‘The Nymphs are Departed’ – An introduction to free verse

By Ratnagarbha.

What’s the point of poetry that doesn’t rhyme or scan? For many people the great pleasure of poetry lies in the rhythmical, musical sound that it makes in your head as you read it. There is a sweetness, and a resonance in the way that lines like these by Byron enter your mind and heart:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

(‘She Walks in Beauty’)

To those who love such gracious, regular music, modern free verse can seem no easier on the ear than the apparently harsh, dissonant sounds of atonal music. And atonal music, at least, has a language of its own that marks it out as something special, whereas much modern poetry sounds, at first reading, like nothing more than a snatch of ordinary speech, or some jottings from a note pad.

Take this from Gary Snyder, the American Zen poet:


In the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

blend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight.

the creak of boots.

rabbit tracks, deer tracks

what do we know.

Just a simple description of a mountain scene. Anyone who has climbed a mountain in winter could rise to a description like this in a letter home, couldn’t they?

Well, could they? Try selecting eight or so images to sum up a walk in the mountains, and then put them together in a coherent whole. Not as easy as it looks, is it?

Somehow Gary Snyder has brought to life the clear cut, exceptionally pure stillness you sometimes find up above the snow line. Those moments when you stop in the middle of a long walk, and just look around you, too tired, perhaps, to do more than take it all in. The images have that quality of precise, eerie presence. “…the creak of boots, rabbit tracks, deer tracks…” (How many people would notice the noise of their boots, amid a scene of frost and starlight?).

And then if you read the poem out loud there is another strangeness. There appears to be some kind of pattern to the length of the lines, the way they fall, that adds to the effect. But it cannot be matched to a regular scheme.

How did he achieve his effects with so little?

So this little poem is a useful starting point to look at a few key aspects of modern poetry, strands that run right through the last 100 years, and may be useful as leads into unfamiliar territory.

The pure image

Much free verse, and Snyder’s work is no exception, goes back to the pioneering work of the Imagists, who, in the early twentieth century, threw out the established forms of poetry, the dead weight, as they saw it, of rhyme schemes and metres, and put in its place poetry that was “hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite” (to quote their manifesto), a poetry of concentration, in which the things itself, the “exact particulars”, were all important.

Anything in the form that drew inordinate attention to itself, like sounds at the ends of lines that matched, or a strong ‘beat’ to the line, would only distract attention from the exact images that were the heart of the poem.

So this is one thing to look out for in free verse: a strong sequence of images, with no need for any explanation. Just the moment, pure and essential, speaking for itself, or so the poet hopes. All of reality, all of someone’s life, might be contained in a few moments of pure awareness, a direct seeing of ‘unmediated’  truth.

This is what poets found, as a revelation, in the poetry of Japan and China, when it was first translated by Ezra Pound and others early last century.

This kind of poetry needs patience. You have to suspend the desire for neat endings and ‘chiming’ music that attracts the ear. The music is in the images themselves. Just let them sink in, see what they do to your imagination, let them resonate. There is nothing else needed:

Pine tree tops,

blend snow blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight.

The form grows from the image

No poem can be entirely formless, of course. There are usually line breaks. Or at least sentences. Or even if there is no punctuation at all, natural stops and pauses will suggest themselves as you read, form cannot be escaped.

Often there is a ‘surrogate’ form. One that sits in the background as a sort of unstated framework on which the poem is built. It can help to know about the most common of these.

Snyder, like Pound, was very influenced by the Japanese seventeen syllabul Haiku, and you can see the bones of three Haiku poking through his poem. Haiki lines run five-seven-five – short, long short – and Snyder’s lines do that, almost. He has allowed the natural rythym of the scene, the flow of images as they unfold in the course of the poem, to mould the flow of the lines.

For example, he could have carried the first two words of the third line, in the fragement above, up to the second line. Then he would have had his short, long, short, the Haiku rhythm if not the exact count of syllables.

But in doing that he would have lost a great deal.

Read it again. There is always a fractional pause, a ‘marker’ in the rythym, at the end of a line in free verse. That tiny pause after ‘fade’, what does it do?

For me it suggests the minute pause of the actual moment, as the mountain walker peers at the the real tree that fades into its background in the night sky, and wonders where the tree ends and the sky begins.

It also points up the mystery of the movement from foreground to background. That movement that happens in a moment, countless times each day, when we re-focus, and see what is ‘here’ against what is ‘there’; the breadth and depth that cannot be taken away from any perception, however commonplace.

The other very common skeleton key in free verse is the reliable old iambic pentameter. The line of five double beats, light-heavy, light-heavy… de-DAH, de-DAH, de-DAH… used by Shakespeare and many, many others:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state


But here is Snyder, six centuries later,  in a lyrical mood:

The beauty of naked, or half naked women,

lying in nothing clear or obvious-not

in exposure, but a curve of the back or arm,

as a dance, or – “evoking another world”

“The Deva Realm”, or better, the delight

at the heart of creation.

That five beat line has found its way in there, but with a conversational ‘lollop’ to the stresses. For example, the word ‘not’ intrudes into the pattern on the second line, adds another beat, and so draws strong attention to what it is negating on the next line, the obviousness of nudity that Snyder does not find in these ladies’ subtle curves.

