The bridge is wide The Forth is deep lambic trains are made for sleep

But speaking in regular metre would make us sound like daleks or metronomes. Even in instances of high regularity, as in the just-quoted couplet, the voice is only loosely attached to the beat. A breathing rhythm has its part to play as well. The heart is regular and beats involuntarily, but we can control our breathing. We can pause, slow down, speak rapidly, whilst still staying within the iambic range. In poetry the underlying sense of metre (like a heart-beat) is more pronounced than it is in ordinary speech, but only just. We can still hear it, as in this extract from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

from 'In the Waiting Room'

In Worcester Massachusetts, I went with Aunt Consuelo to keep her dentist's appointment and sat and waited for her in the dentist's waiting room. It was winter It got dark early. The waiting room was full of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, lamps and magazines.

(Bishop, 1991:159)

This free verse retains a measure of regularity, with two or three stresses per line and some uncertainty about where they might fall. Notice, too, how the significant words occur at the ends of lines where we would expect to find rhymes, while '' come at the beginning. This effect is almost standard in free verse, though some poets, Sharon Olds among them, experiment with this feature by changing it about so that lines end with prepositions instead of with nouns and verbs: '.when he was/a newborn.when he/looked.' (see above p. 81).


The structure of Carver's 'Sunday Morning', one of the simplest, is that of a list. This next poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub combines 'list' with 'narrative' in its structure:

She sat on a willow-trunk watching

Dart of the battle of Crecv, the shouts, the gasps, the groans, the tramping and the tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge of the French cavalry she mated with a brown-eyed male fly from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together as she sat on a disembowelled horse meditating on the immortality of flies.

With relief she alighted on the blue tongue of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled and only the whisper of decay softly circled the bodies and only a few arms and legs still twitched jerkily under the trees, she began to lay her eggs on the single eye of Johann Uhr, the Royal Armourer.

And it was thus that she was eaten by a swift fleeing from the fires of Estrees.

When referring to 'In The Waiting Room' and 'The Fly' as free verse, we don't mean that they are free of structure.

In free verse (where there are no rhymes or consistent metre), inner structure can completely displace surface regularity, and for a free verse poem to succeed, that inner structure needs to be strong and visible. It definitely is in Holub's 'The Fly': 'She sat on a willow-trunk.she mated. She rubbed her legs together. With relief she alighted. She began to lay her eggs.she was eaten.' Once a structure is established you can fit in the details and make them speak as you wish. The structure might appear to you before you write the poem, making you want to write it, just as a vague ghostly skeletal suggestion, but more animated, more definitely alive. Sometimes when we are reading a poem the structure doesn't seem to be very obvious; you have to search for it, especially if a poem exhibits a lot of surface regularity, as in the famous poem by W.H.Auden that was spoken by one of the characters in the film Four Weddings and A Funeral. The following is probably its most well-known stanza:

From 'Twelve Songs'

He was my North, my South, my East, my West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song. I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.

The last line above has six stresses. The rest have five and so keep the consistency intact. Yet rhythm and rhyme mark the strongest signifier here of regularity. If we look at this poem from a different angle we can see that it also has another kind of form that has nothing to do with surface regularity. It begins with a plea—to stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, and then suggests that the policemen wear black cotton gloves. These details are not the same thing as dismantling the sun and pouring away the ocean, with which the poem ends. The poem moves from the small to the vast, away from the local towards the panoramic. To reverse that sequencing would alter the poem and destroy its emotional power. The sequencing is gradual but relentless, and we might describe this form as the poem's inner structure or architecture and identify it as a change of perspective or even a transformation.

So we need to be clear about these two kinds of form: surface patterning and inner patterning or structure. Why, then, does Auden's poem have both? Given that the inner structure is so obviously the more powerful, why have regularity? The answer is that the stress patterns and rhyme scheme act as a framework, a loom-like system into which odd and surprising details (the 'public doves' is a good example) are threaded. The poem creates a tension between expectation and surprise, and produces its extraordinary effects within the constant security of the rhyme. It is at once both predictable and unpredictable. The point of using regular form is to increase the reader's pleasure by combining reassurance with surprise, and thus to produce a heightened level of attention, or, as the American poet and critic Donald Hall expressed it, this type of form enables the poet and reader to feel 'the values of sameness against the improvisations of variety'.

We can easily see how Holub's 'The Fly' follows a step-by-step narrative structure. Each encounter in the story is rendered stanza by stanza. Susan Burns's poem in Chapter 1, p. 32 shows a single main encounter followed by potential minor ones, and the stanza lengths have co-operated with this major-minor element to produce effectively one stanza surrounded by others less substantially developed. Olds's' 'The Hand', even though it refers to different episodes, is a single, unbroken act of thought. Its single extended stanza form is appropriate for following through to completion that process of thinking and remembering.

Free Verse Compact Treatment

The full text of Bishop's poem 'In the Waiting Room' describes an encounter. What happens when things meet is still the question. The poet, within the poem and its autobiographical setting, needs time to reach her conclusions. The voice of considered careful exploration, therefore, leads towards the more open or extended treatment we find in Sharon Olds. But free verse can also be tightly arranged, formally exact, emphasising image rather than voice. The two poems below by Norman MacCaig combine a degree of formality—a clear visible shape—with a sense of the poet's speaking voice:

'February—Not Everywhere'

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