…a free verse that is really free. I remember learning “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer when I was in eighth grade. At that age, one usually wonders what on earth good memorizing a poem will be… while joyfully memorizing all the pop lyrics that come along. Hello, young Me? Most lyrics rhyme, like the trees of Kilmer’s time, and they are poetry! In fact, Kilmer’s poem is often described as a lyric poem!
In six rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter, Kilmer’s poem also introduced me to personification—something I knew intimately, but hadn’t the word for, since being introduced to characters like the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. And I remember my elementary teachers at Read School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with great fondness. They saw past the glasses and pigtails and the insecurity to the potential and promise in the plain little girl before them.
Miss Helen Carroll was the one who assigned the memorization of “Trees,” and so grateful for the excellent teacher she was, I kept in touch with her beyond my college years until she died. Her encouragement led me to dare to contribute to school newspapers and yearbooks, and to continue to learn and love literature.
Being a bit of a respectful rebel all my life helped me understand the drive behind inquisitive, creative, and daring minds. So it was I found a kindred spirit in Edward Estlin Cummings (E.E. or e.e., depending on your stance in the debate) and was intrigued with his free verse works as well as abandonment of conventional grammar and punctuation to create a more compelling expression of thought beyond his traditional works.
At last we come to the connection between “Trees,” E.E., me, and free verse. I think. Free verse tends to be like natural speech, but the poet can use such elements as rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, symbolism, ambiguity, and so much more to convey his message. So my reaction to Robert Frost’s comment that writing free verse was “like playing tennis without a net” is that it’s still tennis. It’s still a game requiring the clever and effective use of tools and skills within certain boundaries to attain a win. Boundaries? Of course. Two people cannot expect to play tennis with “A” at one end of a football field, and “B” at the other. One can’t write a Trigonometry textbook and call it poetry, unless it has poetic elements.
There are some forms of the poetic art that drive me crazy: those that seem like a flash fiction challenge, and those that appear to be internal dialogue that zig-zags across-the-ball-field. Okay, so I know not all people choose vanilla ice cream as their favorite, as I do, but I’ve learned to live with their lack of taste. Pun intended. Still, please employ a modicum of decorum when you play the game, and act as if the net were there. Thank you.