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Poet and writer Rod Miller—always fearless about entering the fray—shares his essay below, "Free Range and Barbwire."

He defines "free verse," presents examples, and opines on those who are "determined to drive free verse poets off the feed ground altogether then fence them out forever by excluding the form from performances, gatherings, programs, friendly competitions, and other places cowboy poets and poetry are featured." He comments, "Minds that want to stretch such fences strike me as prickly, tangled, and twisted—just like Glidden’s bristly invention..."



Rod Miller's self portrait

Award-winning author and poet Rod Miller has contributed a number of essays on the art and craft of poetry to CowboyPoetry.com. He has given poetry workshops and lectures at numerous places and judged many poetry competitions. He is a widely published poet whose work has appeared in several anthologies and numerous periodicals. He is author of a collection of poetry, Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems, and a chapbook of poems, Newe Dreams.  

Miller also writes book reviews and magazines articles for a variety of periodicals, has published short fiction in several anthologies, and is author of three novels and three books of nonfiction.  

Born and raised in Utah, Miller is the son of a working cowboy and spent his youth working with cattle and horses. He competed as a bareback rider in high school, college, and professional rodeos throughout the Intermountain West. 

Miller is membership chair for Western Writers of America and a former board member. Learn more about his writing at writerRodMiller.com.

Rod Miller has contributed other essays to the BAR-D, including:

"Opening the Gates"

"Get Up On Your Hind Legs and Howl"

"Don't Say It"

"A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or, Who's the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?"

"Whipping up a Poem"

"The Rhythm Method"

"Five Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights"

"Have You Heard the One About ..."

"Does Slant Rhyme with Can't?"

"Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?"

"You Call THAT a Poem?"

"Fine Lines and Wrinkles

"A Brave New Future for Poetry"

"How to Pick a Performance Poem"

"Where Have I Heard That Before?"


See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry and more about his publications.

You can email Rod.

Your considered comments are welcome.  Email us.

From "Free Range and Barbwire":

In my experience, ask most anyone what free verse poetry is and they’ll tell you it’s poetry that doesn’t rhyme.

And while it’s true that the vast majority of free verse doesn’t rhyme, the fact of the matter is that rhyme (or lack of it) has nothing to do with it. The most widely accepted definition, quoted here from a typical glossary of poetic terms, says it’s “Poetry composed of either rhymed or unrhymed lines that have no set meter.”

 


 by Rod Miller 

 

I stole this title. Half of it, anyway.

Poet DW Groethe writes about “free range” poetry in the Preface to his remarkable collection of poetry, West River Waltz:  “Most of my writing has a rhythm and rhyme you can count on.” But, he says, “When a poem starts writing itself, I follow along. The driving force that wills the poem dictates what form it will take. I think poets worth their salt know that."

“Free range” poetry is Groethe’s name for what is usually called free verse. That handle, free verse, is a translation from the French vers libre. (Since I don’t savvy the Gallic tongue, and use of that name always strikes me as a highfalutin affectation, that’s the last use of vers libre you’ll hear from me.) I like Groethe’s label for free verse poetry, and we’ll come back to it later.

But first, a definition.

 

What it is and what it ain’t.

In my experience, ask most anyone what free verse poetry is and they’ll tell you it’s poetry that doesn’t rhyme.

And while it’s true that the vast majority of free verse doesn’t rhyme, the fact of the matter is that rhyme (or lack of it) has nothing to do with it. The most widely accepted definition, quoted here from a typical glossary of poetic terms, says it’s “Poetry composed of either rhymed or unrhymed lines that have no set meter.”

So—whether rhymed or not—free verse is, by definition, poetry free of meter.

Pause for a moment, if you care to, for examples.

I’ll use a couple of my own poems to demonstrate unrhymed and rhymed free verse. Not that my own poetry is exemplary, mind you, but it is handy and I can swear by its structure if not its quality.

“A Good Hand With a Rope” is, perhaps, fairly typical of what most folks have in mind when they think of free verse: 

 

A Good Hand With a Rope

I seen him do it a hundred times:
give lie to the idea that a cowboy
won’t do no job
that can’t be done horseback.

Many’s the day he’d ride in
from his cow work, strip his saddle,
shoo his horse into the corral,
and untie his forty-foot hemp.

For a score and fourteen years
he’d cowboyed that country,
making a hand for any brand he wanted
then for good reason or none at all

draw his time and try other pastures
when it suited him.
He seemed content, then, alone in the
bunkhouse of our one-hired-hand outfit.

Those late days I’d finish up
the barnyard chores—splashing a pail
of water into the henhouse trough,
milking half the cow and giving the

hind tits to her penned-up calf and an
adopted dogie. He paid me attention
even though I’s just a kid. Worse,
the boss’s kid. Worse still, a girl.

He’d shake out a loop and snake a catch
on the gatepost and wrap the rope
around his hind end and sit on it till
it took a good bite. Then turn, turn, turn;

Counting cadence with skiprope rhymes
dredged up from a childhood no one knew
while I jump jump jumped in whipped-up
dust as amber air faded gray.

© 2006, Rod Miller
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

While there is some regularity in the four-line stanzas (an arbitrary choice on my part), you’ll note considerable variation in line length, abrupt shifts in pace and cadence, and unexpected changes in sentence length (an attempt to achieve a conversational attitude).

Compare that effort to “Morning Glory”:

 

Morning Glory

Stars punch holes in the dark and
the moon curls on the sky like
a hoof paring from a soft-footed horse
while razor-edged peaks stand
against the ribbon of dawn, a dike
holding the morning from its course.

