Article for Students

Freedom in Poetry

Freedom is where the artist begins: there are no rules, and the principles and habits are up to you.
Finger painting of balloons and hand prints.

EDITORS' NOTE: This essay was originally published in Singing School: Learning How to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters (W.W. Norton, 2013).

There are no rules.

Or, you can modify that rule by observing that each work of art generates its own unique rules. Consider the exchanges in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” O’Hara sees that his friend Mike Goldberg is working on a painting that contains the letters sardines.

“You have sardines in it,” says the poet.

“Yes, it needed something there,” the painter responds in O’Hara’s poem: “It needed something there.”

After a time, O’Hara returns to the studio, the painting has been finished. “Where’s sardines?” asks the poet, seeing that “All that’s left is just / letters.”

“‘It was too much,’ Mike says.”

Impulses, swerves, collisions, flights, descents, gags, indirections, surprises, exploding cigars, non sequiturs: all are allowed or encouraged, and all in some sense begin to create their own principles.

There are no rules, but uniformity in art can make it feel as though there are rules: the more unconscious or unperceived (as with widely accepted fashions), the more confining.

A reigning style can feel tyrannical: the assumptions behind it so well-established that there seem to be no alternatives. But there are always alternatives. How might a resourceful, ambitious artist get past or around a perceived tyranny? European painters early in the twentieth century, challenging the academic norm, found something useful in Japanese cigarette papers and African masks.

The past can offer a useful way of rebelling against the orthodoxies of the present. The early modernist poets revived interest in John Donne and Andrew Marvell, not because they wanted to correct the academic reading lists—that was a side effect—but because they were impatient with late-late Romantic, post-Victorian softness. They craved models of hard-edged intelligence and lightning wit.

In the 1970s, a young poet I knew described the manner most prevalent in the magazines and writing workshops of those days as “just grooving on images.” I remember that poet—now a considerable and innovative figure—introducing me to James Shirley’s “The Glories of Our Blood and State, praising the poem for the force of its statement and idiom, the cogency of its propositions, and its cadences. Those elements carried along the effectively minimal imagery: swords and laurels and breath, even the conventional “icy hand” of death.

James Shirley’s lyric had another virtue to offer poets in the 1970s: the seventeenth-century form and idiom, nearly everything about the poem, made it impossible to simply imitate. Today, young poets might imitate my friend or Frank O’Hara (many do) but they could not possibly imitate James Shirley, any more than Picasso merely made African masks. Remote models require assimilation. You can learn from the past with little risk of merely aping it as you might ape your contemporaries, or the generation just before your own.

A young poet impatient with the assumptions and styles of the present might look for springboards and encouragements in another time.

In “The Old Cloak, an anonymous ballad from the sixteenth century, the wife brings in, from beyond left field, King Stephen and his virtues. That’s when you know the argument has been won. Or maybe you know it the moment she mentions their livestock: “I’ll have a new cloak about me,” he says, and she begins her response with a devastating combination of non sequitur and stubborn emphasis, “Cow Crumbock is a very good cow.”

Like many comedy writers, this poet of five hundred years ago likes to slip in an extra gag here and there. When Bell the wife mentions that they have had between them either nine children or ten, is it uncertain memory, or uncertain paternity? As with similar arbitrary-looking, incidental-seeming jokes written for The Simpsons or Curb Your Enthusiasm, the freedom—the implicit right to pause or digress or hurry—is part of the point. The writer claims the puppeteer’s liberty to wink at the reader above his creatures—in a sense, becoming one of his creatures. The work’s freedom to establish its own unique principles, alive in particular cadences and words and lines and sentences: that is the goal.

“The Old Cloak” contains old, unfamiliar words. I will not outright forbid the student to look up “threap” from the last stanza or “flyte” from the second stanza. But the most promising poetry student will skip along, relishing the unfamiliarity and the sounds, confident in the meanings that emerge from context, sound, smell. The husband says about his old cloak: “It is so bare and over worn / A crickè thereon cannot renn.” If you cannot figure out what a “crickè” might be and what it means for a crickè to “renn,” perhaps you need to reread Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.

