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Poetry: The Forms and the History
Free Verse, Rhymed and Blank Verse

by Catherine Wilson (Age: 38)
copyright 12-17-2002


Age Rating: 10 +

What is poetry?

Poetry is form of writing that emphasizes rhythm, other difficult patterns of sound and images, and the many possible ways that words can form to suggest a meaning. The word itself comes from a Greek word, poesis, that means “making” or “creating.”

Our site is called Prose-n-Poetry, what is the difference between the two?

While ordinary speech and writing, called prose, are organized in sentences and paragraphs, poetry in its simplest definition is organized in units called lines as well as in sentences, and often in stanzas, which are the paragraphs of poetry. The way a line of poetry is structured depends on the person creating it.

What is Free Verse?

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Robert Frost (1874 - 1963) U.S. poet, May 17, 1935. Speech at the Milton Academy.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed poetry that is written without following rules of meter. Free verse was first written and labeled vers libre (French for “free verse”) by a group of French poets of the late 19th century, including Gustave Kahn and other symbolists. Their purpose was to deliver French poetry from the guidelines of metrical patterns and to re-create the free rhythms of natural speech. Following the writing forms of American poet Walt Whitman as a guide, they wrote lines of varied lengths and cadence, usually unrhymed. The emotional meaning of their work was expressed through its rhythm. Free verse has been characteristic of the work of many modern American poets, including Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and Carl Sandburg. This is an example of free verse:

From Leaves Of Grass
“Song Of Myself”
Section of Stanza 10
By Walt Whitman

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and bruis'd feet,
And gave him a room that enter'd from my own, and gave him some coarse
clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass'd north,
I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean'd in the corner.

What is rhymed poetry?

In addition to creating balanced rhythms or cadence through the use of meter, poets give richness to their language through shadings of sound, orchestrating the musical quality of vowel and consonants through the words they use. The most familiar form of sound patterning is end-rhyme. This is by far the most common form here at PnP and as most authors here know it is similarity of sound carried by word endings. It began as an aspect of oral poetry (poetry composed, or performed orally rather than through writing), and it was probably intended to help people memorize poems. Over centuries written verse forms developed using rhyme in set patterns known as rhyme schemes. In the following typical English ballad unrhymed and end-rhymed lines alternate:

O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o' the year,
To sail upon the sea?

(Anonymous, “Sir Patrick Spens,” Child, No. 58.A., 1765)

In some cases, rather than making use of a full end-rhyme such as “me” and “sea,” poets instead use off-rhyme or slant rhyme for a strange unsettling effect, as 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson does with “One” and “Stone” in the example below.

I’ve known her—from an ample nation—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

(Poem #303, 1890)

Wilfred Owen, a 20th-century English poet, expresses the senselessness of war through the use of slant rhymes:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?
–O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all

(“Futility” 1920)

Although end-rhyme is the most common form of rhyme, poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Sylvia Plath crafted their work by embedding additional internal rhymes, full or slant, at various points.

. . . In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways
My wishes raced through the house-high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In his tuneful turning. . .

(Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill,” 1946)

Blank Verse is unrhymed poetry, typically in iambic pentameter, and, the dominant verse form of English dramatic and narrative poetry since the mid-16th century. Italian Renaissance writers from classical sources adapted blank verse; it became the standard form of dramatists. From Italy, blank verse was brought into English literature by the poet Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who first used it in his translation of books II and IV of the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil. Christopher Marlowe used blank verse for dramatic verse; and English playwright William Shakespeare transformed blank verse into a supple instrument, uniquely capable of conveying speech rhythms and emotional overtones. According to the English poet John Milton, only unrhymed verse could give English the dignity of a classical language. As he explained in the preface to his epic Paradise Lost, one of the greatest of all poems in blank verse:

The Measure is English Heroic Verse
without Rhyme, as that of Homer in
Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rhyme
being no necessary Adjunct to true
Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in
larger Works especially...

Later English poets such as the 19th-century romantics William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats also used the form. In the hands of later poets like Robert Frost, blank verse was used for everyday poetry. Blank verse has also been used for dramatic poetry in Germany since the 18th century, notably in Nathan der Weise (1779), by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, and Gerhart Hauptmann. It is also a standard form in Swedish, Russian, and Polish verse drama.




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        01-08-2010     Beth Blakeslee        

Thank you for this - thanks to this, I've realized that what I write is officially free verse. It's my favorite mode of poetic expression, and how I express myself best. :D

        04-02-2007     Christina Johnson        

Poetry is anything that you want to add. Just add anything as long as it good. Just make sure that it's really good. Like what I have read of yours.

        07-20-2005     Anthony Lane Stahlhut        

Yes this is very informative. Thanks, Anthony

        04-19-2005     Brian Dickenson        

Fantastic! Thank you so much.
I confess; I've never really gone into the mechanics of poetry. Your articles have made me think. There are whole new worlds to be explored now.
I hope I'm up to the challenge.
Again, thank you,
Brian.

        01-09-2003     Aaron Schmookler        

Wow, Catherine. It is clear that you have done your homework. Excellent.

        12-19-2002     Nancy Pawley        

Catherine, this is wonderful..now I can compare some of the poetry styles I use with famous poets.
Nancy



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