White Space and Broken Lines
by Tina Blue
February 15, 2001
Formal poetry is poetry that makes use of the traditional elements of poetic form--i.e., rhyme and meter. Free verse (also called vers libre or open form poetry) is poetry that has neither an identifiable rhyme scheme nor a fixed or predominant meter, though it may have rhyme, and if it is any good it will make effective use of rhythm.
Although the term free verse is still widely used, many critics prefer to call such poetry open form poetry, to avoid fostering the misconception that this sort of poetry lacks shape or discipline. If a "poem" lacks shape and discipline, then it isn't really a poem--it's just words on paper.
Open form does not mean formless. Open form poetry establishes rhythm and relationships by means of patterning specific to the poem in question, and sometimes also by weaving allusion into the pattern of meaning.
Some techniques that can be used to create patterns of effect and meaning in open form poetry are the arrangement of words on the printed page, the deliberate manipulation of white space, pauses, line lengths and breaks, word clusters, and the repetition of sounds, rhythmic phrases, and images.
In many ways it is much easier to write formal verse than to write free verse, simply because the meter and rhyme scheme impose a sort of discipline that the poet must somehow discover on his own within the raw material of an open form poem. Violations of the rules of rhyme or meter are easy to avoid and correct, as are weak links caused by an attempt to follow those rules without reference to the poems own internal logic. (For a more thorough discussion of these issues, see "A Trap for Unwary Poets.")
But in open form poetry, the poet is flying by the seat of his pants. He has only his own sense of what works and what doesn't to keep him headed toward the meaning and effect he wants his poem to produce. And if what he attempts falls flat, the reader does not even have the pleasure of cleverly handled rhyme and meter to fall back on.
Much of today's poetry is written in open form, and much of that open form poetry is breathtaking.
But much of it is also flat-out awful.
Too many lazy "poets" think that writing a free verse poem is easy. They write "poems" by jotting down a few loose images, feelings, ideas, or phrases and arranging them on the page in ways that seem (to themselves at least) clever and artistic.
Such "poetry" is of interest only to your therapist. Even your friends and family don't really want to read it, though most of them will if you insist, and of course they'll pretend to find it exquisite, delightful, and deep.
They'll also start ducking around corners when they see you approaching with yet another poem for them to read.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Good open form poetry is every bit as powerful as good formal poetry, and much of the best poetry written over the past century or so has been written in open form.
In another article (actually, a series of four related articles), I analyze "Song for a Seeker," a free verse poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes, to show you some of the techniques a skilled poet uses to create patterns of meaning and effect when writing free verse.