By Leland James
($18.95, (7″ x 10″) paperback, 126 pages)
Rollercoaster Moons lives up to its title, offering a gratifying, sometimes electrifying, ride. Approximately half the poems are in traditional meter and often rhyme, with a contemporary feel. The remainder have alternative poetic structure, always musical. Sections range from whimsical to deeply reflective, sadness, and joy, in a variety of universal themes. Themes are often approached from different angles, both within and in different poems. James’ poetry is rooted in the past, with a modern tone, syntax, and diction, offering graceful bends, sharp turns, and sudden changes of direction. A rewarding rollercoaster ride.
“Leland James’ mystical yet earthbound poems are among the most moving I’ve encountered …”
—Don Williams, Editor Emeritus, New Millennium Writings (USA)
“Always on the move, suggesting new patterns and connections, creases and folds …”
—Oz Hardwick, for Aesthetica Magazine (UK)
“…. imagination and spontaneous quality of language.”
“James’ poetry is priceless—original, alive and clear—bringing forth the wonder of life, while reflecting on its hardship.”
—Eleni Zisimatos, Editor-in-Chief, Vallum Magazine (Canada)
Note to Readers: conservative and informal poetry vs. the free
What exactly do I mean by conservative and informal verse (verse, once meant a line of poetry, now generally understood to be poetry itself) and how do these differ from vers libre or free verse? And why does this matter? Many in the face of the contemporary dominance of free verse have turned away from poetry, or have thrown out all contemporary poetry along with free verse. It is my intention to address this condition by suggesting an expansion of what are generally two categories of poetry (conservative and free verse) into three, differentiating informal verse and broadly aligning it with conservative verse vs. the free. Also, in fairness to readers, I am here to let you know what to expect. Perhaps you will then open the book with positive anticipation, or perhaps based on a pure preference for free verse put it aside.
First of all, in this disentangling, we are fencing with a ghost, free verse. The term as applied by many contemporary poets, journals, and universities boils down to “anything goes.” I recently encountered a poem about poetry, a meta poem, in a prominent journal that included this line: “This is poetry because I say it is.”
This to me smacks of Humpty Dumpty: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” T.S. Eliot—ironically often miscounted among “free verse” poets—attempted to put the ghost to rest:
“[T]he division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.” —T.S. Eliot
But the ghost did not die, and we arrive at a great share of contemporary poetry (chaos) and the need for clarity. As you have probably guessed this book does not contain what is popularly known as free verse. But neither does it exclusively contain what most people rightly think of as conservative verse. This brings us to the disentangling of the three: conservative & informal verse vs. the free.
What is conservative verse? Many will answer it employs meter and often rhyme. Agreed. Though already, there is room for disagreement, some having more or less strict definitions. For instance, perfect rhyme vs. imperfect or slant rhyme (curtain/repeating, longer/implore, these from Poe’s “The Raven”) or rhyme at line endings vs. internal or no rhyme such as in blank verse (unrhymed, metered) famous in works of Milton and Shakespeare. The definition I develop may differ in degree from another’s with whom I am in broad agreement. Such differences of degree do not, I believe, interfere with my general conclusions.
Conservative verse has a prevailing standard meter or rhythm. There are many standard meters. For instance, most commonly, iambic, anapestic, trochaic: respectively ta-TUM, ta-ta-TUM, TUM-ta, each rhythm based on both syllable and accent or stress, each comprising a unit of sound, a poetic foot. [Note: this is based upon traditional English (UK) as opposed to English spoken in the US, where some syllables within words are stressed differently]. Metrical poetry usually and beneficially in my view employs a limited amount of substitutions of other metric feet. What does “limited amount” mean? Not so many as to defeat a prevailing rhythm. The various applications of meter within conservative verse are endless: length of lines (how many feet), many or few substitutions, patterns and types of rhyming, to name only the most obvious.
Further important elements of conservative verse are that it respects its roots in the poetry of the past, back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it is—in another time this would go without saying, but no more—understandable. It has meaning or meanings, most often regarding universal themes, death, God, beauty, the human condition, immortality…. Finally, conservative verse employs the elements of all great literature, metaphor, imagery, distinctive diction …. More than half of the poems in this book are by the above definition conservative.
