SunWinks! Sunday Gather Writing Essential January 20, 2013 Free Verse (SunWE)

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on January 20, 2013 0 Comments

Dear Gather Geezers:

It’s Poetics Week!  Every other week, SunWinks! alternates between a discussion of prose style and a tutorial on poetic technique.  Our topic is Free Verse and today’s guest columnist is Mary Oliver.

Mary Oliver has some wonderfully lucid words about free verse—modern, unstructured poetry—and since I should have filed my column an hour ago, I’m essentially going to reproduce those comments here unfiltered. The main idea, the observation that gave me one of those “aha” moments is this:  even though free verse doesn’t use meter, end-rhyme, or fixed line length, it nevertheless has a structure, a design, inasmuch as it begins by setting up an expectation and ends with a sense of consistency, of wholeness, of completion, of fulfillment of its purpose.


The name itself—free verse—implies that this kind of poetry rose out of a desire for release from the restraints of meter, the measured line, and strict rhyming patterns…

The free verse poem is by no means exempted from the necessity of having a design, though one must go about it in rather different ways, since there is no external pattern to be followed.  This … will involve such matters as repetition of line, repetition of syntax, patterns of stress, a sense of inevitability, setting up a felt pattern of expectation and meeting that expectation, a repetition of enjambments, and so on.

Free verse is not, of course, free.  It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design.  Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive?  Yes, it is.  Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times?  Yes, it is.  And this is as true of free verse as it is of metrical verse.

The free-verse poem sets up, in terms of sound and line, a premise or an expectation, and then, before the poem finishes, it makes a good response to this premise.  This is the poem’s design.  What it sets up in the beginning it sings back to, all the way, attaining a felt integrity.

The initial premise is made up of everything the old metrical premise is composed of—sound, line length, and rhythm patterns, but in this case they are not strict, they are not metrical.  They do, however, make emphatic use of stresses, as speech does.  Is speech not musical too?  It is, indeed, and many of the old devices, such as refrain and repetition, are therefore still effective.  Alliteration and assonance are as important as ever.

This much is certainly true:  the free-verse poem, when finished, must “feel” like a poem—it must be an intended and an effective presentation.  It need not scan, but it may scan a little if the poet is so inclined.  It need not rhyme in a definite pattern, but it may rhyme a little, if the poet decides to rhyme a little.  It need not follow particular stanza formations, though of course it may have stanzas.  It need not follow any of the old rules, necessarily.  Neither does it have to avoid all of them, necessarily.

[Mary Oliver: A Poetry Handbook.  NY, NY: Harcourt, Inc. 1994]

The following example, also stolen from Oliver, I’m ashamed to say, struck me as a fine example of free verse which to great effect uses the devices of repeated syntax, internal repetition of specific words, and an informal structure of end-stopped lines, to achieve a sense of music and integrity:


Ezra Pound

O generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,

I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,

I have seen them with untidy families,

I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.

And I am happier than you are,

And they were happier than I am;

And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.


The Prompt:

Write a poem in free verse.  It should be similar in size and scope to the Ezra Pound example.  Think about:

  • Setting up an expectation in style, sound, informal structure,
  • Giving the completed poem a sense of integrity and wholeness which fulfills that expectation,
  • Using such devices as repeated lines (i.e. refrains), repetition of syntax (sentence structure), repetition of words, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, etc., to achieve a sense of continuity and musicality,
  • Make conscious decisions regarding line length, using end-stopped lines (lines consisting of a complete phrase) or employing enjambments (breaking lines in the middle of a phrase.


  • Put SunWE in the title and tags.
  • Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
  • Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to.  (If responding to today’s prompt, put Free     Verse in the title field.)
  • This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.  If your piece isn’t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.  This is supposed to be fun.
  • I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
  • If you would like a little more academic critique—but still very friendly and positive—include the word “rigorous” in your post (e.g. “rigorous critique wanted”).

Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.

As ever,


Pb (The Lead)


Injun Joe

by Susan Budig

Local Profile—Future Farm (pdf–scroll down to page 8)

by Susan Budig


by sarah leanne

Loony Toons

by DW


© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved.  Please share this on, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy.   Doug’s latest book is The Depressed Guy’s Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.

Doug’s Gather Group is Depression and Creativity, devoted to creative writing about depression and related illnesses, and creative writing as therapy.  Please consider joining.  You can read more of Doug’s posts there, or here.


About the Author ()

57 year old musician, poet, father of 4 grown children, composer, recording artist, author, humorist, survivor. I'm thoughtful, introspective, introverted, open, scathingly honest about myself, creative, a Renaissance guy, willing to grow and change and

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