The Shortcomings of Free Verse

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on December 20, 2010 at 5:07 AM

Writing poetry the modern way, the free verse way, the no-pain-no-gainless way is not difficult. Writing poetry which merits its reading is. Because English is largely spoken in a natural iambic metre (allowing for regional accents) one could in practice jot down one’s thoughts on any given subject, apply line breaks where speech would naturally pause and voilà, a poem is written. Put another way:


one could in practice

jot down one’s thoughts

on any given subject,

apply line breaks

where speech

would naturally pause

and voilà,

a poem is written.


That is to say, this naïve and facetious example, which has all the appearance of a poem on the page, simply follows the harmonic cadences of Western speech. It needs a title of course. I’ll call it . . . Cop Out. Now sit back for the obligatory nerdy paragraph:-


The Latin word cadentia unhelpfully means ‘a falling off’, more applicable to musical cadences. The typical iambus follows the pattern of a short or weak syllable followed by a stressed or long syllable, though it can be the other way around. Some think that it replicates the heart beat as in der dum, der dum, der dum as if chancing on some profound insight. And here’s another nerdy bit - the iambic trimeter was first used by Greek satirists – iaptein meaning ‘to attack verbally.’ Good. We’ve got that out of the way.


So, much of the poetry presented online and also often published in Small Press publications adopts this modus operandi. The poetic conventions of rhyme (whether perfect, internal, half rhyme or assonant), sprung rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, simile and imagery are happily omitted, and why not? They demand imagination, the creative juices, fine judgments and decision making. The labour -intensive, time-consuming use of the thesaurus and dictionary, the tedium of crafting lines and the frustration of ditching one’s darling phrases to make a rhyme are utterly avoided; as are those endless revisions – thank many a god for the back spacer in my case (I daren’t permit myself freehand – no human would ever read it).

What it comes down to is that free verse (mostly unstanza-ed) is just too easy to write, and whereas it might encourage almost anyone to write poetry one is reminded of Lear’s ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ That said, free verse can work well but there has to be a bloody good original idea within the poem’s plainsong.


Generally however, much modern free verse rarely says anything worth saying and, without the element of crafting, it is rudderless. I suspect that, given modern man’s natural propensity to short cut virtually every effort, if crafting was de rigueur many who write poetry now would no longer do so.

And yet the mainstay of almost all modern verse is a given – the rhythm. By aping speech patterns rhythm and basic line breaks can be naturally achieved. And certainly, as a skeleton draft, the plainest of language will help the poet to sketch out the structure of the poem, to work through its consistency and test its basic concept for leakage. As this is done the poem will often shape itself. The length of the first line for instance might dictate the length of all others. The build -up of the narrative or descriptive passages may suggest stanzas or free flow. And if stanzas are used, the line count of each may evolve as creative cogs turns.

But, with the rhythm and structure achieved and a central concept mapped out, is that then it ? Is the free verser’s offering now destined for the Keats-Shelley prize, or is it a suit of clothes fit only for a myopic emperor?


So, what else can be avoided because it is too much like hard work? The decision to rhyme or not to rhyme would be an obvious candidate. And if to rhyme, what scheme to use; whether to locate full or half rhymes at the end of lines, or to embed internal or assonant rhymes as mortar to bind the poem. Decisions, decisions. But they can be by-passed; as can the need to root around in a rhyming dictionary and, finding nothing suitable, to rewrite a choice descriptive phrase because nothing rhymes with ‘purple’ or ‘orange’. Also, the necessity to assess a reader’s patience with half or quarter rhymes. Neither would there be a requirement to discipline oneself not to invert the customary word order simply to accommodate a rhyme. Nope. The emperor’s transparent finery requires none of this.


Nor does his suit need the epaulettes of metaphor or simile. A few buttons of course but no gilt braid or piping to raise an eyebrow or stroke the imagination. No unstoppering the heart to release the creative spirit; to let loose the impatient genie makes words jump through hoops of fire and can girdle the globe in search of the rare, and risky, bon mot. Do today’s free versers fear such alchemy, or can’t they be bothered with all that tosh ? Too, too much hard work involved (toil, exertion, effort, strain, stress, pressure, struggle, labour, travail, sweat, swink, operoseness, fagging, drudgery, hammering, pains, trouble, limae labor, energy, vigour . . . puff, puff! . . . I have it! Too, too much hammering).


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti free verse. I use it myself often (rhyme and alliteration should be used with circumspection or they work against the serious poem becoming a distraction.) Poems short on craft are short on poet, and definitely short change the reader. I hope I will never be accused of not using the most felicitous word in every instance. Each word in a poem from first to last should, in my opinion, be tested against all alternatives. Many of the poems which I read today suggest that the poet’s thesaurus (if he or she has one) needs dusting. There are too many obvious, first choice plain Janes in them. It’s not so much the application of imagination, structure or concept which is missing but the evidence of effort and revision. I can’t hear much hammering these days. Maybe I’m going deaf.

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