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What Is Free Verse?

    what is free verse

    Free verse is the perfect poetic form for those who like to bend—or totally break—the rules. It introduces you to a world where the words flow naturally and rhythm dances to its own tune, creating a poetic masterpiece that is totally unique. Want to learn more? Everything you need to know about free verse is right here.

    Free Verse Definition

    Free verse is a type of poetry that does not adhere to any fixed form—aka, it breaks the rules of more traditional poetic forms. Unlike more structured poetic forms, such as sonnets and haikus, free verse isn’t under the constraints of length and specified meter and rhyme scheme patterns.  Free from the traditional rules, writers can focus more on the diction, imagery, and emotional impact of their poems. As a result, free verse poems can mirror natural speech and thought.

    Does that mean a free verse poem can’t rhyme or doesn’t have rhythm? Not one bit! It just means that the positioning of rhymes and the overall flow are up to the writer to determine. Therefore, poets use features like line breaks and literary techniques like alliteration and assonance to create a unique form that suits their poem’s content and purpose.

    How to Pronounce Free Verse

    Pronouncing “free verse” is straightforward: FREE VURS, ending with a short /s/ sound. 

    Deep Dive: Characteristics of Free Verse Poetry

    Okay, so if free verse poetry doesn’t have to follow any specific form, meter, and rhyme scheme, what does it have? How do poets create compelling pieces that bring this form to life?

    Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics that help create unique poems that still sound good:

    Lack of Predictability

    Free verse poetry is defined by its lack of predictability, as it does not follow a predictable rhyme pattern or meter. Instead, the poet can focus more on the natural flow of language and select words based solely on meaning and impact. There is no need to think of which words rhyme or to pay attention to where there is a stressed or unstressed syllable.

    The absence of a set rhyme scheme and meter allows poets to create their own sense of rhythm, which guides the reader’s experience and enhances meaning.

    Variable Form

    Without the need to conform to a specific poetic form, each free verse poem has a unique structure. Poets can experiment with line breaks and stanza arrangements. There are no rules here, allowing the writer and words to dictate the cadence and flow through intentional line breaks.

    When it comes to line breaks, many poets play around with enjambment for specific effects. This is a poetic technique where a sentence, phrase, or thought runs over from one line to the next without a punctuated pause. It is meant to enhance the poem’s rhythm, flow, and meaning.

    Word Choice

    Word choice helps convey meaning, establish tone and mood, develop rhythm, and craft powerful images. Poets often rely on figurative language and descriptive writing to bring their free-form poems to life with a sense of rhythm and flow.

    Diving deeper into word choice, poets often rely heavily on vivid imagery to convey meaning and emotion. Therefore, they often use descriptive writing to paint a particular picture in the reader’s mind. To add a deeper meaning to their work, poets use symbolism and metaphors, choosing words that carry connotations beyond their literal meanings to add more depth.

    Understanding the Difference: Free Verse vs. Prose

    While free verse poetry and prose both follow a more free-form structure, they aren’t the same. Prose is a form of written or spoken language that follows the natural flow of speech and grammatical structure. In the literary world, prose is used to craft works of fiction, including novels and short stories, and non-fiction. That said, you can find prose in everything from advertisements and academic essays to journalism and everyday language.

    Prose tends to reflect the language and flow of everyday speech, while free verse poetry often uses more complex or figurative poetic language and imagery. Perhaps the most notable difference, however, is that free verse is broken up with deliberate line breaks and stanzas for structure and emphasis. Conversely, prose follows a more conventional grammatical structure, often written as complete sentences and paragraphs.

    What happens when you combine prose and poetry? Prose poems. These are similar to free verse poems but are written without line breaks and stanzas. Essentially, it’s like a poem in paragraph form.

    Free Verse vs. Blank Verse

    While neither free verse nor blank verse poetry follows a specific set of rhyming conventions, blank verse does have one constraint that free verse doesn’t: meter. Blank verse is written in iambic pentameter. That means that each line has ten syllables broken down into five metrical feet, or iambs. Each foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. When put together, the iambic pentameter creates the following rhythmic pattern: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. You can find an example of blank verse in the famous “To Be or Not to To” monologue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    Long story short, while authors have complete autonomy over the form of a free verse poem, those writing in blank verse must follow an established metrical pattern.

    Why Do Writers Use Free Verse?

    One of the main draws of free verse poetry is the creative freedom it gives writers, allowing them more control over the rhythm and form the poem takes. Instead of following strict rules around meter, rhyme, and form, poets can experiment with diction, line breaks, and other poetic devices to explore more complex emotions and human experiences.

    In many ways, free verse has become the “norm” in poetry. While poets like Walt Whitman began exploring the poetic form in the 19th century, it gained popularity in the 20th century with the modernist movement and poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. During this time, writers yearned to break free from the constraints of more traditional storytelling and formulaic poetic forms. Instead, they focused on more natural expression with flexible form—and it stuck.

