Playing by the Rules

by | Oct 16, 2006 | Approaches to Writing, Writers

Robert Frost says that writing free verse poetry is like playing tennis without a net.

Did you ever play a game – hopscotch, jacks, Monopoly – with someone who made up new rules as you went along?  Very nice for the someone, very frustrating for you, because you, presumably, are there to play a game, whereas he has no interest in the game per se, but simply wants to win.

Writing is a game, too.  The rules vary according to which version is on tap, but all writing has rules.  Poetry has the most obvious ones.  Robert Frost thinks a poem should have form, and meter, and rhyme.  The free verse crowd says that working within a framework cramps a poet’s style and ability to express himselfAn interesting constant in the history of literature is that poetry comes before prose.  Once language moves past the utilitarian – Watch out for the heffalump! – and becomes a form of art, the first form it takes is poetry.

Adam had it pretty easy down Edenville way, but there was one job that he absolutely, positively had to get done, and that was to put names on things.  Words are magic.  If you have a word for something, it gives you a handle on it.  The term that truckers use for their name that goes out over the airwaves is, curiously enough, ‘handle.’  Many primitive cultures, when first exposed to Europeans, were shocked that one of the first things these new people asked a body was his name.  Clearly, these new people were sorcerers.  Who would be foolish enough to tell a sorcerer his name?

Words help us make sense of the world.  Even my cat Tanaka appreciates this aspect of language.  If a friend stops by and asks if I want to go eat, Tanaka is all over it.  Eat, meat, treat; any of these words will set her off.  She also knows ‘milk’ and ‘pork,’ and can distinguish between them even though they end in the same sound.  You can fool her, though, with a true rhyme.  Use any word rhyming with ‘ilk’ in her presence and you’ll end up with a frustrated cat meowing by the refrigerator.

Even more basic than rhyme is rhythm.  Long before the development of language, early humans would have been attuned to the sun rising and setting, the moon waxing and waning, the changing of the seasons, migrations of animals and growth of plants, and cycles of birth and death.  In a world where you might get stomped by a heffalump at any moment, where every day was literally a struggle for existence, these rhythms would have been deeply comforting.  Yes, the hardship of winter is coming, but the time of plenty will return.

Early poets would have paid homage to these rhythms by reproducing them in their work, on earth as it is in heaven.  Sounds would have been repeated, stresses would have fallen into patterns, and early audiences would have been perfectly aware that poetry, the conscious manipulation of language, was a kind of magic.  We’re hard-wired for this stuff.  How many nursery rhymes can you still recite?


Even Kerouac, despite his disdain for craft, admits the primacy of rhythm.  It was, after all, the Beat Generation.  Like any writer with half an ear, his sentences fall into familiar cadences over and over again.  The jazz solos over which he swooned only made sense because the rhythm section was behind them, keeping the beat.

Free verse has made it easier for a poet to complete a poem only by giving up that which gives poetry its power.  I dabble in poetry myself, but it was not until I put up a net, and wrote a sonnet, that any of my poems took flight.  It was the same with dance.  I always resisted formal dance, because it seemed to me that you just took the same steps over and over.  That’s like saying that writing metered poetry is just using the same old words.  Then I took a class in Argentine Tango, which has a strictly delineated vocabulary, and discovered that, as in poetry, playing by the rules allows you to focus your creativity, and is a lot more fun.