Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Free Verse

No verse is libre to the poet who takes his craft seriously.
T. S. Eliot

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

Free verse, the poetry form most used in our days, is seldom or never rhymed in perfect rhyme, though it is occasionally written in regular stanza forms.

The term itself is a translation of the French phrase “vers libre”, a movement in French poetry that arose in the late nineteenth century and aimed at freeing poetry from the restraints and artificiality of rhythm and rhyme.

Free verse asserted itself at the beginning of the 20th century in particular through the influence of Hulme, Ezra Pound and Eliot and their studies of French poetry. However, it was certainly not the first time that poets experimented with free verse in English. Some of the most outstanding Romantic poets, like Keats, Coleridge, Shelley and Wordsworth, as well as the American poets Emerson and Whitman, had already tried free verse and succeeded in writing some immortal poetry in free verse and in awakening the public to the possibilities of this new poetry form.

Old English and Medieval poetry also enjoyed a certain freedom, as the poetry in the Psalms of the King James version of the Bible proves.

As free verse is the poetry form most commonly used in our days, I will examine its different aspects and strategies separately: imagery, sound and rhythm, structure and subject matter.


Images are an integral part of the meaning of a poem and are intended to give us a keener awareness of the poem itself.

Images make the poem come alive, stimulating our senses. They should be new and original, establish connections that open up new experiences to the reader, revealing more beauty in the beautiful and more oddity in the grotesque.

Good poets don’t describe scenes or feelings through the use of clichés like “beautiful”, but put the reader in the picture.

In his poem “Pietà”, for example, the Australian poet McAuley, speaking of the death of a child, does not say that the baby was premature, but that he came “early into the light”, where “light” is contrasted to the darkness of the womb and the darkness of non-existence.

This is true also of imagined pictures and scenes, as in the poem “The Fish” by the English poet Rupert Brooke, in which the poet accurately describes the emotions and sensations of a creature living in an element foreign to man, “a cool and curving world” full of “dark ecstasies”.

Many poets use references to myths, religions and/or historical events to awaken images in the reader. This is an excellent device, although the average reader might not always be able to recognize the allusions. Symbols (which are also images, images used symbolically) are also widely employed in poetry. These symbols can be well-established symbols, like the Christian cross, or also personal symbols, like the tower for Yeats or the city for Eliot.

Quite often, images also move from one sensory field to another (e.g. “the screaming void”), and breathe life into inanimate objects (e.g. the “yawning grave”). This can go as far as personification (a figure of speech in which a nonhuman attribute is represented as a person, for example when the Mississippi is called “the father of waters”).

There are two main figures of speech in the use of images: similes and metaphors. Similes use the terms like or as in making a comparison, metaphors don’t. In a metaphor, the comparison is implied and one thing is actually said to be another or to function as another. Example: The ship plows the sea.

Poets should offer the reader new ways of seeing things they take for granted. Contrary to everyday language full of worn-out similes and metaphors, images in poetry should be born of acute observation married to a great imagination and power over words.

In “Cut”, for example, Sylvia Plath describes the blood flowing from a wound in her finger in the following way:

Out of a gap
A million soldiers run,
Redcoats, every one.
She uses “Redcoats” not only to suggest the colour of blood, but also to reinforce her previous line and complete the image she is trying to convey, as a redcoat was formerly a British soldier. The blood is flowing from her finger like an army of soldiers.

Another example worth mentioning is “Crucifixion of the Skyscraper” by J. Gould Fletcher, in which the poet implies a comparison with Christ through two metaphors containing the words “crucifixion” and “nailing” respectively. The word “Christ” is not mentioned a single time, but the comparison is obvious, with all its aspects of suffering, dignity and grandeur.

Sometimes images are so central to a poem that the whole poem becomes an extended metaphor, as is the case for example with “Legionary Ants” by the Australian poet Francis Webb. The central image is the comparison between human civilization and the legionary ants, predatory ants that live in temporary nests and travel about in great armies destroying every living creature in their path. The comparison is obviously intended to describe how irresponsibly we are treating our planet.

One of the main reasons why abstractions like “love” or “beauty” should be avoided is that the impact of such concepts on the reader varies from person to person, as it depends on their own experiences and cultural backgrounds, so the poet might fail to convey his true emotions by using abstractions. Imagery offers a way out of this situation. This is what T.S. Eliot calls the “objective correlative” – when events, objects and images in a poem are strong enough to convey to the reader the emotional content of the poem “as it is”.

