Today, we are going to discuss how to write a free verse poem. This means that we are going to spend a short duration on the history of this form before moving on to the characteristics of a free verse poem, the rules of free verse poetry, a few famous free verse poets and poems that you can learn from, as well as a few tips and tricks to help you on your way. If you want to learn how to write a free verse poem, let’s get reading!
Table of Contents
- 1 How to Write a Free Verse Poem
- 2 The History of Free Verse Poetry
- 3 The Characteristics of a Free Verse Poem
- 4 The Rules of Free Verse Poetry
- 5 Famous Free Verse Poets
- 6 Famous Free Verse Poems
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
How to Write a Free Verse Poem
If you want to learn how to write a free verse poem, then you need to know a little about free verse poetry. When it comes to how to write in free verse, you need to understand the rules of free verse poetry. Or, rather, the lack of rules in free verse poetry. Because that is the thing that truly distinguishes free verse poetry from other forms because other forms are focused on a specific, and often strict, structure. The free verse structure allows you to experiment, try your hand at new things, and remain unconstrained by the ordinary trappings of poetry.
Excerpt from Paradise Lost (1877) by John Milton; University of Toronto Scanning Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, with that being said, when it comes to how to write a free verse poem, it should be remembered that the lack of rules may appear like a gift, but it could be a curse. The inherent constraints of many different forms of poetry allow the poet to work within limitations, and limitations allow for a creative person to force their creativity through. This is also why many independent films made on tiny budgets are often so interesting. They cannot rely on a big budget that lets them have all the flair and spectacle. They have to work within limitations.
So, if you want to write in free verse, go ahead, but the free verse structure can be overwhelming to some. For this reason, it’s recommended that you both try out both free verse and more traditional poetic forms when writing. Do not, ironically, restrain yourself to free verse alone. You never know what you’ll produce if you allow yourself to experiment a little.
Now, before we get on to free verse poetry and how to write it, let’s see where this particular form comes from in the first place.
The History of Free Verse Poetry
Free verse poetry is a broad category of poetry that is generally characterized by its lack of the ordinary rules of poetry. It is often noted for being experimental and free-form, and this has allowed many free-verse poets over the years to make full use of language in an unrestrained manner, but where did this type of poetry originate in the first place? Well, it is often seen as beginning with Walt Whitman’s 1865 publication of his collection Leaves of Grass.
This poetry collection would include many of the features that have come to be associated with free verse poetry, such as the use of long and more natural lines rather than the punchy lines associated with typical poetry, the use of a more naturalistic tone and feeling, and the lack of ordinary metrical patterns and rhyme schemes. Elements such as these would become common throughout subsequent examples of free verse poetry.
The Iliad of Homer (1715) by Homer; See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, it was during the Modernist era of the 20th century when free verse poetry truly picked up and became an important and integral aspect of poetic form. Many figures from this period, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and ee cummings would use a freeform style of poetry that can be termed free verse. They would often stray even further from the kind of traditionalism that could be found even in the work of Walt Whitman, but they continued the tradition that he had started.
This form of poetry would continue to be used throughout the 20th century, and it has become associated with a certain era of poetry that persists into the present day. Free verse poetry is likely the most prominent form of poetry still written today as it allows poets to be highly variable in what they produce. This has led to a massive array of diverse styles and forms in poetry.
The highly experimental nature of free verse poetry is a major contributory factor in why it has remained such an important and persistent form of poetry into the present day.
Today, there are uncountable poets who are producing and publishing free verse poetry, and so when it comes to how to write a free verse poem, all one needs to do is look around and see what all has been made out there. However, we should examine some of the characteristics of a free verse poem to discuss a few pointers for those who want to try and write free verse poetry.
The Characteristics of a Free Verse Poem
When it comes to free verse poetry, it is often best to first talk about what isn’t a characteristic of this form. The free verse poem does not make use of a regular metrical arrangement or rhyme scheme. However, this does not mean that a free verse poem does not use meter or rhyme, but rather that there does not need to be a formal commitment to these common poetic elements. Instead, a poet can use them if they so wish.
Other non-characteristics are the lack of a strict structure, length requirements, stanza specifications, and the need for a certain poetic flow. Free verse poems can have whatever structure the poet wants to use, they can be as long as the poet wants, they can have as many or as few stanzas as desired, and they do not need to read like traditional poetry. They can be highly variable and experimental in nature, and this is one of the main things that is considered to be a distinguishing characteristic of a free verse poem.
Rape and suicide of Lucretia (nd); Maître aux mains volubiles (XVe siècle), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In more traditional instances of free verse poetry, there is often a more naturalistic style in which words are presented more conversationally, but this does not need to be used. However, this element will be discussed in some more detail below. The use of a more naturalistic and conversational tone is still quite common in free verse poetry even if it is not a necessity.
