Consider the wolf pack on the hunt. I think they would make fine free verse poets, and here's why. They don't run in strict military formation by any means, but neither do they just dash pell mell in all directions without purpose. They are focused and organized, but they are not show horses bound to a fixed program. They run like hell, working together as if their lives depend upon it, which they do. As I said, they would make fine free verse poets!
So, therefore, simply breaking ordinary writing down into lines does not make it free verse, or poetry at all.
I went to the store and
I got on the bus and went home
made a cup of tea and
Looks like a poem, doesn't it? It's not, though. It's ordinary writing. A simple test is to remove the line breaks and look at it like this:
I went to the store and bought eggs, then I got on the bus and went home where I made a cup of tea and dozed off.
It's obvious now, isn't it? NOT poetry. All right, let's try this trick again, but this time we'll turn it around. I'll start with ordinary prose:
As a child, i felt invisible to my family, which left me restless, agitated, and feeling as if I'd like to get up and scream to make them notice me. I never did, though. I stayed quiet.
That's fine as prose, but not as poetry. Now, let's see how this same feeling is conveyed by poet Gregory Corso in this section from his poem "This Was My Meal":
I turned to my father,
and he ate my birthday
I drank my milk and saw trees outrun themselves
valleys outdo themselves
and no mountain stood a chance of not walking
Desert came in the spindly hands of stepmother
I wanted to drop fire-engines from my mouth!
But in ran the moonlight and grabbed the prunes.
Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The poetic image and the fresh phrase are two crucial differences between ordinary writing and free verse poetry.
Here's another example. "You're only as old as you feel" and "Do your own thing" are bumper stickers, cliches, greeting card pap. In the hands of Alta, in this excerpt from her poem "i don't know how to play, either", it sounds fresh, like this:
let's frolic, dear friend
tho we're 30 & bitter
& our faces attest to our pain.
let's dance without music
and laugh without reason;
to hell with the circus they gave us."
It can be scary to read something really well done and then wonder, "How can I do that?" One trick is to write down the thought you want to write about, in plain language, first. Then ask yourself, how can I set a match to these words and make them burn brighter?
Another thing that distinguishes free verse, and any poetry, from ordinary writing, is the use of metaphor. Consider Charles Simic's poem "Fear":
Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.
He isn't talking about a tree, or leaves, or wind, not really. And yet, by use of these metaphors, he says more about how fear spreads than he could have with any prose.
Now, let's delve into the free verse toy box, where we will find gadgets and gizmos that lend themselves to free verse better than to any other form. Here is a short piece by Michael Curley, which would seem, at first glance, to be "ordinary writing." It isn't, though. In the space of four lines, he paints a portrait of a type of woman we all know and have encountered, and knocks over the pleasant facade to reveal something more. This is called "Night School Ladies".
Aging housewives pour over a textbook for one course
ruining averages, boring people with their banter,
and pictures of their grown children who are
always doing well.
Brevity, they say, is the soul of wit, and concision can be the soul of fine free verse. Here is another by Michael Curley, entitled "A Teacher's Response To Creativity":
E = MC2 PLEASE SHOW YOUR WORK!!
One line, two sentences, and yet it speaks volumes. Free verse also lends itself to the Rant, and can go on for some while without losing its power. A prime example of this is Allen Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl" from which I give you an excerpt here:
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
"Howl" runs to some eleven pages, and far from tiring the reader, it gathers force throughout, slamming aside the complacency of the 1950s in a mighty steamroller of outrage. Got something you feel passionate about? Let it rip. Free verse can accommodate this kind of fury and emotion.
Free verse can be written in lines which are dense or spare, gentle or manic, and can take almost any form in terms of stanzas, punctuation, or premise. The thing to remember is, never let it be ordinary. Never write poetry in dull language. Keep writing and changing and experimenting and challenging yourself until you have something with the power and surprising newness of the best free verse.
I'll leave you with a section from Judy Grahn's "A Woman Is Talking To Death." I love how she packs this with so much of what really matters, and twists what we expect into something more:
4. A Mock Interrogation
Have you ever held hands with a woman?
Yes, many times--women about to deliver,women about to have breasts removed, miscarriages, women having epileptic fits, having asthsma, cancer, women having bone marrow sucked out of them by nervous or indifferent interns, women with heart condition, who were vomiting, overdosed, depressed, drunk, lonely to the point of extinction; women who had been run over, beaten up. deserted. starved. women who had been bitten by rats; and women who were happy, who were celebrating, who were dancing with me in large circles or alone, women who were climbing mountains or up and down walls, or trucks or roofs and needed a boost up, or I did; women who simply wanted to hold my hand because they liked me, some women who wanted to hold my hand because they liked me better than anyone.
Thanks for reading my article about free verse! Happy writing!