Free verse poetry has a reputation for being less restrictive than other forms of structured poetry. In a sense, that is true. Writing poetry, particularly structured English language poetry, can often mean conforming to strict line lengths, meter or rhyme schemes. Whether you’re writing in the sonnet form, blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) or any other kind of traditional, structured poetry, it is common to feel like you’re having to change what you want to say to fit the form.

As a poetic form, free verse is probably the least restrictive kind of poetry you’re going to be able to write. You, the poet, can essentially sit down in front of a blank page, and write what you want. Many poets, particularly those who haven’t studied the more technical aspects of the form, and are instead drawn to the freedom of expression that vers libre allows, believe that this means free verse doesn’t have any restrictions.

What Free Verse Poetry Is

You can find definitions for free verse poetry easily enough – even on this site. It is, essentially, a rejection of traditional poetic form. It is also unique amongst all English language poetry, french poetry and poetry from across the world, in that it is the only art form defined by what it is not. It is the only form of English poetry (though it borrows heavily, and originated in, other languages) which is a technically negative form.

Free verse form has had any restrictions regarding formal meter or rhyme scheme, line lengths or formal structure removed. Alternatively, you could say that it hasn’t had any of the above restrictions added on – it depends on how you, personally, view poetry as an art, and to which poets club you belong.

So, if we take it that free verse poetry and free verse poems are completely free of restrictions, doesn’t that also mean it is free of limitations?

Is Modern Poetry Free Of Limitations?

Whether modern poetry is free of limitations is something that you’ll struggle to get two poets to agree on. What makes a poem, a poem? After vers libre and free verse poetry, it cannot be the structure, rhyme scheme or strict meter placed on a poem. Nor can it be the presence of specific line breaks, or the use of enjambment.

There are artists and poets working today, and in the latter half of the twentieth century, who really threw themselves into post-modern poetry. Sound poets, for example, such as Bob Cobbing, who could be said to reject traditional English language poetry in favour of sound-text composition.

Free Verse Poetry Without Words

Even as early as 1905, writers such as Christian Morgenstern and Hugo Ball were already creating work completely free of limitations, even the limitations of language. One of Morgenstern’s poems, for example, has a first stanza which reads (or sounds):

“Kroklokwafzi? Semememi!

Seiokrontro – prafriplo:

Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi:

quasti basti bo…

Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!”

Das Große Lalulá (1905)

Now, your immediate reaction might be one which rejects this as part of a poem entirely. However, immediate rejection of anything, particularly anything which was on the “cutting edge” of modern poetry more than a hundred years ago, is a surefire way to stop yourself from learning and embracing new techniques when writing your own poetry, whether you’re writing free verse, blank verse or in the sonnet form.

The above poem, for such it is, was written in German. Morgenstern attempted to write a sound poem, in the early twentieth century, which relied entirely on the connotations of sounds. In a way, Das Große Lalulá is a piece of writing which is designed to translate into poetry as it passes through the air from the reader’s mouth to the listener’s ear.

It may not translate so well to readers of English language poetry, but that’s more to do with different cultural connotations around certain sounds.

Anyway, the purpose of that little divergence was to highlight the lack of limitations that can be placed on free verse poetry, even as far back as 1905.

Is Free Verse Less Restrictive Than Other Poetry?

By itself, yes. Free verse doesn’t have the technical restrictions and definitions that makes other forms of poetry what they are. Free verse poems, compared to formal poetry, can be written however you like, in any length, with any structural or verse form that you think suits the poem best.

However, that doesn’t mean free verse is free of technical choices. The best free verse poems, as they don’t have a formal structure to rely on, need to create their own structure and form. Each free verse poem should possess its own form, without necessarily relying on what has come before it.

It is extremely easy to write free verse poetry. However, it is incredibly difficult to write good free verse poetry. Without the structure of blank verse, iambic pentameter or other formal verse, your free verse form relies entirely on your own abilities and technical understanding.

Ezra Pound, Free Verse & Musicality

One of the leading proponents of free verse as a form, Ezra Pound, believed in the composition of poetry according to cadence, rather than iambic pentameter, or other iambic forms. While iambic pentameter and blank verse are extremely pleasing to the ear, it is an artificial verse form, with the language chosen to fit around the form.

It was Pound’s belief that free verse, and vers libre, should be composed with the goal of musicality, rather than following a strict iambic structure. While this isn’t a technical restriction, it is an example of the technical form which makes great free verse poetry.

It is all too easy to replace any kind of technique with simple emotion – relying on the strength of your words and the theme behind the poem to carry it forwards. While that might make powerful confessional material, it doesn’t necessarily equate to incredible free verse poetry.

Do Restrictions Make Good Poetry?

It’s important not to see one kind of poetry as innately superior to another. You’ll have your preferences, certainly. I, typically, enjoy free verse poems often a great deal more than I do traditional structured poetry. However, that doesn’t stop me from reading and enjoying Paradise Lost, or Childe Harold.

It is possible to write incredible poetry in all forms – whether that’s in a sonnet form from the sixteenth century, blank verse, modern free verse or even one of the more experimental forms which gained prominence during the twentieth century.

Unrhymed poetry can be just as breathtaking as formal verse. Free verse poets can elicit just as much emotion as sixteenth century poets who wrote in the French form.

As I said, and this site should hopefully prove, I think free verse poems can be written with such technical brilliance. However, there are benefits when it comes to writing with restrictions on your work.

The Benefits Of Writing Free Verse Poems With Restrictions

Writing vers libre, with restrictions, can not only help to develop a particular poem, but it can also to improve your own writing abilities. Restrictive writing may, at its core, be the opposite of free verse, but that is, in a way, the point. Free verse poets looking to expand their abilities, and how they’re able to approach poetry, should at least experiment with specific restrictions.

Some of the most noticeable benefits that writing free verse with personal restrictions include:

  • Expand Your Repertoire – If you prevent yourself from using the kinds of language you naturally gravitate towards, you can expand the kinds of language you’re able to call on. A popular technique when writing poetry is to write in what is know as English Prime. This is where you remove the verb “to be” and all its conjunctions and contractions.
  • Avoid Repetition – By expanding your language, you can avoid unintended repetition, which can ruin the rhythm and flow of any free verse poem. When writing poetry, each word needs to be chosen carefully and with purpose. Intended repetition can be extremely powerful, but unintended repetition can often be the death of poems and individual stanzas.
  • Develop An Internal Rhyme Scheme – While free verse poetry doesn’t have a rigid rhyme scheme, internal rhymes can be extremely powerful when it comes to enhancing the musicality of your writing. When you write poetry, you need to be aware of each sound and how every syllable interacts with those around it.

There are many more benefits to writing free verse with restrictions, even if only as an experiment or to enhance your ability to write other forms of poetry. Free verse, with restrictions, can also help you to develop your understanding of other poetic forms, including blank verse and specific techniques such as meter or rhyme scheme.

I hope you’ve found this article useful! If you’re looking for free verse writing guides, more detail on writing experiments you can try, or you want to further expand your knowledge and understanding of free verse as a platform, check out some of the other articles we’ve written.

J.W. Carey
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