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Free Verse
[page 3]

Tools of Free Verse

Though we cannot describe free verse in terms of set meter or rhyme patterns, we can formulate some techniques that poets use to create meaning in free verse.

  • Line length. Since free verse has no rules governing line length, poets can vary it to create effects impossible in formal verse. Short, heavily enjambed lines create breaks in the flow of verse that can slow the reader's pace and add weight to every line. Long lines can produce the effect of barely-controlled energy that seems to burst through the limits of traditional line lengths. In the following passage from "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman increases the length of each line to build momentum, even as the "O" starting the first four lines helps the reader hear the line breaks.
      O such themes! Equalities! 
      O amazement of things! O divine average! 
      O warblings under the sun ó usher'd, 
           as now, or at noon, or setting! 
      O strain, musical, flowing through ages ó 
           now reach-ing hither, 
      I take to your reckless and composite 
           chords ó I add to them, and 
           cheerfully pass them forward. 

    (Note: All Whitman texts here are taken from the magnificent Whitman Archive.)

  • Organized irregularity. Whitman's habit of repeating the openings of lines (called anaphora) to structure his verse is one example of the many ways poets can use repetition, rhyme, parallelism and contrast to give the reader a sense of organization in free verse. Whitman's free verse regularly displays a dizzying multiplication of repetitions upon repetitions, echoes upon echoes. This passage is from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":
      Just as you feel when you look on the river 
           and sky so I felt; 
      Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, 
           I was one of a crowd; 
      Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness 
           of the river and the bright flow, I was 
      Just as you stand and lean on the rail, 
           yet hurry with the swift current, 
           I stood, yet was hurried; 
      Just as you look on the numberless 
           masts of ships, and the thick-stem'd 
           pipes of steamboats, I look'd. 

  • Lists and catalogs. Free verse allows poets to develop long lists of details that would stretch the limits of conventional verse. The following, again from Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," illustrates this pattern, as does Allen Ginsberg's famous (and much later) poem "Howl."

      It is not you alone who know what it is 
           to be evil; 
      I am he who knew what it was to be evil; 
      I too knitted the old knot of contrariety, 
      Blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, 
      Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I 
           dared not speak, 
      Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, 
           sly, cowardly, malignant,;
      The wolf, the snake, the hog, not 
           wanting in me, 
      The cheating look, the frivolous 
           word, the adulterous wish, not 
      Refusals, hates, postponements, 
           meanness, laziness, none 
           of these wanting. 

  • Unconventional symbols and characters. Free verse allows poets to use any symbol or character a keyboard or printer can muster, including many that would defy scansion.

  • Visual space. All the examples here have shown free verse that adheres to lines of conventional shape (starting on the left margin, with one space between words, and so forth). Some free verse, on the other hand, uses visual space to create different effects. See, for example, "Buffalo Bill's," by E.E. Cummings.

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