Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” is not free verse at all. It is iambic tetrameter, more or less. Three verses of it, each ending with a line of trimeter; with arbitrary line breaks thrown in. When I read “Caged Bird”, I hear this poem:
A free bird leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends and dips his wing in the orange sun rays and dares to claim the sky. But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.
The rhyme emphasizes the rhythm inherent in the lines, which have a natural stop with each tetrameter. Free verse, however, requires no such pattern. In the same way that Buzz Lightyear can fly (falling, with style), Free Verse can be considered poetry (prose, with style). It has a direct kinship with the Authorized King James Bible:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
This is prose, not poetry. The difference between the opening of the book of John and Angelou is clear, but for the sake of our own egos, when we write verse that imitates Biblical style and spirit, we bestow upon it the title of Verse. Verse, however means rhythm, as in Angelou, above. Free Verse was invented just as the Bible had become universally available and the most read piece of literature in the world. It made sense that its readers would take on its style in their own writings. For good or ill, these newly literate generations aspired to be poets (who wouldn’t?) and labeled their works accordingly. Whitman is the prime example:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, ...
What I hear is a man who grew up reading the Bible. What I hear is Prose with Style.
Paul Guernsey Player, © 2018/11/13