...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Friday, August 15, 2014


Free verse really got rolling about a hundred years ago. It wasn't just free in the sense of being very loose in the rhyme and meter department. Free verse was sexually free. That's what nobody understands. Free verse meant free, naked, unclothed, un-Victorian people scampering around in an unfettered sort of way. That's why it was so exciting. I was trying to explain this to my next-door neighbor, Nanette. I ran into her when I was out walking my dog, Smacko. Nan was out again picking up trash with her plastic trash bag. I asked her what she'd found. She'd found some beer cans, a pair of panties, half of a meatball sandwich in a paper plate, an ice cream wrapper, and an old, laceless shoe. We walked back to her house, and she asked me if I knew anything about Toro lawnmowers. I said I knew a little, because I do. Her lawnmower was starting and then dying after about a second. I pulled off the air filter and banged the float cup with a wrench and suddenly, to my surprise, the mower worked. I went around her yard once with it.
     Then she asked--out of politeness--"So why did poems stop rhyming? Were all the rhymes used up?" I said no, no, the rhymes weren't used up, they can never be used up until the English language itself is used up, because rhyme-words are really just the ending sounds of whole phrases and whole lines. It doesn't matter whether "breath" and "death" have been rhymed before, only whether the two new lines that end with "breath" and "death" are interesting and beautiful lines. Although sometimes it's good to give certain rhymes a break for a century or two.
     She said, "So then why?" I told her about Mina Loy, the beautiful free-verse poet whose poems were published in a magazine called Others. Mina Loy had romped with the famous Futurist Filippo Marinetti, and he treated her badly, because he was an unpleasant egotist who liked wars and cars and didn't like women. He'd written a play about a man with a thirty-foot penis that he wrapped around himself when he wanted to take a nap.
     "Golly," said Nan.
     I told her that Mina Loy wrote a poem about sex with him, or with one of the other Futurists, in which she compared Cupid to a pig "rooting erotic garbage." And American newspapers picked up on this phrase, and it made her famous as a free-verser.
     "Very interesting," said Nan. We said good-bye. She began mowing her lawn, and I went into my kitchen. I opened my freezer, looked at the motionless mists in there, and then closed it.
- from The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

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