Bringing focus to the above definition, here is an example of conservative verse from Emily Dickinson, written in the literary “Ballad” form (common meter) developed from the oral traditional ballad. It is constructed of alternating lines of four and three iambic feet.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
Note the perfect rhyme (eyes/size) and the rhythm. The lines can be sung to the melody of “Amazing Grace,” with which they share, like many hymns and folk songs a rhyming pattern of ABCB. The meaning of the lines is clear. The poem employs metaphor, imagery, and distinctive diction, and the theme is universal, timeless. Interestingly, Dickinson’s poetry, published in the late 1800s, was considered highly innovative.
Here is a poem of mine that might be seen as conservative, while some might think otherwise.
“I pray because I can’t help myself.
It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
― C.S. Lewis
God is the wind, if I were a kite.
God is a mountain, if I were the snow
becoming a stream—and God be the sea.
God is a stone, and I a dull blade.
God is a potter, and I the soft clay
pressing myself against his firm wheel.
This poem is constructed equally of two different, highly related, poetic feet (iambs and anapests). Strictly speaking, conservative verse has but one dominant meter. There is slant, not perfect, rhyme with no traditional rhyming pattern (God, exact rhyme; blade/clay). Yet the poem has an equal number of metrical feet in each line, and the diction is firmly rooted in the poetic past, root if not branch. The meaning, I believe, is clear. It is replete with metaphor and image. So, conservative? There is, as I will contend and shortly illustrate, no bright line—where I will in due course argue there is a bright line between conservative & informal verse and the free. I believe the delineation is worthwhile. It will become, as we proceed, important in appreciating informal verse and become critical in differentiating both the conservative and the informal from the free. So, is this poem conservative? You decide. As you consider the question, I will venture a guess: your ear and eye tell you this poem may not be strictly conservative but it is not in the camp of the free—suggesting the need for a third category.
Here is an example of a poem, another of mine, that I see as conservative. It is structurally a sonnet (iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme)—yet a purist might argue it is not conservative, the historical sonnet theme is romantic love.
Above the bend, the water deep and clear,
the current strong; seen from the Buckman Bridge,
ten minutes walk for me, my cabin near,
through pines down from a timeworn granite ridge
—a lofty mountain once, it’s said, in time
gone by. I come to see and hear the stream,
this part that of the whole makes not a line:
a phrase, a word or two, in the river’s scheme
of mounting water up ahead that this
small stream will join; and that behind, upstream,
flowing down, winding from a nascent hiss
to sing a hymnal line and brace the dream.
From this unsubstantial perch, this swaying bridge,
mirrored in the stream, the sun floats on the ridge.
Now, the more difficult question: How am I defining informal verse? It may be metrical and rhyming but within a broader permissible space, fewer metrical and rhyming limitations, less strict than conservative verse; or it may have an alternative structure and rhythm altogether. Importantly, it shares with conservative verse respect for the poetic past and, in addition to a structure and rhythm or music, it has meaning(s) with often a universal theme. Finally, informal verse, also like conservative verse, employs the elements of great literature, imagery, metaphor, distinctive diction…. Consider the famous modern poem by Ezra Pound:
In a Station of the Metro
apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
A close reading reveals an iambic meter. The first line has six feet, hexameter. The second line is three feet, trimeter, and has a very common trochaic substitution (PETals) in the opening foot. An unusual couplet, yet clearly metrical. Also, the poem is similar (but a different number of syllables) to haiku poetry, dating back at least to Basho in the 1600s. Now consider the poem’s meaning. Focus on the title and the word “apparition,” then on the poem’s imagery in the second line. The poem may be understood as an enigmatic view of the human (perhaps urban) condition, a universal theme. Finally, along with image, there are traditional elements of literature, metaphor and alliteration. Notwithstanding the conservative characteristics, the look and feel of the poem (its brevity, extreme variance in line lengths, and abruptness) jars when contrasted with typical conservative verse, strongly suggesting the informal. Conservative or informal? Here again, no bright line. Despite the ambiguity, actually in part because of it, the dividing line is worth considering (finding what is common as well as different) in order to appreciate informal verse as distinguished from the free.
A clear example of a modern, informal poet, as defined herein, is T.S. Eliot. He often wrote in nonstandard rhythms, that is to say, other than standard meters, while including perfect metrical lines. He was clearly grounded in poetry’s past and universal themes reaching back to antiquity. Consider this line from “The Waste Land.” It is, as are other lines in the poem, in perfect iambic pentameter.
