A Note on Formal and Free Verse

Formal Verse v Free Verse

    What's wrong with this heading? That's right: the 'v' shouldn't be there at all. Formal and free verse are complementary, as they should be, with sound poetry, concrete poetry,other forms of visual poetry, and all the rest of it. If poetry is about anything, it's about expression. Why should we limit ourselves to any one kind of it?

    Two schools of thought (let's be generous in calling them that) that I fail to understand may be described as the 'poetry isn't poetry' unless it rhymes (preferably in rhyméd couplets) one, and the rickety building that houses their equally one-eyed colleagues who say that 'the only poetry that means anything is written in free verse'.

    Both positions are nonsense, of course. This section of the web site is intended to redress things in a small way. Rhyméd couplets aren't often suitable for anything but light verse (though they can sometimes be). When Robert Frost said that 'writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down' he may have had half a point. But only a half - there is no doubt that free verse can often be the best way to write a poem.

    Rhyme is only part of the story, anyway. What about alliteration, image, euphony, assonance, repetition, consonance, aporia, anaphora and so on? Here I'm making an attempt to explore some of the aspects of formal verse. It's an effort to look beyond the 'final rhymed couplet' that seems to be so much in vogue with many writers of free verse at the moment. I'm reminded by this strange phenomenon, incidentally, of nothing so much as muscular swimmers parading gracefully around a deep pool, but afraid to dip in more than their toes.

    What this brief discussion of formal poetry is not meant to do is suggest that these are the only ways to write poetry. There's a page on this section of this site that specifically discusses free verse: see Vers Libre

Rhyme and Rhyme Schemes

    The normal convention for describing rhyme schemes is to name the first one used 'a', the second 'b', and so on. So the first stanza or verse of a rhyméd couplet would be 'aabb'. This convention is followed in the main 'form' sections without further explanation.

    Everyone knows what rhyme is, but this shouldn't be thought of just as the usual end rhymes. Crossed rhyme and internal rhyme can be very effective. Assonance, near rhyme and similar things were used brilliantly by Philip Larkin, a great poet ('great' is used deliberately and accurately here) even though more recent attention has been more on his more doubtful letter-writing skills.

See the Literary Terms pages to read more detail on these topics and others.


    More extensive notes are given on the separate metre page, but here it will be enough to say that metre is simply the rhythmic sound within a line of verse (or indeed a line of prose).

    The most common form used in English is the iambic pentameter, five 'feet' comprising two alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. Because the result of perfectly regular iambs could be doggerel, some variation is usual.

    It is often said that iambic pentameter is the form of metre that most nearly approximates to English speech. This differs from Welsh speech (even when English is being spoken) which usually ends a word with a tonic, or rising, note. This has given a quite different direction to Welsh poetry.

What Century are we in?

    Easy. This is the 21st century, or to be more precise these words were first written in the early part of the year 2005 CE. That doesn't mean that the villanelle, or sonnet, or whatever, is dead. No, that's no more true than saying that the sound poetry of the last century is a thing of the past, or that the alliteration prevalent in Anglo-Saxon poetry a millennium earlier is no more than ancient history. No, the older forms have just been joined by newer forms of expression. There's room for them all, if they're used well.