In fairy tales and fantasy, a common theme involves the relationship between “the village” and “the forest”. The village represents societal constraints, and while there may be more rules, those restrictions are designed to keep the villagers safe. In the forest, where rules don’t apply, the fairy tale characters are free to do as they please in whatever chaotic fashion they so desire.
Free verse is the fairy tale forest of poetry. With no rules about meter or regulations regarding rhythm, you can create a poem as long or as short as you please. Form is yours to mold; if you choose to have each word serve as its own stanza, that’s your decision to make. There’s a reason the word “free” is in the name.
But sometimes, that freedom hinders our creative process rather than helping it. With so much freedom, ideas might start to get away from you and detract from the overall clarity of the poem.
It’s times like these where applying your own structure might benefit your writing process. While it may seem restricting, implementing a specific meter, form, or rhythm can actually force you to think outside of the box. If you decide to write in only anapests or iambs, what’s the best way to illustrate your idea while staying true to your assigned cadence? If your structure consists of ending each stanza with the same word, how many ways can you shift that word’s meaning?
What’s more, you can use structure as a tool to lay down expectations for your reader, and then break from your structure to punctuate a point. Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” demonstrates this concept with grace. For a majority of this nine-stanza poem, each stanza features four lines with an ABAB rhyme scheme. It’s a rhythmic poem of trochaic tetrameter, creating a galloping feel. But once in a while, she’ll break her pattern to hit the reader with a short but poignant “I rise”. In the last two stanzas of the poem, “I rise” appears in every other line, further punctuating this powerful statement until it becomes the sole idea for the last three lines of the poem. By disrupting her structure, her main point gains stronger emphasis and lingers in the reader’s mind.
A couple summers ago, I was working on a poem about walking home in a storm. I was struggling because I tried cramming too many ideas into it, but then I applied a very simple structure: two-line stanzas, four beats in the first line, three in the second (I hesitate to call them “feet” here because I did not try for specific rhythmic stresses). Here’s the poem I ended up with, titled “Strolling in a Storm”:
As I glide through
God sparks azure
break apart the
I am small.
Implementing a structure pushed me to cut unnecessary words. When I removed and reworked a few phrases from my first draft, I found things that worked more effectively. The structure helped me cut out the clutter and refine the stronger ideas.
The rigid framework forced me to experiment with other techniques as well. Since I restricted my space and meter length, I played around with assonance and alliteration to a greater degree. There’s the “ar” sound of “sparks” and “apart”, the short “a” sound of “graphite black/tapestry”, and the long “i” sound in “highlighting”, “giants”, “reminding”, and “I”.
Of course, there’s the argument to be made that you can do all this without imposing a structure. It’s free verse, you’re allowed to play with whatever elements you want. True as this may be, structure can still help reign in your ideas and tighten your focus. It’s a tool in your arsenal as a poet to help in your creative process.
By all means, write the way that works best for you, but consider experimenting with different structures and formats. Challenge yourself with a unique structure. Search for your middle ground between the comfort of the village and the whimsy of the forest. You might surprise yourself and discover something new for your process as a poet.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.