Free Verse = Poetry?

Maybe I’m just a Philistime here, but I’ve come to wonder: is “free verse”, with no rhyme pattern or meter, truly a form of poetry?

Most sources I’ve read say it is, but the free verse I’ve read or heard just seems to me like prose that ignores the rules of capitalization or punctuation. On rare occasions, I’ve seen a poem written in such a way that the written words form an intriguing visual image, but other than that, isn’t the essence of poetry a matter of esthetic wordplay?

Is or isn’t free verse legitimately considered poetry? And why?

Chaim Mattis Keller

“Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.”
– Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective

I once heard the following distinction between prose and poetry: The simple meaning of prose is what you get when you read the words on the line. The simple meaning of poetry is what you get when you read between the lines. In other words, poetry is, by this definition, written in a sort of hidden manner, designed to evoke emotions and prod you into thinking deeper about what it really means.

Akiva Miller

On rereading the above, I realize it doesn’t make nmuch sense. The point I was trying to make is that if the author of the free verse chose that format (broken lines with missing punctuation) because he felt that it would make his point better than straight prose would, yes, that is what defines it as poetry.

Not necessarily good poetry, though. That would depend on other factors.

My take on free verse vs. prose is similar to artistic photography vs. candid photography. Poetry doesn’t just use the words that say what the writer means (as strict definition) but rather they are selected on there essense and sound. Also, the image that the words bring to mind are important.

For instance:

“The mischeivous ballon man blows a whistle that can be heard from several blocks”


“the goatfooted ballon man whistles far and wee” - cummings

The imagery is more pronounced in cummings’ version. It says more in fewer words than a prose version ever could.

Carpe hoc!

Of course, one must remember that anytime a sleepy person types “ballon”, they really mean “balloon”. :wink:

Mr. Know It All:

I’ll grant you that there are other forms of artistic wordplay than rhyme and meter. But try the following:

The mischeivous ballon man blows a whistle that can be heard from several blocks.


The mischeivous man
Who sells balloons blows a
Whistle that
Can be heard from several blocks

Chaim Mattis Keller

A poet can use forms diverse
Like lim’ricks or haikus quite terse
When true to the letter
The ode sounds much better
Unmetered and rhyme-free, verse.

A man with this name: C M Keller,
Thinks he’s an artistic feller.
But “dissing” e. e.
Will bring forth “Tee hee!”
From even a comic book seller.

Carpe hoc!

I have a spelling checker
It came with my P.C.
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I’ve run this poem threw it,
I’m sure your please two no:
It’s letter perfect in it’s weigh----
My checker tolled me sew.

Mr. KnowItAll:

You sell comic books?

Do you do old stuff, like 50’s or 60’s stuff? Have I perhaps seen your merchandise on Ebay but not recognized you?

Chaim Mattis Keller

No, CM, but I used to collect comic books. I sold most of them off several years ago, and now I just collect graphic novels and trade paperbacks.

I just saw it listed as an interest in your profile, and thought it would make a good last line.

Meanwhle, back on topic…

The problem with free verse is three-fold:

  1. When free verse is evangelized, it’s never mentioned that the poets being lauded for shunning conventional form have, for the most part, already been educated in conventioal form. They have studied the intricate craft of poetry, its forms and its rules, and have brought that knowledge to bear when writing free verse. Free verse is not verse without rules, it is verse with new rules which are less obvious.

  2. As a result, most who turn to free verse do so without ever learning the actual craft of poetry. It’s not unlike an amateur pilot trying to fly through open barns, because if an expert is willing to do it, it must be safe. The poets who write good free verse have command of a huge toolbox of techniques, the effects of which in poem are profound, but the discussion of which would bore the hell out of most people. So most people don’t bother to learn poetics, because their misunderstanding of free verse' as meaning anything goes’ tells them they don’t have to. As a result, a great deal of what gets extruded in the name of `free verse’ is aesthetically bankrupt.

  3. Free verse is becoming more and more dependent on The Voice. You know the voice I mean if you’ve ever been to a poetry reading where free verse is read.

Before free verse, you knew a poem when you heard one, because poetry was carefully arranged so that the words when spoken had a certain musical quality. But free verse often relies on line breaks to create effects that come across if someone is reading it off of paper because they can see the line breaks and the use of space. In this way it uses visual tricks, whereas more traditional poetry relies solely on the sounds and meanings of the words to create effects. Because free verse has come to rely more and more on visual effects, it becomes less and less readable. Take the visual away, you’re left with mere prose. So, what such poets do when they read aloud is to force a sound on a poem by using a special `free verse voice.’

That gentlebreathy




       that smoothes out





         and makes



like poetry.

Although I don’t dismiss free verse altogether, I try to encourage starting poets to look beyond it to the deeper possibilities available to those who are willing to learn poetics.

