NON-RHYTHMIC FREE VERSE

non-rhythmic free verseIntroduction

Writing a narrative poem in episodic free verse: structuring lines for expressive power.

Me Be Good Girl For You

I have been critical of some of Charles Wright's work, but will his long line serve for narrative? Let's see what we can do with an 'unpoetic' theme: a Bangkok bar-girl who tries to escape by marrying a 'farang' or foreigner. We have to see matters through her eyes, and accordingly open with her at work in some hotel bedroom:

And in the brightness of morning
                             in a strange bed and no doubt to
                                                          the accompaniment of
Strenuous entanglements, my heart
                              pounding as on plate glass and
                                                          my legs beating
As a bird does,
                    for the lift and
                                      for the fervour
Of what is but a little space,
                             a spinctering of breath,
                                                           till we are dropped, all of us,
Into days folded into days and
                              indifferent in the flowered
                                                           soliloquies of waters in the quiet
Chao Phraya.

Sexual climax and then the image of the Chao Phraya that washes through Bangkok, carrying away its rubbish and excrement, indifferent to the human dimension, as we'd expect in a Buddhist country.

Plot

Now we have to give the bar-girl a name and family, evoke sympathy without sentimentalizing her situation, and create a plot out of character conflicts. Let's sketch out a possible sequence of scenes or incidents:

Mae Ying: bar girl: comes to Bangkok to support family up country

Proud of her achievements but looks for farang to marry

Teams up with Glen who takes her to London

There exploited by Glen and his mother

Takes English classes and meets for Goyko, a Serbian boy.

Life with Goyko: not successful. Reflects on Thai life.

Brother Drago arranges crop picking in East Anglia.

Hard work: manager's wife sets her up as expensive call girl Chirawan

Becomes mistress of local businessman Bernard Flowers but falls for his son Richard

Leaves Flowers for Richard, but goes back to Flowers when his father threatens to ruin him

Engineers death of Flowers, when Richard repudiates her

Returns to Bangkok, ever hopeful, looking to become a 'second wife'

Extended Draft

A few lines seem to work. What happens when we start fleshing out our plan?

And in the brightness of morning
                             in a strange bed and no doubt to
                                                          the accompaniment of
Strenuous entanglements, my heart
                              pounding as on plate glass and
                                                          my legs beating
As a bird does,
                    for the lift and
                                      for the fervour
Of what is but a little space,
                             a spinctering of breath,
                                                           till we are dropped, all of us,
Into days folded into days and
                              indifferent in the flowered
                                                           soliloquies of waters in the quiet
Chao Phraya. . . I was a small girl then,
                              a simpleton working in he wet
                                                            fields and the far plantations
Of the Pha Mieng hills: long distance
                              it is by bus and days taking me
                                                           on from sister and father
Sick sometimes in Baen
                              Pang Mai Daeng with
                                                            its four pagodas and always
Bewildering with its festivals
                              and flowers and everyone laughing
                                                            in the wet shape of clothes.
Why should I care what they do to me,
                              rut as a dog does or if
                                                            afterwards they spend into me? I
Have been careful and clean
                             scrupulous in the cleft part, water-
                                                            making in the streams only
Or in the standing thicknesses
                             of the forests and what they
                                                            pay to me after is what I
Launder or spend, being
                             again fragrant in my
                                                     small shoes and briefs. I
Am Mae-Ying of the
                       bright eyelids and adulterous
                                                            attachments seeking the
Soft dust that is trafficking the
                             evenings with regret as
                                                 the trees press into the back yard.
I am the compositor of bright lights
                            and denizen also of
                                                    the night lands of rest.

Assessment

Enough. All too clearly, despite some pleasing lines, the poem sags and becomes intolerably monotonous.

Our fault was to impose a regularity on the form that Charles Wright's poems do not possess. The following snippet is typical: {1}

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

How like the past the clouds are,
Building and disappearing along the horizon,
Inflecting the mountains,
                           laying their shadows under our feet
For us to cross over on.
Out of their insides fire falls, ice falls,
What we remember that still remembers us, earth and air fall.
Neither, however, can resurrect or redeem us,
Moving, as both must, ever away toward opposite corners.
Neither has been where we're going, bereft of an attitude.

From Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Charles Wright. 1997.

And we have also made the line breaks much too arbitrary.

