Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Possibly even more than rhyme, even more than measures derived from the ballad, the deepest, most traditional poetic form in the English tongue's literature is blank verse: unrhymed lines of five units. That is the form of John Milton's Paradise Lost, William Wordsworth's "The Prelude" and Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning." Allen Ginsberg practices blank verse in his notebooks, and it echoes through the long lines of his "Howl."

Above all, blank verse is the form of William Shakespeare's plays. Grace Schulman uses it in her splendid tribute to the force of drama. In her poem "First Nights," she treats theatrical performance as the epitome of all art -- both in general and in one particular life, that of the poet's father. Schulman's lines live up to their great tradition and model by being saucy and inclusive, encompassing comedy as well as heartbreak, artificiality as well as tragedy:


The best of all was listening to a hush

under the chandelier that never fell

and the fat box adorned with gilded masks.

When stiff asbestos parted over velvet,

my father gasped. He'd left the stage for a desk

when I was born. And now first nights were holy.

A program and a house called the Majestic,

more than prayer book and shul, called forth his praise.

One night an actor, fake wrinkles, white hair,

cried out under his breath, All-shaking thunder,

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