Poets who want to appear “intellectual” (cue the snobbish accent) will use Blank Verse.
See, I’m already limiting my readers who are turning off because I’m using the jargon of educational poetry.
Okay, first, let me talk about “professors” and “educators” of higher content learning. (I am using “**” here so you will know I am being SARCASTIC about these terms. These people aren’t teachers. Sorry, back to my point.)
These people are professors or they are secondary educators who run the Advanced Placement level courses in high school and many of the higher level college & university courses.
Some of these “people”—not all of them—act as if the knowledge they have is arcane, open to only the privileged few. They want to keep their content secret. They present the information in dribs and drabs wrapped around by multiple distractors, so that only a special few will understand it.
Grrr. These “people” make me mad. They made me mad when I was part of them; they still make me mad.
For example, Math “people” hate John Harold Saxon Jr. For years they decried his methods. Find information about John Saxon, math genius, here. Now that he’s dead, they’re stealing his methods. Oh, I thought his methods were worthless. Guess not!
I want you to understand and enjoy poetry as more than mindless words set to music. From January of this year to now, I have attempted to present various ideas about poetry in a challenging but not a complicated manner. I’ve truly enjoyed several of these blogs:
“Tigers to be Tamed” about Coldplay’s “Clocks” ::
“4 Requirements of Song” about Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” ::
“Riddling Allegories” with Carole King’s “Tapestry” ::
“Poets & the Three Unities” ::
And I still love my blog about Symbolic Colors from 2016 and repeated every summer ::
My point: Well, it’s simple.
Don’t be intimidated.
Actually, don’t let anything intimidate you. If you’re struggling, ask for help. If certain “people” (there’s those “**” again) won’t help, they are not worthy; move to someone else. If you’re not struggling, well, have fun!
And with these lessons, I won’t keep it simple, but I will tell you what you need to know.
Okay, here we go.
Part One: Blank Verse is called “blank” because it doesn’t rhyme.
See, regular poetry rhymes at the end of the line (it’s called “end rhyme”. That’s not hard.) Blank Verse doesn’t.
Part Two: Blank Verse has a regular beat.
Regular poetry follows a regular beat: Remember “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet / And so are you.” Hear the rocking-chair beat?
Now, I could go all “English teacher” on you and talk about pyrrhic meter or iambs and trochees or anapest and dactylic . . . but I won’t. I will say that most people will tell you that “Blank Verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter.” There, that’s out of the way.
All we need to know—unless we’re studying to be English teachers ~ and I worked for YEARS with English teachers who didn’t know this and didn’t care to learn it—is that Blank Verse will usually and predominantly have 10 syllables per line.
This is how we distinguish Blank Verse from Free Verse.
Free Verse will NOT have a certain number of syllables on each line.
Caveat: Shakespeare liked to mess with his syllables to prevent that rocking-chair beat of “Roses are red”. I don’t blame him. He was writing some serious stuff, there. You have to avoid a rocking chair when you’re writing philosophy.
So, Blank Verse is different from Pure Verse because it does not rhyme while PURE verse does AND it is different from Free Verse because it will have 10 syllables per line and FREE verse will switch the syllable count up.
Blank Verse in Practice
Now, old-timey poets working in English (they come after Shakespeare, not the decrepit ones before him, ya know) liked to use Blank Verse to give their poetry an “intellectual snobbery”.
And they wound up all their words to sound “intellectual”, too.
Here’s an example: “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. You don’t have to read it unless you want to. You should go and look at the first lines and at the end of the lines, and take a gander at the length.
If you can make it through the first 72 lines, good for you. You don’t have to. Basically, drop over to the link and count the syllables per line on the first ten or so lines, and you’ll see that the majority of lines run about 10 syllables per.
You can take my word for it, if you want to. With students, we count the syllables out for a bit to prove the point. Invariably, one will go on looking for more or less syllables to prove me wrong and wind up proving me right.
Here’s how WCBryant is intellectual: He says “Thanatopsis” so only a few people will know what he’s talking about. See, he’s making it arcane.
Thanatos is the Greek god of Death; he’s the one you didn’t want touching you. (Hades ruled the Land of the Dead; he wasn’t Death.) “Opsis” means “looking/seeing”. So the poem is about looking at death.
The whole first 72 lines basically says
1) everybody is afraid of death,
2) we don’t need to be afraid of death,
3) our bodies are simply manure for plants and everything that comes after us,
4) everybody is going to wind up the same way: dead,
and 5) Dead will look just like life, with people of all ages and professions and economics.
It’s the last stanza that’s important, and I used to have my students memorize it: Live your life in such a way that you are not afraid to die. Cuz you’re going to die, okay? Okay.
Bryant takes 81 lines to say all of that. “Thanatopsis” is a classic of American literature. It’s the reason high school students hate poetry. It’s the reason adults look back at high school English classes and say, “I don’t understand poetry.”
Well, jeez, when we have to plow through mucky mire with things like WCB’s “Thanatopsis”, none of us understand anything.
I Got Your Back
Not all Blank Verse is like WCBryant, thank God.
Here’s one by Robert Frost, “For Once then, Something” about looking into a deep well, trying to see beyond literally and figuratively, and being mocked for doing so but still trying: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-once-then-something/
And one really recent, political and accusatory, by Terrence Hayes: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/143916/american-sonnet-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-598dc8f97f34b
And from Seamus Heaney, “Storm on an Island,” which speaks to all of us of the elementals of life that dwarf us and give us fear but which we still bow our heads and walk into. This link provides annotations which provide an interpretation: https://genius.com/Seamus-heaney-storm-on-the-island-annotated
If you go looking for modern blank verse, avoid Poetry Foundation. They have misidentified pure blank verse, and you’ll find a lot of poems that don’t fit. PF is usually very good, but they let us down here.
And I stumbled upon a review of a book that I would like to put in my ToBeRead stack, which never seems to go down: https://www.counter-currents.com/2013/08/blank-verse/
Next blog, some Old and New Masters of the Blank Verse form. Shakespeare, of course. Who else? Well, join us to be surprised.
We’re on the 5ths! And you may need a 5th of something after this blog.