Most of my favorite poems are written in free verse, which means they do not fall under the constraints of form poetry. Not that I have anything against form poetry — it’s a lovely tradition, and I like reading and writing it — but not as much as I enjoy reading and writing free-verse poetry.
In free verse, there are no rules or guidelines to follow — no set meter or rhyme scheme that one must adhere to. There’s a kind of freedom in free verse that allows us to tap into language in a way that form poetry and prose simply do not offer.
Free verse is often described as following the natural rhythms of speech rather than the musical qualities of poetry. However, free verse can be rhythmic and melodic rather than sounding like natural speech, and it can contain rhymes and other patterns. Consider the following excerpt from “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood:
At the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
when the bones know
they are hollow & the word
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.
Read it aloud. It doesn’t sound like natural speech. It’s distinctly poetic and musical. It’s got a rhythm. Whereas form poetry often uses strictly patterned meter and rhyme, free verse can shake up the meter and use rhymes in unexpected places.
Repetition is key to musicality, but the metrical patterns and rhymes of form poetry aren’t the only way to use repetition. Here are a few ways this free-verse poem creates its own kind of music:
- Consider hot bones and rock breaks. Hot and rock use assonance, the repetition of a vowel sound, which renders an effect similar to rhyme.
- Consonance refers to the repetition of a consonant sound in close proximity. There’s a kind of consonance with the B sound in bones, breaks, and blood, even though these words are spread out over three consecutive lines. This repetition gives the poem a kind of backbeat, each word painting a vivid image in the readers’ minds.
- Similarly, look at the repetition of the hard O sound in the following words: open, flows, bones, know, hollow. This sound is sprinkled throughout the poem, giving it an open, upward-looking baseline.
As we can see, patterns of sound and rhyme do sometimes emerge in free verse, but these poems do not follow a plan or a formula. They can be almost jazz-like when imbued with musicality, including unexpected beats and riffs and trills.
Using Literary Devices in Free Verse
One might argue that literary (poetic) devices become even more important in free verse. Without the structure of form poetry, free verse often relies on literary devices for sound and rhythm. We’ve already examined the use of alliteration (the repetition of sound in close proximity) in “Spelling.” Alliteration is a useful tool for creating cadence or melody.
Consider also the images of hot bones, breaking rocks, flowing blood, and melting granite, which give the poem life inside a reader’s mind. I see this poem as a rocky, oozing volcano on the verge of erupting, which is a good metaphor for the overall sentiments that the poem conveys. Yet the full metaphor (of a volcano) is never explicitly stated. We get bits and pieces, glimpses and glimmers.
What other literary devices can you spot in the excerpt from “Spelling?” Onomatopoeia? Personification? Enjambment? Symbolism? Allusion?
Writing Free Verse Poems
Emily Dickinson is known as the mother of free verse poetry, but she’s not the only beloved poet who worked in free verse. William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound also worked in this format. In fact, since the early 20th century, most published poetic works are written in free verse.
Free verse offers a broad scope for artistic expression, including a free and open musicality and opportunity for structural originality in which poets can bend language in innovative and interesting ways. Although there is no established meter or rhythm, no proper rhyme scheme, no set rules or guidelines, free verse can be a cacophony of sound that renders rhythms and beats and melodies.
Although free verse isn’t weighted down with the struggle to force words to fit the metrical patterns or rhyme schemes of form poetry, it can be even more challenging to work outside of guidelines.
Who are some of your favorite poets who write free verse? What are some of your favorite free-verse poems? Have you ever written free-verse poetry? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!