Definition of Free Verse
Free verse is a type of poetry that does not contain patterns of rhyme or meter. Free verse is considered an open form of poetry, as opposed to poetry written in structure or form, and tends to follow natural speech patterns and rhythms. While some rhyme and rhythm may occur in free verse poems, the poet does not adhere to strict patterns. However, this not does imply that free verse has no guiding principles. Indeed, free verse generally contains poetic lines and poetic imagery that distinguish it from prose.
Difference Between Free Verse and Blank Verse
While “blank verse” sounds like it could be very similar to the definition of free verse, there is one key difference. Blank verse is written with strict poetic meter, usually in iambic pentameter, without rhyme at the end of the line. Free verse, on the other hand, contains no such adherence to a regular rhythm while also maintaining an absence of rhyme scheme.
Common Examples of Free Verse
While free verse is technically only a term that applies to poetry, it is very closely associated to natural speech patterns. Many famous speeches have excerpts that could be turned into free verse poems. For example, consider the following excerpt from Winston Churchill’s famous 1940 speech to House of Commons:
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
Due to the poetic use of imagery and the repetitive tool of anaphora, Churchill’s speech could easily be turned into a free verse poem with the addition of enjambment.
Significance of Free Verse in Literature
Free verse has been a growing trend in poetry over the last one hundred years or so, to the extent that it is now difficult to find much contemporary poetry being written in any other format. There were some free verse poems written before the 1800s, especially in other languages. In English, however, the first famous practitioners of free verse were nineteenth-century authors such as Walt Whitman and Matthew Arnold. They later influenced free verse poets such as Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Most poets now eschew rhyme and strict rhythm in favor of the more open possibilities of free verse.
Examples of Free Verse in Literature
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)
Walt Whitman was one of the early masters of free verse in the English language, and inspired a myriad of poets after him. In this famous example of free verse, “Song of Myself,” Whitman employs several other poetic techniques such as frequent repetition and unique turns of phrase. In just this short excerpt we can see the repetition of several words—“myself,” “assume,” and “loafe”—as well as the anaphora of beginning several lines with the word “I.” Whitman is able to create his own poetic form even while shedding previous notions of form behind him.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
(“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg)
Allen Ginsberg is one of those poets who took Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as inspiration, and created his free verse poem “Howl” with similar constructs. There is no rhyme at all in Ginsberg’s poem, and certainly no strict meter. Ginsberg instead uses long melodic lines that follow the natural patterns of speech. He employs some repetition in this poem further on by starting most new poetic images with the word “who.” By breaking free of earlier formal traditions, Ginsberg creates a poem with its own unique energy.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
(“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams)
William Carlos Williams is particularly famous for his use of free verse, and this poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is often taught as exemplary of a new minimalist aesthetic. There is so little to the poem—not even capital letters or punctuation—that some have wondered whether it can be called a poem at all. Williams certainly makes no use of rhyme or rhythm. However, the simple images and the open question of how “so much depends” on the red wheelbarrow create a strong impression on most readers. Williams was able to create a sublime and poetic piece out of the most basic of material.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
(“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich)
Adreinne Rich’s beautiful poem “Diving into the Wreck” is a long example of free verse. She uses simple language to explore the difficult concept of human relations. She also employs an extended metaphor of diving into a shipwreck as a corollary to understanding what went wrong in a relationship. In this excerpt, Rich the key poetic techniques of repetition, enjambment, and imagery to propel the reader forward and examine her themes. Like in all free verse, Rich uses no rhyme or strict rhythm.
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
(“The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz)
Of all of these examples of free verse, “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz is the most reminiscent of natural speech. Kunitz does not use many traditional poetic techniques, such as repetition or obvious metaphor. Yet the subtle metaphors in this free verse poem are what make it so memorable. Kunitz purportedly can “hear” his father “thumping” and later, in the heartbreaking conclusion, can “feel” his cheek “still burning.” Of course, Kunitz cannot literally hear or feel these things, but the subtle shifts in perspective from quite literal to metaphorical are what make the poem stand out.
Test Your Knowledge of Free Verse
1. Which of the following statements is the best free verse definition?
A. Free verse is a type of poetry written in iambic pentameter that contains no rhyme scheme.
B. Free verse is a type of poetry that contains no rhyme scheme or metrical rhythm.
C. Free verse is a type of poetry written with a strict rhyme scheme yet no rhythmical pattern.
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2. Based on these excerpts, which of the following poems by Robert Frost is an example of free verse?
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
(“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
(“Acquainted with the Night”)
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
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3. Is it possible to find contemporary poetry written in free verse?
A. Yes, this is the predominant form in which poetry is now written.
B. Yes, but it is uncommon.
C. No, contemporary poetry eschews free verse in favor of strict rhyme and rhythm patterns.
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