The Free-Verse Line: Rhythm and Voice
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The Free-Verse Line: Rhythm and Voice Shara McCallum The free-verse line holds sway over me through its orality. Rhetorical and visual imperatives for the line-break have some appeal; but, in excess—or relied upon as the guiding principle—they feel gimmicky, distracting from, and often overpowering , other aspects of the poem. I come back to the idea that the line in free verse is first and foremost a unit of sound, more specifically a sonic device that establishes the poem’s rhythm and contributes to voice. Assigning the word “rhythm” to a free-verse poem is tricky business; but we know that rhythm exists in language separate from meter. Prose writers rely on rhythms inherent to the sentence—created through syntax and conventions of grammar and idiom, fine-tuned on the page by punctuation. Poets have all of these same tools at their disposal, and also the line, as it works with or against the sentence. As a teacher of poetry, I find myself saying over and over to my students that a line of poetry is almost always in relationship to the sentence, evidenced by the fact that we describe poems as either enjambed or end-stopped. In either case, a poet’s line-breaks, where and how he or she “turns the line,” dictates the rhythm of the poem, or the lack thereof in poems that show poor attention to such matters. A poet’s conscious control of the line is, for me, one marker of the poem’s success—as important to free verse as it is to formal verse, if not more so since the logic behind the free-verse line is not as immediately identifiable. Gwendolyn Brooks demonstrates how the relationship between line and sentence establishes the poem’s rhythm most famously in “We Real Cool”: We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We 162 | McCallum Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon. (315) While Brooks makes use of many elements of sound in this poem (assonance, alliteration, and end-rhyme), anyone reading the poem quickly realizes that the tension between Brooks’s line-breaks and the natural syntactical breaks of the sentences are primarily responsible for the poem’s rhythm. If we mistakenly read according to the poem’s sentences—marking pauses only by syntax and punctuation rather than by those pauses created by Brooks’s line-breaks—we lose the kinetic energy of the poem, and we fail to hear the voice that emerges out of the poem’s emphasis on syncopation. Syncopation, a term most often applied to jazz, is useful for describing the rhythm not only of “We Real Cool” but of a good many contemporary free-verse poems by black writers and others who lean on this device. Brooks herself often discussed the influence of jazz on her writing of “We Real Cool,” in particular on her development of the collective, disaffected-and-brimming-with-anger voice of the pool players she renders in the poem. When I lived in Memphis several years ago, I visited the Civil Rights Museum several times. On one occasion, I came across the lyrics of a protest song whose linguistic structure bore striking similarity to Brooks’s poem. Taken together, Brooks’s connection of her poem to jazz and my stumbling across this other text heighten my sense that there exists a vibrant link between the rhythms found in black speech, black music, and black poetry. Yusef Komunyakaa is one contemporary black poet whose body of work is notably influenced by jazz. His poem “Ode to the Maggot” offers another example of the way the line-break governs the rhythm of a poem. In lines such as, “Yes, you / Go to the root of all things,” and, “Jesus Christ, you’re merciless / With the truth,” enjambment emphasizes the off-beat, creating the poem’s syncopated, jazz-like feel (10). It also helps to establish voice, as the rhythm (along with diction) lends the poem linguistic specificity and character. Finally, Komunyakaa’s line-breaks control the way the poem unfolds as it moves down the page. In a sixteen-line poem, ten lines are enjambed, pitting the poet and reader’s desire to hold onto the line’s individual utterance against the compulsion to rush forward to complete the logic of the sentence. As a reader, writer, and teacher of poetry, I’m interested in how the line in McCallum | 163 free verse...