The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne
In other places Eliot includes lines from popular songs of his time, having their own rhythms. Still other lines are quotes from antiquity, and there are phrases from ancient poetic works. Eliot does not conform to any standard meter, his lines are of varying lengths in no consistent pattern, and his rhymes follow no scheme. He creates rhythm, a music all his own, and writes with complete mastery of metaphor, imagery, diction…. His poetry is then by my definition (notwithstanding the conservative characteristics) beyond the conservative border, not conservative verse; yet far from being free. I venture your ear and eye—pause to consider—will tell you Eliot’s poetry is neither conservative verse nor free, validating the need for a three-part taxonomy. Listen to and consider these lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent ….
Now, consider these lines from arguably the most widely read modern poet; by my definition informal, clearly beyond the conservative border, yet far from floating free.
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
These lines, of course, are from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. They are not conservative by the yardstick of standard meter. They have a contemporary look (long varied and unpatterned line lengths) and their own rhythm; yet, I would argue, deep roots in the poetic past, most notably the Bible. Compare to Proverbs and the Psalms.
Here is another informal poetry example from Walt Whitman. It employs—as does the Whitman example above—lists, a common technique in contemporary poetry. Whitman’s source of inspiration for the list technique may have been Homer, but more likely was the Old Testament. Again, listen for echoes of Proverbs and the Psalms:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work …
Walt Whitman’s poetry, as defined here, is clearly informal. The lines are of wildly different lengths, with no metric pattern. Yet they have music and poetic roots. Conservative and informal verse spring from the same well. Whitman and Eliot move away from the border between conservative and informal verse but they do not break free.
We have now a complete delineation of informal verse. The elements of conservative verse may be employed but more loosely and often in atypical ways; yet informal verse may have an alternative rhythm or music, much as Jazz does not sound like Mozart but is recognizable as music. Additionally, informal verse employs the historical elements of great literature, structure, imagery, metaphor, distinct diction…. And informal verse has meaning(s), often regarding universal themes. The distinction between conservative and informal poetry is not one of time. It seems so only when using poetic paradigms of recent (centuries) history. Both conservative and informal verse have existed at least since ancient Greece. Both are long-standing, and they are first cousins.
Let’s expand our view of informal poetry with some lines from Wallace Stevens. Stevens wrote in a conservative, flexible blank verse, tetrameter and pentameter, as well as informal verse. Unlike many of his contemporaries who wrote in meter (Robert Frost) or rejected meter altogether (William Carlos Williams) or wrote in some alternative form of rhythm (T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore), Stevens alternated between both conservative and informal verse and created striking pathways between the two. From the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Ordinary Women”:
Then from their poverty they rose,
From dry catarrhs, and to guitars
Through the palace walls….
Insinuations of desire,
Puissant speech, alike in each,
the wickless halls.
Here we have iambic tetrameter cloaked by a broken third line, which accentuates the women moving through walls, as one moves by imagination from everyday reality to the world of the cinema, (“quittance,” “wickless halls”) the everyday behind to attend an entertainment. Note the rhyme (walls/halls). Something new? Hardly. Here, from Hamlet, Shakespeare rounds a bit of iambic pentameter dialogue with broken first and last lines. Guildenstern, Act 2, Scene 2:
But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet
To be commanded.
Again, we are at the border between conservative and informal verse, and again you decide. Consider these lines from “The Fox and the Goat,” a playful fable by Marianne Moore, a celebrated modern poet, and by the definitions put forth here a writer of informal verse:
Captain Fox was padding along sociably
When Master Goat whose horns none would care to oppose,
Though he could not see farther than the end of his nose;
Whereas the fox was practiced in chicanery.
Thirst led them to a well and they simultaneously
Leaped in to look for water there.
No discernible standard meter, but a palpable alternative rhythm or music. Try reading the stanza by taking away the word “there” at the end of the stanza; it completes the music of the stanza. There are both perfect and slant (quite clever) rhymes and the narrative is understandable, making a wry universal point. Informal, yes. And nothing new. Compare “The Argument,” by William Blake, late 1700s: no discernible meter, but rhythm, slant rhyme (path, death, heath), metaphor, imagery, and a universal theme.
Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
Informal verse is renewed not new: Blake, Eliot, Whitman, Pound, Stevens, Moore ….
Now, another tack, let us see what conservative and informal verse are not. They are not free verse, which by contrast typically has no substantial structure (prose cut into lines) or music. Additionally, free verse is most often opaque or devoid of meaning(s), ipso facto addressing no universal themes. All this is in direct opposition to both conservative and informal verse.
Poetry critic Adam Kirsh, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New Republic, in his book The Modern Element, Essays On Contemporary Poetry describes many contemporary free-verse poets in the following way:
“ … taking delight in writing poems where the syntax of narration
persists in the absence of meaning, the poet seems to be telling
you a story about him or herself, but the story never makes sense.”
Kirsh further elucidates, as it were, much of the contemporary free-range:
“This is not nonsense as a computer spewing out words is nonsense;
it is, rather, an evasion of sense. Each phrase and line has a certain
weight and atmosphere, though one might be hard put to say what
it is. Yet there is something impressive about this kind of writing.”
Underpinning much of such contemporary free verse is a nihilistic worldview. We return to my early observation that free verse in its current manifestation is in large part a part of the postmodern movement in art: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless. Nihilism is of course fair game in the world of art and ideas, and nothing new—Nietzsche reaching back to “Dionysian Pessimism,” and forward to the 1950s Beat End of the World poetry…. There is much here worthy of barbs. But, in fairness, the floridity of the romantic poets devolved into greeting-card poetry, and, ironically, formed a rationale for the new, which boosted postmodern free verse, now institutionalized (academia, many prestigious journals) and dominant; turning, I believe, the discerning general population away from poetry. This current academic dominance of free verse is a subject in itself, too large to be addressed here. (See Missing Measures, by Timothy Steele.) On a positive note, at least from my point of view, I have as a poet survived, thanks to brave new journals and book publishers with open minds. Not long ago I would have been totally shut out by the free-verse poetry power brokers of academia and endowment, as I a conservative and informal verse poet was for decades. I published my first poem, after writing poetry from the age of twelve, when I was in my early sixties.
Free verse proponents, in my view, generally, mistake the opaque for the profound, the exclusive (in-group information and perceptions) for the intelligent, and despair for a kind of courage. Another distinction: free verse tends to be self-absorbed. Everything is all about ME. Universal themes (love, life and death, beauty …) are generally eschewed, viewed as passé, or meaningless along with everything else. A final common element often found in free verse is the elevation of the ordinary; say a Walmart front entrance suggested to be a work of art equal to Donatello’s “Door of the Apostles.”
Here is a final approach to defining conservative and informal verse and differentiating these from the free. Compare poetry by analogy to the art of painting. The “conservative” poetry school in my definitional scheme would be by analogy representational, a realistic representation of what is depicted. The “informal” school, extending my analogy, would be Impressionism, a personal impression yet still representational. Whatever is depicted is still recognizable for what it is A tree is still recognizable as a tree. Impressionists, my “informal,” would include Monet, Renoir, van Gough, Picasso, and yes at times Leonardo da Vinci. A notable thing about the Impressionists is that they all could paint in the classical style and, as notable with Picasso, many of them did so extremely well. The Impressionist artists might be compared to Eliot and Stevens in the world of poetry, differing from the strictly conservative but retaining deep roots in the past; an infinitely recombined and reformed essence of art. The Impressionists in my analogy, in the modern frame, are informal, not free. Art in my view welcomes innovation, reinvention, but is not a hubristic separation from the past. Conservative and informal verse are both in my view art. Free verse poetry in my view most often is not, just as a squiggle or a coffee splash or a urinal on a museum wall in my view is not.
At this point, I am well aware that there will be those in general agreement with my analysis and definitional scheme and those who vehemently are not. I wish both groups well and welcome open discussion of which we have had too little in the recent past.
A final word on what to expect in this book. You will find a poetry roller coaster of life, as it has been for me and for most of us I believe. I write and invite you to read according to moods: Part 3 if in a lighter mood, Parts 1 & 2 for reflection (read preferably in order), Prelude, Part 4, and the Coda a mix. Or read in order to what I have imagined as the rollercoaster found in many symphonies from which I take inspiration. I thank you for reading.
Lake Bellaire, Michigan, 2021