Free Verse Poetry

To open this post, I quote the definition of free verse given by Lewis Turco in the Book of Forms:

"If 'verse' is defined as 'metered language' and 'prose' as 'unmetered language,' then the term 'free verse' is a contradiction in terms because 'verse' cannot be 'free,' for it is 'metered.' The only other possibility, then, is that 'free verse' is 'prose' broken into lines by some means or other" (189).

Now just what is Turco talking about here? Well, let me try to rephrase this another way. One common idea about free verse is that there is no system, no form or guidelines or rules on which the particular poem is based. But what Turco is saying is that all poetry has some kind of system, some way that it works (or should work), otherwise it is simply breaking up prose. When a poet breaks a line there is (usually) some reason why they chose to break the line. Whatever that reason is, the poet has imposed a system of some sort, some conventions that are intended to convey meaning to a reader. For example, a poet may break a line when something in the poem changes, say a door shuts, or a leaf drops from a tree.

This relates to a debate about whether there is or is not form in poetics. Turco is a formalist (one who sees a form in every kind of poem). Even in a radically new poetic system, Turco would turn around and say that there is always a form which carries the content. Another point on the formalist side that is often mentioned is that the albhabet, or any system of language, is based on a form. Otherwise, how would the letter "A" be recognized as the letter "A"?

As for me, I am not convinced that there is a definite form for all poetry, and I am not so keen to divide poetry from prose, or writing from other arts, or arts from any other field of knowledge. I have a difficult time fitting everything in a nice little box -- especially in light of some radical poetics (visual poetry, code poetry) and revolutionary prose (Finnegans Wake, The Double Hook and many others). Postmodern writers and artists are especially interested in the blending and overlapping of forms, and on the non-formalist side of the debate, many would say that there is only one form, and that this form is always changing and re-shaping with new artistic creation.

However, having said this, I am still wary of the term "free verse." Even though a poem I write doesn't have a rhyme scheme, and even though I don't have a set number of syllables in each line, I still have some reason or other that I break the lines where I do or shape the poem as I see fit. So while this is "free" in the sense that it is up to me, there is still a system, some reason that underlies the poem. I choose certain words as opposed to any other words... I do not just write down random letters. And even though sometimes, I must admit, I do write random letters and words, that is then the system, and this system is still intended to convey some meaning.

I don't pretend to have a clear answer for all this, but what I do have is an idea for an example. Below you will find a block or writing:

in the land of inside out I felt awash in gentle rhythms like a rinse cycle danced a thousand tangos with toucans I so wanted to understand their laws of gravity and traffic I kidnapped a cop made him drive in circles while I tossed apples at taxi cabs the drivers cursed me in English and gave me money I was rich as a cat ate spider plants for water I'll never own a fur coat so fine as my cat coat in the land of inside out

If you read this and wanted to divide it into poetic lines, where would you break the lines? What things would you think about in deciding where to make breaks? How about any time you saw the word "I", or any time there was a word that indicated movement. There are innumerable ways that this text could be reworked into poetic lines, and perhaps it's poetic just as it is. I'm not trying to convince you that there is a right way to go about it, but ask yourself, when you write free verse poetry, is there not some reason to create the poem as you do? I do apologize for overcomplicating and taking the fun out of what is supposed to be intuitive and free. Below find my re-working of the text above:

in the land of inside out
I felt awash in gentle rhythms like a rinse cycle
danced a thousand tangos with toucans
I so wanted to understand
their laws of gravity and traffic
I kidnapped a cop
made him drive in circles
while I tossed apples at taxi cabs
the drivers cursed me in English and gave me money
I was rich as a cat
ate spider plants for water
I'll never own a fur coat
so fine as my cat coat
in the land of inside out


the walking man said...

Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost had this same argument their entire professional life to the point where they loathed each other.

December 9, 2009 at 5:45 AM
Jon said...


I'm curious to know... who was on which side?

December 9, 2009 at 6:48 AM
the walking man said...

Frost believed in strict construction according to established rules, though to my ear he sometimes stretched to meet his rhyme scheme, while Sandburg took more to the then Modern Style which was (as far as I can tell) was first spun out by Stephen Crane.

December 10, 2009 at 6:17 AM
human being said...

once the walking man had some block of writing on his blog for those who were interested to punctuate and some guys were supposed to choose the best one... you can guess what they felt about my punctuation...
liked this post a lot and decided to share it with you or fun:


less men
at a freeway
with the too typical signs about
and bless silently gassing themselves with the hundred passing pollution machines wishing the street lights were working so they could be seen...

neither more damaged than any other waiting in that line
with their own sign having
a dream that the passing people could see
the blood
flowing from their eyes and stumps as they lock stepped march
towards the casino games rushing to play their hands
they had one left to hold the cards...

fed supplicant praying to a god of luck and fortune with promises of bounty sharing
secretly hoping the sign holders shift would end by the time they won security for themselves

lincoln freed slaves
to end a war that never ended
Whitman wrote better poetry
than i do
though we both bathe body and soul in the guts of the wounded and injured who are
casualties of a new style battle fought between masters and slaves where the wounded are
to beg stan
ding leg
after giving pounds of their flesh freely bleeding on spinning field of leaves that has grown
cold grass at the freeway

December 17, 2009 at 12:41 AM
Jon said...

This is a great poem... I'll have to check out the prompt that walkingman set up to see more of how you've worked with this. I really like how the standing is broken and how this initiates my thoughts to the loss of legs. I see some relation as well to the poem on your blog yesterday about the leg of the table; same kind of instability here too.
oh... and I think that your punctuation is great! and in this poem how the space punctuates


Thanks a lot for sharing this poem here.

December 17, 2009 at 4:52 AM
Harlequin said...

great prompt and wonderful contributions here in the comments bar....
am looking forward to giving this a go in a deliberate response

December 19, 2009 at 11:06 AM
Lee said...

This is another one of the ones I tried. Normally I tend to stray more towards rhymes when it comes to reading or writing poetry, so, I figured I might as well give it a shot!

February 5, 2010 at 9:06 PM
Jon Parsons said...


Rhyme doesn't always have reason

and reason doesn't always have rhyme!

Nice to hear from you, and I hope you drop back again and share some of your writing with us...


February 7, 2010 at 1:50 AM
GoGo said...

Hey There,

I had somehow saved Human Being's poem Legless men in a pile of forgotten poems. I googled the whole poem to find where I found it and who wrote it...I'm glad it brought me back here tonight. Nice page.

October 2, 2010 at 5:54 AM
human being said...

hi GoGO!
this poem is not mine... not a word of it... mark (the walking man) has written it... as i've mentioned above, he presented this as a bulk of words and asked his readers to punctuate it... (unfortunately he has omitted many of his old posts; otherwise, i could link to it...)

so just the line breaks and punctuations are mine...
i really loved this poem and its profound content... i tried to give it a form illustrating the theme...
well i should admit that i'm really pround of myself (like a kid) to have another beautiful soul liking this form...
some intriguing concept here: can a person claim the ownership of a poem just by giving it a new form? hmmm... i doubt it... because here first we had the content then the form...
perhaps it can be a collaboration...

i should thank you for leading me to this site and this poem and some beautiful memories...

love to you my dear friend

October 2, 2010 at 8:06 AM