Tag Archives: Free Verse

Free Verse Is Not a Free For All

Since today is Memorial Day, and Freedom is on my mind —

Free Verse Poetry, what’s that all about?” A question from a friend who is often bewildered by modern poetry in general. She likes reading it, but was raised in the grand tradition of Poetry That Rhymes. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and a plethora of other rhyming poets. I’ve just learned to widen my scope and dig for other influences. Most poets don’t spring forth from the head of Zeus, fully inspired. Neither do poems, although it would be grand if they did.

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a heart in port –
Done with the compass –
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the sea!
Might I moor – Tonight –
In thee!

Western poetical tradition (As opposed to Eastern or Oriental tradition) has a keen interest in poetical meter down to poetical feet per line. In the English language each foot usually has a syllable with a stress and one or two without a stress, presented in a pattern. Other languages may vary depending on the length of the vowels and the number of syllables in a word. Up until the last hundred years or so Iambic Pentameter was one of the most popular forms of meter in the English language. For examples, read Shakespeare. If you’re not interested, read him anyway, for the pure joy of how language should look on the page and sound in your mouth, or fall on your ear. At least listen to a good recording done by a British Shakespearean actor. Talk about rapt attention. Or maybe that’s just me.

Sonnet CXV
William Shakespeare

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

Popular opinion blames Walt Whitman for the downfall of rhymed poetry or the schism that occurred when he published Leaves of Grass and liberated poets to embrace free verse as a style. There was freedom to use poetry and language in a brand new way. Whitman wanted poetry to be ‘natural’, without the constraints of traditional meter and rhyme. I see the influence of Whitman on the Beat poets, on Ginsberg, and reading one then the other is an eye opening pleasure. We cannot escape our past, and as poets we need to mine the past for inspiration as much as we observe what is around us.

From a Wikipedia article: “Free verse is a term describing various styles of poetry that are not written using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as ‘poetry’ by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers can perceive to be part of a coherent whole.”

Free verse is not totally without rules. Free verse poetry still has to hold together internally, to have cohesion and coherence, to make a point, to follow a pattern. In its own way, free verse is as rule bound as a sestina or villanelle. If you want to create a good free verse poem that is.

Kosmos
by Walt Whitman

WHO includes diversity, and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and the equilibrium also,
Who has not look’d forth from the windows, the eyes, for nothing, or whose brain held audience with messengers for nothing;
Who contains believers and disbelievers—Who is the most majestic lover;
Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of realism, spiritualism, and of the aesthetic, or intellectual,
Who, having consider’d the Body, finds all its organs and parts good;
Who, out of the theory of the earth, and of his or her body, understands by subtle analogies all other theories,
The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of These States;
Who believes not only in our globe, with its sun and moon, but in other globes, with their suns and moons;
Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day, but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.

Whenever I Saw You I Handed You a Bouquet, and
By Sharon Olds

what about those nosegays?! If you were to return
I would give you more, for all you have given us, for
your going first. Those posies might have a
peony, a freesia, a tulip — an eye snack
and nostril snack, I could not get enough of
giving you coronation bundles, handing them
and almost bowing, tongue-tied with
respectful adoring, with gobbling
the sight of you the sound, the bouquets saying mother-
— we would not be here, without your song, your eye.

Source: Poetry (February 2017)

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