Contrary to popular belief, free verse poetry is not uninformed chaos, the equivalent of a two-year-old's crayon scribblings. Nor is it a format for the essayist who doesn’t want to learn punctuation. (N.K. wanted me to tell you that. She probably wanted it couched in diplomatic language, but if she requires diplomacy, she should have assigned this sit-down to Jade. Ol’ Em calles ‘em like she sees ‘em. And what she sees … let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.)
Y’see, free verse ain’t at the bottom of the poetry ladder. It’s at the wa-a-ay tippy-top. It’s not meant for the beginner. It’s for the trained, experienced, creative poet who no longer needs—and probably feels hemmed in by—formal structure. At least part of the time.
Hear that? Trained poet.
Whazzat? They’re the poets who’ve learned the rules, wielded the tools and won’t look like fools once their poem is in print.
Okay, you say with all due caution in case ol’ Em has been tipplin’ the toddy a tad before tea time, without devoting the 50 years I don’t have left to taking classes, how do I become a trained poet?
Well, you’re in luck. Remember Roses are red, / Violets are blue? Way back in kiddie-garden you were finishing up that little quatrain with inventive insults aimed at all your cute little friends. Oh! Now you remember! No point blushing. We all did it, whether we admit it or not. While most of us knew our way around nursery rhymes long before the Roses gig, this is where we learned to use the meter and rhyme we’d been hearing from infancy to create something of our own.
So what happened? Where did we go wrong?
I’ll tell you what and where. We began to take poetry seriously. Our teachers were there, demanding that we understand and copy the classical poets. And we tried. But suddenly something we did for giggles became work, loading us down with words we didn’t know about characters we had never heard of feeling and thinking things we knew nothing about.
It was a disaster! Incomprehensible verse was stuffed into our ears like disgusting medicine-soaked cotton balls because it was good for us. Oh, you are so lucky my Ode to Mr. Feathers (our first grade class’ parakeet who refused to talk and loved to peck fellow pet Henrietta Hamster’s tail) has long since crumbled to dust, or I’d show you what I mean.
To make matters worse, somewhere along the way we were forced to memorize terms like metaphor and simile and that one no one but a spelling bee champion can manage—onomatopoeia. And to use them even when they didn’t apply to what we wanted to say. Because no one cared what we had to say. They only cared about the form in which we said it. And so, most of us learned to hate poetry.
As it happens, eventually some of us figured out we had a knack for word games beyond Wheel of Fortune and crossword puzzles, and we ventured out on our own. We found real, live poets (rather than the dead ones celebrated in textbooks), who were willing to nurture our clumsy attempts to harness our thoughts and emotions and nudge them into one or another framework to help us along.
We weren’t writing for a grade or to impress a teacher. We were writing for us. And something magical happened. Poetry became fun again. And anything fun is worth getting better at, right? So we took some classes or ventured out onto the internet to learn more and began experimenting with new forms, new rules, new challenges. We frolicked in a world of foreign and ancient formats but with modern language and ideas. Along the way we cranked out the odd poem that someone we trusted said wasn’t half bad, and that’s all the encouragement we needed to go on learning and having fun.
As our competence grew, we began making adjustments in the formal templates we’d been using. We modified forms until they only sort-of resembled those we’d started with. We carefully chose from among our tools until the thing we created carried our personal stamp instead of someone else’s.
And when the sky didn’t fall and our mentors smiled instead of fainting dead away, we bent a few more rules, nudged aside a few more impediments to creativity. Began to invent our own frameworks and to pick and choose which poetic devices suited the needs of each particular work. Before we knew it, we’d crossed a line. Our beautiful imagery and unique phrasing wasn’t confined to a quatrain or sonnet or triolet. It was something as unique as our vision. Free verse.
And we looked up to discover time had passed. We were in charge. Words revealed the music of our souls, and we could use them to share that music with others. We had paid the necessary price of learning our craft: mastering structured poetry and all its elements.
Because free verse is freeing, but it isn’t free.
♦ Emily is Page & Spine's associate poetry editor
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.