Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
A hundred years have passed since the free-verse revolution. Yet the question still emerges of what makes a piece of writing that doesn’t rhyme a poem, and how does it differ from prose. It helps if you begin with a simple distinction: The basic building block of prose is the sentence; the basic building block of poetry is the line. Now listen to Jane Hirshfield read five short poems.
Yes, these five poems are written in recognizable sentences. But the movement and pacing of the language, which creates the rhythmic shape of each poem, is determined by the line. Hirshfield is so attentive to the shape of language that you can almost hear the poem progress, line by line, as she reads.
That we can’t see the printed lines to know where they break on the page offers an opportunity to experience more fully the difference between the line and the sentence. Music and poetry existed for tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years before musical notation and written language. The marks on the page were created to record what was heard in the air.
As Hirshfield moves language through time with her voice, she reminds us that lines were originally units of sound, not syntax. A free-verse poet can use line breaks and line lengths to create not only a rhythm, but a rhythm of perception: the pacing of the language determines how the reader or listener moves from one image to the next.
There is a huge experiential difference between “A day is vast until noon then it’s over” and :
A day is vast.
Then it’s over.
Hirshfield uses end punctuation to break these clauses even further into distinct units, allowing her to stress the auditory pauses so that the reader on the page can “hear” the shape of how she speaks the lines aloud. Likewise, even without a written text, the listener can clearly hear that the lines in “A Day Is Vast” are much shorter than those in “The Bell Zygmunt.”
Free verse does not mean free of form. It means free to determine its own form. In traditional verse forms, the parameters the poet must work within are defined. For example, a sonnet has fourteen end-rhymed lines with five beats each. The poet writing in free verse must invent the form for each poem, redefining the shape of the line with every line.
Hirshfield’s poetry is known for its attention to detail and to awareness of the present moment. But her artistry is also revealed in her focus on sound and rhythm. The attempt to understand our perceptions seems to be at one with her listening for the shape of the poem. It is almost as if her careful shaping led to the observations, discoveries, epiphanies in the poems. It is this skill that makes Hirshfield’s poems seem spontaneous and effortless.
“Vilnius” and “The Bell Zygmunt” appear in Jane Hirshfield’s most recent collection, After. “A Cedary Fragrance” appears in Given Sugar, Given Salt. “A Day Is Vast” and “Oil and Vinegar” will appear in an upcoming collection. Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Jane Hirshfield.
Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Franz Wright and others.