Lem Hooper on Free Verse
by Ellis Parker Butler
Our eminent jurist, Justice of the Peace Lemuel Hooper, looked up from the magazine he was reading and frowned at Court-officer Durfey as he entered the courtroom five minutes late and clad in black coat.
"What's the meaning of this, Durfey?" the judge asked. "Where's your uniform? Why are you late?"
"Well, you see, Your Honor," said Durfey, "I was working about the house a bit this morning and the time grew late, so I did not bother to put on the uniform. It's all the same, anyway. I'm as much of a man in one dress as in another."
"And more of one, maybe, Durfey," said Judge Hooper. "In that coat you're any and all kinds of a man, but in a uniform you're nothing but a policeman. All the same, Durfey, you'll go home and put on the blue coat with the brass buttons. The city pays you to be a cop, and a cop is a cop when he is inside of his uniform, and you know it.
"In that black coat, Durfey, you look less like a cop than this thing here in this magazine looks like poetry. When I hold this off three feet or so, like I was far-sighted, it almost fools me. It is what they call Free Verse, Durfey. It's a new-fangled business some of the almost-poets and formerly-poets who are too tired or too impatient to bother with rhyme and meter are trying to pass off on us as poetry. And some of the could-be-poets have got the habit.
"When you're a cop, Durfey, I like you to wear the garb of a cop, and when Poetry is Poetry I like it to be dressed like Poetry. Take a sonnet, now; when I get home in the evening and take off my shoes there's nothing I like better than to sit under the lamp and enjoy a few well-conducted sonnets, worked out line for line and rhyme for rhyme, with an easy and regular sway like the lope of a gentle horse. 'Fourteen lines, no more and no less!' I say to myself. 'Fourteen lines, and it is wonderful what a great poet can put into them! Fourteen lines, and a thought big enough to fill a book cleverly molded into the last line of all. That's art!'
"But these Free Verse boys will have none of that, Durfey. 'The rhyme and the meter and the jog-trot are trammels,' they say; 'we'll have none of them.'
"And right they are, Durfey. They are trammels. You don't know what I'm talking about, but I'll admit they are right. You don't know a sonnet from a megatherium, but if you want to bet that the sonnet form is a trammel I won't take the bet. It is. And so is a tightrope.
"When the last circus was in town, Durfey, I went in the afternoon and I saw a young woman on the tight-rope and she stole my heart away. I went again at night, Durfey, and if that circus had stayed forty years you'd have found me there. She was the marvel of the ages, Durfey. The things she did on that wire amazed and astounded me. Millions have had delight in the sight of her. In my day I have seen many tightrope people, but it was joy to see this girl combine every grace of motion on a wire. It was art, Durfey, the finest of art.
"But I would not have given two cents to see her do the same down there in the sawdust of the ring, both feet on the ground. That would have been something, but it would have been something else. Free Verse is free enough, Durfey, but it is not verse.
"I have up at my house that set of books Mr. Gibbon wrote on the hard luck that came to the Roman Empire in its latter days. I have read it, Durfey, and there are enough volumes to start a bookstore. As a writer that man Gibbon was untrammeled. His motto was 'Give me room!' He wanted no fourteen lines and he wanted no fourteen thousand lines; I don't know how many he took, but I judge it was nearer fourteen million. It is a great work, that of his, Durfey, but he did not start each line with a capital letter and call it poetry. Neither do I. Far from it.
"That man is no architect, Durfey, that can't plan a house to fit what ground there is in the lot. When I call in a man to plan me a house for my 50 by 100 piece of ground and he concocts something that is 25 feet at one end and 247 feet at the other and sticks out into the street at one corner and into the alley at the other, and that has no doors and no windows, and the roof in the cellar, and the kitchen in the middle of the bedroom, he has done something, but he has not created a house.
"A poet is an artist, Durfey, just as much as a tight-rope dancer is, or so I'll venture to say. He is an artist that knows how to use his tools and he does not try to carve out a cameo with an axe. He knows his trade well enough to know how to put a rhyme at one end of a line and not only how to put a capital letter at the other!
"The rules of poetry were established, Durfey, to please the ear and the eye, and he who breaks the rules is no poet. I don't think much of the carver who cuts the mutton in chunks. If I go out to the racetrack I am amused by the mare that climbs the fence, leaps to the top of the grandstand, and throws somersaults into the paddock, but I don't call her a racehorse; the racehorse keeps inside the tracks and it is her record that is printed in the Annual. I have a watch in my pocket, Durfey, and every one knows it is a watch because it keeps good time and has every wheel and spring and pinion that a proper watch should have. It was some trouble to put the wheels where they belong, but it was worth the trouble. If the man had taken a job-lot of wheels in his hand and poured them into a tin can he would have had something, I dare say, but it would not have been a watch. And it is the same with Free Verse, Durfey; it may be something, but it is not Poetry."
Court-officer Durfey was puzzled.
"You're shootin' above my head, judge," he said, "but I'll take your word for it. If that poem that ain't a poem troubles you like that I'll stick it in the stove for you."
"No, you won't!" declared the judge, rescuing the magazine as Durfey reached for it. "I want to read this to my wife; I'll swear it is no poem, but it has a whoop of a kick in it."