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.
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.
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!