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Blank verse

We’re often asked about lineation. How we put the words (or how they put themselves) on the page is after all what separates the prose from the poem. The norm, what we work with or away from, is blank verse. It is largely historical, conventional, and when it comes down to it, just what we’re used to – a consequence of Chaucer travelling to the continent and of Thomas Wyatt getting hold of the sonnet and of Shakespeare and Paradise Lost and The Prelude becoming set texts.

Today’s version of blank verse has evolved – it’s slightly bigger, like the Mini and Volkswagen Beetle. Iambic pentameter as we know has nine, ten or eleven syllables to allow five stresses in a pattern of ‘unstressed stressed/unstressed stressed’ etc. syllables e.g. ‘And leave/ the world/ to dark/ ness and/to me’. Nowadays we still see roughly five stressed syllables in a line but often in among several more unstressed syllables. This is partly because of the convention – the fashion for not inverting sentence structure any more to suit the rhythm (and rhyme): for this way round no longer can we write. At least we can’t without putting a ruff on our poem or sending it out with a feather in its cap. Now mostly we want verse to be smart-casual, nearer to real speech, or at any rate we prefer it to disguise its poetry.

Well, there are plenty of exceptions and there is plenty more to say. In any event, flicking through contemporary slim volumes you do often see these blocks or paragraphs of text that more or less approximate to blank verse. There are plenty of short lined or short-and-long lined poems too, it’s true, but they tend to be working towards or away from the standard nine to fourteen syllable line, favored by our favorite poets – e.g. Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Even with these two poets, who occupy (and partly have defined) the middle-ground, you find lots of poetic approaches – different forms, different shapes, to accommodate and be true to the material or inspiration which set the poem going. But the default is this roughened blank verse. We almost don’t notice it because we’re used to it – that is convention for you.

We’re used to iambs, because we’re English, unlike the Scandis for instance whose speech is trochaic. Though Tennyson and Robert Frost used it very differently; the run of lines, each ending after five beats is noticeably familiar in both poets. We hear it straightaway though the other effects in their verse are generally quite different. Recognising blank verse is a pleasure in itself; and it is practical and has its own unshowy authority. In its longer, metrically-slightly-looser contemporary form it is even more capacious and versatile, capable of carrying a variety of music and meaning.

One other thing to remind you about with this new blank verse is that, like the old, it tends to keep its shape throughout. So you will often find places where the ‘sense’ ends with a full stop but the line continues:

And so the meaning is complete. Till it goes on
to the next line.  And so on, with the sense
parceled out in these roughly same-length lines.

By contrast some poems break their lines in a mix of shorter and longer lengths, usually following the sense, where the poem needs a pause – e.g. on a word that takes emphasis. We rarely break on ‘of’ or ‘the’ for instance. Unless, like Sharon Olds you want to foreground the sincerity of the expression –  such skill she has, being able to write as if her material is too urgent for ‘art’ and has been slammed down in a rush.

Finally, while we’re on our prosodic soapboxes, we can’t help mentioning that some of us are essentially twentieth-century poets – we measure the line by ear (by how it sounds), whereas many of the new gen let how it looks govern the length of the line. Look for instance at ‘1977’ – though only four characters, it is actually seven syllables, three of them stressed. So a poem that starts with ‘1977’ is half-over already for those of us still living in the seventies, whereas it is just the first word in a line of maybe twenty syllables for those for whom prog-rock is practically ancient history.

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