After studying and writing poetry since I was in the third grade, over fifty years now, I have come to the conclusion that the more I learn, the more there is to learn. Every time I turn around, I discover another form or type of poetry. Some of the forms I have tried; others I decided not to use or examine too closely (the names alone sounded like diseases). I use free verse most often in my writing because it gives me the freedom to explore word usage, theme, and imagery that structured forms can’t.
“But how do you write in free verse?” someone asks. “I thought poetry had to rhyme and have a certain number of syllables in each line.”
No, free verse can have some rhyme, but rhyme isn’t required. Any rhyme in free verse cannot have a scheme or pattern, and free verse cannot have a pattern of set numbers of syllables in its lines. Not having a rhythm scheme, though, does not mean that free verse doesn’t have its own smooth flow. It does, just not any kind of pattern.
Here are two examples of free verse, one with some rhyme, one without any rhyme.
With rhyme (note that the rhyme used has no pattern or scheme):
Every life has a room
where memories are stored:
A box of special occasions here,
Shelves of shared laughter there.
But back in the shadows
Lurks a trunk locked tight,
Not to be opened and searched.
There hide disappointments
Which darken every heart.
Promises made in passing,
Never meant to be kept,
Still throb with pain inflicted.
Hopes, shattered like glass
Thrown against a stone wall,
Leave splinters of pain
That never quite heal.
Dark despair smothers all,
When disappointment calls.
I may share my memories
Remembered with joy,
But the disappointments
Manage to stay all mine.
But there are so many,
A lifetime of broken items
or things that disappear.
So I ask, please don’t promise
Unless you follow through.
(copyright 2004 by Vivian Gilbert Zabel)
Fantasy or Life
So often you say you love me,
Yet you seemingly don’t know
I cannot live in fantasy’s fog,
Always in the blurred drug of dreams.
I need the clear, crisp light
Found in reality’s realm of day,
Not the darkness of mere existence.
Come with me from still shadows
To brimming brightness of both
Dance and stroll, of walk and run,
The never dullness of movement,
Of song and lullaby, of tears and smiles.
Live real life just sprinkled
With dreams only occasionally.
So much lies beyond your grasp
If all you seek are wisps of cloud,
With nothing dared or hoped.
Step out from behind walls of doubt
And find me waiting expectantly
With arms wide outstretched,
As I welcome you to life abundant.
(copyright 2005 by Vivian Gilbert Zabel
“Then,” the questioner continues, “anything that sort of looks like poetry is free verse?”
Not exactly, my friend. (Yes, I know that’s a fragment, but fragments can be used for effect.) Writing any kind of poetry means that poetic language and devices are used. Poetry and prose not only appear different on the page or screen, they sound different. Poetry is more concise and precise, reduced to exact concentrated images.
“I’m lost.” The questioner frowns in confusion.
Okay, what about an example? Teachers always have folders and files full of examples. Let’s look first at a very short prose (prose is written material which is not poetry):
The church stood tall upon the hill as it overlooked the community. Its bell rang through the clear morning air, calling people to come and worship. Soon the pews filled and music rose to the heavens while families and friends joined one another in thanksgiving.
The paragraph is not poetry, but could be made into poetry without worrying about rhyme or meter (rhythm). However, simply writing the same words and sentences in short spurts of lines isn’t the same as poetry; although, the wording is rather poetic in a way.
First let’s see what kind of poetic devices we might use: alliteration (the repetition of beginning sounds used for effect) for one, since we can see church and community already in the paragraph as well as clear, calling, come. If we use all those words, correctly close together, we have alliteration.
Next, what can we use as a metaphor (the comparison of unlike things saying one is the other) or simile (the comparison of unlike things saying one is like or as the other)? We could compare the church with something or the bell with something. The church, like a guardian, watched over the community; the bell, a crying messenger, rang out its call.
Maybe we can insert an oxymoron (the use of contradictory terms, together, for effect). Living death is an oxymoron. Heavenly sin is another. What might we use in this poem that we’re going to write? Since we are talking about a community of people joining together, and mention family and friends, what about something like friendly enemies? Or maybe that isn’t a good example, we’ll see.
Now we have some ideas that we can use in our free verse poem. Notice we haven’t tried to put together any rhymes or to choose a pattern of syllables because we don’t care. We want to express our ideas and the poetic meanings.
Like a benign guardian,
the church sits upon a hill,
caring for the community below.
The bell, a crying messenger,
rings forth its call to all
through the crystal clear air
of early morning’s light.
What do we have so far? I see alliteration, metaphor, and simile, no rhyme, and no rhythm scheme. So we have the start of a poem in free verse. Let’s continue.
The pews fill as music swells,
sending songs heavenward.
Kith and ken gather
to worship and to rejoice,
thankful that for one day
friendly enemies can forget
any distrust or discord.
We find some more alliteration and our oxymoron in that stanza. Still there is no rhyme, but there could be if we wished, as long as we didn’t set up a pattern. Any lines that have the same meter, or number of syllables, is accidental, not a pattern or scheme.
Oh, one last comment, free verse does not mean don’t use needed punctuation or capitalization. As I searched for examples of free verse, I found many that didn’t have punctuation (which caused ideas and thoughts to run together) and didn’t have capitalization, which distracts from the meaning.
I hope I’ve helped you understand a bit more about writing free verse. Try it and see what you can create.