Free Verse[Page 1]
Unlike couplets or sonnets or blank verse, free verse follows no pre-ordained, regular pattern of rhyme or meter. Therefore, one must identify free verse first by looking for negative facts, by checking for rhyme and finding no pattern, checking for meter and discovering no regularity. We can, however, describe free verse as more than a set of absences. This and the following pages will attempt such a description of the nature, history, and technique of this most modern of verse forms.
Tennis without a Net
Robert Frost famously opined that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Like many other admirers and practitioners of formal poetry, Frost saw in free verse an excessive glorification of freedom over structure. The effectiveness of Frost's and similar criticisms is evident in the tendency of free verse's admirers to explain at length why the idea of free verse does not authorize a writer to spew out prose, chop it into lines a few inches wide, and call it free verse. Critical treatments of free verse routinely include a passage lamenting the apparent tendency of free verse to inspire bad poetry; such passages echo a centuries-old tradition of critical laments about popular poetry and music, so I do not feel confident reserving free verse the place of bad poetry's singular muse.
The dominance of free verse in contemporary poetry does, however, create the possibility that writers will employ free verse reflexively, without considering the possibilities that more formal poetry might create. Carl Sandburg wrote in 1942, "Once a college student spoke his anxiety about whether to write his poetry in rhyme or not. The best I could do for him was the advice: 'If it jells into free verse, all right. If it jells into rhyme, all right.'" Sandburg, who wrote free verse and to whom Frost's tennis metaphor may have been directed, also offered an eloquent response to Frost in the same article:
Recently a poet was quoted as saying he would as soon play tennis without a net as to write free verse. This is almost as though a zebra should say to a leopard, "I would rather have stripes than spots," or as though a leopard should inform a zebra, "I prefer spots to stripes." The poet without imagination or folly enough to play tennis by serving and returning the ball over an invisible net may see himself as highly disciplined. There have been poets who could and did play more than one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an insubstantial net, on a frail moonlit fabric of a court.