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Poetic License:
Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part I: The Line

by Lawrence Schimel

Return to Poetry & Greeting Cards · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I imagine those new poets who have been following this column breathing a sigh of intense relief as we arrive, at last, at the subject of free verse. This is, after all, the kind of poetry people are most familiar with, the kind of poetry which is much easier to just write, an outpouring of emotion and feeling and raw imagery and beautiful, flowery language, without all those archaic conventions and restrictions of meter and rhyme.

While this outpouring might be poetic in its language or turn of phrase, its use of metaphor and simile, it is not necessarily free verse poetry. Free verse, despite the apparent lack of restrictions, should be as carefully constructed as any formal poem. In many ways, it is more difficult to write a good free verse poem than one in a traditional form, because you must not only invent your own rules but fulfill them as well.

Free verse did not simply happen into a vacuum; it is a literary tradition that was in direct reaction to the long-standing conventions of formal poetry, although its origins and history have been obscured by cultural usage. It is my hope that my having dwelt on formal poetry in earlier columns will give those readers who are unfamiliar with the type of work free verse was reacting against a bit of that cultural background, to understand the rules which free verse set out to break.

Our American grandfather of poetry, Walt Whitman, wrote by the human breath; each line breaks where the breath comes to a pause, whether as short as a comma or the full stop of a period. These long lines are both out of vogue and slightly impractical, especially since there are certain conventions about how poetry is published in magazines and books which do not, on average, allow for more than 80 or so characters on a line. Because the lines break naturally where the breath pauses, these poems are a delight to read, especially to read aloud; the line pulls you to its natural end.

How long should a free line verse be? There is no standard, of course -- each poem has its own rules and conventions. Usually a line will have at least three beats to it (remember that first column on meter?) if it's to have any substance to it. A single word as an entire line is to be used sparingly, as it's a very manipulative technique; it's like hitting the reader over the head, as the word gets inordinate emphasis.

A line which ends in punctuation is called "end stopped" as opposed to when the sentence continues onto the next line, which is an "enjambed" line. For example, both lines in this couplet are end-stopped:

Though scientists search for something conclusive,
A "Theory Of Everything" has proven elusive.

Meanwhile, the following two lines are both enjambed:

He coughs from the soot, or to get her
attention. She invites him in. From his sack

Because of the long tradition of rhyme in poetry, readers and listeners or poetry have grown accustomed to listening for the final word of each line.

That end word gained more prominence than words in the interior of the line because of the rhyme, the repetition of sounds, creating links to previous or following lines.

This expectation still lingers in unrhymed free verse. The ending words of free verse lines have a much greater weight than those in the interior, regardless of how long or short or irregular the lengths of these lines are. Therefore you want to end your lines with strong words that are important to the narrative or imagery of the verse. Linking words and articles -- "the", "a", "an", "and", etc. -- are usually too weak to support a line as an end word.

There is anticipation as the eye moves from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, and the first word of each line also has a heightened weight, especially if you follow the convention of capitalizing the first word of each line. In the second couplet above, for instance, there is the sense of completion when you move from "her" at the end of one line to "attention" at the beginning of the next. Ordinarily, I would shy away from ending a line on the word "her" as it's not strong or concrete enough to hold the line, except that in this case it builds up ambiguity and anticipation for the following line, pulling the reader through the poem.

Even though the lines of a free verse poem don't adhere to a regulated meter, they still have cadences, patterns of sound and repetitions of sounds, which give the words their music and can help carry the reader along or slow the reader down. These natural stresses of the language will call attention to certain words. In a free verse poem, you have more liberty to place these words at various points within the line to draw extra attention to them -- or away from them, to create additional tension. Likewise, while lines of rhymed poetry are more regularly end stopped, the syntax of free verse allows for sentences to end at any point within a line. These caesuras -- or pauses -- created thereby are part of the meter and rhythm of the line, and are very useful tools for the poet.

You may think, after all this detailed line-by-line examinations of how free verse uses the same rules as formal poetry, that I still have not yet told you how to write a free verse poem. Poetry takes time. Next time we'll consider shape.

Read the Complete "Poetic License" Series:

Some Thoughts on Meter

Some Thoughts on Fun and Verse

Some Thoughts on Nontraditional Forms

Some Thoughts on the Sestina

Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part I: The Line

Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part II: The Shape of the Poem

Copyright © 2001 Lawrence Schimel
This article originally appeared in Speculations.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Lawrence Schimel makes his living as a full-time author and anthologist. He has published over 47 books in a wide variety of genres and media; his work has appeared in The Writer, ForeWord, The Saturday Evening Post, the Boston Phoenix, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and others, including numerous international publications. His writing has been translated into Basque, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and Swedish. For more information, visit http://desayunoencama.livejournal.com/.


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