Structured Free Verse

If you have been composing free verse and following guidelines about idea, voice, title, line, stanza and other elements of craft as presented in the second section of this text, then your free verse really isn't free. It's structured. In other words, it has a preconceived form.

In traditional verse using rhyme and/or meter, the length of the line, and sometimes the shape of the stanza and the duration of the poem, are determined without your help. For instance, if you follow a rhyme scheme, rhymes also determine where lines end. If you employ a regular meter, the length of the line is automatically set for you. If you compose a sonnet or form poem (covered in upcoming chapters), the line, stanza and duration of the poem also are fixed. In free verse, however, you have to decide when and how to break a line, make a stanza and end a poem.

That's the so-called "freedom" of free verse.

If you are not making such decisions, you may or may not be writing poetry. You certainly are not writing structured verse. In general, more structure results in better poems; less structure approaches prose, which can be defined as "words spoken or written for an audience, using sentences and paragraphs." Let's illustrate:

(Prose)

Malta, 1943. My family suffers the ironies of war.

German bombs explode day and night. Food is rationed.

We are always hungry.

At dawn my father goes to the harbor, carrying a broom.

He cannot stand his children starving. The British sailors unload sacks of flour, and dust settles on the docks. He sweeps so my mother can bake bread full of grit and splinters.

But we eat. Then the British arrest my father and we don't know anymore who the enemy is.

(Unstructured free verse)

MALTA 1943 My family suffers the ironies of war. German bombs explode day and night. Food is rationed. We are always hungry. At dawn my father goes to the harbor, carrying a broom. He cannot stand his children starving. The

British sailors unload sacks of flour, and dust settles on the docks. He sweeps so my mother can bake bread full of grit and splinters. But we eat. Then the British arrest my father and we don't know anymore who the enemy is.

(Structured free verse)

DURATION Malta 1943

My family suffers the ironies of war.

German bombs explode day and night. Food is rationed.

We are always hungry. At dawn my father goes to the harbor, carrying a broom. He cannot stand his children starving. The British sailors unload sacks of flour, and dust settles on the docks. He sweeps So my mother can bake bread full of grit and splinters.

But we eat. Then the British arrest my father and we don't know anymore who the enemy is.

Analyze these samples for evidence of structure. In the prose piece, sentences and paragraphs provide the form. Because it is self-contained, the passage can be labeled a prose poem —a short, textured piece of writing without the added meaning derived from lines and stanzas. In the unstructured sample, irregular lines provide a pattern, but no discernable element of craft seems involved in these line breaks. Thus, the poem is weak. But in the structured sample, the title, line and stanza combine to make a stronger work than either the prose poem or unstructured version.

The above samples are meant only to show how structure alone can make a poem out of a prose passage. In actuality, each was based on this lyric whose line breaks help evoke a voice in Whitman's tradition, employing angry, repetitious and ironic tones and transforming the entire work:

A BLESSING Malta 1943

I will eat your grey-speckled bread because I am one of nine children because our father has been arrested for sweeping flour dust from the docks because they cannot ration need even now —their bombs popping like small hungers — I want to go belly full of this world.

Once again, form makes free verse.

"No poem exists without form," says Jim Barnes, whose structured poem "For Roland, Presumed Taken" appears in the chapter on extranatural poetry. According to Barnes, "Anyone writing with no regard to structure is writing prose (not free verse!), and most likely bad prose at that." He says that writers who call themselves poets should be interested in the structure of language. "There are cadences, rhythms, echoes that poets have to control. They cannot be controlled by them, or prose will take over."

Similarly, poet Sharon E. Martin, whose structured free verse appears regularly in literary magazines, states: "A poem without structure of some kind is prose in masquerade. Theories on the line break, for instance, where word choices give lines multiple meanings, are about structure. Poems that lend themselves to oral readings and dramatics, written for delivery, have structure.

"I don't really believe in the 'prose poem.' I love short-short stories and vignettes (literary sketches), and most prose poems I see fall into one of these categories. I want structure, not margins.

"Poetry is high art, and poets who can shape their thoughts to fit an exacting form, whether that form is rhymed or unrhymed, are true artists."

Martin says she doesn't always achieve such artistry, but strives for it in poems like this one:

TO MY SON, GROWING UP

That I love you has never been enough, child more me than I am, son who claims my soul as his own.

Last night I held you as you cried dry, shoulder-shaking tears for the long-distance father who won't come again this year.

It has always been the same —his excuses, and you, so young, defending them.

Until now.

This time his excuses, like my solo love, are not enough.

Consider the elements of craft involved in this seemingly simple, eloquent poem. First, the matter-of-fact voice (rather than a gushy or maudlin one) is appropriate for the occasion because it avoids sentimentality. Second, the poet shapes her lines into crisp units of speech and uses uniform stanzas (tercets) that forebode the ending. The final stanza begins with a short pivot line —"Until now" —to convey the epiphany.

To put all this into perspective, and to emphasize the effects of form on free verse, let's look at the creation of one more poem.

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Responses

  • marco
    What is the difference between a structured and free verse poem?
    7 years ago

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