Saturday, 21 May 2011

Free Verse

Robert Frost – that most conventional and formal of late twentieth century poets, and that’s not a negative judgement – famously said that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down, by which he almost certainly meant that it was pointless; not worth doing. But one can imagine two really expert tennis players deciding to put the net down in order to play a freer, more imaginative game. True, the audience for such a game would probably be limited to connoisseurs.
Another analogy is the later paintings of Picasso, at which the philistine snorts and says ‘I could have done that’, to which the answer is ‘No you couldn’t, and anyway you didn’t’, the point being that to arrive at his later style Picasso passed a long apprenticeship of studying, copying, and producing more conventional pictures.
The really good writers of free verse – not those who imagine, like our present poet laureate, that they can splurge onto paper some untransformed and rather revolting effusion of emotion and call it a poem – have worked hard to reach the point where they can write as they do. If you look at their juvenilia you nearly always find a large body of poetry that uses rhyme and metre, and often such formal structures as the sonnet, the villanelle, and even the sestina.
It is in fact very difficult to write good free verse. It takes either great skill or great poetic energy (whatever that is); preferably both.
I am a very minor poet, and all the poetry I have published has been formal and structured. All but one poem, which made it into an anthology called ‘In the Company of Poets’. Here it is:

I’m After Leaving Monaghan
Your husband comes in, swings his leg over the arm of the chair.
He complains there is no food in the house.
Oh, you’ve made sure of tea-bags —
hundreds and hundreds of tea-bags, in a big green catering box —
sugar, milk in two-litre plastic jugs,
bread-butter-jam —
but no real food.
He seems to think you should have got some in.
I want to protest; he could surely do it himself.
After all, you are lying half-naked, half-in half-out of bed,
and hampered by me, lying half-on half-off the bed,
whereas he is up and fully dressed.
But it is not my place to come between man and wife.
So I say nothing. I let my eyelids fall closed.
Your left breast is crumpled under my arm, nipple half-hidden in a fold of flesh.
I want to release it, move my hand a little, make you more comfortable,
but I fear it might be taken, by you or by him, as a caress.
I think I hear your husband say ‘And what’s up with him?’
and am moved, nearly, to say ‘It is not my place to come between man and wife.’
But I may have misheard, or he might not have been addressing you.
After all, apart from us three, there are two other people in the room,
who just dropped in for tea.
I think I hear you whisper ‘Help me!’
But I may be mistaken; you may be whispering something else,
or you might be addressing someone else, and my eyes are still shut,
and besides, it is not my place to come between man and wife.
My face nests in the soft spun gold
at the crown of your dear, dear head.
Everyone feels at a disadvantage.
It is a tricky situation.
Simon Darragh

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