9 Week 9 – Free Verse and Modern Poetry

Leigh Hancock and Lumens Learning

(drawn from Lumens Learnings; permission at end)

Free verse refers to poetry that does not follow regular meter, rhythm or rhyme.  Devoid of  recurring line lengths, metrical patterns, and rhyme, free verse can seem random, having no obvious pattern or organization at all. Yet since its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century , free verse has enabled a different kind of organization, as poets use the elements of poetry,  repeated imagery and/or syntactic patterns  to create coherence and connection among lines. Even as it eschews regular meter and rhyme schemes, free verse can draw on metrical patterns and occasional rhyme to tie lines together.

What distinguishes free verse from other traditional forms of verse is that it uses these elements only occasionally—for a few lines here and there in a longer poem—and does not use them to structure the poem as a whole. A poem in free verse does not lack structure; it simply does not maintain or use regular meter or rhyme to structure the poem as a whole. Instead, free verse relies more on thematic, syntactic, or semantic repetition and development to create coherence.

Grass, from eye levelWalt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is often credited as introducing free verse into English-language poetry. While not quite true (other experiments and uses preceded his–much like the Blackberry preceded Steve Jobs’ iPhone), Whitman’s poetry helped to establish free verse’s potential for exploring a broad range of topics and embracing new to organize verse lines. Later-nineteenth-century poets, such as Matthew Arnold in England, further explored the use of free verse, but it was the French symbolists (Jules Laforgue, Gustave Kahn, and Arthur Rimbaud) who practiced what they called vers libre during this period.

In the twentieth century, free verse came to dominate poetic production in English, beginning with the modernists (e.g., T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams) who saw the open form as allowing for the more nimble representation of a modern fragmented and accelerated world.

Here’s a particularly famous example of free verse by William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In what sense is this verse free? It doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t have a set meter. But it does have a consistent line and stanza: each stanza consists of one three-word line followed by one one-word line. Williams has even broken up the single word “wheelbarrow” into two words to fit his form. It is as rigorous as haiku in its way. It just doesn’t follow rules previously put down by a poetic tradition. Because the history of poem does not consider word count (as distinct from syllable count) an element of closed form, the poem is considered to be free verse.

Free verse is generally easy to recognize. What is harder to recognize is the principle of order that free verse poems employ. There usually is one: it may be the number of words or syllables in a line, it may be the grammatical clause; it may be the line breaks or the repetition of first words.  For the sake of analysis we often want to discover what makes a free verse poem a poem, and not just broken up prose. But identifying free verse is easy:  if a poem isn’t written in a recognizable form or pattern, it’s probably free verse.


In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay called “The Poet,” in which he called upon American writers to refute the elevated language and fussiness of British poetry, and instead craft poems that expressed the diversity, dialect and democratic values of the United States. Walt Whitman, a young journalist and writer, took Emerson’s essay to heart, and wrote a rollicking, lusty collection of poems that “combined spontaneous, prosaic rhythms with incantatory repetition” to communicate “the unity and diversity of the limitless American self” (Poetry Foundation).  This book,  Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, earned Whitman the title of “Father of American Free Verse.”  Here are the opening lines:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loaf and and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to seize not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
–Whitman, “Song of Myself,”  Leaves of Grass

Not all American poets immediately jumped on the free verse bandwagon.  Robert Frost was disdainful, saying that “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”….to which Poet Carl Sandburg replied:

The poet without imagination or folly enough to play tennis by serving and returning the ball over an invisible net may see himself as highly disciplined. But there have been poets who could and did play more than one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an insubstantial net, on a frail moonlit fabric of a court.

Whatever Frost thought, by the twentieth century, many if not most English language poets felt that the potential of formal (poetry had been exhausted and that nothing new could be done or said with it. Free verse became the language of the modern age. 

Modern Poetry

Modernism–the period of poetry of the early twentieth century–was more boldly experimental with regard to form and subject than any period in English-language history. One of the most influential poets of the era, the American Ezra Pound, stated that it was his task to “break the back of the iamb”—in other words, to destroy formal poetry.

Pound and the Modernists had great success in freeing poetry from the straitjacket of meter. Although traditional forms and meters did not disappear, by the early 1900s, they no longer dominated poetry.  Poems varied from astonishingly simple verse written by William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Amy Lowell, to the highly allusive, complex verse of Pound and T.S. Eliot. Consider the following two examples, the first by Amy Lowell:


All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.



Contrast it with this poem excerpt by T.S. Eliot .

A Cooking Egg

    En l’an trentiesme de mon aage
     Que toutes mes hontes j’ay beues … 

Pipit sate upright in her chair
Some distance from where I was sitting;
Views of the Oxford Colleges
Lay on the table, with the knitting.

Daguerreotypes and silhouettes,
Her grandfather and great great aunts,
Supported on the mantelpiece
An Invitation to the Dance.

. . . . .

I shall not want Honour in Heaven
For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney
And have talk with Coriolanus
And other heroes of that kidney.

I shall not want Capital in Heaven
For I shall meet Sir Alfred Mond:
We two shall lie together, lapt
In a five per cent Exchequer Bond.

I shall not want Society in Heaven,
Lucretia Borgia shall be my Bride;
Her anecdotes will be more amusing
Than Pipit’s experience could provide.

I shall not want Pipit in Heaven:
Madame Blavatsky will instruct me
In the Seven Sacred Trances;
Piccarda de Donati will conduct me.

