October 20, 2003
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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.
[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.]