Free verse has become a dominant form of poetry in the hundred and fifty-odd years since it was pioneered in the United States by Walt Whitman, whose ground-breaking collection Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855.
Poems written in free verse tend to reject rhyme and regular metre or rhythm, line lengths may vary from one line to the next, and stanza lengths may also be variable. So it’s easy enough to define free verse.
However, the issue is not purely literary, but also political, whether in a narrow cultural sense or a broader one. When the American poet Robert Frost dismissed free verse as ‘like playing tennis with the net down’, he positioned himself against the experimental modernist poets who were using free verse to break away from older traditional forms and modes.
Similarly, when Langston Hughes chose to write free verse poems in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, he did so partly in order to free himself from the white European poetic tradition and instead attach himself to a new American one (he was influenced by both jazz and blues music of the 1920s as well as Whitman’s poetry).
Let’s take a look, then, at ten of the finest and best-known free verse poems written in English.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work …
Free verse, at least as a modern literary mode, really begins with Whitman, who pioneered the use of long, rolling lines in his Leaves of Grass. Influenced by the rhythms and cadences of the Old Testament psalms, Whitman instead provides modern-day hymns and prayers to America, modernity, and – in one much longer poem – himself.
Stephen Crane, ‘In the Desert’.
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, ‘Is it good, friend?’
‘It is bitter—bitter,’ he answered …
More a fragment than a full poem, this tantalising little riddle was first published in 1895, the same year that Crane also came to widespread public attention thanks to his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage.
Here, the free verse into which Crane has cast this miniature narrative helps to give the poem a colloquial, almost anecdotal feel, forcing us to focus instead on the meaning of this encounter between the poem’s speaker and a mysterious beastlike ‘creature’ in the desert.
H. D., ‘The Pool’.
Modernist poets made free verse poems even more popular, and during the First World War the imagists used the looser style of free verse to shift the focus away from rhyme and rhythm and towards the imagery poems use.
Hilda Doolittle, known as ‘H. D.’ after fellow imagist Ezra Pound branded her such, was one of the most gifted poets associated with the movement, and this 1915 poem is so elliptical and brief that it invites a number of different interpretations.
Note how the poem does still have a structure, despite being unrhymed and without a strict metre: it begins and ends with a question, for instance, and the second and last-but-one lines focus on the actions of the poem’s speaker, while the middle line describes the mysterious addressee’s response.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Cousin Nancy’.
Few of T. S. Eliot’s poems are written in what we could strictly call ‘free verse’: Eliot favoured the iambic pentameter line, and often rhymed (albeit erratically), in many of his most celebrated poems.
But his early poem ‘Cousin Nancy’, about a daringly modern young woman living in New England, is an example of a true free-verse poem Eliot write. The liberation from the constraints of rhyme and metre are entirely appropriate for a poem about a woman throwing off the shackles of convention.
Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, Langston Hughes (1901-67) chose to cast his poems in free verse rather than more traditional forms (something his fellow Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay preferred). Among other things, such as the blues music of Harlem, Hughes was inspired by Whitman’s poetry.
But this poem picks up Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing’ only to respond to, and broaden out, its focus: an African-American poet like Hughes is also America, he says, and he wants to sing about it, the good and the bad elements, the poverty and the grandeur, as well.
William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.
The American modernist William Carlos Williams wrote two of the most famous free-verse poems of the twentieth century. This is one of them, although the precise significance of the red wheelbarrow (and those white chickens) continues to elude many readers and critics.
Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’.
As we said at the outset of this article, free verse is often a political statement, and it was for Audre Lorde (1934-92), a pioneer of Black women’s poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Coal’ sees Lorde harnessing the rage she feels when, for instance, she sees white people’s attitudes to black Americans. ‘Coal’ is black, of course, but if you put it under enough pressure, it can produce diamonds.
The poem is written in free verse: it has no rhyme scheme, no regular metre, and uses irregular line lengths. And yet at certain moments, Lorde reveals a sense of structure which, whilst eschewing strict formal regularity, nevertheless brings the sounds of her own words together: perhaps most notably in that final ‘rhyme’ (or pararhyme) of ‘inside’ and ‘light’.
Margaret Atwood, ‘This is a Photograph of Me’.
Although she’s now better-known as a novelist, especially as the author of the 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood (born 1939) began her career as a poet, and free verse was her usual choice for her poems.
In this poem, an unidentified speaker describes a photograph of themselves, only they don’t appear to be visible in the photo. Instead, a darker and more settling picture emerges, with Atwood using enjambment (of which more below) and plain style of the poem’s speaker to create an even more unnerving poem.
Laura Gilpin, ‘Two-Headed Calf’.
This short, popular poem by the American poet Laura Gilpin (1950-2007) is about a calf which is born with two heads and is due to die by the morning as a result. But during its brief life, the poem says, the calf will know what it is to live.
The poem is bittersweet (because the sad fate of the unfortunate animal is balanced by the knowledge that it has known love and wonder), but one of the reasons its is so powerful is the use of free verse. Casting such a tender message in traditional verse lines and using rhyme would strike us as too contrived.
However, note the subtle use of enjambment or run-on lines, whereby a particular phrase or sentence carries on into the next line of the poem. This creates a fluid, gentle effect in which each aspect of the stanza is interrelated: the calf to his mother; both of them to the summer night they share together; the calf’s special (if tragic) ‘gift’ and the different view of the stars it affords him.
Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’.
Let’s conclude with a poem from one of the most popular contemporary American poets: Mary Oliver, who died in 2019 but continues to be read by people all over the world. Oliver prefers to use free verse in many of her poems, and ‘Wild Geese’ is a fine example.
The poem tells us that goodness is not the most important thing, nor is endless contrition or penitence for the odd moral lapse. Instead, all we have to do is to love whatever we love. The ‘soft animal’ referenced in the poem is a nod to our kinship with the animal kingdom, such as those ‘wild geese’ which provide it with its title.
All of this is offered in lyrical yet conversational language which is arranged into wonderful lines of free verse – hinting at the freedom from self-castigation, the freedom found among the natural world, which the poem’s speaker longs for us to attain.