My favorite poetic assignments were always the free verse poems. After however many weeks of sonnets, blank verse, haikus and other strict forms, it was nice to be able to just spew words.
But after writing more poetry, I’ve found that free verse is just as much of a form as a sonnet even though its rules are “do what you want.” If you want to write whatever you want, just do some free writing with poetic elements. But to write free verse, you still need to be writing poetry.
What distinguishes free verse poetry from other poetry?
The best definition of free verse poetry that I have found reads as follows:
“Free verse uses most of the attributes of structured poetry but in an unstructured way.” – Susan Dugdale
Structured poetry is any poetry that has rules. Rhyme? Rhythm? Line length? Line breaks? Stanzas? If there is a stipulation about how you should write your poem, then it is structured. Free verse breaks from all of these structures and allows you to write however you want.
However, that doesn’t make any writing poetry. In order to be a free verse poem, it still has to have poetic elements, such as:
- Assonance and consonance
- Internal rhyme
When free verse began becoming popular in the 20th century, authors also used the phonetics of words to help move or slow their sentences. Consider how the sounds of consonants or vowels change the flow of a sentence.
Just because free verse doesn’t have solid rules about elements such as rhyme and meter doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to use it in your poem. All it means is that you don’t have to follow those rules in order to classify as free verse.
(Want some examples of high-end free verse poetry? Check out this list.)
Pitfalls of free verse poetry
Not having any rules can make free verse poetry hugely challenging. You can scribble out words in a sequence, and never know whether or not it counts as a poem. Or how good of a poem it is.
It can be deeply challenging to determine your line length and to arrange your words into a natural cadence. It can also be difficult to decide how long your poem needs to be, period. Without any constraints, you get to decide these kinds of details.
Having this much power can either be intimidating or relieving if you haven’t had much experience with poetry. Regardless of how you feel as a poet, give free verse your best try and just see what happens.
How to write a free verse poem
If you’re having trouble getting started, try this:
- Choose a theme. It can be a person, a place, an abstraction, or a story. Just pick something central that will focus your poem.
- Brainstorm words and phrases around your theme. What words do you associate with it? What images are common—can you modify common images in an interesting way?
- Arrange your brainstorm into a poem. Take your words and phrases and write them out. You can follow a cadence, or you can just write straight. After you’ve arranged your brainstorm once, consider starting over and doing it again to see what different ways you connect your ideas.
- Revise. Read your poem out loud. Are there any words that don’t fit? Are there any lines that feel off? Fix them (unless your intent is to make your poem feel like it doesn’t fit or is off). This is a great time to try different words and phrases in different places.
Free verse tips and tricks
Here is a brief list of places to focus on in your writing and revision of your free verse poem.
- Word choice. Try variations of different words, different combos of words in your lines. While you should trust your first instinct, give yourself permission to play with words.
- Line breaks. What word is emphasized at the beginning and end of your lines? How does having longer or shorter lines affect the feel and arrangement of your poem on the page?
- Stanzas. Many free verse poems don’t have stanzas but try breaking up your lines into poetic paragraphs. Try regular stanzas, try irregular stanzas, try no stanzas. Free verse is freeeeeee.
- Imagery. How many senses does your poem engage? If you only find 1 or 2, consider adding more. Make your imagery tactile.
- Title. How does your title interact with the rest of your poem? Does it set up the poem? Does it answer a question from the poem? Is it the critical line of the poem? What purpose does it hold?
What’s been your experience with free verse poetry? Do you prefer to have rules or to be free to make your own choices about your poetry? What advice would you offer a poet revising their free verse poem? Share in the comments!