Free verse is a literary device that can be defined as poetry that is free from limitations of a regular meter or rhythm and does not rhyme with fixed forms. Such poems are without rhythm and rhyme schemes, do not follow regular rhyme scheme rules, yet still, provide artistic expression. In this way, the poet can give his own shape to a poem however he or she desires. However, it still allows poets to use alliteration, rhyme, cadences, and rhythms to get the effects that they consider are suitable for the piece.
Features of Free Verse
- Free verse poems have no regular meter or rhythm.
- They do not follow a proper rhyme scheme; these poems do not have any set rules.
- This type of poem is based on normal pauses and natural rhythmical phrases, as compared to the artificial constraints of normal poetry.
- It is also called vers libre, which is a French word meaning “free verse.”
Free verse is not prose set out in lines. Like other sorts of poetry, it is language organised for its musical effects of rhythm and sound. However, these effects are used irregularly, not according to any completely fixed pattern.
Let’s look at this short poem in free verse by D. H. Lawrence as an example:
Things men have made with wakened hands and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing
for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.
Things Men Have Made, by DH Lawrence (1929)
The lines are of different lengths. They don't rhyme with each other. Nor are they arranged in a fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. But this is still a highly organised piece of writing.
The most obvious device here is the repetition, with variation: 'men have made', 'men who made'. These phrases occur at the beginning and end of the poem, with a single syllable before the first occurrence and after the second. They balance each other, emphasising a balance between the first two lines and the last two, between the first sentence or proposition of Lawrence's statement and the second, which echoes it and develops it further. The whole poem centres around the very short line in the middle, 'for long years'.
Although there is no set number of stresses in the lines, there is a clear pattern of stresses at the beginnings of the lines. The first line and the last both begin with two stressed syllables: 'Things men', 'warm still'. The second and the fourth line both begin with two unstressed syllables, followed by one that is stressed: 'are awake', 'And for this'. Again, this emphasises a balance between the first two lines and the last two.
Some phrases are emphasised and linked together by alliteration (words beginning with the same sound): 'men ... made', 'transferred touch', 'go on glowing'.
So while free verse poems are ‘free’ with no rules, this doesn’t mean they have no organisation or structure. Poets are free to use whatever devices they like for a free verse poem but whatever they choose it will be clear that they haven’t just chosen words at random and put them together!
Origins of Free Verse
Free verse is commonly used in contemporary poetry. Some poets have taken this technique as a freedom from rhythm and rhyme because it changes people’s minds whimsically. Therefore, free verse is also called vers libre.
The best thing about free verse is that poets can imagine the forms of any sound through intonations instead of meters. Free verse gives a greater freedom for choosing words and conveying their meanings to the audience. Since it depends upon patterned elements like sounds, phrases, sentences, and words, it is free of the artificiality of a typical poetic expression.
Although the term is loosely applied to the poetry of Walt Whitman and even earlier experiments with irregular metres, it was originally a literal translation of vers libre, the name of a movement that originated in France in the 1880s. Free verse became current in English poetics in the early 20th century.
The first English-language poets to be influenced by vers libre, notably T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, Richard Aldington, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, were students of French poetry.
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Eliot’s early experimentations with free verse influenced the loosening of formal metrical structures in English-language poetry.
Free verse poems have no set meter, which is the rhythm of the words, no rhyme scheme, or any particular structure. Some poets would find this liberating, being able to whimsically change your mind, while others feel like they could not do a good job in that manner. Robert Frost commented that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net."
How to Write Free Verse Poetry
Free verse poems do not follow the rules, and therefore have no rhyme or rhythm; but they are still an artistic expression. They are sometimes thought to be a modern form of poetry; but, the free verse types of poem have been around for hundreds of years.
Here are some examples of free verse poems:
After the Sea-Ship by Walt Whitman
After the Sea-Ship—after the whistling winds;
After the white-gray sails, taut to their spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad, myriad waves, hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship:
Waves of the ocean, bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves—liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,
Where the great Vessel, sailing and tacking, displaced the surface;
Fog by Carl Sandburg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Free Verse by Robert Graves
I now delight
Of the might
And the right
Of classic tradition,
Without let or omission,
Just any little rhyme
In any little time
That runs in my head;
Because, I’ve said,
My rhymes no longer shall stand arrayed
Like Prussian soldiers on parade
Stiff as starch,
Foot to foot,
Boot to boot,
Blade to blade,
Button to button,
Cheeks and chops and chins like mutton.
My rhymes must go
Turn ’ee, twist ’ee,
Feelings, Now by Katherine Foreman
Some kind of attraction that is neither
Animal, vegetable, nor mineral, a power not
Solar, fusion, or magnetic
And it is all in my head that
I could see into his
And find myself sitting there.
Writing Your Own Free Verse Poem
Why not have a go at writing one yourself? There are no rules so you’re free to write whatever you want! Here are a couple of tips to help get you started:
Choose your Words Carefully
Carefully chosen words can help you create a poem that sounds like the situation, emotion, or object you are trying to portray. For instance, short words with sharp consonants cause the reader to stop-and- go in a choppy cadence: Cut, bash, stop, kick, punch, jump, kiss. Use these types of short words when you want to show excitement, fear, anger, new love, or anything that might make your heart beat quickly. Longer words with soft sounds cause the reader to slow down. Use them when you want to show tension, laziness, rest.
Alliteration is a literary device where the first sound in a series of words is the same, like “She sell sea shells". You can use alliteration in free verse to create a particular mood, feeling, or sound to the poem, especially when combined with the right word choice. Alliteration can give your poem a quirky fun feel.
Now that you have some tools, use them to create your own free verse. Before you know it, you’ll be writing free verse just like Walt Whitman!
Poems are wonderful because there are so many different types of poetry. Give the other styles a try too: Limericks are short and sweet, Haiku poetry is classic, to reveal an opinion use the Sonnet poem style, learn the Ballard poem with music, gain confidence by performing the slam poem live or learn about Epic poems. Find your Poetic style!