The Art of Modern Free Verse

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As a writer, poet, and English student I have had many positive conversations that the popularity of poetry is on the rise. I find this to be true with discovering poets on best seller lists, such as Lang Leav with her moving love series, Ted Kooser (a poet laureate) whose nature poetry captures mid-western life, and Tyler Knott Gregson who provides daily poems for readers.

I would label the poetry style of the above mentioned poets as “free verse,” as they do not adhere to any standard rules found in traditional or contemporary poetry, where there is a deliberate rhythm and rhyme scheme that makes the poem flow like a song. Free verse or experimental poetry does indeed have its challenges, but it most definitely leaves more room to just go with the flow.

What is the purpose of poetry, the ultimate end game? The goal is to invoke a feeling, conjure an image. Anyone can spat out what a meadow looks like. Your goal as a poet is to draw your reader in with your visual descriptions. As poets we are given the gift of creating emotions for readers that perhaps even they don’t understand, we can be the ones that open the window to insightfulness. And with as dark as the world is at the moment, I find this an incredibly empowering coping mechanism.

When I feel the need to write poetry, it isn’t the same as when I approach writing fiction. I don’t need a clear head, instead I just need to focus. I write all poetry on an old typewriter, because I find it less distracting. To put it simply I free-write. I focus on a particular image or emotion and I just explore. I write until I feel there is an end point. It is an odd ‘halt!’ feeling. Like fiction, you will edit, edit, edit. But do this later, leave all ideas of making mistakes out of the process. Don’t fret if you don’t have an old typewriter, you can always use a notebook (or any method you feel most comfortable with-just try to remove all distractions!).

Similarly, when you are reading poetry, try to read without over-thinking, and then repeat. Doing the same with your own is important. You’ll be able pinpoint the message you are trying to convey, as well as finding a flow that works. In the editing process, you’ll find that commas or parenthesis are either needed or need to be cut. Commas act as pauses and are especially impactful in free-verse poetry. Periods act as stop signs, and spaces and breaks act like a canvas. All of these preferences change the tone and voice of the poem. Given that we aren’t working with an exact science, punctuation acts as a visual guide for the reader.

For example:

Over My Head by Lang Leav

            I count his breaths,

                        in hours unslept,

                        against hours of him,

                        I have left.

            With him lying there,

                        with him unaware,

                        I am out of my depth.

Pay attention as to how you are reading that in your head, you’ll recognize you pause and stop where the poet is directing you. Without said punctuation it flies like a runaway train, which would be perfectly fine, but in this poem, I feel as though it would rush the reader. This was an interesting thing I learned at my university that the small things can make or break a poem. It is much like a painting. Punctuation can act as a paint stroke, drawing your eye to one corner or the other.

With that said, there are really no set rules to follow. Ted Kooser said, when asked by beginning writers, “Do you always have to capitalize the first word in every line? And so on.” and he replied, “Well, there are no shoulds or should-nots in writing poetry. You can do whatever you feel like doing, pants on or pants off. Part of the joy of writing, or of practicing any art, comes from the freedom to choose” (Kooser. 35).

Kooser definitely takes his own advice, he writes contemporary and free-verse poetry and although he’s been criticized by traditional poets, he’s the one whose won an award! He states in his poetry help book that his main goal is to produce clear, bright, and accessible images for his readers. That with careful sentiment and emotion, he paints a photograph that acts as a way to pull his reader in and paint a picture within the reader’s mind. He avoids being wordy or complicated, in my opinion, and I think that is a difficult thing to achieve. His style is beautiful and vibrant. His words jump off the page.

Flying at Night

            Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.


Once more, Kooser provides clear, precise images that are both sentimental and modest. I think at the core of poetry that is what people want. Not because it’s simplistic, but because it provides a sought-after emotion. One of the things he talks about in The Poetry Home Repair Manual is that a poet can become too caught up in language, too worried about ‘sounding smart,’ or they can become far too sappy. I think the point in poetry is to let it flow and not try too hard. I never sit down at the typewriter with an exact form to what I want, I just write, not seeking a finished product. That’s why we edit.

My first attempt at poetry was certainly a shaky one. The poetry I wrote at 15 is vastly different compared to the poetry I write now. I had become frustrated and put the art aside to focus on fiction. Lost and confused on the subject, I did what any writer should do, I read and researched style. I read handbooks on how to execute the form of a poem and always came up empty. Because, as stated above, I was trying too hard and not letting my own take on a feeling or an image take flight. It wasn’t until about five years ago that I discovered modern poetry. I’ve only taken one poetry writing class, and it was helpful, but not necessary. I’ve written my best poetry following my own rules and have had wonderful reviews as a result. Because of this, I began reading more modern poets. In the college class, they usually have you read Byron, and it helped me see how and why modern poetry has developed into its current form. It was interesting to see how modern poets had broken the rules and created their own space. Poets like Gregson and Kooser teach us this concept through their own work, their style, rhythm, and flow.

I recommend researching what poets are writing today and what styles are being used. Or, if it is your cup of tea, look up the classics such as Frost and E.E. Cummings. It will help you develop your taste for poetry so you can discover your own voice. Seek out what you believe is missing from the world of poetry-this will indeed help you find your own space. For beginners, I suggest studying the style that most appeases you. Then sit down, free your mind, and get writing. As Kooser said, there is no wrong way to write, there is no template that you must follow. After all, this is your message, your scene, your goal, and your work. There are readers out there who can benefit from your little corner of the world, all you have to do is start building.

About the Author: Sara Mosier is a Lincoln Native, and a senior studying creative writing and Native American history at the University of Nebraska. Her focus is writing fiction and poetry, which she enjoys typing out on an old 1950’s Smith-Corona typewriter. She is also a photographer, and enjoys taking photographs to match with her poems. One of her favorite subjects to photograph are abandoned homes in the state of Nebraska, because of their embodiment of loss and beauty. She has been published several times in the Laurus Magazine for poetry, and in 2015 she won first place for her photography. Her latest achievement was winning the 75th Anniversary Contest at the University of Nebraska Press, where a collection of her poetry was published in ‘Nebraska Voices’.

For more information on Sara, please visit her online.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Modern Free Verse

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  1. I recently picked up Andante by Félix Leclerc, and am enjoying discovering poetry! This article was so well written and I love all the ideas about learning to write and where style comes from


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