But, if we 'close up the gaps', something seems to be missing:

And in the brightness of morning, in a strange bed
and no doubt to the accompaniment
of strenuous entanglements, my heart
pounding as on plate glass, and my legs beating
as a bird does, for the lift and for the fervour
of what is but a little space, a spinctering of breath,
till we are dropped, all of us, into days folded into days
and indifferent in the flowered soliloquies of waters
in the quiet Chao Phraya.

Me Be Good Girl For You: Second Draft

Yet suppose we do want regularity, if only to keep a distance from prose, what can we do to invigorate this sagging structure? Recall a feature of heroic couplets, where lines end with important words:

In the brightness of morning, to the accompaniment
of strenuous entanglements, I am Mae Ying,
       small in her hot clothes, and more compliant
with her heart pounding as on plate glass
and her legs beating and beating as a bird does
       for the lift and for the fervor till we are dropped,
all of us, into the quietness of the days passing
into ever the same waters of the Chao Phraya.

Very well: but how does she come to be here?

I was a small girl then, a simpleton
working in the wet fields and the far
       plantations of the Pha Mieng Hills:
long distance it is by bus and days taking me
on from sister and father, sick sometimes
       in Baen Pang Mai Daeng, with its four
pagodas and bewildering with its festivals
and laughing everyone in their wet drench of clothes.

And her attitudes?

Why should I care what they do to me,
rut as a dog does or if afterwards
       they spend into me? I have been careful
and clean in the cleft part, water-making
in the streams only or in the standing
       thicknesses of the forests and what they
pay to me after is what I launder or sell,
being fragrant the in my small shoes and briefs.

I am Mae-Ying of bright eyelids and of
adulterous attachments seeking the soft
       dust that is trafficking the evenings with
regret as the trees press into the back yard.
I am the compositor of bright lights and
        and denizen also of the night lands of rest.
Laughing and more rapacious than is the
mantis, I extend an unruffled impudence

that smokes on from behind me I
in my hot cauldron of pants, which
       if not scanty nor voluminous, are
somehow intricate in the machinery
of my shaping. So I am always
       Mae-Ying of the village of four pagodas
who is known walking through Patpong
or Pratunam market and big hotels.

We need more than an expression of professional dignity. Give her a religious dimension, therefore, but also make her calculating:

And if there is something unmitigatingly
sad in this going away saturated in
       what have been or sinned with O my Lord
Buddha I will pay you a golden consolatory
of six prayers if you find me a husband
       among rich farangs and truly I will
be faithful for a while if he take me to Milwaukee,
or Chicago, be a good wife pushing the trolley

And so the story starts:

round with children in the tree-lined and obedient
small streets anywhere I have seen in films but
       have come temporary visa on to London with
Glen who no American is kind to me, cares
for mother also in small place where I do
       beds, shopping, cleaning, cooking. It is
bare in winter, true, and different and sometimes
I see flowers respectable look hard at me.

I ask to Glen he make me real wife when I
would be happy but tell me next year I
       no am sorry if nighttime he call me his sweetheart
Then be hot stuff as big men they show me
but Glen he not like that I ask for money
       for family who write say forgive us
Mae- Ying but you no forget who in
Phae Mieng Hills need and send love for you.

Let's use something of the free word order common in Sanskrit poetry to enable Mae-Ying to express herself 1. as from the inside out and 2. in fractured English — limited phrases, often incorrect, but nonetheless speaking to us directly, as in the examples above and in the completed poem here.

Comments

A. Non-rhythmic? It is more in the nature of stress verse to no constant pattern:

In the brightness of morning, to the accompaniment
of strenuous entanglements, I am Mae Ying,
       small in her hot clothes, and more compliant
with her heart pounding as on plate glass
and her legs beating and beating as a bird does
       for the lift and for the fervor till we are dropped,
all of us, into the quietness of the days passing
into ever the same waters of the Chao Phraya.

B. For those interested in writing longer poems, the time spent was approximately as follows:

1. Devising the first form: 5 hours

2. Writing 1000 short lines in this form: 100 hours.

3. Cutting and reworking into 98 eight-line stanzas: 20 hours.

4. Recrafting, cutting and regenerating into 100 stanzas: 30 hours.

5. Polishing, line by line, stanza by stanza: 100 hours.

6. Shortening and recasting in regular stress verse form: 30 hours.

References

1. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Charles Wright. 1997. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/c_wright/online_poems.htm

 

The poem completed to date is here. The final poem (shortened, and in regular stress verse, four beats to the line) is published in free pdf form by Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

 

 

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.