank you so much.

    • Hi Anon, there are a couple of ways to read the line:

      Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

      So, if you read it this way, accenting “then” and making centuries a three syllable word, you could read a caesura after “Since then” and after “Centuries”, but not a feminine caesura. On the other hand, if you read Centuries as a two syllable word – Centuries – then you could read the ensuing caesura as a feminine caesura. So… in answer to your question (and depending on how you scan the line), yes, you could read that line like the others. :-)

      Then you might read it as follows:

      Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

      Edit: I should mention that reading it the second way, you break the Iambic Tetrameter line. (The poem is written in ballad meter.) Looking back on that (and since I was only marking feminine caesuras) this is the reason I probably didn’t mark it.

  14. Free verse is not free. It remains verse, for it rejects nothing more than a dominating formula (whether in rhyme or meter)’ To call free a lack of all poetic devices and rhythms is to call it prose verse (an oxymoron at best).

    For upinvermont, a poem is meter and rhyme (which would include doggerel and nursery rhymes which make them also ART). It may be argued that enjambment and end stops are simply the way we read prose and it is superficial at best to claim a difference.

    Ultimately the argument fails on definitions. First of all, to say that poets/critics/theorists/ and philosophers as resources in the knowledge of poetry (dull and irrelevant) leaves only the teacher /academic whose knowledge is at best based on naive reading/reader response to the very ones dismissed as dull and irrelevant. Seems to me a narrow if not self-serving position.

    • I took the liberty of cleaning up some typos. :-)

      //Free verse is not free. It remains verse, for it rejects nothing more than a dominating formula (whether in rhyme or meter)’ To call free lack of all poetic devices and rhythms is to call it prose verse (an oxymoron at best).//

      A number of free verse poets, as opposed to me, have defined modern poetry as properly being devoid of all those poetic devices that characterized traditional poetry, and that extends beyond merely meter and rhyme. I’m not going to debate with you the meaning of “free”. What interests me is what free verse does, mechanically (as a way of writing as opposed to a genre), that prose doesn’t. I can’t think of anything besides lineation, and even that difference is meaningless at the hand of many modern poets.

      //For upinvermont, a poem is meter and rhyme (which would include doggerel and nursery rhymes which make them also ART).//

      That doesn’t represent my thinking at all. A poem is much more than meter and rhyme.

      //It may be argued that enjambment and end stops are simply the way we read prose and it is superficial at best to claim a difference.//

      I don’t make that argument. All else being equal, lineation is the one facet that separates free verse from prose. A free verse poet can use that feature well or poorly.

      //Ultimately the argument fails on definitions. First of all, to say that poets/critics/theorists/ and philosophers as resources in the knowledge of poetry (dull and irrelevant) leaves only the teacher /academic whose knowledge is at best based on naive reading/reader response to the very ones dismissed as dull and irrelevant. Seems to me a narrow if not self-serving position.//

      I confess, I couldn’t make sense of this last paragraph? Did you mean to write: “First of all, to omit poets/critics/theorists…”?

  15. To the point: if a poet truly understands, writes upinvermont, he says it in his art. (Here niether free verse nor prose is art). Meter and rhyme is shown by poets who write meter and rhyme. A circular definition, a fallacy of the first order.

    We may equally define masonry as the ability to build a wall with bricks laid in straight linear fashion with joints at center of bricks below or atop. And a course a mason is one who practices masonry as so defined. Others simply build with rocks or slabs of concrete.

    • //To the point: if a poet truly understands, writes upinvermont, he says it in his art. (Here neither free verse nor prose is art). Meter and rhyme is shown by poets who write meter and rhyme. A circular definition, a fallacy of the first order.//

      First, I never wrote that prose and free verse aren’t art. Secondly, you apply my statement in ways that I wouldn’t. A great free verse poet or novelist will express their understanding of their art every bit as powerfully as the traditional poet.

  16. I’m currently studying poetry, and having no previous knowledge of the subject, I sometimes get confused. For instance, you say this about end-stops:

    “End-stopped lines simply means that ones thought ends with the line. If you see that the line’s end is punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc… then the line is end-stopped.”

    In Dickinsons “Because I could not stop for Death, the first line reads:

    Because I could not stop for Death—
    He kindly stopped for me—
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
    And Immortality.

