Free verse

After studying and writing poetry since I was in the third grade, more than fifty years ago, I have come to the conclusion that the more I learn, the more there is to learn. Every time I turn around, I discover another form or type of poetry. Some of the ways I have tried; others I decided not to use or examine too closely (the names alone sounded like diseases). I use free verse most often in my writing because it gives me the freedom to explore word usage, theme, and imagery that structured forms cannot.

“But how do you write free verse?” someone asks “I thought poetry had to rhyme and have a certain number of syllables in each line.”

No, free verse may have some rhyme, but rhyme is not required. Any free verse rhyme cannot have an outline or pattern, and free verse cannot have a pattern of fixed numbers of syllables in its lines. However, not having a rhythmic pattern does not mean that free verse does not have its own flow. It does, but not just any kind of pattern.

Here are two examples of free verse, one with some rhyme, one without.

With rhythm (note that the rhythm used has no pattern or scheme):


Every life has a room

where memories are stored

A box of special occasions here,

Shelves of shared laughter there.

But back in the shadows

A well-closed trunk lurks,

It should not be opened and registered.

There the disappointments hide

that darken every heart.

Promises made in the past

It was never meant to be saved,

They still throb with the pain inflicted.

Hopes, shattered like glass

Thrown against a stone wall,

leave bread slivers

That never fully heals.

Dark despair drowns everything,

When disappointment calls.

I can share my memories

remembered with joy,

But the disappointments

Get to be all mine.

But there are so many

A life of broken items

or things that disappear.
So I ask, please don’t promise

Unless you move on.

(Copyright 2004 by Vivian Gilbert Zabel)

Without rhythm:

fantasy or life

So many times you say you love me

Yet apparently you don’t know

I can’t live in the fog of fantasy

Always in the fuzzy drug of dreams.

I need the clear and sharp light

Found in the realm of day reality,

Not the darkness of mere existence.

Come with me from the still shadows

To the brimming brilliance of both

Dance and walk, walk and run,

The never dullness of movement,

Of songs and lullabies, of tears and smiles.

Live real life just sprinkle

With dreams only occasionally.

So many lies beyond your reach

If all you seek is cloud wisdom,

Without anything daring or expected.

Come out from behind the walls of doubt

And find me waiting expectantly

With arms outstretched,

As I welcome you to abundant life.

(Copyright 2005 by Vivian Gilbert Zabel

“So,” continues the questioner, “anything that looks like poetry is free verse?”

Not exactly, friend. (Yes, I know it’s a snippet, but snippets can be used to effect.) Writing any type of poetry means that poetic language and resources are used. Poetry and prose not only appear different on the page or on the screen, they sound different. Poetry is more concise and precise, reduced to exact and concentrated images.

“I’m lost.” The interrogator frowns in confusion.

Ok, how about an example? Teachers always have folders and files full of examples. Let’s look at some very short prose first (prose is written material that is not poetry):

The church stood tall on the hill while dominating the community. Its bell resounded in the clear morning air, calling people to come and worship. Soon the pews were filled and the music soared to heaven as family and friends joined in thanksgiving.

The paragraph is not poetry, but it could become poetry without worrying about rhyme or meter (rhythm). However, simply writing the same words and sentences in little bits of lines is not the same as poetry; although, the wording is quite poetic in a way.

First, let’s see what kind of poetic devices we could use: alliteration (the repetition of the initial sounds used for effect), since we can see church and community already in the paragraph, as well as clear, called, come. If we use all of those words, correctly together, we have alliteration.

Next, what can we use as a metaphor (the comparison of different things saying that one is the other) or simile (the comparison of different things saying that one is like the other)? We could compare the church to something or the bell to something. The church, like a guardian, watched over the community; the bell, clamorous messenger, lines up its call.

Perhaps we can insert an oxymoron (using contradictory terms, together, for effect). Living death is an oxymoron. Heavenly sin is another. What could we use in this poem that we are going to write? Since we’re talking about a community of people coming together and we’re mentioning family and friends, what about something like friendly enemies? Or maybe that’s not a good example, we’ll see.

Now we have some ideas that we can use in our free verse poem. Notice that we haven’t tried to put together rhymes or choose a pattern of syllables because we don’t care. We want to express our ideas and poetic meanings.

Like a benign guardian,

the church sits on a hill,

taking care of the community below.

The bell, a messenger who cries,

resound his call to all

through the crystal clear air

of the morning light.

What do we have so far? I see alliteration, metaphor and similes, without rhyme or rhythmic scheme. Thus we have the beginning of a free verse poem. Let’s continue.

The pews fill up as the music grows,

sending songs to heaven.

friends and ken reunite

to worship and rejoice,

grateful that for a day

friendly enemies can forget

any mistrust or discord.

We find more alliteration and our oxymoron in that stanza. There is no rhythm yet, but there could be if we wanted, as long as we don’t set a pattern. Any line that has the same meter or number of syllables is accidental, not a pattern or outline.

Oh, one last comment, free verse doesn’t mean you don’t use proper punctuation or capitalization. While searching for examples of free verse, I found many that had no punctuation (causing ideas and thoughts to come together) and no capitalization, which distracts from the meaning.

I hope I have helped you understand a little more about writing free verse. Give it a try and see what you can create.

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