Words from a member

You and the entire membership of Netwest have been an inspiration to me in my writing life. The group is a welcoming & encouraging gathering of like-people. Thank you for all you've done for others. It does not go unnoticed.
Nancy Purcell

Saturday, December 17, 2011


This post is a reprint from June 14, 2008. Nancy Simpson writes about free verse. I thought some of our new poets would find this helpful. You might want to print this for referral later.

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 have 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 http://www.netwestwriters.blogspot.com/
Nancy Simpson is the author of two collections of poetry.
She is Resident Writer at John C. Campbell Folk School.

Updated information on Nancy Simpson, Dec. 16, 2011. Nancy is the author of three books of poetry. Her most recent is Living Above the Frost Line, New and Selected Poems, published by Carolina Wren Press.
She is no longer Resident Writer at John C. Campbell Folk School, but she teaches at Young Harris College with the ICL program.

Labels: Caesura, Instructor, John C. Campbell Folk School, line breaks, Nancy Simpson, punctuation in free verse, Rules of Free Verse Poetry


Lonnie Busch said...

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.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 10:49:00 PM EDT

Glenda (Writerlady) said...

Nancy, Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge of poetry with all of us.

Anyone who writes poetry will benefit from this post.


Monday, June 16, 2008 8:43:00 AM EDT

Anonymous said...

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

Friday, July 18, 2008 8:06:00 PM EDT


  1. free verse confab you offer is very good and from experience and well thought out. good work, nancy.

  2. Nancy~ I recently purchased "Above the Frostline" and I am slowly savoring it. Thank you for your advice.
    Glenda~ Thank you for your thoughtfulness in reposting this advice.

  3. Hi Fred and Barbara,
    I didn't want this excellent post to wither away in our archives when the words and the advice are pertinent to anyone writing poetry today.
    Thanks for your comments. Barb, I know you will enjoy Nancy's book.

  4. I enjoyed Nancy's "rules". They provide a reference for the free verse poet.


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