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Poetry Guide: Free verse

Free verse (also at times referred to as vers libre) is a term describing various styles of poetry that are not written using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as 'poetry' by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers can perceive to be part of a coherent whole. (Burns Cooper).

Some types of Free Verse

Philip Hobsbaum identifies three major types of free verse:

  1. free iambic verse which is an extension of the work of the Jacobean dramatists. Practitioners of this sort of free verse include: T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and W. H. Auden.
  2. cadenced verse in the manner of Walt Whitman
  3. free verse proper, where it is the discrepancies and variations of meter are centre stage

Cadenced free verse is based on rhythmical phrases that are more irregular than those of traditional poetic meter. While traditional poetic forms are based on fixed stress-patterns and syllable counts, free verse is not constrained to use a fixed number of syllables for each line, and distributes its stress accents in irregular patterns. Free verse may or may not use rhyme. When it is used, it tends to follow a looser pattern than would be expected in formal verse. Free verse does away with the structuring devices of regular meter and rhyme schemes; other traditional elements of expression, such as diction and syntax may still be prominent.


An early usage of the term 'free verse' appears in 1915 in the anonymous preface to the first Imagist anthology. The main author of this preface was Richard Aldington. The preface states: "We do not insist upon 'free-verse' as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty."

The ideal of the early practitioners of free verse was well described by Ezra Pound, who wrote: "As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." Pound's friend T. S. Eliot somewhat cryptically wrote in his essay "The Music of Poetry": "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."

Some poets think free verse to be too limiting. In 1922 Robert Bridges voiced his reservations in the essay 'Humdrum and Harum-Scarum.' Robert Frost, later remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net".


As the name vers libre suggests, this technique of using more irregular cadences is often said to derive from the practices of 19th century French poets like Gustave Kahn. However, in English it can be traced back at least as far as the King James Bible. Walt Whitman, who based his verse approach on the Bible, was the major precursor for modern poets writing free verse, though they were reluctant to acknowledge his influence.


G. Burns Cooper, Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, Stanford University Press, 1998
Charles O. Hartman, Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, Northwestern University Press, 1980. ISBN 0810113163
Philip Hobsbaum, Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form
Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter, University of Arkansas Press, 1990