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A Rational Guide to Verse
or, Scansion Made Simple

Appendix:  Free verse

Free verse is a distinct art

Free verse and metered verse are different forms of poetry.  Free verse does not require metrical analysis.  Free verse is an artistic use of language that is "free" of the prescriptive rules of meter-- and grammar.

Free verse feels distinct from prose, but for different reasons.  In metered verse, you feel its equality.  In free verse, you recognize its non-standard use of grammar and vocabulary.  The more free verse deviates from standard English usage, the more it feels like "poetry."

The most recognizable characteristic of free verse is its emphasis on imagery.  Typically, prose is narrative-driven and descriptive.  Free verse tends to be metaphor-driven and elaborative, as in Walt Whitman's "I Saw In Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing."

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the branches;
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself;
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves, standing alone there, without its friend, its lover near--for I knew I could not;
And broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away--and I have placed it in sight in my room;
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than them:)
Yet it remains to me a curious token--it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana, solitary, in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a lover, near,
I know very well I could not.

Free verse can sound like prose, as this example demonstrates.  The language here is distinguished from prose, not by rhythm, but by its use of metaphor and imagery.  The stress pattern of the words does not automatically convey any unusual feeling.

Free verse can, nonetheless, be rhythmical.  A poet is free to use rhythm if they choose, and may do so free of strict metrical equality.  Whitman's poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider" is not rigidly equal from start to finish; however, the equalities in its second stanza are evident, and its rhythms guide your natural reading.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,-- seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d-- till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

Even without structured rhythm, the language of free verse can still "feel like poetry" when it deviates from standard grammatical use.  Whitman's "The World Below the Brine" first appears to be a single long sentence due to its nonstandard punctuation; but the poem isn't even a proper sentence, because its subject has no verb and no object.  Instead, the subject is elaborated with image-driven fragments and phrases, forcing a listener to experience the language differently than they would ordinary prose.

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Another poet, e e cummings, demonstrates that free verse can also look like poetry.  By eliminating or subverting the visual cues of grammar-- capital letters, punctuation, and visual spacing-- language can be presented artistically instead of grammatically.

Buffalo Bill's


        who used to

        ride a watersmooth-silver


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

                      and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

Free verse and metered verse are separate art forms.  Metered verse apportions syllables into strictly equal structures, whereas free verse allows its words to form whatever arrangements seem most appropriate to its expression.  Both forms are both called "verse" because they each use language as their raw material.

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