The Making of Poetry: Form and Free Verse

When I first got serious about poetry--first realized that writing poems required that I be able to do more than simply arrange my thoughts and diary excerpts on a page--I read voraciously. I read the classic poets (Chaucer, Shakespeare and all), then dipped into the 20th century. While I found points of inspiration in the work of the famous poets, I felt lost. What was a poem, and what distinguished it from other forms of writing?

I struggled with form, reading formal verse from previous centuries: admiring iambic pentameter, sonnets, and various rhythmic and rhyming schemes. And I read the early 20th-century poets who were to first to write what they called "free verse," breaking from the formulaic rigidity that 19th-century poetry seemed to have fallen into.

I worried about the difference between talking and poetry, between prose and poetry, between words in essays like these I write here and words in a poem. What was the difference? Poetry can be conversational, can have a similar purpose to an essay, but the patterns of sound within poems are what distinguishes poetry, what give the language music. The rhythms in free verse may not be regular, and rhymes may not be direct moon/June/spoon/loon equivalencies but repetitions of consonant and vowel sounds give free verse enough of a pattern to help transform daily language into poetry.

Free verse is not something new--there were earlier verse forms in English literature where rhyme and rhythm were not constant. Anglo Saxon poetry used repeated consonants and stresses and phrasing patterns. And Japanese and Greek poetry used syllabic patterns, such as the tradition haiku pattern of 5, 7, and 5 syllable lines. All of these kinds of patterning have returned in contemporary free verse.

Very little free verse is pattern-free and I can't think of a single successful poem that is. People who don't read much poetry and who still write it tend to write either pretty rhyming poetry (the surface of which is contorted by for need to rhyme and regular rhythmic patterns--which makes me want to distinguish between "verse" and "poetry") or confessional/confrontational poems (where the language is unshaped and the deep emotions are meant to carry the poem but such poems are hard for the reader to enter into--which makes me want to distinguish between poetry that helps people experience the event and emotion and that which talks at them). I exhort these writers to read poetry. Lots of it. And see what they can learn about what distinguishes poetry from other words on a page or spoken aloud.

One wonderful tool for poets that was clearly defined at the same time as the rise in free verse is the use of images: sensory (not just visual) images and metaphors.

When I learned about "imagism" I discovered the American poet H.D. (1884-1961). Ezra Pound declared her the first Imagist poet, and there is a famous poem of hers with an image of the sea as forest

hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir
Interested as I was in language and imagery, H.D.'s poems immediately struck me with their passionate elegance, their focus on classical mythology and on giving voice to its women, their almost ecstatic response to nature, their indomitable spirit, their emotional complexity. Her work can be confessional but goes beyond it with repetitions, rhythm, emotions, sound, metaphor, and imagery. Reading H.D. was like discovering a modern Sappho. While the imagery in her work is pure and startling, passion is her most distinctive feature.

Poet and critic Donald Hall in his essays about poetry talks about milktongue--the pleasure of sound, goatfoot--rhythmic patterns, and twinbird--spirit, metaphor, imagery, voices and echoing voices. Garcia Lorca speaks of duende--the flamenco dancer's passion--the kind of patterns and passions that turn words into poetry.

So too is poetry emotional patterning--not just rhythm and sound and repetition and sensory imagery but also thought and passion. The combination of all these elements is what turns the words of someone describing the rain out the window into you, reading or hearing it, experiencing that rain. The communication of passion and experience through the patterns of language.

Simple or complex, beautiful or deliberately ugly, intellectual or earthy, formally shaped or free verse, or combinations of all of these, poetry is language turned into passionate communication. Our tools are sound patterns--of both consonants and vowels and rhythm--metaphor and imagery of all kinds, and thought and emotion. The intertwining of these is what makes poetry poetry. What makes language come alive as we read or hear it.


If you have any questions or comments about my essay, feel free to email me.

This work is copyright © 2000 by Neile Graham. It may be copied for personal or classroom use as long as this copyright notice remains attached.

For another argument along the same lines, check out "On The Prosing of Poetry: How Contemporary American Poets are Denaturing the Poem" by Joan Houlihan and the responses to the article at http://webdelsol.com/f-bostoncomment.htm.

last revised 27 February 2000

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