Ernest Hemingway’s Blank Verse
Written because reasons. March 2017.
Ernest Hemingway (aka Papa) was The Man. He wrote several defining pieces of post World War I Lost Generation (to mention few “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Moveable Feast”). He witnessed and reported on numerous historic events (including but not limiting to D-Day and Spanish Civil War). He shifted focus from flowery, musings-heavy writings of the previous generation towards more focused, economic storytelling. His condensed, telegraphic, no-nonsense writing style filled with strict, piercing remarks became one of the calling cards of the modernist literature. Over the years he assumed many roles — he was a writer, a hunter, an adventurer, a journalist, a matador, a lover, a Novel prize winner and many more…
He was a poet too. Albeit it was never his intention to break even as a poet. He was doing somewhat generic modernist poetry that was all over the place in the late 1910s and throughout 1920s. But despite that, there is one poem of his that is a fascinating document of an unintended ironic masterpiece.
Here’s a story about it.
Lo and Behold, ye mighty!
This is “Blank Verse”. A little piece that was written in 1916 as a school assignment. Published later in November of that year in a humor column Air Line of a school newspaper Trapeze.
As you can see — it is a five line poem that consists only of punctuation marks divided by a certain amount of spaces to resemble some sort of a text object.
To be exact — there is a pair of quotation marks with a wide white space inside; an exclamation mark, colon, comma, dot; comma, comma, comma, dot; comma, semicolon, exclamation mark; comma. All peppered with a deliberate amount of whitespace.
It was Hemingway’s VERY literal interpretation of the eponymous literary term. While it was definitely conceived as a joke — it is more than just a frolic trifle. Even if it goes far beyond the author’s intention.
Consider the moment in which it was written. Things were obnoxiously dire in 1916. It was the year when the world was petrified in abhorrence of the World War I bloodbath. Earlier that year a group of renegade artists and writers gathered together in Zurich to declare their complete and unmitigated desperate disdain to over-sanitized, bowdlerized mess that Western Culture had turned into. Accidentally, Hemingway channeled this disdain for the old ways in his jest of a poem. Simply because he didn't gave a damn about the possible implications of his piece. He just wrote it.
Because that’s how you make cool stuff.
“Blank Verse” is a poem that haves fun. It is an attempt to avoid the usual pattern of thought regarding poetry. It is a dare of sorts. The poem denies the opportunity to be read, perceived and interpreted in any conceivable way.
Instead, the reader needs to acknowledge the impossibility of perceiving the poem the usual way and let it go as it is. Because it is a joke.
There is also a fruitless alternative — to try to fill in the blanks or think about the missing pieces in a given context. In a way, the poem can represent the starting point of the creative act, a plan of sorts.
But this is a mere assumption. This is not what the poem is about. As it is — “Blank Verse” is a shell of a text, a plan, a score. It can both ways — be anything and nothing in particular.
The composition gives some sort of a faux guidance. Vast white spaces in-between the punctuation marks suggest that there is a space for the text. It was left out and it can be added. The punctuation itself provides with clues of what could have been or could be.
The punctuation marks are the narrative of a poem. There are, at least, five potential sentences. Quotation marks obviously give away the title or the quote. Or it can be something described as a catalyst of a poem. Then there is something exclaimed. Possibly the nexus point of the poem. The next sentence digs into the concept. There is a possibility that it is turned around 180 degrees, then another 360 and then another 180. Afterward, there’s some sort of a aggravation with intense imagery. Recounting of features or dense, rasp of actions is also possible. At last, there’s a sentence cut in the midst of the action, possibly by means of dynamics. It is left ambiguously unfinished. And then another exclamation mark that concludes the narrative.
The last mark — coma is a sole symbol in the line and it just hangs there — as a biting reminder of the sheer impossibility of full comprehension.
Aesthetically — “Blank Verse” is a concrete poem, the one where visual, typographic elements prevail and dominate over the textual.
Its blankness is the point. It emphasizes the ubiquity of poetry as a concept and at the same time mocks its dubious pretense. You don’t need words to compose a poem. After all — it’s all about the composition.
And since the words tend to be interpreted in a variety of ways (sometimes way too many for the benefit and the detriment of the text) with a decent possibility of being misunderstood in varying degrees of severity — why not just leave them out of a poem? And instead — use something that can be definitely understood only as it is.
The thing is — you can’t interpret punctuation any other way than it is. Any way you look at it — it is there to perform its function and nothing more. It may be confusing in a certain context, it may be misused, but it is never something else.
And the thoroughgoing audacity of it performs an elaborately vicious extermination of a rational thought which brings this odd and misplaced notion of transcendence.
“Blank Verse” is what it is. It is a fascinating poem that doesn’t even need such basic elements as words to work. Its presence is imposing enough to make an impression. In the same time, it is still a throwaway joke. Just the one that goes way beyond its original intent without even trying — by mere accident.
And if you think about it, for what it is — “Blank Verse” is very effective at doing its job. It is aware of what it is and yet there is an indelible mystique to it. It is unknowable.
It is the poem that humbles the reader. It is what it is and nothing else. One can’t beat it, can’t crack it, can’t put it in a certain perspective, can’t impose own meaning to it, can’t claim any interpretation as something worthwhile or relevant to it. All the reader can do about it is to admit defeat, swallow the pride and take the poem for what it as it is.
In the same time, it is a poem that is so devoid of clues required for any sort of interpretation — it leaves a lot of space for it to thrive unanchored. It gives an additional dimension to the poem. In a way, it also needs nothing but overthinking. “Blank Verse” strives for the ironic interpretation — for all sorts of imaginary making-of, changes of context, transformations and overzealous analysis. It can bend any way imaginable and yet retain its mystique and even magnify and multiply it.
If anything — this is what real poetry is all about.