What Is Free Verse Poetry?

Free verse poetry allows authors to express themselves without the constraints of common rhyme schemes and patterns. Here, we’ll learn “what is free verse poetry?” and check out some of the most well-known examples.

The concept of free verse poetry is simple–it allows writers to express themselves without worrying about line breaks, cadences, and other formatting rules that force poets to write differently from natural speech.

Free verse is different from other types of poetry in that the writer makes their own rules (or throws the rules of poetry to the wind altogether). For example, many modern poetry authors write free-verse prose poems, allowing them to express their feelings and points of view in ways that fit the topic.

Here, we’ll look at everything you need to know if you’re studying free verse poetry or are interested in creating free verse poems of your own. We’ll also look at some famous examples of free verse poetry to help you see the many poetic forms that free verse poetry can take.

Interested in this topic? Check out our round-up of the best poetry books! 

Origins of Free Verse Poetry

Pioneers of free verse poetry include Richard Aldington
Howard Coster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, “free verse” is applied to any poem that does not follow a particular pattern or rhyme scheme. The term free verse is a translation of the French term vers libre. The free verse movement began in France in the 1880s. However, it took two more decades for American poets to create free verse poetry regularly.

While free verse poetry does not follow the rules of traditional poetry, many poets make up their cadences to create a mood and a tone that conveys their ideas to the reader. A free-verse poet may choose to break their poem up into stanzas, write single lines, create long blocks of text, or combine these options. A poet writing in free verse has total control over their creative expression and isn’t forced to choose words or phrases that don’t meet their needs to fit into a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.

Pioneers of free verse poetry include Richard Aldington, Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot, and F.S. Flint. Over time, the free verse poetry movement gave way to the Imaginist movement, which welcomed poets including Hilda Doolittle, known to many simply as H.D. The Imaginist movement encouraged poets to write with a musical rhythm rather than sticking to the strict rhyme schemes of the past.

Many mid-century poets are also known for their free-verse work, including Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Matthew Arnold. While many people enjoy writing and reading free verse poetry, some argue that writing in free verse takes away the challenge of traditional poetry writing. Some argue that modern free verse poets write prose difficult for readers to decipher. It can be hard to identify what makes a poem a poem when a free verse style is used.

Literary Mechanisms Used In Free Verse Poems

Despite being free from the constraints of traditional poetry, many free verse poets still use literary devices to make their points in their poems. Writing in the free verse does not mean that a poet doesn’t appreciate traditional literature mechanisms; instead, it means that they want to choose exactly how they’ll convey their message to their readers instead of being bound to a specific set of rules that may stifle their creativity.

Alliteration is a literary device commonly used by free verse poets. The concept of alliteration is simple: several words in a row or within proximity to one another that start with the same letter or sound. For example, the phrase “sparrows sweetly singing” is an example of alliteration.

Some poets who write in the free verse style use line breaks and stanzas to emphasize specific points within their work. A single line that stands out on its own while the rest of the poem is written in a single block of text can impact a reader. For example, a run-on paragraph of poetry can signify that the poet is having trouble controlling their thoughts or that they feel anxious or overwhelmed.

Many free verse poets also employ symbolist imagery to make a point clear to readers without speaking literally. For example, a poet may use the color purple to signify dignity or royalty or refer to the four seasons of the year to explain different seasons in a person’s life. Again, however, symbolism is often left to the reader’s interpretation.

Common Themes of Free Verse Prose Poems

Since free verse poetry allows authors to use their creative license to express themselves in whatever way they please, many free verse poets use this form of prose to explore complex parts of life that can be tough to put into words.

Here are the most common themes that free verse poets tend to explore:

  • Love
  • Death
  • Marriage
  • Nature
  • Religion and spirituality
  • Social justice issues
  • Failure
  • Birth
  • Parent/child relationships

There’s no limit to what a free verse poem can cover. Often, poets write hundreds of free verse poems before creating something that they’d like to share with the world.

Examples of Free Verse Poetry

Here, we’ll look at a few examples of free verse poetry.

1. The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens

Such a simple poem–broken up into two-line stanzas–makes the reader consider Williams’s deeper meaning when writing this poem. While he may be discussing that a red wheelbarrow has an important role on the farm, many literary analysts state that Williams is also discussing the often-overlooked importance of farm laborers and their essential contributions to American society. Others believe that Williams is writing a commentary on the importance of appreciating the simple things in life, including everyday objects.

2. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

In cabin’d ships at sea,

The boundless blue on every side expanding,

With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,

Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine,

Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,

She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under many a star at night,

By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,

In full rapport at last.

This 95-page poetry collection was first published in 1855 and is heralded today as one of the greatest works of poetry. At the time, Whitman’s work was revolutionary, as much of the poetry at the end of the 1800s focused on religion and spirituality. In addition, Whitman discussed nature, travel, the human body, and other subjects that were rarely explored by the poets of the time.

3. Homework by Allen Ginsberg

If I were doing my Laundry I’d wash my dirty Iran

I’d throw in my United States, and pour on the Ivory Soap, scrub up Africa, put all the birds and elephants back in the jungle,

I’d wash the Amazon river and clean the oily Carib & Gulf of Mexico,   

Rub that smog off the North Pole, wipe up all the pipelines in Alaska,   

Rub a dub dub for Rocky Flats and Los Alamos, Flush that sparkly Cesium out of Love Canal

Allen Ginsberg was a mid-century modernist poet who talked about social issues and continued the new tradition of free verse poetry. The author was a pioneer in writing in streams of consciousness, and enjoyed writing down an entire idea at once rather than writing poems in small fragments.

If you are interested in learning more, check out our round-up of poetry terms everyone should know!

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