October 20, 2003
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A Norwegian Reader Says They Have Welfare Winners Too
From: John Derbyshire [firstname.lastname@example.org]
I enjoyed James Fulford's account of Aldrich's [anti-Emma Lazarus] poem "Unguarded Gates." However, this is not, as James asserts, blank verse. Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameters, like "Paradise Lost" or most of Shakespeare's great speeches (the St. Crispin's Day speech [audio] in Henry V, for example). Aldrich's poem is unrhymed but it is not in iambic pentameter (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM), and therefore is not blank verse. It is actually free verse: no consistent rhyme scheme, no consistent meter.
The two best-known comments about free verse—of which the 20th century produced far, far too much—are as follows.
Robert Frost: "Like playing tennis without a net."
G.K. Chesterton: "'Free verse'? You may as well call sleeping in a ditch 'free architecture.'"
Just as you might call current U.S. immigration-enforcement policies "free citizenship."
James Fulford replies: John Derbyshire, who hasn't written for us in too long, is quite right— both about the technical point he raises, and about the artistic horror of free verse. But for polemical purposes, I prefer Aldrich's poem, which neither rhymes nor scans, to Robert Frost's sentimental Immigrants, which does both, and is used as propaganda in the public schools.
That's not an artistic judgment; Frost was a genuinely great poet, even if he would have gone beyond the saying that "Good fences make good neighbors."
[Unsolicited testimonial: Derbyshire's CD of 36 Great American Poems shows that he knows what he's talking about on the subject, his new book about the Riemann Hypothesis is available here, his journalism can best be read here.]