Writing Free-Verse Poetry: Examples and Exercises
Can I Write Free-Verse?
Your first thought might be: “Free-verse is free. Just write it.” But writing without form is actually impossible. A pattern will always emerge in rhythm, number of stresses, line length, line breaks or sound. You might as well accept it, find your pattern, and live in it comfortably.
“Open Form” is perhaps a better term for free-verse. The rules of form for your poem just have not been established yet. Through study, thought, and revision you will find what structure is appropriate for the piece of art you are building. You may discover something new you will repeat in later poems.
In the late 19th century, French poets such as Rimbaud and Laforgue broke from traditional metric structures and composed vers libre. Quickly this style was picked up in England by writers like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. “As regarding rhythm,” Pound said, “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.”
Free-verse spread like ivy through the 20th century, sprouting in the works of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. The method has become popular with young writers because of the ease of creation, but should free-verse truly be easy and formless?
Free-verse is not so much a form as it is a lack of form. Unlike metric poetry, it is not slave to a scaffolding of stresses and un-stresses. Unlike accentual poetry, the number of beats is not regulated. Unlike syllabic poetry, the number of syllables is not defined.
What, then, frames a piece of free-verse? It's how the line is broken. A line ending at the author’s choice, and not the end of the page, is essentially the difference between poetry and prose. The line-break, then, is the fundamental tool of the free-verse writer.
You know what I'm going to say: free-write. Whether you're writing about spring, love, death, childhood, paper airplanes or manure, start with free-writing. Fill up some paper with unrestricted thought. Don't pause, erase or tell yourself anything is inappropriate. Just go. Get out all those ideas you have and some ideas you didn't know you had.
And please don't sit down to write a free-verse poem. That part will decide itself. Some people may say they're metric poets or formless poets. I could call myself a syllabic poet, but I won't. I think form is a choice. It's a decision you and your writing will make together.
Now take your best ideas and images. Figure out your basic theme or story. Write a paragraph including your best words and phrases. Read it aloud. When do you pause? Where do your lines end? What words do you want to stand out? Try to end your lines with those. Rewrite this part ending your lines the way you want.
You Can't Escape Structure
Now look at your draft. Scan it. Count the syllables. Circle sounds that repeat. Note any rhymes.
What does this tell you?
Perhaps you have a common number of stresses per line. You may discover a syllabic pattern of long and short lines. Did the words you chose alliterate in a way that compliments your theme? Would rhyme have a role in your finished product?
A pattern will emerge. You can't fight it. An identity will appear.
Now try writing it in a completely different size and shape. If your draft has long lines, break them up. If it has bonding sounds, use synonyms to replace the repeated consonants or vowels. See how that sounds. This is what I call format-shifting. You may find a form that fits better for you this way.
A good free-verse poem, or poem of any kind, should mimic the patterns of human speech. If you listen, we don't speak in sentences. Yes, we can say complete, grammatical sentences, but we pause and accent parts based upon our desired meaning. A good writer is a good listener. Build your verse to sound natural and it will be successful.
Line and Stanza Breaks: Like any well-crafted verse, end your lines with strong words. Know that your reader will pause at line endings and give more importance to what you write there. How you compose your lines on the page is a strong weapon. Group things together like paragraphs in an essay. You may create a loose structure of bunches or leave some lines and words all alone. Use this with power.
Line Length: You can use a pattern of long lines for narration followed by a short, punchy phrase to deliver your point. Your lines might vary wildly in length or have some continuity. It's your thing.
Musical Rhythm: Like the soundtrack to a movie, your beats and cadence will carry your meaning and imagery. Read your piece until you get a feel for your song and build your poem to work with it.
Sound Bonding: You may feel drawn to clanging clashing sounds or mellifluous lullabies. This can be the thread that ties your poem together. Beware not to overuse alliteration, but wield it effectively.
Negative Space: Similar to visual art, understand that the blank page is also an element. Things unsaid and paper unfilled leave room for your reader's imagination to fill. This can go together with long and short lines.
Economy of Language: Does every element contribute to your goal? If an image or turn-of-phrase you love leads the reader into a different story or emotion, cut it out. Keep it for later. Perhaps it is the seed for another project. Keep your lines as brief and tight as possible.
Bunched Stresses: Know where your beats fall and the pattern they create. Despite your desire to be formless, you may discover some iambic rhythm sneaking into your work. Be sure to break it up to suit your purposes. Let some lines and syllables flow by quickly and quietly before inserting a cluster of sharp, hard words to drive home a point.
“No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” T. S. Eliot
Many hobby poets and kids at open mic nights may flock to free-verse because they think building structured poetry is too hard. Free-verse is no easier. Without a specified frame or box to fill, such as a sonnet or haiku, you don't know where to stop or start. Therefore, I declare that free-verse is harder.
You are the master of your own form every time you attempt free-verse. Not only must you choose the best words and place them in the most effective way, you must discover your own building plan. You may find something that works for future writing as well. Once you've written one great open-form poem, recognize its style and repeat it for another poem.
- Take a form poem you've written and break it up. Rewrite it as two very different free-verse poems.
- Free-write descriptively about a scene. Write a free-verse poem with a bright feel. Then rewrite it with a gloomier mood. How do you use sound, line-length, line-breaks and rhythm differently?
- Listen to two people reading the same section of a story. Note where each one pauses and gives emphasis. Write the section of the story two ways, using line-breaks and other free-verse tools to illustrate the different speakers.
- Find a free-verse poem and analyze it. Define it by describing how the author uses syllables, stresses, line-length, line-breaks, sound and other tools.
How do these poems use the tools of free-verse poetry? How would you define each form?
The Last time I Slept in the Bed
by Sara Peters
I was involved in the serious business
of ripping apart my own body.
I’d run my fingers over it,
seeking but never finding
the right point of entry,
so having to tear one myself,
though midway through
I’d always tire,
and let night enter
like a silver needle,
sewing my eyelids shut.
This was not an original practice,
but thinking, for a time, that it was
felt like being able to choose
when spring would arrive:
engineering an April
that opened like a parasol,
even in thoroughest winter.
by Eighty Six
Folded up, sour
My stomach and brain.
When I leave, I go nowhere.
In bed again at noon.
My flattened sheets,
Beige and gray,
Cover me, numb me,
To hide my head,
Sleep or stand,
Shuffle or stomp around,
Drink or spit
And throw the glass.
Back to my low bed,
My fisted empty hands,
And my crushed pillow.
Head back and forth
I ask why like a child.
by Chana Bloch
We remember the rabbit when we see
the duck, but we cannot experience
both at the same time
E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion
WHAT do you remember? When I looked at
his streaky glasses, I wanted
to leave him. And before that? He stole those
cherries for me at midnight. We were walking
in the rain and I loved him.
And before that? I saw him coming
toward me that time at the picnic,
But you loved him? He sat in his room with
the shades drawn, brooding. But you
loved him? He gave me
a photo of himself at sixteen, diving
from the pier. It was summer. His arms
outstretched. And before that?
His mother was combing his soft curls
with her fingers and crying. Crying.
Is that what he said? He put on the straw hat
and raced me to the barn. What did he
tell you? Here’s the dried rose, brown
as tobacco. Here’s the letter that I tore
and pasted. The book of blank pages
with the velvet cover. But do you still
love him? When I rub the nap
backwards, the colors lift,
bristle. What do you mean?
Sometimes, when I’m all alone,
I find myself stroking it.