There was a time when poetry was all done in a highly formal and versified manner. For the layman, this means that poems used to all have end rhymes and a pattern of syllable count. You might remember doing such poetry exercises in elementary school, and indeed it’s still the case for many songs. But it’s been centuries since Shakespeare made his sonnets, and now the dominant mode in this literary endeavor is called free verse, explains St. Louis-based comparative literature student John Eilermann.
But what exactly makes free verse different from formal or rhyme-and-meter poems? Firstly, the movement toward vers libre or free verse originated in France in the late 1800s and caught on in English works at the start of the 20th century. Unlike formal poems like the sonnet, sestina, and the villanelle, free verse espousers opted to let go of the restrictions of meter and rhyme (particularly end rhyming), preferring instead the value of sense, sound, and, linguistically speaking, rhythm created by changes in syntax.
While formal poetry continues to endure, most contemporary poets experiment more with the possibilities of free verse. It’s important to note though that, despite its name, free verse is not really free: many will argue that writing it is much more challenging and outright difficult as it banks on an intertwining of sense and heightened diction without compromising the inherent sound that every poem has.
Free verse’s impact on literature is such that it’s very hard nowadays to win poetry awards or even get published if a new writer is stuck with formal or metrical poems. There are exceptions, of course, but over the decades metrical verse has become highly specialized and perhaps even harder to write, adds John Eilermann. In other words, it’s easy to deem it as “archaic” writing, making it easier for poetry editors to distinguish the uninitiated from seasoned poets.
St. Louis, Missouri-based student John Eilermann is currently in college pursuing a degree in Comparative Literature. Some of his favorite writers are Roald Dahl, C.S Lewis, Ned Vizzini, and Jonathan Franzen. For more on John and his interests, click this link.