Free Verse is a form of poetry which has no rhyme scheme and no fixed metrical pattern. Thus a free verse poem has no set meter; which means that there is no rhyming scheme present and the poem doesn’t follow a set pattern. As free verse doesn’t follow the rhythm schemes of traditional poetry, its rhythms are based on patterned elements such as sounds, words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Though the term was not used during his age, American poet Walt Whitman is often called the father of free verse. Technically speaking, free verse arose with the vers libre form, created in the late 19th century in France. In the early 20th century, several prominent English language poets were influenced by vers libre including T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Since then, the majority of published lyric poetry has been written in free verse. Here are the 10 most famous poems written in free verse.
#10 This Is Just To Say
Poet: William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was a Puerto Rican-American poet closely associated with Imagism, a poetic movement that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. This is a famous short imagist poem which appears like a piece of found poetry. It can also be seen as a note left on a kitchen table for a person with whom the speaker is living. The speaker simply says that he ate the plums which were in the icebox and asks for forgiveness from his mate; as his mate had been probably saving them for breakfast. Though a very simple poem, This Is Just To Say is a very popular short poem and one of Williams’ most famous works.
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
#9 Those Winter Sundays
Poet: Robert Hayden
Those Winter Sundays does not follow the conventions of the sonnet form apart from its 14 lines length and the theme of love, which is traditionally associated with sonnets. In the poem, the speaker remembers how his father rose up early on Sunday mornings, despite the hard work he did all week, and stroked the furnace fire. He woke his son only when the house was warm and he even polished his son’s “good shoes”. The speaker then regrets being indifferent to his father and not thanking him. The prominent themes of the poem are fatherly love and regret for not being grateful for the various ways in which people express their love. Those Winter Sundays is the most famous work of African American poet Robert Hayden and it ranks among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
#8 The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Poet: Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was an African American poet who was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote his most famous poem when he was only seventeen. The idea of it came to him while he crossed the Mississippi river while travelling on a train to Mexico to meet his father. He began to think what Mississippi had meant to Negroes in the past leading him to think what other rivers had meant to them and the thought came to him, “I’ve known rivers”. He then penned down this much acclaimed poem in around fifteen minutes. In the poem Langston connects to all his African forefathers through rivers which are “older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. He places his ancestor on important historical and cultural sites and uses active verbs like “I built”, “I bathed”, etc. to demonstrate their active participation in civilization since ancient times, even when they had to face discrimination.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
#7 The Hollow Men
Poet: T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot was a British writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. The Hollow Men, the narrators of this poem, are trapped in a go-between world, a sort of twilight world between “death and dying“. Eliot perhaps uses them to personify the spiritual emptiness of the world. The poem is regarded by critics to be primarily about post-World War I Europe and the difficulty of hope and religious conversion. The Hollow Men contains some of Eliot’s most famous lines, most prominently its concluding lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper“, which have been called “probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English”.
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
#6 The Red Wheelbarrow
Poet: William Carlos Williams
Originally published without a title, this poem is the best known poem of William Carlos Williams. It was originally published in Spring and All and was titled “XXII”; its order in the collection. The Red Wheelbarrow was inspired by an old African American named Marshall whom Williams knew. According to Williams: “In his (Marshall’s) back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.” Imagism was an early-20th-century poetic movement that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. The Red Wheelbarrow is regarded as a prime example of Imagism. Though the poem is very short, it has been much analyzed with some critics believing that “‘so much depends upon’ each line of the poem“.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Poet: Allen Ginsberg
Howl can be divided into three sections. In the first, the speaker talks about the destruction of “the best minds” of his generation in an oppressively conformist and materialistic era. He asks the question “who” in this section and identifies these minds as poets, artists, political dissenters, musicians, drug addicts and psychiatric patients. In the second section, the speaker asks the question “what” destroyed these minds. He identifies the destroyer as the Biblical God “Moloch”, who is associated with child sacrifice. For the poet, Moloch represents war, government, capitalism and mainstream culture. The central question of the third section is “where”. It is addressed to Carl Solomon, a close fried of Allen Ginsberg, who is admitted at a psychiatric hospital. Howl is regarded as one of the great works of American literature and it is among the most famous free verse poems of the 20th century.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
Poet: Sylvia Plath
Daddy was written by Plath in October 1962, around four months before she committed suicide, and was published posthumously as part of the poetry collection Ariel. Containing sixteen five-line stanzas, the poem is narrated by a girl who has Electra complex, analogous to a boy’s Oedipus complex. It deals with the narrator’s effort to get over her complex emotions for her deceased father, who apart from suppressing her daughter, was also a Nazi. Plath uses dark and vivid imagery in the poem and controversially uses the Holocaust as a metaphor. Several critics consider the poem to be related to the writer’s complex relationship with her father, Otto Plath, who died shortly after her eighth birthday due to diabetes. It is also considered to be an articulation against male dominance. Written in free verse, Daddy is the most famous poem by Sylvia Plath and one of the best-known of the 20th century.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
#3 i carry your heart with me
Poet: E.E. Cummings
E.E. Cummings is considered one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century and this poem is his most famous work. The poetry of Cummings is radical for its unconventional punctuation and phrasing. This poem can be compared with a sonnet due to its similar structure but Cummings does add modern twists to it. It begins with the speaker describing the ubiquitous influence of his love in his life and goes on to touch several themes including oneness, and love as the originator of life. Its popularity can be gauged from the fact that its opening line is still often tattooed by people and that its lines have been used by several music artists. E.E. Cummings is renowned for his love poetry and i carry your heart with me is one of the most famous love poems of all time.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
#2 Song of Myself
Poet: Walt Whitman
Widely regarded as the father of free verse poetry, Walt Whitman wrote several masterpieces in the form, including Song of Myself. The poem is a mesmerizing mixture of romanticism and realism. It was initially titled Poem of Walt Whitman, an American and also serves as a biography of the poet. In it, Whitman emphasizes an all-powerful “I” which serves as the narrator. This “I” is not limited to Whitman. It transcends the conventional boundaries of self; and identifies with everyone and everything in the universe, including the dead. The poem ends with the narrator saying that he’s going to give his body back to nature to continue his great journey. The poem also focuses on what the narrator believes and what he is opposed to. Song of Myself caught the attention of public and critics alike when it was published. It is Whitman’s most famous poem and it remains among the most acclaimed and influential free verse poems ever written.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
#1 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Poet: T. S. Eliot
Commonly known as just Prufrock, this work was the first professionally published poem of T. S. Eliot and he wrote most of it at the age of 22. Prufrock is a dramatic monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment”. The speaker is a sexually frustrated and indecisive middle aged man who wants to say something but is afraid to do so, and ultimately does not. At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered outlandish and was berated by critics. However, it is now considered the first masterpiece of Modernism in English, a poem which marked a monumental literary shift between 19th-century Romantic poetry and 20th-century Modernist poetry. Moreover, Prufrock is the most famous poem written in free verse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?