    Now, don’t be fooled. Free verse poetry is still very much poetry. It can be complicated and convoluted for some students. After all, it is still filled with poetic elements and devices, providing a lyrical and emotionally moving quality to the literary form. The biggest difference? Writers have more control over which elements they use and when and how they use them, allowing them to develop an authentic voice that explores big ideas in a unique way.

    How to Write Free Verse Poetry

    Given the freedom of this poetic form, it can feel ironically intimidating to write. Here are a few basic steps to help students get started with writing their own free-verse poetry:

    1. Choose a Subject: Start with a topic, emotion, idea, or theme that inspires you. Having a clear subject will provide a sense of direction and focus.
    2. Brainstorm: Jot down words, phrases, and descriptions that come to mind when thinking about the chosen subject. Rather than worrying about structure and flow, simply write whatever comes to mind. Lists, phrases, or paragraphs are totally fine.
    3. Find Your Favorites: Review the brainstorming, circling words, phrases, descriptions, or complete sentences that inspire you most. These will be the foundation for your free verse poems.
    4. Craft Sentences: Develop your narrowed brainstorm into prose. Turn words into descriptive sentences. Try to capture emotion and imagery through intentional word choice and figurative language.
    5. Play with Structure and Form: Break your prose into lines and stanzas, looking for ways to enhance the meaning and rhythm of the words. Play with different line lengths, spacing, and punctuation.
    6. Revise and Refine: Edit the poem for clarity, impact, and flow. You may find yourself returning to one of the steps above as you refine your poem.

    Follow these fool-proof steps and ta-da! You’ve written a free-verse poem.

    Tips for Teaching Free Verse Poetry

    • Start with Definitions: Introduce poetic terms and devices important to understanding free verse to help build a strong foundation for discussing and analyzing poetry.
    • Show a Variety of Examples: To showcase the form’s versatility, expose students to a diverse selection of free verse poems by different authors and time periods.
    • Play with Line Breaks: Experiment with creating new line break structures in poems, discussing how changing the placement can impact the poem’s flow, meaning, and overall delivery.
    • Point Out Poetic Devices: Identify and discuss the poetic devices used in free verse poems, highlighting how they contribute to the poem’s meaning and overall effect.
    • Discuss Impact: Facilitate guided discussions to support students’ understanding, encouraging them to think critically about structure, word choice, and use of poetic devices.
    • Compare and Contrast: Comparing and contrast free verse with other poetic forms, discussing the different structural elements and how constraints (or lack thereof) shape the poem.
    • Utilize Multimedia: Play audio recordings of poems so students can listen to the natural flow and impact line breaks and language have on rhythm and emotional impact.
    • Practice Writing: Encourage students to write their own free verse poetry, encouraging them to experiment with language, structure, and style.

    Examples of Free Verse Poetry

    1. “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.

    Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” is a classic example of free verse poetry. Sandburg plays with short and precise lines and vivid imagery to reflect the quiet and mysterious nature of fog. The poem flows naturally, using everyday language and line breaks to craft a poem that somehow moves slowly yet quickly, just as the fog does. Though only six lines, the poem uses concise yet descriptive language, inviting his readers to the experience of witnessing morning fog.

    2. “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

    What happens to a dream deferred?

          Does it dry up

          like a raisin in the sun?

          Or fester like a sore—

          And then run?

          Does it stink like rotten meat?

          Or crust and sugar over—

          like a syrupy sweet?

          Maybe it just sags

          like a heavy load.

          Or does it explode?

    Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” also known as “A Dream Deferred,” is a powerfully poignant example of free verse poetry. The poem’s free verse structure enables Hughes to create tension through vivid imagery and rhetorical questions that engage the reader directly. Each metaphor is broken into two lines, representing the fragmented dreams they represent and creating a sense of tension that adds to the overall impact of the poem. Between the poem’s strong metaphors and intentional line breaks, each line holds immense emotional weight, emphasizing Hughes’ words and overall message.

    Looking for more Langston Hughes? Access my complete poetry analysis of Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”

    3. “Blizzard” by William Carlos Williams


    years of anger following

    hours that float idly down —

    the blizzard

    drifts its weight

    deeper and deeper for three days

    or sixty years, eh? Then

    the sun! a clutter of

    yellow and blue flakes —

    Hairy looking trees stand out

    in long alleys

    over a wild solitude.

    The man turns and there —

    his solitary track stretched out

    upon the world.

    In his free verse poem “Blizzard,” Williams depicts a blustering wintery scene using a direct tone and precise language. While some take the poem to be a powerful depiction of a winter storm, the open-ended nature of the free verse poem leaves others to interpret it as a metaphor for a man’s sense of isolation. In either case, Williams replaced uniformity and constraints with powerful language and fragmented lines to represent the immense power and unpredictability of nature. This free-form structure enhances the vivid imagery throughout, allowing the reader to experience the storm as it develops.

    More Resources for Teaching Poetry and Free Verse

    Explore five poetic forms, including free verse, with my writing poetry lesson plan,

    Access my complete 4-week middle school poetry unit.

    Dive into the history of free verse poetry with this article.

    Review 10 classic examples of free verse poetry here.

    Keep students engaged with these video resources:

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