I’m pausing—am in the middle of composing a 9-7-5 Terza Rima—to say a few words on verse versus poetry. Verse is very different from poetry. Verse allows me to pause and give my brain a break without ruining the structure or losing anything vital to a poem’s completion, whereas poetry, when it comes, is more desperate and immediate, requiring a notebook NOW. Poetry enters in through the right lobe of the brain, whereas verse is composed in the left lobe. So much verse reads like prose but with a fun “Mother Goose” sort of sound. So much “free verse” reads like prose as well, and most free-versers would cringe to consider that artful line breaks don’t create poetry of thoughts. Even qualities that make words fun to read and listen to (such as alliteration and assonance) don’t necessarily make poetry of words, but they can act magically on the mind and/or heart. Poetry (my own personal definition) is made of more sophisticated qualities that require either careful thought or actual inspiration (metaphor is expected; hyperbole is above and beyond, literally and figuratively, and personification can raise the dead to life through the mag-ic of i-mag-ination).
One of my favorite poems is Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Birth of a Genius Among Men.” It’s actually somewhat poorly structured, but the poetry within the structure compensates. The first three stanzas:
The night folded itself about me, like a woman’s hair.
Thousands of dispersed forces, drawn as by a magnet,
Streamed through the open windows. Millions of stars poured through.
What destiny were they seeking in us? What outlet?
The universe awoke in my body.
My breast expanded and overflowed into the night.
I was one with Scotland out there, and with all the world,
And thoughts of your beauty shone in me like starlight.
You were all female, ripe as a rose for the plucking.
I was all male and no longer resisted my need.
The earth obeyed the rhythm of our panting.
The mountains sighed with us—infinity was emptied.
But this is verse, this rhythmic sound,
With nothing much to say,
And here the iambs loop around,
Say nothing anyway.
I’m convinced that the difference between poetry and verse is this: poetry is delivered through inspiration, and verse is the product of mental compulsion–plain and simple–and because it’s compulsive, it’ll be manufactured to endure as lastingly as poetry, for better and for worse.