On Poetry and Culture Shock

The Thereus Effect (How Not To Write Part 6)

This is the biggest problem of free verse; it doesn’t apply to (almost) anything else. Free verse seems easy, but it’s not, among other reasons because it doesn’t have rules. Mistake: it has one!

Read your poem aloud. If the line endings do not naturally correspond to pauses in syntax, intonation, or meaning, or if the lines’ length could be distributed in another way without hurting the meaning of the poem, you have not written a poem; you’ve raped and maimed a piece of poetic prose.

A “broken lines” effect is good, only as long as it is supposed to achieve a particular effect. T. S. Eliot, no less, said that “good verse can never be free” (I’m quoting from memory here, so I might be wrong). You don’t need to make lines coincide with grammatical phrases, but if you break rules, do it to improve the effect. I suggest an experiment: forget about the line endings, write or type the whole thing as a paragraph, and read it again. How does it sound? Good? Good! Welcome to the wonderful world of poetic prose. It didn’t have to be split into little bits to be beautiful, did it?

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