An Introduction to Free Verse Poetry
What is free verse poetry?
Free verse poetry is difficult to define because, as Mary Oliver writes, “Free verse is still in its developmental stages…The rules are not yet set in stone, or even in clay.”(68) It is a creative form of writing, meant to do more than simply convey information. Like all poetry, free verse is meant to impart an experience. Being free from any one particular structure gives it much flexibility as a genre. This is one of its greatest advantages in conveying a sensory and emotional experience.
Situations and Audience
Why write it? Who reads it?
Free verse poetry appears in many diverse situations. It is published in popular magazines, in anthologies, and in chapbooks. It is often quoted in speeches and essays. In addition to being published, free verse poetry is read aloud at formal poetry readings, at poetry slams (i.e., competitions for spoken word poetry), and as a part of other public speaking events.
The audience for free verse poetry is also greatly varied. A vast amount of free verse poetry is written for adults; however, free verse poetry is also sometimes directed at children. For example, Highlights Magazine publishes free verse poetry for children, in addition to metered poems. Unlike metered poetry, free verse poetry has never been considered only for the highly educated. People from all geographic and socio-economic levels read and listen to free-verse poetry, and have done so since its inception.
What is free verse poetry about?
The content of free verse poetry has no restrictions. Anything can be included in a free verse poem. Rafael Campo, a practicing doctor of internal medicine and award wining poet, writes about his experiences as a doctor. In his series of free verse poems, “Ten Patients, and Another,” he begins each section with a general assessment of the patient. Section IX begins, “A twenty-one-year-old white man brought it/ By ambulance – in hypertensive shock,” (65). Earl Braggs, a professor at theUniversity ofTennessee atChattanooga, writes about an entirely different experience in his poem, “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy.” It begins, “Everyone around these parts still hopes/ Niel Young remembers/ a southern man don’t need him around, anyhow// here comes Dwight poured into a pair of Levi’s…” (60) Campo is imparting his experience as a doctor, contrasting cold terminology with intense situations. Braggs is imparting the experience of a night inNashville. What these two poems have in common, is that they contain more than information. In fact, much specific information is missing; however there are many sensory details which highlight the experience.
Although there is nothing a free verse poem can’t have in it, everything in the poem should go to enhancing the experience. One of the most common ways to enhance the experience of a poem is by adding concrete sensory details. Also, although there is no rule that says abstract concepts can’t be explicitly mentioned in a poem, generally free-verse poetry avoids explicit mentions of abstract concepts. An excellent free verse poem can convey an abstract idea through the presentation of only concrete and specific things.
Should free verse poetry use a specific type of words?
Like content, anything goes in terms of word choice. Cynthia Reeg uses simple words of one or two syllables in her free verse poem for children, “My friend says you can’t touch the stars/ but I say you can. ‘Cause I can stretch up, and up, and up into the inky night…”(5) This is in contrast with Campo’s use of longer more technical words such as, “hypertensive,” as quoted above (65).
Despite the variety in word choice, this is a very important part of free verse poetry. All the words in a free verse poem are chosen for a specific reason. In an excellent free verse poem there should be no extraneous words. Each word should convey not only information but a tone and a feeling.
In many, but not all, free verse poems words are chosen for sound or rhythm qualities. Although there is no particular meter or rhyme scheme in a free verse poem, these elements are still present. Braggs’ “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy,” is a great example of sound and rhythm in free verse poetry. The sixth stanza reads, “…City in a pocketbook U.S.A. Hillbillies her live in the hills./ Rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls walk around/ downtown wearing boots and black tight jeans…”(60) There are a lot of “i” sounds and “ou” sounds in this stanza. The front part of the stanza is filled with two syllable words and the last part has all one syllable words. This gives a certain music to the poem, although it does not have a standard meter or rhyme pattern.
Ultimately, all of the words in a free verse poem should be chosen to create or reinforce a cohesive tone. This is part of what sets excellent free verse poetry aside from mediocre free verse poetry.