    I would think that the first two lines are enjambed. However going by your definition, they would be end-stopped, since you said that if i see punctuation, then the line is endstopped. But clearly, the thought seems to continue into the next line.

    So I am now totally confused. Is this end-stopped since it has a dash? Or is it enjambed since the thought continues into the next line?

    Please help.

    • Well, you’ve picked the one poet whose punctuation is notoriously idiosyncratic. :-)

      In the case of Dickinson, you’re going to have to improvise, you’re going to have to trust your ears (if you’re an English speaker). Imagine you’re an editor, how would you punctuate these lines? You would probably put a comma after the first line:

      Because I could not stop for Death,
      He kindly stopped for me.

      I think that naturally, anyone reading this poem is going to pause, just a little, at the end of the line. This generally tells us that the line is end-stopped.

      The third line could be construed as enjambed, but Dickinson puts a Dash there (where she doesn’t elsewhere in the poem). This tells me that she herself probably imagined a pause at the end of the third line. That makes me think the line is also end-stopped.

      Lastly, don’t think of end-stopping and enjambment in terms of ideas, but in terms of phrasing. Enjambment almost always occurs mid-phrase:

      And I had put away
      My labor

      where Children strove
      At Recess

      before a House that seemed
      A Swelling

      the Horses’ Heads
      Were toward Eternity

      Also, distinguishing between enjambment and end-stopping isn’t always clear cut. Lines can lend themselves to interpretation. So, one could read the following line as either enjambed or end-stopped:

      Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
      Feels shorter than the Day

      There is always some room for interpretation when scanning poetry.

  17. What a fantastic blog. I should drop out of college just so I can have more time to read your blog. Where’d you locate the caesurae in the second of these lines from Milton: Eve “Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, / And sweet reluctant amourous delay”?

    Three caesurae seem too much, but I can’t convince myself that it has less. They beautifully enact the sense of “delay.”

    Much thanks for this post—

    David.

    • Hi David, this is something I didn’t make clear in my post (and I’ll have to edit it). The Princeton Encylopedia of Poetry and Poetics points out that Caesura are not the same as a “pause” or “rest” but, as with all things, distinctions can become very academic and abstruse. Most prosodists, including the Encyclopedia, identify the caesura with metrical verse (which is what I do), but there are some scholars who disagree (and there always will be or they wouldn’t be academics). I tend to identify caesura’s when I see “pauses” in meter that produce a regular or identifiable rhythmic feature (such as in ‘Sing a Song of Six-Pence) and when strong pauses are produced with line-ends and phrases (syntactic units). Does that make sense?

      So, one might argue for a caesura at the end of the line:

      Yielded with coy submission, modest prides, |
      And sweet reluctant amourous delay.

      But I would be hesitant to do so elsewhere. I think you would be safer to call these other pauses or rests, pauses and rests. This doesn’t diminish, one whit, the “enactment” which you describe in the line. The effect is beautiful.

  18. Thanks for the post! Lots of useful tips here, and interesting history. But there’s one little point I’d like to dispute.

    I agree with you that blank verse sounds stiff if there‘s very little enjambment, but for shorter, lyrical works, I don’t necessarily see it as a problem. If a poem is aiming for simplicity– as I would suppose “Alley Cat Love Song” is– ending a thought with a line can help it achieve that end. No matter how many times I turn it over in my head, the poem doesn’t strike me as wooden the way Gorboduc does. Infrequent enjambment can be a legitimate aesthetic choice, and not just a failure to think beyond the line and/or the mark of a beginner (although you’re probably right in claiming that poetry written by beginners tends not to exploit enjambment to the fullest– I know my earlier poems don’t).

    I guess you say as much when pointing out the effect of the end-stopped lines in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”– so the main question is whether a whole poem can get away with it. I’d be interested in hearing your further thoughts, if you think the subject is a fruitful one.

    • //If a poem is aiming for simplicity– as I would suppose “Alley Cat Love Song” is– ending a thought with a line can help it achieve that end.//

      That’s a fine line, I think. Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” uses a large proportion of enjambed lines (for such a short poem) and yet is exquisitely simple. To me, the simplicity of “Alley Cat Love Song” is the unskilled simpleness of the amateur rather than the skilled simplicity of the master. The poem has the feeling of being written line by line, as if Gioia couldn’t think beyond each rhyme. You can find the same effect in classical music where the unskilled composer will write blockish 4 beat/4 measure melodies with equally blockish harmonies. On the other hand, Gioia’s poem isn’t completely mediocre. I can understand its appeal.

