20 May 2023

Free verse and the return key

The return key is made for poetic architecture, I sometimes tell poets and sometimes tell myself. Take a paragraph, move the cursor and at appropriate places press the return key. There! You have a ‘poem’! In fact if the prose is lyrical, it might even read as a decent poem.

It’s a trick. We know what a poem is supposed to look like. We see words and lines. We don’t see the return key.

‘Free verse’ made this possible since it subverted, loosened or even totally eliminated the formal metrical structure associated with ‘the poem.’ The rhythm obtained through metric structures are replaced by the music of sounds, words, turns of phrase, and the elegant play of metaphors. The accurate (if you will) use of the return key can only work if these things are present in the composition. But there are times when it is hard to figure out if a piece of writing is verse or prose.

‘As she lay sleeping the word unsaid and the spoken word danced among pigeons, chased pollen and dialects, and at sunset sat across an oaken table, stirred weariness into coffee and violets, compared notes.

‘Meanwhile in an orphaned city where highways left byways and flew over rabbits and tortoises, the road not taken met the chosen path and in gravel tones smoothened by silences, talked of the lost maps of sanity where, where we were before, has forever been erased.

‘There were also lemons that had never heard of lemonade, pigs ignorant of bacon and sausage, lovers yet ignorant of heartache, delicate vases pouring scents that twirl in Dry Zone dust to gather the songs of the voiceless.

‘There is blood and despair, sunlight bested by cloud, trembling rain and grass, raw woodapple smiles that creep under elephant fear to flavor sambol and resurrections no one will ever record.

‘There’s news of an earthquake and a kidnapping, chips falling where they did, murder legal and otherwise percolating the gastric juices so necessary for the consumption of the unpalatable.

‘And it rained and it rains, gigantic turtles escaped from an evolutionist’s cage arrest eyes and time
and all things unregistered commerce in the black markets of defeat where the marrow of a city
lie amid scattered vegetables too dead for resurrection.

‘In the rear view mirror the road runs away and the competitive spirit brings closer the pursuer, people bend and swerve, up ante and give the V-sign only to be stopped by red light and pedestrian crossing, the accidental intersections, four letter words that coin new vocabularies in the consecration of impatience.

‘There’s a window pane and a tree, a curtain and an alarm clock conspiring to stop dream and nightmare, a blue balloon and a kite catching lightening and curse, watermelon pink splattered on a pavement where cats given up on love settle for wayside food.

‘There are hands that would hold, eyes that will not close, a bedside vigil in candle lit despair, a book with intoxicating ink, the music of turning pages and hearts so many times turned. inside out
that reverse works just as well.

‘There’s a foot step on a foot-fallen landing, abandoned keys and rust frayed knives that cannot cut or blunt, and words that return wearing unrecognizable vowels.

‘They gather at your feet, all these creatures of your making, they mean no harm, they dare not touch, they would not go had they the choice but will disappear with the first stirring and you in half-sleep stupor and fully awoken clarity without cry or smile will gather what’s left from pre-sleep memory, toss it all into the garbage can, return to bed and sleep.

‘Bless you, my child.’

Verse or prose? A poem or a paragraph? A paragraph that could be ‘returned’ into a poem? Let’s do cut-and-place selectively (for reasons of space):

As she lay sleeping
the word unsaid
and spoken word
danced among pigeons
chased pollen and dialects
and at sunset sat
across an oaken table
stirred weariness
into coffee and violets
compared notes.

There’s news of an earthquake
and a kidnapping
chips falling where they did
murder legal and otherwise
percolating the gastric juices
so necessary
for the consumption of the unpalatable.

There are hands that would hold
eyes that will not close
a bedside vigil
in candle lit despair
a book with intoxicating ink
the music of turning pages
and hearts
so many times turned
inside out
that reverse works just as well.

And you in half-sleep stupor
and fully awoken clarity
without cry or smile
will gather what’s left
from pre-sleep memory
toss it all into the garbage can
return to bed
and sleep.
Bless you, my child.

Verse or prose? A poem or a paragraph? A poem that could be ‘backspaced’ into prose?

For the record, she was awake and not asleep and I, in the intoxication of imagining slumber, manufacturing dreams and recording faithfully that which was already known, wandered along insomniac streets and was lost for ever in an irrecoverable poem that I wanted to but never could write. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart