Saturday, June 14, 2008


WRITING FREE VERSE POETRY: Some Questions and Answers

Nancy Simpson, Instructor

When talking with free verse poets, I tread lightly to see if we are on the same page. Many free verse poets believe there is no form in free verse poetry and that there are no rules. I do not agree with that. I believe writers of free verse must follow the essential rules of poetry. Free verse poets have a great amount of freedom, but it is a misconception to think we can write with abandon of rules.

Yes, we must break with traditional verse. We must shun rhyme, but after that, in my opinion, free verse poets must decide carefully which guidelines of poetry they will practice.

Some of the most asked questions from my students.

1) QUESTION: If there are free verse rules, what is number one?

ANSWER: Economy of Words is the first rule of poetry. The second is Use of Diction, choice of words, choosing the best word in regard to correctness. Poets of old followed these essential rules. Free verse poets must follow these rules.

2) QUESTION: Do I have to write in sentences?

ANSWER: Yes. According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, poetry is written in sentences and lines. Poets of old followed this guideline. Free verse poets must do so. Why? Syntax of Sentence. A sentence has syntax, and it is syntax that gives your words meaning. No meaning, no understanding for your reader.

3) QUESTION: Do I have to punctuate?

ANSWER: No. This is your choice. Once in a while, in the literary magazines, I read poems that has no punctuation. However, it is as if the poem were punctuated and then the poet lifted out the punctuation marks. There is no rule, but caution would say, help the reader all you can. If there were a rule regarding punctuation, it would be: Do not lose your reader.

4) QUESTION: What is the rule for line breaks?

ANSWER: There is no rule. Line breaks are completely your responsibility and your choice. Some free verse poets work in unrhymed meter, some count syllables, some spoon feed the reader one thought on one line and the next bite on the next line. There are no rules, but there are a few guidelines.
A.) End the line with a strong word, not a weak word such as a, and, or the.

B.) Be aware of your one word lines. That one word you want to use will draw attention to itself. It had better be great, for it will provoke questions, and it will slow your reader.

C.) If your line is too wide for a narrow page, it will wrap, and you will lose what ever it was you were trying to accomplish. Editors shun the wide line that wants to wrap.

D.) If there were one rule to line breaks, it would be, work your lines.

5) QUESTION: What if I have a sentence that ends in the middle of the next line? What is the rule?

ANSWER: There is no rule against ending a sentence in the middle of a line. What you have is a caesura, a pause, and you have a golden opportunity. Caesura in a line can be a dreadful mistake, or it can be one of the most brilliant, most sophisticated moves in your free verse poetry. The guideline would be, make that line with the caesura stand alone as a thought. It is comparable to giving your reader a spoonful of something delicious that was not on the menu. You have the first sentence and the second sentence, and in-between you have a line with a period somewhere in it. Words on each side of the period should add up to something in itself. Guard against caesura lines that make no sense.

Post any questions or comments to

Nancy Simpson is the author of two collections of poetry.
She is Resident Writer at John C. Campbell Folk School.


  1. Wow, Nancy, thank you so much for this post. I have learned more about writing poetry in the few minutes it took me to read your comments than anything I've ever known before! Very fascinating! I will read poetry with a new eye.

  2. Nancy, Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge of poetry with all of us.
    Anyone who writes poetry will benefit from this post.

  3. You covered a vast spectrum and distilled it to clear perfection. I am going to make a copy of this and refer to it often. Thank you, Nancy!
    Pat Workman


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