A poet should always keep his senses alert and sharpened. William Hart-Smith, for example, said that his mind takes photographs of what goes on around him, and that later poems grow out of these vivid visual memories in his mind.

Or, to quote Ezra Pound again: “An ‘image’ is that which presents an intellectual or emotional complex in an instant of time.”

Visual images are the most frequent in poetry, for instance “The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun” in Amy Lowell’s poem “Patterns”. In the same poem, we also find an auditory image, “the plopping of the waterdrops”, and a tactile one, “The sliding of the water / Seems the stroking of a dear / Hand”. Onomatopoeias (like “plopping”) are a very useful device to convey auditory images.

Although images referring to the senses of taste and smell are rarer, there are still plenty of them. In “Ode on Melancholy” by Keats, for example, we read “whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” (a gustatory image), and in “A Postcard from the Volcano”, Wallace Stevens writes “when the grapes /Made sharp air sharper by their smell” (an olfactory image).

The images of a poem are like the brushstrokes of a painting. They all contribute to create the final impression.

Sound and Rhythm

Both imagery and sound are of fundamental importance for the final outcome of a poem, and have to be in harmony.

Rhythm has always been a very important means of expression of man, even in the most primitive people. “Every savage can dance”, says Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”. There is rhythm in dance, there is rhythm in the universe, in the movement of the planets and of the waves. And there is also rhythm in poetry. Historically, poetry comes before prose, with its strongly rhythmical epics, sagas and songs passed on by word of mouth among unlettered people.

In his “Essay on Criticism”, Pope wrote that “The sound must seem an echo to the sense”. How does the poet achieve this sense of unity? By the skilful choice of consonant and vowel sounds, stress (and sometimes accent)1, as well as the use of repetition, alliteration2 (both on initial letters and in the middle of words), onomatopoeia3, assonance4 and consonance5.

Robert Herrick, for example, achieves this effect in his poem “Upon Julia’s Clothes”, in which we can “hear” the soft rustle of Julia’s clothes, particularly in the “l’s”:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks), how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.

Not all vowels and consonants have the same effect on the listener. Vowels may be long and slow or short and snappy. “Bit” and “bite”, for example, convey a quite different effect to the ear. Consonants may be harsh, soft, jarring or harmonious according to their length (short consonants are harsher than long ones). K, p and t are short; b, d, j, g, r, w, y and ch are of medium length; s, f, h, l, m, n, v, z, th and –ng are long.

Let’s look at the following poem by T.S. Eliot, “Virginia”, to exemplify what we have just asserted:

Red river, red river,
Slow flow heat is silence
No will is still as a river
Still. Will heat move
Only through the mocking-bird
Heard once? Still hills
Wait. Gates wait. Purple trees,
White trees, wait, wait,
Delay, decay. Living, living,
Never moving. Ever moving
Iron thoughts came with me
And go with me:
Red river, river, river.
Can you feel the slowness and stillness of this poem, the laziness of a sultry day?

In Edmund Blunden’s poem “The Pike”, on the other hand, the succession of short vowel sounds in long lines creates the effect of quick movement as the pike snatches at its prey.

The general rule is that we can quicken the rhythm of a line by increasing the ratio of unstressed to stressed syllables, and slow it down by decreasing the number of unstressed syllables.

Is there a particular pattern according to which stresses are distributed in a poem? End stresses or rising lines convey an affirmative mood to a poem, as is the case for example with H. D.’s poem “Song”:

You are as GOLD
as the half-ripe GRAIN
that merges to GOLD again.
In front stresses or falling lines, as the name says, the emphasis falls on the first word of each line (an effect that is often achieved by ending the previous line on a weak word, such as an adjective). Here is an example from Marianne Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits”:
who cannot see that the enslaver is
enslaved; the hater, harmed. O shining O
       firm star, O tumultuous
Poems with only falling or rising lines are rare and usually serve a particular purpose; most poems have a combination of both.

