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Writing Free Verse Poetry: An Overview

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Dave Hood

Most modern and contemporary poets write free verse poetry. Unlike traditional poetry, which is based on a particular metrical pattern and often a rhyme scheme, the free verse poet writes poetry without rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Read any collection of modern or contemporary poetry, and you’ll quickly discover that the poets have composed their poetry as free verse.

Many contemporary poets have written memorable free verse poetry–poems that will stand the test of time. A century from now, readers will view these free verse poems as  works of art. Read the poetry of the poet laureates, such as Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, and you’ll experience something delightful, something memorable. These poets have written poems about anything you can think of, such as war, happiness, death, misery. Here’s a good free verse poem by poet laureate Rita Dove called “Golden Oldie:”

I made it home early, only to get

stalled in the driveway, swaying

at the wheel like the blind pianist caught in tune

meant for more than two hands playing.

The words were easy, crooned

by a young girl dying to feel alive, to discover

a pain majestic enough

to live by. I turned the air-conditioning off,

leaned back to float on a film of sweat,

and listened to the sentiment:

Baby, where did our love go?-a lament

I greedily took in

without a clue who my lover

might be, or where to start looking.

She writes in the first person, shares an anecdote or story, uses the poetic device of allusion, creates a conversational tone with language that all readers can understand. At the end, she shares a universal truth about youth. This poem has meaning. Good free verse poetry has meaning, like an illuminating quotation by a famous person.

In this article, I’ll provide you with an overview of free verse poetry. The following will be covered:

  • Types of free verse
  • Building blocks of free verse
  • Voice and style of the poet

Types of Free Verse

Free verse poets have written about any subject you can imagine. From love, to hate, to death, to a personal experience, to a fleeting moment.  For instance, the poem in the introduction is a narrative. It tells a story. It could also be an anecdote. Once you start reading modern and contemporary poetry, you discover that poets write various types of free verse. Here are some of the most common types:

  1. Narrative poem. The poet tells a story. Often, there is rising action, climax, and resolution, like a short story. The poet composes the narrative by using simile, metaphor, imagery, vivid description, line breaks, and so forth.
  2. Prose poem. The poet uses complete sentences and the techniques of poetry, simile, metaphor, imagery, and vivid description. Stanzas become paragraphs. The language of the poem is lyrical.
  3. Anecdote. The poet describes some incident or experience or event that is humorous or interesting, and ends the poem with some insight. Poets also use anecdotes to illustrate a truth.
  4. Image poem. The poet writes a poem about an image, and relies on language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing to describe the image. The poet also composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth.
  5. Meditative poem. The poet begins by describing a scene. This scene triggers a meditation in the mind of the poet. The poet then returns to the initial scene with better understanding or resolution.  The poet composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth.
  6. Lyrical poem.  A traditional form adopted by many modern/contemporary poets. The poet writes a poem expressing personal thoughts and feelings about an idea, person, experience. The poet uses imagery and description to create a mood. The poet also uses sound effects to make the poem sound lyrical, like music. These sound effects include alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, internal or end rhyme.
  7. Confessional poem. A poem that is autobiographical. The poet writes about personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Instead of looking outward, observing the world, and then writing about it, the poet peers inward to the psyche, writes about the world in relation to themselves. The poet composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth.  See the poetry of Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jane Kenyon.
  8. Elegy. A traditional form adopted by some modern/contemporary poets.   A poem that laments the death of a loved one, such as a friend. The poet composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth. See “Oh Caption! My Caption” by Walt Whitman and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickenson

Building Blocks

Unlike a traditional poem, such as a sonnet or blank verse, where the poet must follow particular rules, such a particular number of lines in a stanza, a particular metrical pattern, and a particular rhyme scheme, the free verse poet can compose a poem in any way he/she desires, without adhering to any rules. However, if the poet aspires to write good poetry, or memorable poetry, or poetry that is worthy of publication, then the poet must follow the conventions and guidelines of free verse poetry. A good free verse poem uses the following building blocks or techniques:

Syntax and grammar. Poets use a variety of syntax, such as fragments, simple sentences, compound sentences, periodic sentences, and  parallel structure.  They follow the rules of punctuation and the rules of grammar.  They use both action verbs and concrete nouns . They write in the active voice instead of the passive voice. (The noun performs the action of the verb.) They use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. (to avoid wordiness and repeating an idea that can be presented by the right verb or right noun.)

