At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived.
—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself.
And Elizabeth Bishop did it, in her “Crusoe
in England”: though she needn’t have scanned a foot
in writing it, every step was itself alone
and demanded whatever served. Sometimes she cast
her thought in sestinas; found at her typewriter keys
to set free memories otherwise confined,
or labored within a villanelle to find
lost houses, continents, like the geometer Crusoe
whose world to map had no scale and no keys;
who saw the surf wash in, efface his foot-
print like a sandpiper’s. The melted cast-
les of sand we’ve made are in the end all one:
what company we have when we feel alone!
A solitary stroll on the beach to find
ourselves rewards us, largely due to the cast
supporting us from the wings, the backstage crew so
handy, the believable props, and the foot-
lights revealing the beaming spectators: keys
to our happiness, in which the fashionable quais
Auden wrote of slosh with talk about us alone.
We’re not, in fact, entirely sorry for the foot-
note-in-mouth disease of the critics who find
what was never there in two-dimensional Crusoe.
Surely he would have liked to attend the cast-
away party that followed him—the downcast,
austere “Robinson” poems of Weldon Kees
the suicide, or Emil by that crank Rousseau
who thought he’d bring up a boy on Defoe alone.
Swiss Family Robinson? There: we’ve defined
the branching tree-house of writing. Friday’s foot
is at his master’s head, and at the poet’s foot
the subject’s breathing: admittedly these are caste
systems, and guilty as charged, we the jury find.
No man is an island; we’re more like the Florida Keys—
a stanza of lines that each began alone.
Whoever free-floats, it isn’t versatile Crusoe,
who cast his dreams with people he hoped to find,
and through years without lackeys, never slept alone
given the draft at his foot, his Robinson Crusoe.