These days, almost every poet writes in free verse, which, in spite of being a relatively recent development6, has fully asserted itself. Writing in free verse is in no way easier than writing in traditional metre. As Eliot said: “No verse is libre to the poet who takes his craft seriously.” The modern poet writes in irregular metre and doesn’t pay much attention to traditional feet7, but makes use of other devices to achieve a sense of unity and a pattern of emphasis, as we have already had the chance to briefly examine. As a matter of fact, many poets start with traditional forms and only move on to free verse when they are more proficient in poetry.

It is also a common misconception to think that “if it doesn’t rhyme it is not poetry”. There is more to poetry than rhyme. Poetry is a complex craft. If rhyme is used, it must be done in an unobtrusive way, avoiding all sorts of clichés and forced rhymes. True or perfect rhyme is usually avoided in modern verse or only used to achieve a particular effect (often satiric) or for songs. If rhyme is used at all, it is usually near rhyme or part rhyme, or irregular rhyme.

Let’s now analyse a few examples of alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance and consonance, devices commonly used in modern poetry.

The alliteration on the soft and quiet s, for instance, fills the poem “Silver” by Walter de la Mare with peace and quiet, it is pleasant to the ear:

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest-mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reds in a silver stream.
Another good example is “The Brook” by Alfred Tennyson:
I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.
The English language is rich in onomatopoeia, so this efficient device is widely used by English-speaking poets.

The last devices already mentioned in this paper are assonance and consonance. We find assonance for example in the following verses from Karl Saphiro’s “The Dome of Sunday”:

A silent clatter is the high-speed eye
Spinning out photo circulars of sight.
Wilfred Owen resorts to consonance in his poem “Strange Meeting”, a part of which is quoted in the following stanza:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
Probably even more widely used is the half-consonance, in which the poet is free to vary both the initial sound and the vowel, like in dark – break.

As we have seen, poetry is a craft equipped with all its tools and tricks, like any other trade, and a craft that evolves. It is the duty of the poet to learn these tools and tricks and to employ them with originality and according to the problems and emotions of his time.


Poets who write in traditional verse will have no problem with the structure of their poems (lines and stanzas) – they just have to follow the rules relating to the particular form they are dealing with.

However, it is not always clear what the rules for free verse are, or if there are any rules at all.

Very often the line break seems to occur at the end of a concept, what Ezra Pound called “the musical phrase”, quite often a clause, but in same cases also a whole sentence (end-stops or end-stopped line).

A particular break (enjambment) can occur in order to emphasize the last word of a line and the first word of the following line (to a lesser degree), to build up tension by separating an adjective from the noun it refers to for example, or a verb from the predicate. An enjambment is so to speak the opposite of an end-stop. It is also called run-on verse.

A caesura is a break that occurs in the middle of a line. It can be indicated by any punctuation. Example (from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra): I’ll not sleep neither. II This mortal house I’ll ruin...

A line break can be seen as a thicker stroke on a canvas, or a colour that calls the attention to some details.

Indeed, for Hartman [Frank and Sayre, The Line in Postmodern Poetry, University of Illinois Press 1988, p. ix], the line is the primary means by which the poet is able to create and control attention. For Frances Mayes [Frank, 1988, p. 165] it is the unit of attention (the sentence being the unit of meaning). For Olsen it is a unit of breath.

The line can also be dispensed of completely in the so called prose poems. W. C. Williams was the first to try this new form, followed by many others like Creeley and Ashbery.

The above mentioned devices (end-stop, enjambment and caesura) aren’t the only ones that determine line breaks. Modern poets have a wide variety of choices when deciding where to start a new line. They can for example decide to have a certain number of syllables in each line, or a certain number of stresses, or to start a new line with the same words (repetition). They can also highlight the lines in a particular way (like increasing indentation or according to a zigzag pattern) in order to convey their message more clearly. The zigzag pattern can be useful with alternate rhymes, for example. Or they may want to divide the lines according to a set arrangement of rhymes and rhythms.

The most important criterion to be taken into consideration, of course, is the organic structure of the poem, its harmony as a whole. Short lines and enjambments, for instance, will give the poem a slower rhythm, almost a sense of tiredness, while long lines will have the opposite effect.

The basic principles of the line are also true for the stanza. Stanzas can, but must not all have the same number of lines. Some poets for example increase every stanza by one line.

A stanza joins certain thoughts that belong together. The end of a stanza is usually emphasized, as is the beginning of the next stanza. Quite often, in modern poetry, the stanzas correspond to the paragraphs in prose. A stanza must not end with some punctuation in modern poetry. Many modern poems dispense of the stanza altogether.