I’m a poet. Well, I like to call myself a poet. I’ve always held the belief that Poetry is a general term, with subheadings such as Lyrics, Limericks, Haiku, Sonnets, etc. Not always will a poem have rhyme or rhythm, but it’s still poetry. Of course, many of the notable classic poets wrote stuff that had rhyme, at least, that musical quality that Johnny Angel spoke of. Free verse (this is the first time I’ve ever heard the term, but apparently this is what I tend to write) became more prevalent with the Beat Poets (Ginsburg, et al), why, I have no clue. Personally, if I read or write something wherein each line of text does not actually take an entire line of page, it’s supposed to be poetry, whether or not it rhymes, whether or not it fits into one of the Poetic subcatagories. If each line of text takes up an entire line of page, it’s something else - prose, article, story, whatever.

Then again, I did mention that I only like to call myself a poet, by virtue of the fact that I often write down words that are supposed to tell a story or evoke some thought or emotion and my lines of text do not use entire lines of page. Obviously, if those were the only requirements of something to be considered poetry, a grocery list could be considered so, if a person was creative enough to look at it that way.

What the hell am I talking about anyway? Oh, yeah, whether or not free verse can be considered poetry. Since I don’t care what actual scholars have to say about it, my vote is yes.

Veni, Vidi, Visa … I came, I saw, I bought.

You couldn’t have better illustrated my point. Free verse has mislead many to believe that line breaks are the essential element of poetry. As a result, there are many out there who will poetry without ever looking any deeper than that.

Obviously, the association between line breaks and poetry is strong – thats’ why the word verse' is used almost interchangably with poetry.’ Verse' is from the Latin versus,’ meaning `turn.’ The turn of the lines became synonymous with poetry itself.

But this turning is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for poetry. It’s not necessary because obviously Walt Witman had no problem with taking a line all the way to the edge of the page once or twice, as long as he could say it in one breath. It’s not sufficient because as you yourself said, a grocery list isn’t poetry.

There is another misunderstanding, again caused by the way free verse is evangelized, that this talk about metrics, assonance, dissonance, balance, vehicles and tenors is strictly the domain of scholars, not of poets. It amazes me that I meet would-be poets time and time again who think that they needn’t bother with all this. It’s like hearing a painter say, “Color? Shape? Perspective? Never heard of them.” The fact is, all these techniques are the stuff of poetry just as much as clay and glaze and are the stuff of pottery. Ginsberg, the famous Beat poet, was as familliar with these as anybody. Yet his legion of immitators try to shortcut the learning process that made Ginsberg capable of producing the works he did and jump right to the hard stuff, thinking it’s easier somehow.

This is what untamed free verse has produced, a culture where poetry itself has become devalued. No one can make a living as a poet anymore because now everyone fancies himself one. All you need is a black turtleneck sweater, a pencil and some paper. Instant artsy. No need to buy expensive paints and brushes. No need to hurt your brains by actually studying the subtle complexities of this ancient art. You’re a poet, just add Starbuck’s coffee and try to look languid.


Free verse started with Walt Whitman, which was a while before the beats came around.


That couldn’t have been a response to me, but I’ll reply anyway. :slight_smile:

I’ve found in having these discussions that you’ve got two main camps among the free versists, one that associates it most strongly with Witman, and one that associates it with the Beats. But because of the obvious paralells between Witman and Ginsberg, their names can often be used interchangably in the argument that good free verse poets learn formal verse first.

I would argue that “free verse” is a contradiction in terms. Once the poet, if they truly are a poet, not a poetaster, has decided on the overall structure of the work, the poem has to fit those constraints. The unfair part is that most people overlook the technical considerations found in constructing truly poetic free verse, whereas if a contemporary poet were to write in a classical form, such as couplets, tercets, or sonnets, to name a few, all of a sudden technical matters become fair game.
I noticed this phenomenon at a poetry club meeting I had last Wednesday. A certain degree of technical criticism was occuring, the likes of which one doesn’t find applied to most “confessional” free verse practitioners. (The sonnets we were looking at were those of Ross Leckie, a contemporary Canadian poet, editor of the Fiddlehead.)
Most people ignore the technical shortcomings of the work of poets such as Sylvia Plath because her confessional style supposedly made up for those weaknesses. Personally, I find Ted Hughes a much better read; at least he has the technique down.


Okay, here’s a question for you all, or at least those of you with not much background in literature study. Do you consider poetry with quite a bit of internal rhyme (but little to no end-stop rhymes, no rhyme scheme, and no steady meter) to be free verse? If not, what is it?

I used this argument once to shut up someone who said that she hated any poetry that rhymed, and one who said that she hated any poetry that did…using the same poem in both examples.

Let me see if I have this straight:

You’re inviting people who have little background in literature to blunder into your little trap?

Well, how about that? I mean, pick on somebody your own size why don’t you?

Why don’t you just reveal your tricky little counter-example and I’ll tell you if it proves anything.