“The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.” ~”The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays” by W. H. Auden, (“Writing”), (p. 22), 1962.
Recently, I had a conversation about free verse poetry with a co-worker of mine. My co-worker mentioned that he struggles with reading free verse because, as he said, “a lot of it doesn’t even feel like poetry.” Too often, this form comes across as stream-of-consciousness writing or as simple prose chopped up into short lines. There’s nothing inherent in this poetic form that automatically signals it’s difference from prose. The writer has to be the one to define the poem’s shape, tone, and rhythm without the aid of traditional meter and rhyme schemes. While many see free verse as easy to write due to it’s lack of structure, it can actually be more difficult to write well.
Free verse takes just as much skill as other forms. It uses many of the same tools, such as alliteration, repetition, or figurative language. Just like traditional poems, free verse requires finding precisely the right words to share it’s meaning in fresh and impactful ways. The biggest difference is that instead of following an established pattern, free verse poets have to make their own mold, which is a challenge in itself.
In this way, I see free verse poetry as akin to abstract art. Abstract artists use their own unique styles to express themselves in new forms. Their non-traditional work sometimes causes casual bystanders to question the validity of their art. Not everyone recognizes how much skill goes into paintings such as Jackson Pollock’s or Mark Rothko’s. Not everyone appreciates art that doesn’t have a clear meaning. Sometimes people think of free verse and abstract art as having less value because they look easier than their tradition counterparts.
What we as readers and observers need to understand, though, is that the form doesn’t define the skill of an artist. The skill of the artist breathes life into the form. Bad poetry is bad, whether a sonnet or spoken word. And great poetry is no less great for being free verse.
So What Characterizes Good Free Verse Poetry?
While free verse poetry can be just as powerful as other forms, we have to acknowledge that bad free verse also exists (sometimes in high volume). Even great poets usually started by writing what Auden dubs “squalor”. So what distinguishes the impressive poems from the ‘dirty sheets on an unmade bed’? What do the mediocre poems lack? The answer can be found in Ezra Pound’s three essential elements of poetry: phanopoeia (the image), melopoeia (the music), and logopoeia (the meaning). Each of these three elements work together to give the poem its strength. Let’s take them one by one.
1: Phanopoeia-The Image
In most poetry, imagery plays a vital role in creating meaning. Objects become metaphors to discuss common subjects in new ways. Descriptions of natural settings shape the tone of the work. The images capture moments, emotions, and ideas, and in doing so, they invite the reader into the poetic space. Good free verse is no exception. It will almost always utilize images in an impactful way.
For example, lets look at the first verse of E.E. Cumming’s “as freedom is a breakfastfood.”
2: Melopoeia-The Music
The second, and possibly the hardest, element of good free verse to conquer is the music. Ezra Pound in his essay “A Retrospect” encourages poets, “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” His point is that the music of the poem should be built on more than just the beats played out in the meter. He goes on to say in “A Few Don’ts“,
Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint and all the minutiae of his craft. . . Don’t make each line stop dead at the end and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause.
In short, behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others.
Many aspects help poets create music beyond just the meter of the lines. Interior rhymes, patterns of long and short phrases, juxtaposed images, and the inherent cadence of certain words all work together to make free verse sing. Think about how spoken word, at its most impactful, plays with language. It takes common phrases and flips them around. It uses the same word in different ways, with different meanings each time. (A good example you can watch is Sarah Kay’s “If I Should Have a Daughter“.)
Good free verse poetry shouldn’t read like a typical diary entry or a descriptive essay. It should have a flow to it, a sense of rhythm underlying the words to carry the reader along. Maybe the rhythm will make the poem blend smoothly, or perhaps it will make the words bounce and beat like cymbals crashing. Whatever the case, a rhythm should be present, even if it’s just resting in the background.
3. Logopoeia-The Meaning
I’d argue that meaning is the most important part of a poem, free verse or no. The meaning gives the words heart and makes them resonate with us as readers. If the poem offers descriptions or clever phrases without really saying anything, then it’s just a pretty ribbon blowing in the wind. The words that seep in and stick with us are the ones that carry some deeper emotion or purpose.
The meaning doesn’t need to be huge. Poets don’t always have to be writing about political issues or dealing with big concepts like death or the purpose of life. Sometimes the meaning of a work is simply bearing witness to the beauty of a moment. Poetry has the power to take large concepts and make them manageable, but it also takes small things and makes them larger, letting us see them anew. A professor of mine described it as making the universal personal and the personal universal.
Poetry offers a space to speak on individual experiences in a way that lets the audience find themselves in the words, too. Free verse poetry especially allows the poet a chance to shape the structure to the meaning, in a way traditional forms don’t always leave room for. At the same time, free verse has the added danger of falling into tangents and redundancies if a poet isn’t careful. It can be easy to get carried away and to keep writing when you aren’t consistently checking yourself against the constraints of a sonnet or villanelle.
Why Free Verse Matters
Free verse poetry has a large reach in today’s literary world. The majority of poems published by modern writers are some form of free verse, and so there’s a lot more I could say on the subject. Free verse has many challenges and advantages I didn’t get into here–I’m sure including many I’m not even aware of. But instead of rambling on, I want to end with this thought.
Just like with abstract art, every free verse poem is unique. Each poet has their own style. And as with all art, not everyone will enjoy every piece, no matter how well-written. At the end of the day, what matters isn’t that a poem resonates with everyone, but that it resonates with someone.
Free verse matters because it’s a form that’s given rise to a lot of great and influential work. While not everyone appreciates it, it offers a chance for many poets to create their best pieces. It also offers readers poems that touch their hearts; poems they carry with them as they go through life. While critiquing and defining good poetry can be subjective, I think measuring the worth of individual poems is simple. If even one person is touched by the words of another, those words have value.
I believe free verse has been used by many skilled writers to touch many hearts, and so it will always be invaluable in my opinion.
*Featured Image is a painting by Mike Conklin. You can find him on Instagram @mikeconklinartist
**You can find my full interpretation of Cumming’s poem here.