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Paint-by-Number Poetry
Copyright©2003 by Nathan Harms

"Every Man a Rembrandt"

When I was a child in the 1950s, paint-by-number kits were one of the most common gifts at Christmas or other occasions. Between 1951 (the year of their introduction to the market) and 1954, North Americans purchased more than 12 million kits.*

Each kit included at least two small brushes, a palette of pre-mixed, numbered paint colors in tiny cups, and a drawing on stiff white board or canvas. The drawing, divided into irregular numbered sections, was meant to be hand-painted with the numbered colors to create an “original” piece of art.

In the 1950s, the paint-by-number box tops boasted, "Every man a Rembrandt!"

At the time, a few genuine artists were horrified by the popularity of the phenomenon, expressing outrage that such kits were portrayed as works of art, framed and proudly hung on walls. But the popularity of paint-by number over the years demonstrated that millions of people who never considered themselves “artists” were eager to taste the process of artistic creation.

Paint-by-number poetry

A poet we’ll call “James” submitted a poem recently to Utmost Poets Gallery with this footnote, “I really appreciate what you’re trying to do for Christian poets. My poem probably won’t appeal to you because it rhymes. But I decided some time ago that I’d rather play tennis with a net than without one.”

James apparently thought free verse poetry was like “playing tennis without a net.” He seemed to imply that free verse poetry was devoid of guidelines that made the effort meaningful. He was determined to stay within the lines he felt defined the art.

James’ comment reminded me of the paint-by-numbers of my childhood that demanded I stay within the prescribed borders for each color. If I strayed or put the colors in the wrong places, the completed painting would be barely recognizable.

Unfortunately, even if I painted perfectly the finished work was easily recognizable as a paint-by-number effort. It never looked like an original painting no matter how well I performed the task.
This is a danger in setting prescribed boundaries as a prerequisite for art. Whether I choose to erect a net or stay within the lines, the boundaries I set for myself can keep my art from being as good as it might be. Few readers will admire my “net” when they read my poem. Readers are looking for communication—what I have to say to them. Do I want readers to admire my individual brush strokes or to be touched by my images?

Learning the basics

Thousands of genuinely beautiful and memorable rhyming poems have been written over the past several millennia. Many of us were schooled in these works and memorized them as assignment or in appreciation. Language arts teachers helped us analyze these poems, determining their structures, rhyme schemes and underlying themes.

This instruction was of good intent and may have led us into our first encounters with T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickenson, Robert Louis Stevenson or Robert Frost.

But poetry is not a tennis match—no offense to James’ analogy—any more than it is a paint-by-number kit. Poetry is a highly developed art form that depends no more on “rules of tennis” than tennis depends on “rules of poetry.”

Most artists—painters, sculptors, dancers, poets—adhere to the basic structures of their media while they are beginners. But as they develop their skills they discover their own unique voices and expressions.

There have probably been as many important poets who wrote free verse as there are those who wrote rhyme.

Poetry is not tennis

Poets who produce high quality rhyming poetry are to be respected. Such poets have chosen a difficult task. They have erected a “net” in a medium that does not require it. Then, respecting this net, they have created poetic art.

Unfortunately, this exercise goes awry far more often than it succeeds. The majority of rhyming poems glaringly abuse the net. In many of the rhyming poems submitted to the Utmost Gallery, the net the poet freely erected has been unraveled, stretched, mended and trod upon. Many poets who have chosen to “play with a net” might have produced real works of art had they focused their efforts on communication with the reader, rather than observing the presence of the net.

I challenge poets who insist on writing only rhyming poetry to extend their vision for the craft. Many of the great rhyming poets of the centuries also wrote free verse poetry. We are only aware of their rhyming verse because it was easier to memorize or was chosen by someone else as more enjoyable.

Writing free verse poetry can make you much better at crafting your rhyming work. The reverse is also true.

Taking down the net

If you’ve long held the idea, “If it doesn’t rhyme, it’s not poetry,” you may find it difficult to think outside of rhyme. How do you break the bonds?

#1. One way to begin the process of thinking differently might be to try to rewrite some of your own poetry without rhyme. This has worked well for me, on occasion. I write two versions of the same poem, one free verse and one rhyming. Don’t despair if you’re not happy with the results. It takes time to learn, and more time to be able to appreciate that you’ve created something different, but valuable.

#2. Magnetic poetry kits are available at many specialty stores. These kits contain collections of words you can arrange on the front of your refrigerator. You won’t be able to construct many rhyming poems with these words, so they might help you break free of rhyming expectations.

#3. Add a diet of high quality free verse poetry to your regular reading materials. If you’ve been accustomed to rhyming work, free verse poetry may seem distasteful at first. But consider that most of the best poets of the past century have worked in free verse at one time or another. Clearly it’s work worth reading.

Working without a net

Writing rhymeless poetry may feel, at first, like working the circus high-wire without a safety net spread below you. How do you know the line is finished if there’s no “moon/spoon” at the end to give that assurance? Writing without the security of rhythm and rhyme may feel dangerous. You’ll surely lose your footing from time to time, and tumble terrified through the air.

But there’s an exhilaration in working freely and discovering your true voice, freed of stricture. When you complete your first solid poem written in your free natural voice, you’ll have increased your capacity as an artist.

Renoir, da Vinci, Sandburg and thousands of other memorable—and more contemporary—artists have created phenomenal art working without nets. In clay, oils, bronze and words, superior artists have learned to work beyond the structures of lines. In such freedom, the glorious creativity of God is freely mirrored.

If you read this article, please let me know.

* Information from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History