Serious students of poetry should use the dictionary to look up familiar words: words you know the meaning of already, so you can learn more about them. Also, learn to take the unfamiliar words for their feel and aroma, leaving the dictionary for later. For example, “apparell” is quite familiar in the modern spelling “apparel,” a specialized or stuffy contemporary term: a retail word, with some old-fashioned overtone of classiness. Apparel is more expensive or special than clothes. (Clothing somewhere in between?) That is pretty much how He in “The Old Cloak” uses it: “For once I’ll new apparell’d be.”

But if you look the word up—nearly at random, for no good reason, with no necessity—you discover that behind the Middle English origin meaning “to make ready or fit” lies the Old French aparellier, which is in turn based on the Latin ad meaning “to” in a sense of “change to” plus par meaning “equal.” Related to the term “par” in golf, and to “parity”: dressed equal to an occasion. Lurking deep in “For once I’ll new apparell’d be” is the high-class or learned quality of Latin, along with the idea of being or making oneself equal, or socially correct: notions and overtones interesting to muse on in relation to this old poem about the two sexes and about poor peasants, with the poem clearly written by someone of education as well as wit.

Such musings about “apparell” are possibly useful, and possibly useless: tendrils of meaning, alive and sprawling in the sounds of words. Uncountable, each sprouting from a bit of language, they express the freedom of poetry. For the poet, the dictionary is not an alphabetical bagful of equations, but a provisional account of meanings as live organisms. With meaning, as with its conjoined twin nonsense, nothing is pure. That is, in “nonsense” any particular made-up word or syllable will connote something; in “sense,” any actual word includes, along with its meanings and shades of meaning, an element of the arbitrary grunt.

The aspiring poet should read historical poetry partly by feel, not necessarily using a dictionary or glossary like a tourist with a phrase book. The intrepid traveler can learn by listening to the language, eagerly alert to context. Lewis Carroll’s great example of these principles, “Jabberwocky, was originally published (first stanza only, with eccentric typography) as “Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry”:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

This demonstration of how sound and context make things clear appears in Through the Looking-Glass, where Alice brings it for elucidation to the literary critic Humpty Dumpty, who explains, “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” As is true with many critics, the Dumpty explanations are both ingenious and ponderous.

Another kind of freedom is embodied in movement and change, sometimes sudden: the second half of a poem contrasting with the first, as in Walter Ralegh’s “Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk”:

Nature, that washed her hands in milk
And had forgot to dry them,
Instead of earth took snow and silk
At Love’s request, to try them
If she a mistress could compose
To please Love’s fancy out of those.

Her eyes he would should be of light,
A violet breath, and lips of jelly,
Her hair not black nor over-bright,
And of the softest down her belly:
As for her inside, he’d have it
Only of wantonness and wit.

At Love’s entreaty, such a one
Nature made, but with her beauty
She hath framed a heart of stone,
So as Love, by ill destiny,
Must die for her whom Nature gave him,
Because her darling would not save him.

But Time, which Nature doth despise,
And rudely gives her love the lie,
Makes hope a fool and sorrow wise,
His hands doth neither wash nor dry,
But, being made of steel and rust,
Turns snow and silk and milk to dust.

The light, the belly, lips and breath,
He dims, discolors, and destroys,
With those he feeds (but fills not) Death
Which sometimes were the food of Joys:
Yea, Time doth dull each lively wit,
And dries all wantonness with it.

O cruel Time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.

The poem wheels abruptly from something pretty and conventional to something quite different. How does Walter Ralegh do it? Probably without needing to think about it—second nature, technique, which is to say talent developed by practice. Descriptive analysis of technique, as in sports or music, laboriously breaks down into parts actions that in reality are fluid and momentary.

But slowing down to analyze details can be useful. Like athletes watching video, breaking a fluid action down into its objective parts, we can note, early in the poem, polysyllabic words, light accents, and sentences that pour across the lines:

Instead of earth took snow and silk
At Love’s request, to try them
If she a mistress could compose
To please Love’s fancy out of those.

The third line, for example, with its two two-syllable words, with the third accent (on “could”) relatively light, rather than markedly heavier than the unaccented “-tress”; the sentences rushing across from line to line rather than stopping at the rhymes: these contribute to a rapid, dancing movement.