Line breaks and Line length. Poets use line breaks such as white space, enjambment, or end-stop (period or comma) to  indicate the reader to pause, to create emphasis, and to create rhythm.  They write short lines to speed up the pace, and long lines to slow down the pace.

Figurative Language. Most good free verse poetry includes simile or metaphor.  A simile makes a comparison using “like” or “as.” A metaphor makes a comparison with “is” or “of” by stating that one thing is another. Example: She  is the devil in disguise. And when required, the poet also includes symbolism and allusion and personification.

Figurative language can make a poem pleasurable to read. It  can clarify meaning. It entertains the reader. It turns the ordinary into something meaningful, something memorable. Often an abstract idea can be made concrete to the reader by using similes or metaphors. Example: Love is a drug….We are addicted to love. In the poem, “Golden Oldies”,  poet Rita Dove uses the technique of allusion to make reference to pop culture. She writes: “Baby, where did our love go?” It is a famous song by The Supremes, who were a popular singing group in the 60’s and early 70’s.

Appropriate word choice or diction. Free verse poets choose words for their meaning (denotation or dictionary meaning), implied meaning (connotation), and sound (rhyme, alliteration, assonance). Example: The boy sat on the soiled sofa/sipped a cold soda/ read a comic book. Most free verse poets use everyday language, words that you’d here in a conversation. The following  poem by Louise Gluck  is a good example of how poets can use everyday language to create a powerful poetry:

Memoir

I was born cautious, under the sign of Taurus.

I grew up on an island, prosperous,

in the second half of the twentieth century;

the shadow of the Holocaust

hardly touched us.

I had a philosophy of love, a philosophy

of religion, both based on

early experience within family.

And if when I wrote I used only a few words

it was because time always seemed to me short

as though it could be stripped away

at any moment.

And my story, in any case, wasn’t unique

though, like everyone else, I had a story,

a point of view.

A few words were all I needed:

nourish, sustain, attack.

Imagery. Good free verse poets use language that appeals to reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing.  The poet uses imagery to show the reader what happened or what the poet experienced with his/her senses. Imagery brings a person, object, image, moment, experience to life. Imagery recreates what the poet experienced or imagined as a the scene in the mind of the reader. Imagery helps to create “word pictures.”

Symbolism. On occasion, the free verse poet uses symbol, metonymy,  or synecdoche. A symbol refers to something other than its literal meaning. Some poets use well-recognized symbols. ( Examples: cross, dove, bible) Others create their own. (A blooming yellow tulip in the garden can be a symbol of birth or springtime.) Metonymy is a figure of speech in which the poet replaces the word of one thing with the word or phrased that is closely associated with it. (Example: Crown instead of Monarch)  A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the poet substitutes the  “part for the whole.” This part or attribute or characteristic is used by the poet to refer to the entire person, place, thing, object, and so forth. (Example:  The teenager purchased a “set of wheels.”  Wheels refer to a car or truck.

Sound Devices. A memorable poem has a pleasing sound when read aloud. This  pleasuring sound is created with particular  poetic devices, such as alliteration (repetition of consonant sound of two or more words on a line or lines) and  assonance (repetition of vowel sounds of two or more words on a line or lines). When required, poets also use onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, or end rhyme. Free verse poetry is meant to be read for its meaning and sound. Both invoke an emotional reaction.

Rhythm.  A good free verse poem has rhythm or beat. This rhyme is based on  the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables on a line. Meter can be part of rhythm. For instance, a poet can include rhythm by using a particular metrical pattern. Though a free verse poem doesn’t have to comply to a metrical pattern, such as iambic pentameter, many modern and contemporary poets rely on  “syllabic meter” to create rhythm.  For instance, the poetic might create a poem in which each line has the same number of syllables.

Poets also use other techniques, such as parallel structure and repetition, to create rhythm.

Line break is also an important way to create rhythm. The poet can use white space, enjambment, or end-stop, such as a period or coma.

Poets also create rhythm by changing the pace. The poet can speed up or slow down the pace of a poem, make it fast or slow,  smooth or interrupted—even irregular by using different lengths of line.   A long line slows down the pace, while a short line speeds up the pace. Usually a longer line has more syllables than a short line.

