Member Rara Avis
A question, are there any rules at all to free verse?
Many will contend that free verse, by its very definition, follows no rules, but I've always believed otherwise. In my opinion, free verse follows three (potentially overlapping) sets of rules.
Free verse is still writing and must contend with all the "rules" that govern any poetry or prose work. Note I said contend, not necessarily follow, though I think the writer breaks these rules at great risk. No, I'm not talking about grammar or punctuation or any of that stuff. I'm talking about the way words and the way we use them affect the reader.
You want to slow down the reader? Use longer passages, with many dependent and independent clauses, usually but not necessary separated by commas, with nomenclature or syntax that demand more attention from the reader (a bit like this sentence). Increase the pace? Use short sentences, short words, and more white space.
Want some really bad advice that is so good it's given to every fledgling writer? Show, don't tell. It's bad advice because, taken literally, even the shortest works become boring epics. It's less succinct, perhaps, but more accurate to say that writers should IGNORE irrelevant detail (we don't need to know what Richard did during the first ten minutes after getting out of bed), TELL the relevant but unimportant details (we don't need to watch Richard dressing to learn he favors blue jeans and old shirts), and SHOW anything that really matters (Richard having a conversation with his estranged wife over morning coffee). Knowing exactly when to ignore, tell or show is what makes writing so darn hard.
What others (including Ruth) call "flow," I have always called cadence, the pattern of sounds that give the words their music. In my opinion, it's a mistake to think that flow or cadence is what differentiates free verse from prose. Read the Gettysburg Address or the opening to Great Expectations and you'll hear the words sing to you, even though it's "just" prose. Believe it or not, cadence depends to some extent on meter, even if it's not the strict meter of the sonnet. That's why I think knowing meter is important even if you write only free verse. It also depends on stresses and pauses (caesuras). It depends on variations, in word lengths, line lengths, and complexity of structure. It depend on repetition and patterns. (Like the last few sentences of this paragraph). Everything that is true for good prose, and even of metrical poetry, is also true for free verse.
There are dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of such general "rules" that a good writer must know and (usually) follow. I don't think I've said it in at least a month or two, so I'm a bit overdue: The poet can learn much from the fictionist.
Free verse is still verse and must contend with the need for structure. Any structure! Another way of expressing this rule set is that it's the one the writer imposes on the work in order to create at least the guise of structure. Many mistakenly interpret this to mean there are no rules, when what it really means is that writer gets to make up his own. But he does have to make them up and, having done so, he then has to follow them. The alternative is chaos, which rarely translates to good poetry.
In my opinion, this is what makes good free verse more difficult than more structured formats. You must not only invent your own rules, but you must fulfill them as well. T. S. Elliot said, in his 1942 essay, The Music of Poetry, "no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job."
Free verse is still poetry and, while it may ignore the rules of meter and rhyme, all poetry must still contend with the rules that govern line breaks. Again, these are often broken (as are most rules, sooner or later), but should at least be acknowledged by the poet. Because free verse is almost defined by the line break, these rules deserve a few moments of exploration. (In other words, I'm about to get real boring again.)
More than any other single feature, poetry and prose are differentiated by the line break. That is not the minor thing so many think it to be, and that is especially true in free verse where the writer has so much more control. How long should a line be? Walt Whitman wrote by breathing, each line breaking where the breath comes to a normal pause. It could be as short a breath as a comma, or as full a stop as a period. Whitman's lines were uncommonly long, but the poems are a delight to read because each line pulls you to its natural end. A poetic line that ends in punctuation, reflecting a human breath, is called "end stopped."
(If anyone ever wonders why I so often decry ellipses ... it's because they usually make verse TOO breathy to be easily read aloud.)
The alternative is enjambment, where the poetic line does not naturally pause, but instead, the same sentence carries directly to the next line. Enjambment comes from a French word meaning to put one's leg across, or to step over, which describes exactly what one lines is doing to get to the next. A line break STILL creates a pause, a moment for the reader to breath, but it is typically much shorter than any breath represented by a punctuation mark. At the least, enjambment is good for creating a feel of naturalistic motion in verse. We don't, after all, speak in anything approaching pentameter. It can also be an incredibly powerful tool for adding emphasis and tension. (In my opinion, many free versers abuse enjambment to the point where it loses much of that power. More the pity).
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity.
In this passage of a Wordsworth sonnet, there are three good examples of different ways to end a line. The first line is, obviously, end stopped. The second line at first appears to be end stopped, but as the reader progresses, he finds the line is expanded by the third line in a slightly unexpected way. I call this surprise enjambment, a very useful trick for varying pace. The third line, of course, is an example of more typical enjambment.
(If anyone ever wonders why I so often decry poetry with no punctuation, it's because end stops and enjambed lines, especially surprise enjambments, lose all of their visual clues.)
One of the most important effects of enjambment, and this is especially true of surprise enjambment, is that it makes the reader more aware of the multiple domains of thought within the poem. That is, it momentarily releases the reader from the line as a unit of measurement and forces an awareness of longer units, such as the stanza or the whole poem. Enjambment makes the reader look both forward and backwards in the poem, anticipating a line ending while simultaneously holding to the as yet incomplete thought just read. It helps creates unity.
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
This couplet from Milton better exemplifies what I mean. As an isolated phrase, "God doth not need" signals both God's omniscience and omnipotence. Alone, it give meaning to the line. But it is not alone, and Milton's enjambment into the next line expands on the previous, forcing the reader outside of a single line of thought into a greater whole. He uses enjambment to cleverly go from the general to the specific, giving unity to his theme.
Enjambment also gives the writer greater control over which words will carry emphasis.
The long tradition of rhyme in poetry has "trained" the reader to listen for the end of a line, giving that final word more prominence than any other word in the line. A crafty writer (pun fully intended) can use this expectation of the reader to good effect, introducing emphasis where the writer most wants it. At the very least, the poet should probably end lines with strong words that are important to the narrative or imagery of the verse, avoiding the weaker conjunctions, articles, and prepositions. Ideally, most enjambed lines will end with concrete nouns and verbs, taking advantage of the position to add even greater weight.
Not incidentally, the same technique can be used in reverse, to lessen the emphasis of otherwise important words. This creates additional tension in the poem, as what is important is made trivial, and can also be used as secret clues to the reader. In my most recent poem, I talk a lot about a particular house, but never use the word to either start or end a line, or in any other way add emphasis to that noun. That's because the house isn't really a house, something I want the reader to understand without ever being told.
Emphasis can also be effectively added by the relative length of a line, something at which free verse excels. Ten longish lines followed by a very short line of only two or three beats makes that final line almost shout to the reader. In my opinion, this is often abused and I think one should be certain the content is worthy of the emphasis. A single word on a line all by itself is about the same as beating the reader over the head, something we probably don't want to make a habit of doing. I also very often see writers of free verse pen a lengthy series of very short lines composed of just a few words each, which obviously makes this technique impossible for them. When every line is the same short length, none will stand out from the rest. These writers are sacrificing the potential for added emphasis, ostensibly in the name of a faster pace.
Lines, and their big brothers, stanzas, determine the "shape" of your poem and can be used to create anticipation, tension, ambiguity, emphasis, double meanings, pace, cadence and a host of other very useful effects. These rules apply to all poetic forms, but are possibly even more important in free verse where the line so dominates the form. Those who create line breaks solely on what "feels right" to them are relying on years of reading and the hope and prayer that they've absorbed the rules through unconscious osmosis. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, either. But when they struggle and can't quite get a poem to "feel right," knowing the rules can sometimes help them understand why.
See, Jason? I told you we hadn't even scratched the surface.