. . . . .

“Autumn” is about as simple as a poem can get, while “A Cooking Egg” leaves you adrift. “Autumn” provides a single image, but says nothing about that image. It leaves you to see in that image what you find appropriate (knowing that you will associate “autumn” with the approaching end of things). “A Cooking Egg,” tells you to work hard and to recognize and translate medieval French (without the help of the internet), and to figure out how the old French poem applies to his. Eliot’s poem leaves readers thinking they’ve missed something. It may be that a lot of poems have left you feeling that way, but for the first time that idea seems to be built into the poem itself.

Critic C. S. Lewis laments that modern poems no longer convey a single, agreed-upon meaning to all readers. If twentieth- and twenty-first-century students are quick to state  that a poem means whatever the reader thinks it means, we probably have the Modernists to thank (or blame). Much of this poetry assumes a reader who is as adept in poetry and, in fact, in all of literature as the authors were themselves—and sometimes adept in other things as well (Ezra Pound now and then included Chinese characters in his poems even though he did not read or speak Chinese). Modernists often expected their readers to do the necessary research, to struggle through and find out what their writing was all about. (James Joyce, a writer of modern fiction, once suggested that to understand his work, a reader would have to devote his entire life to studying it.) These works do not imply the knowledge base or reading sophistication of the average 18-year old. And much of this poetry is too open or too associative in its logic to be easily restricted to any single, monolithic understanding.

If you try to read Eliot’s poetry in the same way that you read Beowulf or Paradise Lost, you will be frustrated. The hierarchy of value has been broken. In that hierarchy allusions support—are subject to—a singular, central meaning. In Modernist poetry, the element of meaning, while still absolutely present, is no longer king; it is limited, but no longer necessarily singular.

In fact, Modernist poetry takes advantage of an aspect of language which poetry would seem to have a natural affinity for: even the simplest, easiest-to-understand utterance is potentially infinite in its meaning—or in its ability to create and become involved with meaning. There’s nothing radical about that claim. For a word to be transferable from any one context to any other context it must be infinitely transferable. Most often actual uses of language—me talking to you, me writing this lecture to you, you talking on the phone to your mother, Shakespeare performing the ghost of Hamlet’s father—work very hard to limit the ways that the words can be taken. Language is like liquid which must be precisely held in a solid container or it goes everywhere. The container will give it measurable shape. Modernist poetry gives language  a looser shape that lets more of its inherently shapelessness appear.

That’s not to say that all twentieth-century poetry or even all Modernist poetry is this way. In addition to Williams and Eliot and Pound, there are poets like Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop,  and William Butler Yeats—and of course many many others—who work in traditional forms. Eliot himself often rhymes, often writes in iambic pentameter. So does Williams and sometimes even Pound. But early twentieth-century poetry is characterized more by this experimentation than by its frequent lack of meter or rhyme.

The period of Modernism, with its convolutions and confusions, gave way, inevitably, to a period of reaction. Beginning in the mid-century, a great number of poets came to believe that the work of T. S. Eliot and company was taking poetry away from it ancient base and denying it the ability to reach ordinary people.  There was fear that this elitism would be the death of poetry.  In the 1950s, Beat Generation poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, worked to create a poetry more steeped in immediate experience and emotional intensity than the cerebral poems of the Modernists. Here, for example, are the first lines of Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl,” a poem that hops over the advances of Modernism and returns us to (and updates) the poetics of Walt Whitman:


For Carl Solomon

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between…..

While not every poet of the mid- to late-twentieth century took Whitman as the model, the poetry of this Postmodern era generally became simpler and easier to read, even as it stayed away from traditional forms dominated by rhyme and meter. Indeed, during the sixties and seventies it would have been difficult to find a newly published poem that rhymed.

At present poetry is doing nothing more profoundly than trying to figure out why it exists in a world in which more and more poetry is published by smaller and smaller presses for fewer and fewer readers, most of them academics, poets, or students. Poetry still has occasional high-profile moments, such as when Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural, or when a celebration of poetry was abruptly cancelled at the White House for fear the invited poets would use the platform to protest America’s invasion of Iraq. But at present, poetry in the English-speaking world leads a mostly underground life. It is still everywhere, but most people, most of the time, manage to ignore it.


Some Poems:

Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush” (Links to an external site.)

A. E. Housman, “To an Athlete Dying Young” (Links to an external site.)

William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916” (Links to an external site.)

Robert Frost, “Birches” (Links to an external site.)

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (Links to an external site.)


Carl Sandburg, “Chicago” (Links to an external site.)

Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar” (Links to an external site.)

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (Links to an external site.)

D. H. Lawrence, “Piano” (Links to an external site.)

Ezra Pound, The Cantos, “I” (Links to an external site.)

H. D. “Garden” (Links to an external site.)

T. S. Eliot, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Links to an external site.)

John Crow Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” (Links to an external site.)

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig” (Links to an external site.)

Wilfred Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (Links to an external site.)

Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues (Links to an external site.)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Dog” (Links to an external site.)

Denise Levertov, “Pleasures” (Links to an external site.)

Allen Ginsberg, “Howl, Part I” (Links to an external site.)

Adrienne Rich, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” (Links to an external site.)

Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus” (Links to an external site.)

Rita Dove, “Dusting”


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ENG 106 by Leigh Hancock and Lumens Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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