How Free is Free Verse?

How ‘Free’ is Free Verse?

In my introduction to creative writing classes, I’m amazed at how many people believe that free verse has no structure; the result is a formless offering of words that often leaves the reader unfulfilled or with a sense that something is not quite right. And because there is no predetermined pattern to refer to (eg an abab rhyme scheme) it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s wrong with the poem.

Now while I agree that writers of free verse do not have to conform to the ‘rules’ of set form poetry (eg sonnets, ballads, limerics, haiku etc., each with its own rules of rhythm, rhyme and meter) there is definitely structure. The difference is each poem defines its own structure which emerges from within. If you don’t like the word ‘structure’, consider balance, pattern or cohesion. The tricky thing with establishing your own structure in a poem is that you have to ‘teach’ your reader how to read it, and, once established, you need to continue with it – or subvert it, but more of that later.

Why structure?

Structure serves the mood or thematic intent of a poem. What do you want to say through this poem? How may the structure aid the communication of this idea? Structure also determines the pace at which the poem may be read. Do you want to slow your reader down at a certain point or speed them up? Why? All of these questions and answers should have an impact upon the individual structure of each poem.

In one of my classes I chose a piece of prose – an extract of an article from New Scientist – and asked each student to work the prose into a free verse poem. Each student had the same words, but the way they chose to structure the words, led to ten very different poems.

In free verse, the following techniques are frequently used to bring structure to a poem:

1. Repetition:

  • of sound = rhyme
  • meter = rhythm
  • words – for emphasis, not just because of lazy writing.
  • phrases – again for emphasis of a theme or effect
  • letters = alliteration and assonance
  • stanzas = refrains
  • images – identical or thematically linked to emphasise a concept or ideas.

For example ‘Travel Sickness’, Nick Toczek.

2. Line breaks

Alternating line length provides internal rhythm and pace, tension and release. Don’t forget that a single word can be a line.

  • Enjambment (when a sentence runs over onto the next line. Sometimes a sentence starts mid-line or even runs over onto the next stanza).
  • End stops (where you choose to stop the line).

For example, ‘Television’, John Coldwell.

3. Stanza groupings

How many lines are in a stanza? You may wish to alternate stanzas with the same number of lines eg a 3 line stanza then 7 line stanza then 3 then 7 again. Can you see the structure that is emerging? A repetition of stanzas is known as a refrain.

For example ‘The Millennium Falcon’, Roger Stevens.

4. Spacing

The physical spacing of words on a page can establish a unique structure. For example, ‘Autumn’, Roger McGough.

5. Point of View shifts

Shifting between first, second and third person. The following poem by the late poet Stevie Smith shows this, plus many of the other devices already discussed.

Black March
I have a friend
At the end
Of the world.
His name is a breath

Of fresh air.
He is dressed in
Grey Chiffon
It has a
Peculiar look, like smoke.

It wraps him round
It blows out of place
It conceals him
I have not seen his face.

But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs
In March, and heard hims say:

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

(Such a pretty time when the sky
Behind black twigs can be seen
Stretched out in one
Uninterrupted
Cambridge blue cold as snow.)

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.

6. Punctuation

You can establish a repetitive pattern or omit it completely. (See ‘Millennium Falcon). Remember, you don’t have to punctuate full sentences – you can break punctuation rules if it serves the poem better.

7. Juxtaposition of opposites.

For example, ‘This is the Weather’, Stephen Bowkett.

8. Metaphors, similes, unexpected descriptive adverbs and adjectives.

For example, ‘Thaw’ by Edward Thomas.

Thaw
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rocks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

9. Subversion

By setting up an expectation of pattern, you can subvert it by changing it. But this only works when the structure is already well established in the reader’s mind. The reader must come away thinking ‘that was clever’ rather than ‘huh? What happened to the structure?’ For example, ‘A Happy Kenning’, Clare Bevan.

Now write your own free verse poem establishing a structure with the elements above. If you would like to learn more about writing poetry, Peter Sansom’s excellent Writing Poems is a good place to start. Or check out how to write poems which is part of my free creative writing course. And don’t forget we offer a critiquing service if you’d like a professional evaluation of your work by one of our team.

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3 comments on “How Free is Free Verse?

  1. Jim Murdoch on said:

    I enjoyed this post very much, in fact I think I’ll hang onto the URL to point newbies to. I review poems on-line quite often and so many of them have evidently no clue what a poem is. They pour their emotions on the page, chop up the lines and think they have a poem. The thing is – and I’m sure you’ve found this – poets are THE most sensitive people in the world and they do not take criticism without putting up a helluva fight.

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Who of us do take criticism well, Jim? But you’re right, poetry is possibly the most personal of all writing genre and closest to the ‘self’ and maybe that’s why it hurts so much when criticism is received. Mind you, I critiqued someone’s prose, the gist of it being ‘you write well but tend to labour the point. Work on brevity and your writing could approach publishable standard’ and he started sending me hate mail! Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad the post was of some use.

  3. Pingback: Creative Writing - poetry at The Crafty Writer

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