Subject Matter

Modern poetry has to do with human experience (both within and without), not with idyllic landscapes. It is a form of art, and as such, a means of expression. Art doesn’t idealize the world any more, it describes it as it is, including its “ugly” or disturbing aspects. As there are no limits to human experience, we can say that there are no limits to the possibilities of art – including poetry – either.

In poetry one cannot lie; poetry is not fiction. One cannot lie in poetry because poetry is usually stripped down to its essentials. When a poet lies, he usually does so for a particular reason, quite often to have fun (as in a limerick) rather than to intentionally convey insincere feelings.

Wordsworth said that poetry is “emotion recalled in tranquillity”. The poet must always be aware of his emotions, and use this “material” to create art. The reader, on the other hand, must also be highly perceptive in order to enjoy a poem. Ezra Pound spoke of the “shock of recognition”. This does not necessarily mean recollection, it can also be an aha experience – when the reader recognizes a truth. Many readers fail in this task and then blame the poet or poetry in general. They think poetry is useless because they fail to recognize its message.

It is not always easy to write about the truth. Yeats pointed out that writing light verse was the greatest temptation a poet has, and the greatest mistake he can make. Sometimes we are not fully aware of the truth, we have to delve into ourselves to find it, with the possibility to face unpleasant truths too.

No subjects are barred in poetry, what is limited is the way to express it. We have to avoid sentimentality for example, clichés. Subject, language, rhythm, images, they all have to be in harmony in order to achieve the desired effect. If you are describing an old rattling train, for example, you are allowed and even encouraged to use cacophonies, you wouldn’t use pleasant sounds to describe something that has an unpleasant sound.

While universal themes like love and death, time and nature have not been abandoned, in our age there are many new themes that relate to psychological insight and analysis, like loneliness, frustration and angst, themes the treatment of which has started a new current, confessional poetry.

Of course it is important that the new poet approaches old subjects like love in an original way, avoiding stereotypes and hackneyed expressions, as Karl Shapiro did in his “V-Letter”.

One of the first poets to revolutionize the concept of poetry was Eliot, who introduced a new kind of poetry with his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, not only concerning the choice of images (the verses “When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table” have become famous in this respect), but also concerning the psychologic approach of the character described in this poem. Prufrock is an antihero, an ordinary man unable to take decisions, a character the reader can identify with.

In the past, poetry and literature in general dealt with lofty themes, in particular epic poems, odes and elegies. The hero of poetry has now become the man in the street, the man who doesn’t fight against dragons, but against life with all its problems and difficulties, the faceless hero of everyday life trying to make sense out of existence. His view of the world has become important, worth mentioning in a poem.

As Carl Sandburg wrote in the “Atlantic Monthly” back in 1923, “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits”, the synthesis of sacred or extraordinary and mundane or profane.

Poetry can be found in everything. Poetry is life.


Hamilton, E. and Livingston J., Form and Feeling, Longman, Melbourne 1981

Hughes, T., Poetry in the Making, Faber and Faber, London (1967)

O’Donnell M., Feet on the Ground, Blackie and Son Limited (1967)

Pretty, R., Creating Poetry, Five Islands Press (2001)

Stillman, F., The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, Thames and Hudson (1978)

Russell, N., and Chatfield, H. J., Poetry Workshop, Nelson (1967)

1 Stress is related to meaning, accent is the prominence given to a syllable (for instance iamb or trochee) and determines the mechanical pattern of the language. Traditional poetry is based on accent, modern poetry on stress.
2 The use of similar phonetic sounds at the beginning or in the middle of words.
3 The use of words which sound like the meaning they represent.
4 The repetition or resemblance of similar accented vowel sounds in neighbouring words in a line (or several lines) of a poem or prose.
5 The use of identical consonant sounds both at the beginning and at the end of a word.
6 The other movement started at about the same time was the modernist movement initiated by Poe and the symbolists that he influenced, a movement that did not discard traditional English prosody completely, but rather built upon it, writing in lines of uneven length and mixed meters, irregular rhyme in no set pattern, near rhyme, and stanzas both of set lengths and irregular length.
7 mainly iambic, anapaestic, trochaic or dactylic

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