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Free Verse: The Hidden Rules Of Free Verse Poetry

Guest writer Ruth Gilbo writes in Tennessee and is the administrator of Poets Contest Corner (http://poetscontestcorner.blogspot.com), a weblog dedicated to the encouragement of poets and their craft. In this article, she explains the hidden rules of free verse poetry. NOTE: Per the author’s request, do not repost or republish this article.

Free verse is not poetry without form or rules. It is not written as an essay and then broken into lines. The final form is not what makes it a poem; it is the simultaneous collaboration of vocabulary, punctuation, and line break. Proper use of the tools of poetry helps to mold a piece to its final state. Simply brainstorming, then adding line breaks does not constitute a poem.

Free verse is a challenging form that utilizes the natural cadences of common speech to create rhythm in lieu of the strict usage of meter found in classic forms. Free verse is the breaking of some old rules and the utilization of new tools, not the elimination of any and all rules.

Free verse often uses the natural cadence of speech to determine the length of each line in order to bring each new thought to its natural end or pause. The tools used to do this are the line stop (established by punctuation) or enjambment (inserting a strategic line break). Enjambment must have purpose and is not to be arbitrarily employed. It should be used to pull the reader through a short line to the next, where the thought can end on a weighty word capable of making the reader pause to absorb what has just been said. Or it will cause the line to end on an article (so on the following line be sure to use a word with some weight that is capable of carrying the reader through to the natural stop). When used skillfully, enjambment will not only carry the reader’s attention through the poem, but will create tension in the piece that complements the connotations, imagery, or metaphors intended by the author.

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The authors of 20th-century free verse supervened the use of end-of-line rhyming schemes, but employed the internally natural rhyming methods of repetitive sound, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme. If used skillfully, these tools not only give the reader the sense of the poem’s music, but they have a practical purpose as well. To slow the reader down, try using S-L combinations: Sally slipped through flattened sheets. To make the writer pause and digest, try hard consonant sounds: He became Canadian bound.

One more note: Articles and conjunctions, like it and and, should always be used in proportion to their use in common speech. When read aloud a poem with too many ands sounds like a 1970s Valley Girl spewing “like” as she talks. It’s not natural; it takes away from the meat of the poem; it sounds like a “filler” for use in maintaining cadence; it feels forced; and, well, it’s just plain annoying.

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At Writer’s Relief, we love poets! If you have more questions about free verse, or simply want to read more about the art of writing (and submitting) poetry, check out our list of our favorite poetry articles! And REMEMBER TO CHECK OUT OUR LIST OF WRITING CONTESTS and ANTHOLOGIES! You won’t find a better list anywhere (AND IT’S FREE!) of upcoming anthologies, special-themed journals, and contests. 

6 Responses to Free Verse: The Hidden Rules Of Free Verse Poetry

  1. Grammar rules are not as hard and fast in poetry as they are in prose. Often poets bend the rules of grammar in their poems. I wonder what this editor would think of the works of E.E. Cummings!

  2. Recently, I’ve struggled while working with an editor who is a stickler for every sentence in free verse poems being complete and grammatically correct. I’ve always tended toward the spare in my poems, and the continuous requirement to add more words to make things “correct” is killing me. Are there set and fast rules about grammar in free verse poetry, or is it about making language choices that suit the style and voice of the poet? I’ve read plenty of professionally published poetry that doesn’t fit this editor’s rules and I’m wondering if I’m crazy, or maybe we just aren’t a great fit.

  3. I don’t understand why writing a piece of ‘poetry’ has to have so many rules. Why can’t we just write and let people be the judge whether to like or dislike. If I were to write a book I could write it in any manner I wish and the it would up to the reader to find it worthy or not. How/were can I publish something that doesn’t seem to fall into any category?

  4. Dear Knave,

    That’s a great question, but not one that we can answer, as it’s really up to your discretion as the author. While our article points out that those choices should be conscious ones and done with purpose, it’s not up to anyone but the poet to decide where line breaks/conjunctions are most appropriate. If you are looking for feedback from other writers, we suggest joining a writing group or workshop. You can look up groups in your local area, or visit our classifieds for any that might interest you: http://client.writersrelief.com/writers-classifieds/writing-conferences.aspx

  5. What do you think about line breaks in conjunction with conjunctions? Never end in and? Never begin with but? Use discretion?

  6. I must admit, I often overuse enjambment in my first drafts and have to force myself to keep editing and editing them out. They’re so fun to play with, but the finished product can’t be just an exercise in creativity, it’s gotta be purposeful. By the end, I mostly employ internal rhyme and assonance and consonance. But go through my first drafts and it’s enjambment enjambment enjambment!

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