What is Free Verse?
Free Verse, also known as Blank Verse, is a form of poetry that is defined by its lack of form.
It may be fair to say that as long as there has been poetry, there has been Free Verse. Early examples can be found in Dryden’s Threnodia Augustalis, or House of Flame by Chaucer, or even the Biblical Psalms. However, what we know as Free Verse mostly originates from Vers Libre, a French Counter-Romanticist movement of the late 19th Century, led by luminaries such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud.
The movement has been described as the moment that the French poem became conscious of itself as art. Before this, poetry was heavily based in form and rules, and it required extensive study to become a successful poet. Free Verse attempted to remove these rules in order to liberate the poet to discuss broader subjects and to use language and rhythm in a new way.
In 1912, Robert de Souza published an essay summing up the evolution of Free Verse as it had stood over the preceding twenty years. It was decided that Free Verse was not strictly free of rules but rather it was a form where each poem could adopt its own rhythmic structures.
The Free Verse poem is built not on line length or number of lines in a stanza, but instead focuses on the Strophe—a concept borrowed from the Greek Ode. A Strophe is a stanza of varying line lengths. Within early Free Verse poems, the Strophe formed a thematic circle; images from the beginning would be resolved in the closing lines.
Walt Whitman used the Free Verse form, before it’s codification, though he would innovate using refrains, creating rules for their usage within the poem.
The Free Verse poem is perhaps more suited for the ear than the eye, and it has enjoyed continuous popularity in the hands of performance poets. By removing the prescription of rhymes, the poet is free to innovate or borrow from other forms throughout varying sections, making a piece unique. Free Verse often utilises ‘natural rhythm’—the intonation and cadence of regular speech.
However, though we say Free Verse is free from rules, many poets throughout history have critiqued the form and claimed that while there are no formal rules, there are indeed rules present, while others have insisted that rules are necessary to write accomplished poetry. Robert Frosts once stated that writing Free Verse was akin to “playing tennis without a net.”
Free Verse poetry is by far the most common form in the modern era of poetry. It is obviously the easiest and least daunting form for a poet to start with.
In recent times, the form has enjoyed popularity with novices who have derided stricter forms. I think it’s important to state that both free and structured poems can happily sit side by side, or that form can influence free verse; there doesn’t have to be conflict between the two.
While the pressure of forms can trigger fantastic work, sometimes an image needs room to breathe, thus Free Verse becomes the perfect outlet, however, it is not fair to state that only Free Verse can offer freedom. Do not assume that because Free Verse appears easier, anything goes. Just because you haven’t set rules, doesn’t mean you should allow quality to suffer.
I would advocate that those poets beginning their writing journey approach Free Verse as a model in the same way as structured forms. Let lines wander, challenge preconceived rhythms and build images further and further, then, for the sake of development, try and fit these poems into structured forms. This sharpens the editorial mind and will serve you well.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.