But still there is the noble, resonant iambic beat in the backround of the poem, suggesting the lyrical, musing mood … wondering about the beauty of the body, and the visions of another world that it might suggest.

Later on the form breaks down more fully, as Snyder speaks of being “devastated and athirst” with longing, for such “graceful waves of the tail”, from any mammal, mare or lioness, just as much as a human female!

The movement from the older form – its breaking down as something wild, unrestrained, even taboo comes into his reflections – speaks for itself.

Such effects are of paramount importance in much modern poetry. Looking for them is satisfying as well as illuminating. And lovers of traditional verse forms will often find that their old loves serve them well, dressed in a new guise.

So, look at the line breaks in free verse. Weigh them up, feel what they are trying to do. If they seem to grow out of the poem’s overall movement, that is a real discovery. If they seem arbitrary – pasted on – perhaps they are! Free verse is all too easy to write. And there is a great deal that does not pay its way.

If you are looking for some pointers as to where to start, apart from the wonderful Snyder, there are more suggestions below.

Fragmentation but not chaos

Finally, the fragementation of forms is worth looking at a little more deeply.

One of the great excitements of the time – early last century, when free verse was a totally new way of writing – was how the poets of that era felt they were opening up new territories of experience. They felt the pressure of something that could not be expressed in the old, smooth and familiar forms: something radical, and essential, that demanded ‘out’.

For T. S. Eliot, who, like Ezra Pound, was one of the more intellectual of the pioneers, what had to be expressed was a sense of the breaking up of the values of an entire civilisation, and the need to salvage whatever was still authentic in the ‘heap of broken images’.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song…

Sweet Thames run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

Here in his epic poem The Waste Land, in the third section, the scene of wintry decay by the banks of the river mirrors Eliot’s sense of the nymphs, all that is gracious and enduring from the past, perhaps, having long departed.

A snatch of elegant verse from that departed world, the ode to the ‘Sweet Thames’ by the Elizabethan poet Spenser, comes into his mind: “Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song.” It’s just a fragment, and its rhythym is different from the rough Hexameter (six beats) of the rest of this section, but its courtliness increases the sense of decay and regret in the passage as a whole. The lines have been rescued, and made to do something new.

Though the verse here is fairly prosaic, unrhymed, loose rythymed – conversational, even – the images stand out sharply, and the overall effect is not one of simple chaos and fragmentation. Eliot is trying to make sense of the forces that surround him, and trying to find resources from the best of the cultures of the past that will help him. To Spenser’s line he adds one of his own: “Sweet Thames run softly, for I speak not loud or long”, stressing the urgency and poignancy of his task.

Most, if not all, of the greatest poets of the last 100 years have shared this sense of fragmentation and uncertainty to some extent. Free verse seems to be the perfect medium to express this outlook on life.

But it does not mean that such poetry must be randomly broken, the product of a sick mind in a sick world. We can expect to find probings and questionings, uttered with stark realism, or laconic simplicity. The reader is left to do half of the work, instead of being carried along through a well ordered sequence of thoughts and impressions, chisled into a Sonnet or some other fixed form.

Answers of a kind – provisional, intuitive graspings of some new way of seeing – may emerge, but they rest in the images themselves, the poets’ individual negotiation with life as it is.

Returning now to Snyder and ‘The Pine Tree Tops’, we find in his stark, unadorned sequence of images a sense of assured confidence in his experience, that is unusal, perhaps, in modern poets. This may be because he was able to turn to the values of Zen Buddhism. For Snyder no image is just an image; a fragment of experience, if infused with a pure, insightful awareness, can encompass the whole, become the True Mind in its fullness.

So here the original intentions of the Imagists have come full circle, back to the Eastern forms and the Eastern path which were their half-understood starting point.

But this does not put an end to the modern need to ask questions, pointedly, starkly, and with great courage. Zen, or any other system, is not a big bag of answers that would mean the end of poetry. For as Snyder finds, in this jagged, vital passage,  being – closed thoughts about what is and what is not – is not the end:

Once I

Struck and bit on thought

Of being

Being suffering,

Fought free, tearing hook and line

(my mind) –

Thus was taught,

Pains of death and love,

Birth and war,

wreckt earth…

(‘Walking home from the Duchess of Malfi’, from Turtle Island)

RatnagarbhaRatnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson) is the editor of Urthona Buddhist arts magazine. He is a poet and freelance writer in the area of art and the evolution of consciousness. He loves Bach, Vaughn Williams, Gothic architecture and the wild places of England. He lives in Cambridge, UK.
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2 thoughts on “‘The Nymphs are Departed’ – An introduction to free verse

  1. A very interesting piece Ambrose. I found it resonated with me particularly, I am an admirer of Snyder’s work, I first discovered him as the character ‘Japhy Ryder’ In Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, decided to read some of his work and saw why Kerouac saw him the way he did.
    I’m currently working on a poetic exploration into the idea of the ‘self’, looking at how it has been portrayed in poetry over time (starting with the Romantics) and have yet to study, in depth, the modernists. I found after reading this Inow have a much better grasp of what Pound was trying to do with Imagism, so thank you.


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