Atop Long Ridge we squat
and sit and roll and spit. Lies hang
in the air, drifting like powder smoke
from round after round of bull shot.
Sparks glint when steel shoes clang
impatient against stone. Scrub oak

materializes deliberately out of the dim
and quakies on the ridges appear.
Stirrup fenders slap saddle seats,
latigos slide cinches taut. A final brim
tug and chap buckle snug and my rear
meets leather. A hesitant sun greets 

the crew. Light crawls slow where
today’s gather will take us, away
from Long Ridge and our dark climb.
I glory in our forty minutes there;
glad we arrived too early in the day
(or late at night) to get to work on time.

   © 2003, Rod Miller; this poem appeared previously in Range magazine
   This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Again, I arranged the poem in consistent stanzas of six lines, and the length of the lines is fairly uniform. But these regularities soon fade into insignificance, owing to enjambment (allowing phrases and thoughts and sentences to flow from one line into the next, or one stanza to the next, as opposed to a pattern of end stops) and caesura (purposeful pauses or full stops within lines, rather than always at the end). These techniques, combined with an irregular, wandering rhythm also soften the poem’s deliberate rhyme scheme—the last syllable in every line is a strict rhyme, corresponding with its mate in an a-b-c-a-b-c pattern.

Both poems exemplify that the beat or accents felt in free verse are more irregular than those heard in metered poetry; the patterns are looser, the structures more subtle.

A noteworthy free verse poem (not that these are) will, however, demonstrate the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing—tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.

 

Where it came from.

The origin of free verse is difficult to pin down. In English, its inspiration goes back at least as far as the King James Bible. The cadence and rhythms used in those lyrical translations set a pattern for poetic language unrestricted by traditional poetry forms. They say American poet Walt Whitman, a free verse pioneer, often imitated the pulse and pace of King James English as a blueprint for his poetry.

But Ezra Pound is the name most often associated with the establishment and popularization of free verse in American poetry. “As regarding rhythm,” he said, free verse poetry is “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.”

Other notable American poets who used free verse effectively include Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. Contemporary to our day and less distant from the cowboy tradition are David Lee and Wendell Berry, who are unsurpassed—in my mind, at least—at capturing the rural way of life in lines and stanzas of free verse.

Still, despite widespread fame and acclaim, none of the above poets is a household name in the cowboy poetry bunkhouse.

Beyond that, lots of folks who throw down their bedrolls in the cowboy poetry bunkhouse are of the firm opinion that such wordsmiths aren’t poets at all, and free verse isn’t even poetry. Some react to the very phrase with amusement, others with scorn, some with downright hostility. I have, in fact, heard and read numerous comments by cowboy poets denigrating and dismissing free verse poetry, often with contempt and condescension.

Which brings us back to DW Groethe’s notion of free verse as “free range” poetry, and my own introduction of barbwire into this little screed.

 

Building fences. 

“Free range” seems, to me, an apt description of free verse poetry as well as the kind of world cowboy poets ought to occupy. We should be able to co-exist like a free-roaming herd of various breeds, grazing on whatever feed satisfies our personal tastes, allowing others to likewise forage, sharing the sociability offered at watering holes, and chewing our cuds and ruminating in convivial company. (Much as rhyme-and-meter-traditionalist Wallace McRae gets along famously with free-range-radical Paul Zarzyski; much as DW Groethe fits a fine “rhymin’ Simon” versifier and an accomplished “free range” poet comfortably—I suppose—inside his one head.)

Instead, there’s a certain element among us that would rather string barbwire. And not to keep anything in, but to keep something out—that something being free verse poetry. Some seem determined to drive free verse poets off the feed ground altogether then fence them out forever by excluding the form from performances, gatherings, programs, friendly competitions, and other places cowboy poets and poetry are featured.

It seems to me such poets have brains made of barbwire.

Minds that want to stretch such fences strike me as prickly, tangled, and twisted—just like Glidden’s bristly invention. Their thoughts are confined, their ideas are confining, their stated opinions are indiscriminately injurious barbs.

But, despite the pricks and pokes, there’s hope. It is my observation and opinion that those with barbwire brains, that publicly slice and jab at free verse, tend to be, at best, second-tier poets. Few, if any, can boast the success and acceptance and honors and approval and applause that many of our free verse cowboy poets enjoy, both inside and out of cowboy poetry circles.

The aforementioned Paul Zarkzyski is a popular draw everywhere, a winner of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Wrangler Award for Poetry, and the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Poetry. Laurie Wagner Buyer is an Elko regular and recipient of the WWA Spur Award. Linda Hussa is, likewise, an Elko standard and award-winning writer. John Dofflemyer is a widely respected poet and editor. Linda Hasselstrom is a poet and speaker and teacher acclaimed across the West. Vess Quinlan’s poetry is recognized and revered far and wide. And there are others I could name.

Not to belabor the point, but I can’t name a single barbwire-brained poet who could reasonably claim to write as well as any of the above. (Or who could not improve the quality of their own rhymed-and-metered verse by studying the free-range poetry of these, their betters.)

As for me, I admire good free verse poetry as much as I admire good poetry in “traditional” rhyme-and-meter forms. I will continue to try to write in whatever style a pending poem seems to want. And I will go on wishing I could make everything I write better, regardless of breed. So I’ll continue to graze wherever on the range the feed looks appetizing, promises satisfaction, and appears fulfilling.

I’ll close this treatise where I started—with the wise words of DW Groethe (who often says things better than I could): “There seems to be a never ending argument about which is better: rhymin’ Simon or free range. I don’t waste my time on the debate. I have better things to do.”

© 2007, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

 

See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry. 

 

 

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