Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes



Free Verse

(compare formal verse)


Walt Whitman (1819-92)
engraving from first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855),

collection of poetry that "freed verse"
(Whitman as a professional printer / journalist self-published this edition.)

Free verse is so familiar in modern lyric poetry that its techniques are often ignored or taken for granted, but recognizing its techniques helps learn . . .

why free verse is not just prose with broken-up lines

how to tell good free verse from bad free verse

poetic devices (metaphor, symbols, catalogs, etc.) that may appear either in free or formal verse.

Essential question: Is free verse only broken-up prose? If regular meter and rhyme are avoided, is free verse still poetry? If so, how?

The rigors of free verse are less evident than those of fixed or formal verse, but for more than a century readers have accepted that free verse is a poetic style—in fact the dominant poetic style or default form most major poets now use.

Rhymes or not?

Free verse by definition operates without metrical lines and end-rhymes, preferring natural rhythms of speech to those imposed by external forms.

If free verse rhymes at all, its rhymes will more likely be internal rhymes or half-rhymes instead of end-rhymes. But any rhymes in free verse are meant to seem natural, accidental or opportunistic rather than required or fixed.

Modern dictum: Form follows function. Instead of fixed forms that dictate the terms of the poem, free verse follows the Modernist dictum that form follows function: form results or rises naturally from the poem’s contents. Instead of an artificial or predetermined pattern, free verse ideally adapts to, conforms to, or reflects the thought or impulse of the poem (mimesis), instead of tailoring the thought to fit the form. In terms developed by the Romantic poet Coleridge, poetic form should be organic rather than mechanical.

Downside to free verse:

If lyric poems were originally songs that were memorized with the aid of meter and rhyme, what happens to poetry when these musical qualities are lost?

In giving up artificial forms, free verse sacrifices much of the musical flavor of formal poetry and also many traditional standards by which poetry is judged successful or not. When free verse works, however, its pleasures seems to appear in a wholly new form that it has created on the spot for itself.

Also free verse is decidedly more difficult to memorize than formal verse, with its mnemonic devices of rhythm and rhyme.

What's left when rhythm (meter) and rhyme are lost?

Apart from meter, rhyme, and regular stanzas, free verse may retain many of the other devices that defamiliarize language in such a way that it gains fresh new beauty and meaning:

images and image clusters;

figures of speech including metaphor, anaphora, irony, catalog, and personification;

idioms;

alliteration and assonance;

symbols

graphic elements including spacing, enjambment, and mechanics like punctuation and capitalization (or their absence).

Altogether free verse should retain and even extend the intensity, strangeness, or uniqueness of traditional poetry.

Another distinguishing feature of free verse is the stress put on the development of the line.

“The Mighty Line” was a feature of dramatic poetry as far back as Shakespeare, but free verse offers new opportunities for development of this poetic unit. Since free verse has no predetermined length of line, each line must invent itself to meet the needs of the poem and the reader at that unique moment.

An essential outcome is often the aesthetic arrangement of the lines, as in William Carlos Williams’s brief imagistic poem, “This is Just to Say."

Or this excerpt from Williams’s poem, “To Elsie.”

Historic Background for Free Verse

Free verse was only a matter of time after 1800, when the Romantic poet William Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads wrote, “The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men . . . ,” and that “the language of Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry.”

In the following 50 years a number of poets such as Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) experimented with prose poems rich in metaphor, natural rhythms, and imagery: 

A Port is a delightful place of rest for a soul weary of life's battles. The vastness of the sky, the mobile architecture of the clouds, the changing coloration of the sea, the twinkling of the lights, are a prism marvelously fit to amuse the eyes without ever tiring them. The slender shapes of the ships with their complicated rigging, to which the surge lends harmonious oscillations, serve to sustain within the soul the taste for rhythm and beauty. . . .

Aside from poets’ inclination to experiment with language, the greatest factor contributing to the development of free verse was the industrial expansion of printing presses, which had changed little from the time of Gutenberg to the time of Benjamin Franklin. In the mid-1800s, however, presses powered by coal and steam began producing more magazines and books of all kinds for an increasingly literate population. Just as most people today think it essential to become computer-literate, people then were becoming print-literate. Leading the expansion of printing were best-selling novels by women such as Elizabeth Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-2).

In this historical context appeared a former printer and a newspaper editor who set print for a book of his own free-verse poems that would revolutionize poetry.

On July 4, 1855, in New York City, Walt Whitman declared the independence of poetry from inherited forms by self-publishing the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which he planned to read aloud on a speaking tour to inspire the common people of the United States to embrace the freedom and opportunity their lives allowed. Whitman ended up giving away most of the copies of Leaves of Grass, and common people rarely developed a taste for Whitman’s bold, raw, sensual poetry, but Emerson saw the extraordinary value of this new kind of poetry, and by the time Whitman died in 1992 leading poets in England such as Tennyson and Swinburne recognized or imitated the changes initiated by this American poet, the founder of free verse.

By the early 20th Century the great majority of leading American and English poets were writing primarily in free verse, though Robert Frost would compare the style to “playing tennis without a net.” In the early 20th century free verse stands as the default style of serious poetry, though the New Formalist movement has attempted to re-orient new poets to traditional forms.

Aside from the appearance and form of poetry, the greatest change wrought by free verse is that, even though it may live in the voices of its authors or admirers who speak it aloud at poetry readings, free verse lives on the page and not in the memories of poetry lovers. It’s possible to memorize free verse, but the uniqueness or quirkiness of its forms and the absence of rhyme and meter deprive it of the mnemonic devices whereby earlier generations memorized verse, though we can still sing the words to our favorite songs.

example of Modernist architecture: "form follows function"

Examples of Free Verse

e e cummings, "[who's most afraid of death?]"

William Carlos Williams, "This is Just to Say"