Point of view. Free verse poetry can be written from different poets of view—first person (“I”), second person (“you”), or third person (“he/she”). Before selecting a point of view, the poet should determine how he/she is going to present the poem to the reader. The poet has two choices: First, the poet can turn inward–and then write about thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Secondly, the poet can turn outward—and write about other people, objects, things, events, topics in the world. If the poet turns inward, to the psyche or self, then the poem is usually written in the first person (“I.”) If the poet turns outward—to view the outside world, the poet can still write in the first person. However, usually the poet writes in the  third person using (“he/she.”)

Sometimes the poet writes in the second-person point of view using  “you.” In this case, the poet is referring directly to the reader. Example: You smoke your cigarette/ You read your paper/You sip your morning coffee/You ponder how another day will unfold/You’ve learned that a day can play out like a football game/ Often you don’t know who will win until the very end.

Sometimes, the poet invents a persona, and then composes a poem as if he were someone else. For instance, the poet might write a poem in the voice of someone dead or alive or famous. Most free verse poems are written in the first-person point of view (“I”), or the third person point of view (“he/she”).

Appealing Voice and Style. Voice and style are used interchangeably. They refer to tone, word choice/diction, and sentence variety. A good poem has a respectful tone, is constructed with everyday language, and a variety of sentence structures, such as fragment, parallel structure, simple sentence, compound sentences, and more. For instance, here is a poem, written by Ted Kooser,  that is like a conversation:

Flying at Night

by Ted Kooser

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.

Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies

like a snowflake falling on the water. Below us

some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,

snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn

back into the little system of his care.

All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,

tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

Voice and Style of the Poet

Whether you write fiction, poetry, personal essays, voice and style refer to the same thing. The most important aspects of style or voice are tone of the writing, word choice, and sentence structure. Every particular writer has a unique voice or style that is expressed on the page.   Voice or style is what the readers hears when they read a writer’s work. Style or voice is developed as the writer gains more experience. In other words, the more the poet writes and learns about poetry, the more polished the style. Favorite poets will have a voice you like. Several elements create the poet’s voice or style. These include:

  • Subject Matter. The subject you choose to write about will contribute to the voice of your poem. For instance, if you desire to write about grief and death, you’ll probably want to use a serious, respectful, melancholy tone.
  • Word Choice. The types of words you choose, the sound of these words, and the meaning of these words will contribute to your voice. A good poet uses everyday language, which can be understood. A good poet also writes poetry that has a pleasing sound when read aloud.
  • Sentence Types. The sentence types you use are part of your voice that you express on the page. You can use different types of sentences, such as a fragment, simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, fragment, and so forth. A short sentence speeds up the pace, where as a longer sentence slows the pace.
  • Grammar.  Poets are told to use the active voice,  concrete and specific details, concrete nouns, and action verbs. Each contributes to the voice of a poem. You should following these suggestions to help create a pleasing voice.
  • Figurative language/Poetic Devices. In part, your  style is determined by the poetic devices you use to create your poems.  You might use alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia to create a particular sound. You might also use simile, metaphor, imagery, symbolism to create an entertaining poetry and to explain. Many poets prefer particular poetic devices over others. Most good free verse uses simile or metaphor.
  • Tone. The tone of the poem is determined by the poet’s attitude toward the reader and the subject. The best tone is friendly, conversational, respectful. Write your poetry as if you’re talking to a friend.
  • Point of View. The personal point of view ( “I”) is more intimate. Use it to write about yourself.  The third person (“he/she”) provides some narrative distance. Use it write about the world around you.
  • Life experience. Every writer is socialized by the world in which he/she lives. Religion, the mass media, education, family, personal experience shape the writers view of the world.

The four most important aspects of  developing style are tone, word choice, sentence variety/syntax, and poetic technique.

Resources

For more information on writing free verse poetry, read the following books:

  • How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
  • A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • The Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit
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3 Comments

  1. Rosanna says:

    This full of wonderful information that can help a trying-to-be-a-poet person like me. Thanks for posting this. Good one!:-)

  2. Rosanna says:

    This is full of information that is useful to a trying-to-be-a-poet like me. Thanks for posting these.

  3. Just wanted to say how much I appreciate someone taking the time to write in depth about free verse. You’re correct – so much modern poetry is written this way – we actually just take it for granted. I’m currently attempting to write a novel in free verse… which is a whole different challenge. Love the work you’re putting in to these posts.

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