Long-lined Free Verse

February 21, 2023



I’d like to continue our discussion from last week of C. K. Williams’ long-line free verse poems, and to look at examples by other contemporary poets.

When American poets first began to break away from the standard iambic meter–predominantly pentameter–poets had used for centuries, they did so in one of two ways.  Pound, Eliot, and others did it by keeping the meter but varying the line length.  William Carlos Williams, and others who followed, wanted to hear in new rhythms altogether, something that would better capture American speech and contemporary life, that might be syncopated and jazzy.  The definition of that free verse was ­­non-metrical, and lines that fell into even rough meters were considered failures.  The notion was to hear something new, that hadn’t been heard before.

The issue was how to create music without meter, and it’s easier to do that with short and medium lines.  The longer a line gets, the harder it is to distinguish it from prose.  Whitman did it with anaphora, strong cadences, repetitions, King James rhetoric, lists, and other devices.  Ginsberg used those, and added some of his own.  As I said last week, C. K. Williams found other ways to extend the lines, with sentence rhythm in the foreground, but still the line breaks keeping it from being prose.  I would say that the current emphasis with long line poems is more on distinguish it from prose than distinguishing it from metrical verse.

Marvin Bell’s equation for his Dead Man poems is: “The line is the sentence and the sentence is the line.”

How do other poets manage to maintain the music of poetry when they write in long, non-metrical lines?  The easiest way to discover the effects of their choices is to type out some of the poems as prose to see what would be lost.

Feel free to post or send me your own examples, and we’ll discuss as many as we have time for in this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.



Walt Whitman


Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.



Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I
walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-
conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the
neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping
at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in
the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing
down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork
chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following
you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary
fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and
never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add
shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue
automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what
America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you
got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear
on the black waters of Lethe?


two poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly:



Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then
They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat’s head
Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly
The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away
Beside which the goat’s headless body lay. Some boys
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.
The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.
The head called to the body. The body to the head.
They missed each other. The missing grew large between them,
Until it pulled the heart right out of the body, until
The drawn heart flew toward the head, flew as a bird flies
Back to its cage and the familiar perch from which it trills.
Then the heart sang in the head, softly at first and then louder,
Sang long and low until the morning light came up over
The school and over the tree, and then the singing stopped….
The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named
The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after
The night’s bush of stars, because the goat’s silky hair
Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.
The girl lived near a high railroad track. At night
She heard the trains passing, the sweet sound of the train’s horn
Pouring softly over her bed, and each morning she woke
To give the bleating goat his pail of warm milk. She sang
Him songs about girls with ropes and cooks in boats.
She brushed him with a stiff brush. She dreamed daily
That he grew bigger, and he did. She thought her dreaming
Made it so. But one night the girl didn’t hear the train’s horn,
And the next morning she woke to an empty yard. The goat
Was gone. Everything looked strange. It was as if a storm
Had passed through while she slept, wind and stones, rain
Stripping the branches of fruit. She knew that someone
Had stolen the goat and that he had come to harm. She called
To him. All morning and into the afternoon, she called
And called. She walked and walked. In her chest a bad feeling
Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides
Of her bare feet. Then somebody found the goat’s body
By the high tracks, the flies already filling their soft bottles
At the goat’s torn neck. Then somebody found the head
Hanging in a tree by the school. They hurried to take
These things away so that the girl would not see them.
They hurried to raise money to buy the girl another goat.
They hurried to find the boys who had done this, to hear
Them say it was a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke….
But listen: here is the point. The boys thought to have
Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they
Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job,
Whistling as they washed their large hands in the dark.
What they didn’t know was that the goat’s head was already
Singing behind them in the tree. What they didn’t know
Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,
Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.


D__ L__ S __

Albert Goldbarth

Fathers are invariably great nuisances on the stage, and always have to give the hero or heroine a long explanation of what was done before the curtain rose, usually commencing with “It is now nineteen years, my dear child, since …” etc., etc.
—Charles Dickens

There might be a planet. Before that,
though, there would have been a gas that coalesced
into a planet . . . as, before that, there were dots of flux
and energy that hadn’t yet declared themselves
in concert. There’s always “before”: there’s more
each minute, more each person, yes and every one
of its smallest, irreducible subparticles—which I name
he “beforeon”—is exerting force on us
that’s surely time’s own version of gravity: its purpose
is to tug, and to remind us. In the house of second marriages,

it causes the man to do what he and the woman had promised
they never would: one night while she’s asleep, he snoops
her bureau for telltale relics of the mysterious Mr.
Number One. And why, or even what
he hopes to find, he couldn’t clearly say: a letter? photo?
sex toy?—something, some objectified gossip, a fossil
of bygone love. Essentially, we make of our own psyches
a bureau and pay a shrink to snoop; as for the moment
when our neural linkage first began to form,
as for the flavor of the fluids in the womb. . . we’re all

amnesiacs: and our earliest self, just like the universe’s
earliest being, is a “phantom limb” with the faintest
mnemonic of starbursts in an otherwise chill void. I have
a friend D____ L____ (this poem is hers) who, orphaned
as a newborn, is devoted to learning her origin
as doggedly as any cosmologist tracks light to its source, although
her search (when not pure Internet) is more a matter
of tape-recording the beer-sour stories in sailor bars,
of sifting ashy memories in nursing homes,
one backwards inch of plotline at a time. And yet somebody

else is waking up this morning with the need
to be detached from any history,
to stand here like a person in a play who enters
onstage from a pool of perfect blankness. Then,
of course, he can start over, minute-zero-of-year-zero,
unbesmirched. We could have told him that he’d be this
anguished—sneaking in her drawer, below those folded
pastel lozenges of lingerie, uncovering the one thing
that could ruin them. Now he wants only to float (who
doesn’t, sometimes?) in an anti-world: appealing, but