In contrast—putting meaning aside, quite apart from anything the poem says—in the second half of the poem there are more one-syllable words; the difference between accented syllables and unaccented syllables is much more distinct; the grammatical units are shorter, with end-stopped lines: all making the movement slower, more ponderous:

Makes hope a fool and sorrow wise,
His hands doth neither wash nor dry,
But, being made of steel and rust,
Turns snow and silk and milk to dust.

The final line of the stanza exemplifies the slower movement and elements that produce it: the eight one-syllable words; the four distinct, heavy accents; the end-of-line pauses on the rhymes “rust” and “dust.”

Studying these elements in Ralegh’s rhymed, metrical poem might help the perceptive student attain a more various, sensitive movement even in less metrical forms. To study what Ralegh does, the ways he changes the lengths of words, the treatment of the line, the degree of accent, is instructive at a primary and significant level. Technical matters, like the fingering of a difficult passage in music, merit respect.

But that is only part of it. At a deeper level, it is worth pondering the mysterious confidence—or is it impatience with the conventions of love poetry he summons to begin his poem?—that leads Ralegh to make something unexpected. He manages to convey pleasure in conventional material, like praising the lady’s parts with metaphors (“violet breath and lips of jelly”), even while implicitly mocking its absurdity—mortality and absurdity emphasizing and reinforcing one another.

Explanation always falls short of such vital elements. Extravagant yet systematic, berserk yet purposeful, the mysterious anonymous poem “The Man of Double Deed” fulfills the doubleness of its own title—the poem itself is of double deed:

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
’Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
’Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
’Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
’Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
’Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
’Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
’Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
’Twas death, and death, and death indeed.

After all of the doubles, promised at the outset, there’s a thrilling force to the triple repetition of “death” at the end. And after all of the weird, increasingly sinister, and complicated leaps from thing to thing, and rhyme to rhyme, there’s a tremendous finality to the simplicity of death: an unrhymed one-syllable word and death indeed.

“The Man of Double Deed” generates a unique feeling with its extreme, dark narrative system. The difference between system and logic is the difference between that poem and John Wilmot’s equally intense and strange “Upon Nothing. Wilmot’s logic-chopping ingenuity, in a way linear, lets him roam through a dizzy catalogue of savageries, jokes, and rages. In both cases, the poetic energy exhilarates, with a momentum beyond paraphrase.

A poem is free, and it shows its freedom by establishing its own principles: the unique physics and chemistry and atmosphere of a new planet. From a new planet where Time turns snow and silk and milk to dusk, or where the sky roars like a lion at my door, or where a meditation “On Nothing” is clinched with observations about national characters, kings, whores, and great men—the familiar world can be seen in a new way.



Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

A Description of the Morning by Jonathan Swift

Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson

How We Heard the Name by Alan Dugan

God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Disappointment by Aphra Behn

The Old Cloak by Anonymous

Thoughts about the Person from Porlock by Stevie Smith

Upon Appleton House by Andrew Marvell

Upon Nothing by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester



Excerpted from Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Pinsky. With permission of the author.
Originally Published: August 13th, 2013

Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. He earned his BA from Rutgers University in 1962 and his MA and PhD in philosophy from Stanford University in 1966, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing. His most recent books include At the Founding Hospital (2016) and...

  1. August 16, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    I'm glad that Robert Pinsky was able to successfully
    migrate here from another forum.

    As usual, I have some comments on his comments. He's
    right that the reigning tyrannies such as "There are no
    rules" and "Poetry is free" are ripe for the guillotine.

    Our contemporaries may not be able to reproduce a
    Picasso, but that doesn't mean they should ever stop
    trying. Didn't Yeats say something about the imitation
    of great masters?

    Yes, "icy hands" is conventional, but the line as a
    whole is immortal: "Death lays his icy hands on kings."
    A summation in eight syllables.

    All the poems presented here are equally immortal.

  2. August 22, 2013
     Ryan Lang

    I really appreciate Robert's comments in this excerpt. It seems he is
    always fair to the reader. He never assumes the reader is an author but
    always respects the possibility that we can be poets, and appears to
    trust in our potential. When I read his perspectives of poetry I feel free
    to create in all genre of artistic expression. His comments are universal
    in this way. I am a poet but I see how Pinsky's language crosses over to
    my musical and visual expressions as well.

  3. October 9, 2013

    i totally think so