Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 9, 2010

The Net of History

Robert Frost remarked, or so I’ve read, that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. He wanted rhyme and meter to lend structure, which I totally get. But when people ask me why my verse doesn’t use end of the line rhymes, I say that narrative poems give me structure enough. I want to tell a short story within one poem and link it to a longer story in others. Along with repeated imagery, and the challenge of using fewer and fewer words, I have enough sense of a frame.

Writing about history makes me consider two major audiences, while most are probably in the middle. One group knows little about the era I’m writing about, and I have to set a stage without making the furniture look obviously arranged. The group at the other end knows a lot, and anything that looks a smidge out of place may jar them from the dream a poem sets out to be. I have to teach a bit, but not look like I am, and I have to research like crazy to get the details right. Then get back to just what I want to say, which tends to be about anyone who might live at any time. Because with all the fading wallpaper or mud brick walls, ladder-back chairs or a rock in ancient Iraq, what I write is really about how nothing changes much. Over the years and centuries, people, I believe, are much like you and me. And that’s what brings me back to my own shiny laptop on an old wooden desk.



  1. I love this so much. Perfectly said.

  2. Becky, I’m particularly glad you liked this as it was kind of set off by our emails yesterday, and me thinking about how and why we do what we do. Good luck with building and jumping the net today!

  3. I think the idea that “nothing changes much” really shone through in BORROWED NAMES, as the struggle between mothers and daughters is a timeless challenge, one that all women can relate to. It was neat to read your book and realize that the push and pull of that relationship is something that helped to shape who the daughters would later become.

  4. You had me with Frost, my favorite poet, as a child and still. To me, writing is like buying a new piece of furniture–you have to put it in the room with everything else and it has to fit so that when you get up in the middle of the night, you don’t bump into it. It’s all tricky–poetry, fiction, even blog comments!

  5. Jeni, thank you for the kind words. Sending holiday wishes your way.

  6. Yes, Frost is kind of the net or bar we try and fail to reach, just amazing the way he can speak to us through the decades. And you’re right, it’s all tricky furniture arranging. Which makes me glad to be the middle child, able to think, hey, good enough (to balance particular obsessions, of course!)

  7. I so needed to read this. I’ve been feeling really old and out of it lately–it seems like everything is changing so fast, faster than I can keep up. The thought of timelessness, of universality, is comforting!

  8. Beautifully put. I often find myself doing the same sort of balancing act… though in prose, not poetry. On the one hand poetry seems like it would make balancing even harder! But I can see how maybe it would help you focus on those universals, which can sometimes get lost in a sea of prose.

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