This time, a look at a verse form, rather than a whole poem form-- a life-giving circulatory system of a body, rather than a body itself. Blank verse is essentially the unrhymed counterpart of many types of poems written in tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, or whatever number of regular feet to the line. (It is usually iambic, but not rigidly so.) Imagine a sonnet, a villanelle, or any poetic form in a regular meter that is without planned end-rhymes. It can be whatever length you like. And if the meter, whatever it is, stays regular within itself--in other words, it doesn't change through the poem--you have blank verse.
But let me tell you something--you really have more than that. In blank verse, you have Shakespeare's plays, you have Milton's Paradise Lost, you have Robert Browning, Yeats, Frost, Auden, Stevens. In short, you have the core of poetry in English, much of it the greatest ever written. Poets often spend way too much time early-on fiddling with rhymed forms, and stumbling with them because they have not first found their voice, found the measure of own expression, before attempting to color it with the artifice of rhyme. Read from some of the above--any of it. You will find poetry of profound intellect, of exposition that matters beyond the cute effect of the last greeting card you opened. Here is where you will probably learn, better than anywhere else, to write really fine poetry, and what you learn you will then take in any direction--to other fixed, rhymed forms, or to free verse. Or, intoxicated, you will just stay there.
If you're inclined toward free verse (and we invite new poets to try their wings in free expression early), but you are having trouble knowing what to keep and what to throw out--come back to blank verse-- you'll learn that here. Without either the crutch or commandant of rhyme, you'll rely on what you really have to say. Sometimes you'll end your statement at the end of a line, sometimes you'll carry it over, and enjamb. But in any event, you will learn to match the natural flow of speech with the flow of your lines.
The fact that most English expression hovers around tetrameter, pentameter and occasionally hexameter, you will find this verse form a help in controlling your voice without obscuring it with the need to meet an end-rhyme. Blank verse is probably the best combination of natural expression and ordered thinking you will find-- with a minimum excess of either. It is a form that can reinforce great statements, whether emotional or philosophic, and tell great stories. Reading King Lear or Hamlet and spotting all the blank verse -- even when actual lines of it are cleverly separated into two or three lines of a speech or dialogue, is a marvelous kind of discovery, since that verse effect is something you feel anyway as you listen to these immortal plays, whether you realize it or not.
Practice the discipline of blank verse, reasonably master it, and see your poetry, whatever kind you choose, change forever--much for the better. And if you think you have something really important, maybe even profound to say, come here first. Blank verse is blood flowing through healthy veins, always, back to the heart of things.
Al Rocheleau Copyright 1998
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