Is it okay to leave out punctuation? Is it okay to include punctuation?
Sentences in free verse poetry can be long and complicated, short and simple, or not even complete sentences. The poem, “Stone Fruit,” by Cate Marvin has no punctuation. The first two lines read, “A train ran along the track its pale embankment / by a building with a hundred balconies as blue as false / blue eyes are…”(223).
The important thing to realize about sentence structure, or the lack thereof, in free verse poetry is that it should always be purposeful. If there is a lack of punctuation, or if a punctuation mark is used improperly, it should add something to the poem. If it doesn’t add to the tone of the poem or the meaning of the poem in some way then it shouldn’t be done. Mediocre free verse poetry occasionally breaks with traditional sentence structure for no apparent purpose. Excellent free verse poems have sentences that are structured in such a way that most readers can easily comprehend the intent of the author.
Point of View
Does it matter?
Free verse poetry is written in all points of view. Susan Aizenberg’s, “For the Dark Girl,” (7) is written in the third person while her poem “In the Frame,”(8) is written in first person. Deborah Bogen’s poem, “To See for Yourself,” is in the second person and begins, “You’ll need a bone saw, and a skull chisel,/ a scalpel and scissors. You’ll need/…”
The first person poem puts the reader in the mind of a character. The third person point of view works well in narrative poems, which many free verse poems are. Second person is a less common point of view in free verse poetry. Sometimes less than excellent free verse poetry uses second person point of view as a way talk at the reader. Excellent free verse poetry uses second person point of view to pull the reader into the poem as a main character, as “To See for Yourself” does, or it uses a different point of view.
Organization of Content
Can a group of randomly chosen words be thrown together can called poetry? If there is structure is it still free verse?
In her book, A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver addresses the structure and organization of free verse poetry very well. She writes, “Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design.”(67) Excellent free verse poetry shows purposeful and clear structure, but the exact type of structure varies greatly. It often has a narrative organization. Sometimes it is organized as a letter. Other times it is organized as a list.
Most free verse poetry is broken into lines and divided into stanzas, like other types of poetry. Lines might be end-stopped, that is they might break where there is a period or comma, or there might be enjambment, meaning the sentence flows over the break. Stanzas can be similarly structured. Usually, a stanza break occurs when there is a new idea or a shift in focus within the poem.
There is no standard in how free verse poetry looks on the page. It tends to look much like other types of poetry, but quite often it takes on other forms. Marvin’s, “Stone Fruit,” looks like a long paragraph with random spaces between the words. Excellent free verse poetry looks on the page the way it feels. It should be formed in the way it is intended to be read. Short lines are read faster and feel faster. Long lines are read slower and feel slower.
The purpose of free verse poetry is to communicate an experience. It is to impart to the reader what it is like to feel, see, or do something, without the emotional distance that comes from a prose description. The flexibility in the structure of free verse poetry allows for more breadth and depth of emotion; but, flexibility in structure means that structure is used more, not entirely ignored.
An entire lack of structure and design is the downfall of any free verse poem. Too many abstractions and vague descriptions also take away from the poem. Excellent free verse poetry is built on purposeful word choice, sensory details, concrete images, and a visual design which reflects the cohesive tone of the writing.
Aizenberg, Susan. “For the Dark Girl.” Walsh. 7
---. “In the Frame.” Walsh. 8
Bogen, Deborah. “To See for Yourself.” Poetry Daily. 4 Sept. 2010 The Gettysburg Review. 11 Oct. 2010 http://poems.com/poem.php?date=14857
Braggs, Earl. “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy.” Walsh. 60-62
Campo, Rafael. “Ten Patients, and Another.” Walsh. 64-65.
Marvin, Cate. “Stone Fruit.” Walsh. 223
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook.Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1994. Print.
Reeg, Cynthia. “Reaching for the Stars.” Highlights Magazine. Nov. 2008: 5. Print.
Walsh, ed. Under the Rock Umbrella.Macon,Georgia:MercerUniversity Press, 2006. Print.
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