Other common characteristics entail things like the use of a personal perspective. However, this is not necessary but is rather something that is seen in many instances of free verse poetry. All of these different aspects of free verse poetry that have been discussed should have, hopefully, revealed that the main point about free verse poetry is that it does not conform to the general rules of poetry.
But does this mean that there are no rules in free verse poetry?
The Rules of Free Verse Poetry
One of the main points that is usually raised about free verse poetry is that it has no rules. There is a certain level of truth to this, but it is not the whole picture. In more traditional free verse poetry, many examples of this form attempted to make use of a more natural presentation of language. This meant that free verse poems were often more conversational in tone. The reason for this is because there is a very specific type of language that we usually associate with poetry. There is a kind of “poetic voice” that is present, and unnatural, in many traditional poems. It is not meant to sound naturalistic.
Is 5 (1970) by E. E. Cummings; E. E. Cummings, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Many early instances of free verse poetry, on the other hand, embraced natural language. Instead of trying to sound poetic, they wanted to sound more like speech. This often meant ignoring some of the rules of rhyme and meter, but this is not always the definitive case. There are many instances of free verse poetry that do not conform to this kind of natural language style that is often presented as a common feature of free verse poetry. So, for that reason, it could likely be termed correct to see free verse poetry as lacking in rules.
Like all instances of text, a poem does generally need to follow the basic rules of language to be understood, and so we could say that the rules of ordinary language apply to free verse poetry. However, this is not usually what we mean when we claim that free verse poetry is a type of poetry that “doesn’t have any rules”. We mean a type of poem that does not conform to a usual set of poetic rules.
So, in those terms, this type of poetry does not really follow any rules. It can be variable in its use of word choice, punctuation, typography, general structure, rhyme, meter, and poetic devices.
These elements can be used as desired rather than being forced on the writer through the specific type of poem that is being used. Something like a sonnet generally has a very pronounced rule set, but free verse allows the writer to experiment and play with forms.
Famous Free Verse Poets
When it comes to how to write a free verse poem, it can often be best to have a look at some of the greats who came before. The general free verse structure has become immensely influential in the history of poetry, especially throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, but we are going to examine some of the oldest writers of this form. Free verse poetry, as a concept, is relatively recent in terms of poetic history, and it only really originated during the 19th century. So, let’s examine two of the poets from this era who are considered to be some of the most important and influential figures in free verse poetry.
Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (1915); Poetry magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) from Huntington
|Poetic Movement||Free verse|
|Years||1819 – 1892|
|Place of Birth||Huntington, New York, United States|
|Known For||Leaves of Grass (1855)|
Walt Whitman is typically considered to be the “Father of Free Verse Poetry”, and an important figure in the history of poetry because of it. His work was often noted for being far more realistic in its general presentation. This is a common feature, as has been discussed, of the free verse structure.
However, his work was also considered to be controversial in nature because it was seen as obscene by some because it had a franker and clearer presentation of sexual themes.
He would go on to do a number of interesting things with his life, such as working in hospitals during the American Civil War and even writing some of his most famous texts, such as O Captain! My Captain! after the death of Abraham Lincoln. His work would continue to be deeply influential to many American poets over the decades, and his work may also influence you if you want to learn how to write in free verse.
Walt Whitman (1887) by George C. Cox; See file page for creator info.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) from Amherst
|Years||1830 – 1886|
|Place of Birth||Amherst, Massachusetts, United States|
|Known For||“Hope” is the thing with feathers (1861)|
Emily Dickinson is considered to be one of the most important and influential American poets of all time, and her work has had a profound influence on subsequent work in a similar vein. Her work is noted for its breaking of ordinary rules of writing, the use of unusual grammatical elements, the adoption of lower-case letters, the extensive use of slant rhyme, and the fact that they often lacked titles.
All of these elements are clearly mirrored in many pieces of poetry in subsequent eras, especially those produced during the Modernist era.
Her life has also become one of the things that many have fixated on as it was a rather strange life, by modern standards. She was a reclusive person and did not engage with many people in person. While some of her friends were aware of her poetry, the full extent of her highly prolific writing was not known until after she passed away. The subsequent publication of her work has led her to become one of the most important and influential figures in free verse poetry.
I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed (1861) by Emily Dickinson; Emily Dickinson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Famous Free Verse Poems
Learning from famous free verse poets can certainly help you when it comes to how to write a free verse poem, but looking at specific instances of free verse poetry is also very important. And so, that is what we are going to do now. However, it should be remembered that these are brief examinations of these poems.
You should also read the actual poems themselves as you will only learn from the greats when looking at, engaging with, and appreciating actual instances of free verse poetry.
“Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd” (1865) by Walt Whitman
|Type of Poem||Free verse|
“Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd” is one of the most famous poems that Walt Whitman ever wrote. It is not a particularly long poem as it is only made up of two stanzas, and each stanza makes use of a different number of lines. The first has five while the second has eight. This structure is unusual in ordinary poetic form and so it becomes a notable feature within a free verse structure or format.
The poem does not use a rhyme scheme and it has no set meter, but there are certain poetic elements, such as the repetition of words that add structure to the text. This shows a potential free verse poet that free verse does not mean there is no use of poetic forms.
Rather, the use of more standard poetic forms is entirely variable and can be determined by the writer rather than by the strict structure of certain types of poetry.
Come slowly – Eden! (1890) by Emily Dickinson
|Type of Poem||Free verse|
Come slowly – Eden! is a short poem by Emily Dickinson that is written over the course of two stanzas. Each of the stanzas is made up of four lines, and so they can be termed quatrains. The general topic of the poem is concerned with the concept of Eden, although it is used in a metaphorical sense. The poem continues to make use of the kind of language for which Dickinson would become known as there is a variable meter and an unusual rhyme structure that is not reminiscent of any established form of poetry.
When it comes to learning how to write a free verse poem, a poem like this can be a good learning experience as it shows the way in which unusual presentation and grammatical symbols can be adapted to produce a certain type of poem. In addition, the short length and metaphorical nature reveal the way in which a free verse poem can be structured. They can be long or short. There is no real rule one way or another for free verse poetry.
With those final few bits and pieces out of the way, we have reached the end of our look at how to write a free verse poem. We have examined the history of free verse poetry, some of the characteristics of a free verse poem, the rules of free verse poetry, and a few famous free verse poems and poets. Hopefully, this has helped you if you too want to learn how to write a free verse poem. Finally, always remember that you will only truly learn how to write any poem by practicing a whole lot.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is a Free Verse Poem?
A free verse poem is a type of poem that does not make use of the ordinary rules of poetry. It does not have a specific meter, rhyme scheme, or any other rules that one may find in strict poetic forms, such as sonnets. This means that free verse poems are perfect for experimentation and variability.
What Are the Characteristics of a Free Verse Poem?
The main characteristics of free verse poetry lie in its lack of strict characteristics. The free verse structure does not require any specific rhyme meter, or any other poetic elements. This means that the primary characteristic of a free verse poem is that it is highly open-ended, open to interpretation, and can be approached in as many ways as you see fit.
What Are the Rules of Free Verse Poetry?
The whole point of free verse poetry is that it does not have rules as we ordinarily see it. However, one could argue that certain rules, such as the standard rules of language, necessitate certain rules. For instance, a poem has to be understandable, but even this is not actually true. There are forms of nonsense poetry that are mostly oriented around sounds rather than understandable language. Although free verse poetry does often mimic more natural language than traditional poetry, this is also not a strict rule. So, there are basically no definitive rules. You can make them up as you go!
Who Are the Most Famous Free Verse Poets?
Some of the most famous free verse poets include figures like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Langstone Hughes, and ee cummings. Many others have made use of this poetic form over the years, and as free verse poetry has become associated with more contemporary forms of poetry, there are likely more free verse poets than ever. If you want to learn how to write a free verse poem, it can often be good to learn from the best poets who have made use of this form,
What Are the Most Famous Free Verse Poems?
There are many famous and fantastic free verse poems, and some of the most famous of them all include “Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd” (1865) by Walt Whitman, and Come slowly – Eden! (1890) by Emily Dickinson. However, there are many other instances of fantastic free verse poems, and if you want to learn how to write in free verse, learn from the greats!
Justin van Huyssteen is a freelance writer, novelist, and academic originally from Cape Town, South Africa. At present, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and literary theory and an honor’s degree in literary theory. He is currently working towards his master’s degree in literary theory with a focus on animal studies, critical theory, and semiotics within literature. As a novelist and freelancer, he often writes under the pen name L.C. Lupus.
Justin’s preferred literary movements include modern and postmodern literature with literary fiction and genre fiction like sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, and horror being of particular interest. His academia extends to his interest in prose and narratology. He enjoys analyzing a variety of mediums through a literary lens, such as graphic novels, film, and video games.
Justin is working for artincontext.org as an author and content writer since 2022. He is responsible for all blog posts about architecture, literature and poetry.
Cite this Article
Justin, van Huyssteen, “How to Write a Free Verse Poem – A Beginner’s Guide.” Art in Context. September 26, 2023. URL: https://artincontext.org/how-to-write-a-free-verse-poem/
van Huyssteen, J. (2023, 26 September). How to Write a Free Verse Poem – A Beginner’s Guide. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/how-to-write-a-free-verse-poem/