illusory. We can’t unmoor ourselves from linearity,
no more than any one of us can be a human being
unconnected to a genome—and in fact, no more
than Mama-All-of-Time-and-Space-Herself (I mean
the cosmos) can unwrap her vasty body from its own
twelve million years of Big Bang “background radiation”
so it wafts—a tossed off, filmy scarf—far elsewhere.
No; there isn’t any “elsewhere.” When we sleep
or simply deepen into quietude enough, the voices
come—the rhythmic, grave, ancestral murmur,

a woman bearing a ritual clamshell bowl . . .
a man with a done-deal sales contract . . . whispers,
knuckle-rap, cleared throats. . . . Her great-grandfather,
D____ L____ has uncovered, was a lector—a reader they used
to relieve the tedium of the leaf rollers’ shifts
in cigar manufactories. Shakespeare, Dickens,
union tracts, love letters, family diaries . . . . He’s
walking through the tobacco aroma; he’s setting his text
on his easel; and the story—the only story we know,
the story of Before—is recited.



Marvin Bell

  1. About the Dead Man and Rigor Mortis


The dead man thinks his resolve has stiffened when the
===ground dries.
Feeling the upward flow of moisture, the dead man thinks his
===resolve has stiffened.
The dead man’s will, will be done.
The dead man’s backbone stretches from rung to rung, from here to
===tomorrow, from a fabricated twinge to virtual agony.
The dead man’s disks along his spine are like stepping-stones across
===a lake, the doctor told him “jelly doughnuts” when they
===ruptured, this is better.
The dead man’s hernial groin is like a canvas bridge across a
===chasm, the doctor said “balloon” when they operated
===this is better.
The dead man’s toes are like sanded free forms and his heels are as
smooth as the backs of new shoes, the doctor said “corns”
when they ached, this is better.
The dead man’s eyes are like tiny globes in water, continental
geographies in microcosm, all the canyons are visible, now
washed of random hairs that rooted, now free of the
strangulated optics of retinal sense, this is better.
All the dead man’s organs, his skin, muscles, tendons, arteries, veins,
valves, networks, relays—the whole shebang hums like a
quickly deserted hardware store.
To the dead man, a head of cabbage is a forerunner of nutrients.
The dead man’s garden foreshadows the day it is to be plowed under,
agriculture being one of the ancient Roman methods for
burying the Classics, the other was war.
No one can argue with the dead man, he brooks no interference

===between the lightning and ground, his determination
===is legendary.


2. More About the Dead Man and Rigor Mortis

You think it’s funny, the dead man being stiff?
You think it’s an anatomically correct sexual joke?
You think it’s easy, being petrified?
You think it’s just one of those things, being turned to stone?
Who do you think turns the dead man to stone anyway?
Who do you think got the idea first?
You think it’s got a future, this being dead?
You think it’s in the cards, you think the thunder spoke?
You think he thought he was dead, or thought he fancied he was
===dead, or imagined he could think himself dead, or really
===knew he was dead?
You think he knew he knew?
You think it was predetermined?
You think when he stepped out of character he was different?
What the hell, what do you think?
You think it’s funny, the way the dead man is like lightning, going
===straight into the ground?
You think it’s hilarious, comedy upstanding, crackers to make
===sense of?





Kevin Prufer

I love the crown molding and the white granite countertops.

And look, dear! Stainless steel appliances! Don’t you love them?

It’s such a perfect apartment, and, in every room, a coffered ceiling.

And don’t you love the pink twin sinks, like porcelain scallops?

And listen to the faucets,

like the rush of a waterfall heard through thick woods just as the birds began to
sing early one morning years ago in the hills outside Florence.

Where are you going?

Love fills me the way the sun surprises the room when I pull the string and the
curtains open.

Pinch-pleat curtains, crinkle-voile, semi-opaque, and sheer! Soft as love when I
stroke them, warm as love against my cheek, a scent of spring rain gentling
the petunias when I wrap myself in them

until I cannot see, until I cannot move my arms or legs.

Of course, I’d love to see the guest bedroom with its walk-in closet and
built-in shoe shelf, its en suite bath with the whirlpool tub!

Let me just wipe my eyes on these curtains. Let me just untangle.

The view through this window is so lovely, the far fingers of smoke trembling
over the distant city where the workers— rich black thoughts pour from the smokestacks
is all I have to say about the workers.

No, sorry, I’m still here, wrapped in the curtains. They were so alluring,

voluptuous, really, if curtains can be voluptuous against bare skin. You continue
with the tour, dear,

and I’ll be along presently. The sky is rose chiffon, the clouds like pressed flowers
above the smokestacks,

just leave me here, restrained and lavished at once! And the window,
with its inviting coolness

to the tongue. To my tongue. It’s like I am licking those smokestacks!






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  • Reply Martha Zweig February 23, 2023 at 11:27 am

    Well, no to Whitman & Ginsberg, male bloviation. OK to Prufer & Bell. Utter YES to to Goldbarth & Kelly (but where’s the 2nd Kelly?) I’ve been skimming though my Goldbarths for my superfavorites, but most of them are too long for our event. A shorter one is “Some Things,” an anti-bloviation that still makes me cry at the end, but the capita$t system won’t let me copy & paste & it’s too long for me to want to hunt/peck it out. It’s right here in the book & I can read it aloud upon request. And Kelly! — zero bloviation, incantatory spell. I’d love to read her aloud as well. My sense of long lines is that much depends upon line breaks, they really really need enjambments to keep pushing us over the brink & down to the next. Long lines end-stopped make me stop stop stop & do something else.

    • Reply Sharon February 23, 2023 at 11:29 am

      Thanks for asking about the Kelly poem. Meant to add it.

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