      //Infrequent enjambment can be a legitimate aesthetic choice…//

      Yes, though that doesn’t make the choice a good one. Just because an artist chooses a given technique doesn’t legitimize it — (a century’s worth of navel-gazing, baby-boomer aesthetics notwithstanding). My own feeling is that using end-stopped lines through the entirety of a poem (or for the near-total) is playing with fire. However, some of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are end-stopped throughout, and I do think it works in these poems. I think it works because he’s deliberately imitating the sort of nursery rhymes one reads to children. The form is part and parcel of the poems’ effect. If I think about it, I could probably come up with other examples. Many — perhaps a majority? — of Burns’ poems are end-stopped throughout. There again, I think the rationale may be made that he was almost writing lyrics more than poems (in which case end-stopping is desired); but he can sound wooden to my ears. Metrical subtlety is not Burns’ strong suit.

      //…so the main question is whether a whole poem can get away with it.//

      I think so, but I think there has to be a compelling reason — something organic to the subject of the poem itself, as with Blake’s poems.

      That’s sort of my thinking at the moment. :-)

    • Thanks for the reply. : )

      //Just because an artist chooses a given technique doesn’t legitimize it….//

      Maybe ‘legitimate’ was a bad word to use here. I didn’t mean to invoke the idea of somehow making a technique legitimate through use– just say that this one isn’t intrinsically bad. I prefer to leave the omphaloskeptics (which is never a bad word to use) to their gazing. : )

      //To me, the simplicity of “Alley Cat Love Song” is the unskilled simpleness of the amateur rather than the skilled simplicity of the master.//

      Yeah, I won’t be defending that one too hard. But I still think that if it falls short of what it’s going for, it’s not because of the end-stopping.

      Jonson’s “Song to Celia” is the first good example that comes to mind for me: it has all but one line end-stopped, and no compelling reason because of the subject, like Blake‘s poems. And it is, I think, a wonderful example of simplicity of the skilled sort, without a hint of woodenness to it.

      (Psst– I’m posting this as a reply to my post because I’m not seeing the little ‘reply’ by your post– am I doing this right?)

    • //Jonson’s “Song to Celia” is the first good example that comes to mind for me…//

      Yes, this is a good example. End-stopping a poem, from beginning to end, isn’t (in and of itself) going to ruin the poem. Far be it for me to say that a successful poem can’t be written this way. That said, the interesting thing about Jonson’s poem is that it’s written in a Ballad Meter and that, somewhat, mitigates the effect of all the end-stopping (the woodenness). Jonson also varies the meter and phrase in a way that Gioia doesn’t. That also greatly mitigates the risk of sounding wooden.

      Let me put it this way: If a poet is going to write a poem whose lines are all end-stopped (or close to) he or she needs to mitigate that somehow.

      //(Psst– I’m posting this as a reply to my post because I’m not seeing the little ‘reply’ by your post– am I doing this right?)//

      I think you’re doing just fine. :-)

    • //the interesting thing about Jonson’s poem is that it’s written in Ballad Meter, and that, somewhat, mitigates the effect of all the end-stopping (the woodenness).//

      I can see how a poem written in ballad meter, or, more generally, having lines of alternating length, would be less susceptible to woodenness. But I’ve been reading “Alley Cat Love Song” as highly substituted ballad– the number of unaccented syllables fluctuates, but the accented ones have a consistent 4/3 pattern. By all rights, any woodenness the end-stopping brings *ought* to be mitigated– unless, perhaps, the substitutions are actually working against it, by making the alternation less noticeable? (I still wouldn’t call it wooden, but it’s not particularly graceful either, especially for a poem with ‘song’ in the title.)

  19. Pingback: Recognizing & Using Caesuras, Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines | Whitman's Barbaric Yawp...

  20. Hello. I’m only just getting into poetry for the first time this week (at the age of 29) after stumbling across a John Donne Holy Sonnet which I thought was stunning. Your pages have been a huge help to my understanding so keep up these fantastic writings and don’t let argumentative comments put you off.

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