Updated: Mar 19, 2022
Writing free verse poetry is like playing tennis with the net down.
There are no rules or rhyme schemes to follow (though rules and rhyme schemes aren’t strictly forbidden), meaning the lack of uniformity creates little to no direction.
Despite free verse poetry being an open game, there are five techniques for writing free verse that can ease us out of conformity.
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No. 1 - You Can Rhyme If You Want, Or You Can Leave Your Rhymes Behind
The Poetry Foundation defines free verse poetry as “non-metrical, non-rhyming lines” that follow the natural rhythm of everyday speech. However, because free verse poetry doesn’t need a rhyme scheme, that doesn’t mean we can’t rhyme. In fact, there are plenty of examples of free verse poetry that do rhyme.
Such as Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town by E.E. Cummings.
Cummings forms an end rhyme couplet then finishes each quatrain with two unrhymed lines. This is one example of how we can create rhyme in free verse poetry, without having to follow a strict rhyme scheme.
Playing around with line structure can create a unique flow to a free verse poem. This brings us to technique number two!
No. 2 - Cadence Is Her Name, And Rhythm Is Her Game
Derived from the Latin word cadentia - cadence creates rhythm, or movement, in our free verse poetry by creating pitch—the rise and fall in voice when the poem is performed. Cadence is important in free verse because it establishes how the composition is articulated.
There are three poetry tools that will help us create cadence within our free verse poems.
Anaphora: the repetition of words or phrases within poetic lines and stanzas, typically towards the beginning of a line.
Enjambment: the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to another without the use of terminal punctuation.
Punctuation: the use of periods, commas, hyphens, colons, and semicolons to create flow through a poem.
Anaphora works well when trying to make the free verse sound melodic or lyrical. Take a piece of William Blake’s poem “London” for example where he makes use of the phrase “In every.”
“In every cry of every Man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban”
Take a look at the anaphora used in Walt Whitman’s When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.
Enjambment is the perfect poetic device for creating separation in a free verse poem or to drive attention to a particular detail. It can add complexity by allowing the poet to continue a thought from one line to the other, build momentum by creating a faster pace, or the placement of words deliberately adding emphasis to a thought.
An example of how enjambment creates cadence in free verse poetry can be found in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
The enjambment Eliot uses here helps to evoke momentum of the changing of seasons, and highlights the metamorphosis of what is occurring.
Punctuation is the easiest way for us to incorporate cadence within a poem. The use of a hyphen could dictate two separate parts, or create a sudden pause. The use of a comma at the end of a line for example lets the reader know the rest of the poem is critical to the original part or image. Thus creating cadence by directing the reader on how to read the poem.
Creating rhythm in a poem that typically lacks any kind of rule structure will entertain the reader and make our free verse poetry more interesting rather than boring.
No. 3 - Putting Things Into Perspective
Aldous Huxley once said there are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception. Which doors we decide to open will determine the experience that will be presented. The same applies to free verse poetry.
Imagine for a moment, that Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven was told from the perspective of the raven rather than the human narrator. What might that look like? How would that change the tone of the poem? Changing perspective creates intrigue for the reader.
No. 4 - Compounds Are Your Friends
German poet Karl Schlegel once said that wit is an explosion of the compound spirit. What could be wittier than using compound words to create vivid imagery and description where there is none?
One such poetess that does this well is Sylvia Plath in her poem Metamorphosis.
Pay attention to the hyphenated compounds that Plath uses. Things such as “moon-glint” to create the imagery of light shedding from the moon, or “goat-horns” to identify a male figure. Or Plath’s use of open compounds such as “twigged forest” to describe the surrounding trees.
Free verse poetry doesn’t possess any specific guidelines, thus creating a descriptive setting, as Plath does, can set the tone for the rest of the poem and easily attract readers.
No. 5 - Hold A Conversation With The Audience
Playing tennis requires skill, but can you talk a good game? Writing free verse poetry also requires a talking point. Something that is worth discussing or telling a story about. While writing dialogue is one way of incorporating conversation in free verse poetry, it isn’t the only way. Here are five ways you can write free verse poetry conversationally:
Watch the way people speak. Create a two-way conversation between the writer and the reader by using contractions, fragmentation, and pronouns like “I” and “We.” The goal here is to sound human and not like an academic professor.
Use brief line structure. We aren’t recreating the infamous monologue of a Grammy-winning screenplay. Get to the point of the poem and maintain focus on the theme/s to increase readability.
Stop being passive. Instead of writing “the roots stemmed from the tree” we can write “the tree has roots.” This opens the creative board for why these roots are important to the rest of the poem. Where do they lead to?
Read the poem aloud. Language was intended to be spoken. That is why we have voices in our heads when we read to ourselves. Write the way you would in a journal entry and listen to how the words flow as you speak. Where do we pause and breathe?
Who are you writing to? Is the poem a love letter to someone or a statement of concern before politicians? Knowing who we are writing the poem for will help direct the language being used.
Bonus - Show, Don’t Tell
Using enriched details will foster a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to “be in the room” with the writer. Create a sense of setting, describe an action, reveal what emotion may look like to you. Just be wary of too much detail because it can make the free verse poem we are writing too dense.
List Of Our Top 10 Free Verse Poems
"Mother To Son" by Langston Hughes
"From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee
"The Pool" by H.G.
"I Carry Your Heart With Me" by E.E. Cummings
"Risk" by Anaïs Nin
"Sloe Gin" by Seamus Heany
"Anne Hathaway" by Carol Ann Duffy
"The Good Life" by Tracy K. Smith
"Praise The Rain" by Joy Harjo
"In The Metro Station" by Ezra Pound