Constructing Free Verse
Today I’d like to talk about the poetic structure involved in writing free verse. We’ll go over what free verse is, the problem with most free verse, and some things to consider when writing it.
I know what you’re thinking. “But it’s called free verse because it doesn’t have any rules or structure!”
That’s true. Free verse is known for its lack of hard-and-fast rules and its fluidity in structural form. It can take any shape, any size, any length; it can have meter or none; it can rhyme or not. You have complete creative license with any and all poetic devices available. But those freedoms are vastly misunderstood by the majority of “poets” who write it.
Poetry in general is an art form.
It is an expression of emotion, thought, and mindfulness. It should be well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose. While many poets believe that this only applies to a poetic structure involving meter and rhyme in an exact form, it is a fact that even in free verse, good poetry is still well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose.
I’m not an expert. I’ll state that now. But I have been involved in the world of poetry for the better half of my life, and there are certain things you learn when you put forth the effort to improve. As with any writing, no one starts out perfect, and we are never done learning.
The problem with a lot of free verse
Some of you are going to be offended by this. I’m sorry, I really am—but if this offends you, then you especially need to read it.
The problem with a lot of free verse is that it has absolutely no energy put into it at all. Many “poets” (and I use that term loosely) simply scribble down a chain of thoughts or string together words that they associate with an emotion or theme. They throw in dramatic line breaks at random and use one-word lines frequently. They use big, fancy words and try to sound deep and wise, though often times this comes across as pretentious and nonsensical. It doesn’t flow, and their lack of attention to detail is glaring. Yet still they wave it in front of their friends and shout, “Look, I’m a poet!”
Many of those flaws are actually based on preference and can be done well. It is possible to write a poem of one-word lines. Whether a poet uses fancy or plain language is up to them. The tone of a poem can be deep or nonsensical. However, what sets the good poetry apart is that it is well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose. Getting tired of hearing those three things yet? Good. Remember them.
There are a number of things that you should consider when writing in free verse. None of these steps limit your poetry in any way, as they are not restrictions but are considerations and tools for improvement. You don’t have to use all of these. You can, but you don’t have to. Just like baking a cake, you don’t have to use every ingredient in the kitchen. But you should use more than one. One of the biggest flaws in free verse is that many “poets” only get through step 1 and stop. Don’t do that. That’s not free verse, it’s free writing.
- The first thing you write down should definitely be your thoughts, emotions, and the chain of mental images that come to you freely. Don’t worry about perfecting structure, line breaks, or wording here. Just let it flow. As with any writing, you will need to revise, review, and revise some more. You can’t edit a blank page.
- Go through what you wrote and consider the theme and tone you want your poem to convey. Remove anything that doesn’t apply. The initial writing should be free, but the final product should be focused. The more you stray from the topic, the less sense and power your poem will hold.
- Consider your line order. Does it flow smoothly from start to finish? Are there any parts that should be rearranged? Poems tell a story in some way, even if they are capturing a single moment in time. Make sure the progression of emotion makes sense to achieve your desired effect. The most powerful lines will be the first and last in the poem. Make them count.
- Look closer at your word choice. Your poem will have an overarching tone to it, and the words you use play a large part in portraying that, so choose them wisely. Whether you prefer big, fancy words, plain and simple ones, or a balance of both, make sure you’re being true to your intended tone.
- Read through each line carefully, and pay attention to where your lines start and end. The way you split your poem on its lines will determine where the emphasis lies and what parts readers pay the most attention to. In many cases, the last word on a line has the most emphasis, so keep that in mind. Consider words that have double meanings, spots that have a natural pause, and ways to pull the reader to the next line.
- Along the same vein, consider the length of your lines. Longer lines take more time to read, appear darker and packed together, and they allow for more complete thoughts. Therefore, they lend a more serious quality to your work. Shorter lines are surrounded by more white space on the page and are read quickly, giving them a lighter feel. Playing with this can make the reading feel smooth or jarring. Think about the ride you want to bring your readers on and the tone/theme you’re aiming for. These are all affected by line length.
- Read your poem out loud and listen to how it sounds. Even without rhyme or meter, your poem should flow naturally when spoken out loud. A lot of free verse is used in spoken-word poetry, so look up a few examples to see if this is something you’re interested in. (Button Poetry is a popular one.) Reading it out loud allows your ears to hear flaws your eyes will miss, and it can help you find tricky spots that need work.
Lead by example
As I said, I’m not an expert. I still have a lot to learn. But I do my best to put energy into each poem to make it the best it can be. So, now, I’m going to share with you a free verse poem I wrote earlier this year. I walked myself through all seven of these steps and revised it quite a few times to get this result. You may or may not like it—either way is fine—but hopefully you can see each of the steps involved and how they played a part in making this what it is.
Although you can’t see step 1 in there, this poem began twice as long. It had lines going in a few different directions, including where You were in relation to me and how it made me feel.
But when I went into step 2, I realized that the point of my poem was about being second best. So I took out all the excess and focused on the lines that put me in second place.
The lines weren’t in this order to begin with, either. The story this is telling goes through all the ways You don’t prioritize me in Your life, so for step 3, I wanted to end with emphasis on the fact that I have recognized how unimportant I am to You.
For step 4, I really tuned into my word choice and placement. I prefer smaller, more direct words in my poetry to show that even “complicated” emotions can be simplified with the truth. I used repetition to show that You claim to love a lot of things…except, apparently, me. In the first stanza, I only reference myself once while using You four times to emphasize how much it’s all about You. I make sure that each preposition I use expresses being covered by something or being equal to something else, but never higher. I also countered “lay” in the first stanza with “stand” in the second, showing that while you put me down, I can lift myself up.
Step 5 was tricky. I made sure to capitalize on the repeating phrase “you love” and to place each preposition on its own line. Combined, this expresses the sentiment that it doesn’t matter what “you love,” but that You love it more than me. Each of the second stanza’s five lines has a lot of emphasis that counters the entire first stanza. “I” is first and above the rest of the lines. The first two lines together show that I have feelings, too. I want to stand “above” for once. More so, I want to stand above “anything.” Even something small. It’s a powerful ending that conveys desperation and hopelessness, despite standing up for myself and admitting how You’ve made me feel.
I went out on my own for step 6. I wanted this to be a more serious poem, but I didn’t want long lines and lots of words. I wanted to keep things simple and truthful. For that reason, I decided to keep the entire poem short and to the point.
Step 7 is the real reason it is what it is. I read it out loud every time I made a change, until it had a nice sound to it and seemed to progress naturally. Hearing my words out loud helped me get a feel for what fit and what didn’t, as well as what felt forced.
What do you think?
I hope this has given you some insight into how you can make your free verse stand out. If you put some energy into it and contemplate how you’ve structured it, I know you’ll do great! When you’re reading it by other poets, try to pay attention to these steps and see if you can understand why the author made the choices they did and what emphasis and importance each part has (hopefully they also put some energy into it). Doing this will help you learn to analyze free verse a bit better, allowing you to offer more constructive critique on it, and it will show you what kind of free verse you enjoy most. Hopefully kinds that are well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose.