How to Write Free Verse
Free verse poetry lacks the rhythmical regularity or consistent rhyme scheme of other poetic forms. However, in free verse, poets use elements like figurative language, diction and line breaks in fluid ways to portray the poem's theme. Through creative, strategic word selection and structure, you can create a free verse poem that will move your readers.
Create Meaningful Line Breaks
While form-based poetry often breaks its lines according to specific syllables or rhyming words, free verse poems make use of enjambment, where a sentence continues to develop over the course of several lines rather than stopping at the end of a single line. This creates tension for readers by allowing the lines to push them through the poem, often leading to meaningful words that conclude the thought. For example, the first two sentences of Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" actually spans five lines, forcing readers to keep moving forward to get the full picture of the poem's setting. Experiment with where to end the lines of your poem to create different effects.
Use Speech and Sound Devices
Form-oriented poetry depends on rhyme and rhythm patterns to establish the foundation of its voice. By contrast, the rhythm of free verse poetry usually comes from how the author uses everyday speech patterns and sound devices. Using repeated sounds can help create the world of the poem's subject for readers; in Walt Whitman's "After the Sea-Ship," for example, Whitman uses repeated words and frequent use of wh sounds to mimic the experience of being at sea: "After the Sea-Ship -- after the whistling winds; After the white-gray sails ...." Incorporating the rhythm of daily conversation, such as contractions and slang, into your poem can have the same effect. Langston Hughes' poems, such as "The Weary Blues," often use dialect to depict the atmosphere of his work set in Harlem.
Utilize Figurative Language
Making use of figurative language, imagery designed to evoke the senses, can add emotional resonance and reality to your poetry. The most common types of figurative language are similes, which make a direct comparison between two different things using the words "like" or "as," and metaphors, which make the same comparisons without these words. For example, Carl Sandburg uses a metaphor in "Fog" when he writes, "The fog comes on little cat feet." While this line could still work with a simile by reading "The fog is like little cat feet," the choice of a metaphor results in a more concise, fluent image of a foggy city street. Experiment with these techniques to find surprising images for portraying your topic.
Make the Form Fit the Content
Free verse poetry is as much about how you use the space on the page as it is the words you put on it. Pay attention to line length. Because free verse poems lack the prescribed syllable requirements of many formal styles, it's your job as the poet to use the lines in a way that visually and emotionally depicts the subject. For example, longer lines can cause readers to linger on the words and meaning being developed, while shorter lines can increase the poem's suspense and tension. You can also create a concrete poem, where the visual layout of the piece mimics the theme or subject, a technique frequently used by poet e.e. cummings, who also rarely used capital letters.
- Prince Edward Island Canada Department of Education and Early Childhood Development: Writing Free Verse
- Writer's Relief: Free Verse: The Hidden Rules of Free Verse Poetry
- Poetry Foundation: "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold
- State University of New York Cortland: Finding the Freedoms of Contemporary Free Verse
- Poetry Through the Ages: Examples of Free Verse Poetry
- Poets.org: "The Weary Blues," Langston Hughes
- Poets.org: The Great Figure: On Figurative Language
- Poetry Through the Ages: Poetry That Knows No Bounds
- Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images