Tuesday 1 June 2021

Free verse: what is it? What's it for?

People sometimes ask, what is the point of free verse? One answer I can give is that it's enabled me to write about difficult things in fragmentary thoughts, feelings and observations which a reader can then join up to make an in-close narrative as with my book 'Many Different Kinds of Love' or as single narratives as with 'Chocolate Cake'. Free verse also enables me to do what I call 'talking with the pen': write what are in effect spoken-word scripts for me to perform. They can be full of expressions and sounds we use in speech but don't use very often in formal prose or formal poetry.

Poems with meter are described as having 'feet'. These are units of meaning and sound that are repeated; the most famous in English is 'iambic pentameter' meaning there are five iambs per line, where an iamb is the sound of the word 'today'. (one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable) So, 'today, today, today, today, today' is a line of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare wrote a lot of these lines but he is often irregular with it, as with 'To be or not to be that is the question.' (the '-tion' is extra!)
(There are of course many other patterns, some repeating the same foot, or using a combination of feet but relying on a steady beat, sometimes varying from line to line, and so on. Other names for feet include, dactyl, trochee, anapaest, spondee. )

Clearly free verse isn't like this because there is no regular pattern and no discernible 'feet'. So how to describe it?

One solution is to think of each line as a 'foot'. The poet makes a decision at the end of a line to start a new line. So in that sense, each line is a unit of sound and meaning. There are no rules about this. Most poets I know of do this by a mix of memory of other poems and thinking that it's 'time to start a new line' - and that comes mostly from the sound of that line (the 'prosody')but also from the look of it on the page. 

I said earlier why I find this a useful way of writing when I'm writing about difficult things but I also find it useful if I'm telling anecdotes or looking at things closely, or trying to say something ironic or pithy. It doesn't stop me using repetition, alliteration, some rhyme, some rhythms within the poem. Far from it, I often do. It is after all 'free verse'!