Water Poetry 4: The Free Verse

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In this fourth installment of the Water Poetry Series, I present an open form or free verse poem about the San Francisco Bay. In contrast to the previous poetry forms which have strict rules on meter, rhyme, stanza structure, and even the content of the poem, the open form poem has no such rules. Therefore, it is the most difficult to describe. I haven’t been able to find a good set of guidelines on how to write one. In fact, there have been contentious schools of thought on what a true open form is.

When free verse poetry is mentioned, most people think of the Beat writers, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, anti-establishment, quasi-nihilist, countercultural. But the open form has its roots in Walt Whitman, a free-thinker in his own time, but more life affirming. Free verse was also practiced by staid, buttoned-down writers like TS Eliot. And one of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, was a master at it. Scholars even trace the origins of free verse to the psalms of the King James Bible. This makes sense since Whitman borrowed the psalm style to write his own verses.

What’s clear to me is that imposing a poetry form from another language onto English limits the voice of the poet. Therefore, free verse appears to be an effort by English language poets to develop a native poetry form. Once the form is opened to curve around the rhythms, cadences, syntax and words of English, an organic pattern emerges that sounds natural and unforced.

I would characterize most poetry slams as a celebration of free verse. I think that’s why slams are so popular, because of the vitality of the language unleashed from unnatural structure.

Instead of guidelines on how to write free verse, I offer a list of what might emerge from your pen:

  • Instead of limiting the poem to lines that constitute stanzas, you might write just a set of single words, or paragraphs, or both.
  • You might incorporate stream of consciousness, writing an unedited series of images, thoughts, observations, feelings and recollections, about a central theme, idea, or event.
  • After writing stream of consciousness, you may play with the rhythm by using punctuation, capitalization, spaces, and paragraph breaks.
  • The poem can be further enlarged or contracted, embellished or pared down. You don’t have to pare it down or add unnecessary words to fit an artificial form.
  • There might be a lot of internal rhyming. Or there may be no rhyming at all.
  • Symbolism, surrealism, and other non-rational influences have been known to emerge in these endeavors.

This free verse poem was written in Golden Gate Park when they were doing extensive renovations and retrofitting of the museums there. It bummed me out that I couldn’t enjoy the museums. Maybe they’re finished now.

The thing about San Francisco is that it’s a strange combination of gritty social misfits and dropouts walking the same streets as corporate drones. Then there are the post-corporate drones who want to enjoy their early retirement as posh social misfits and dropouts. And of course the ex-dropouts who are hustling for that corporate dollar. Everyone is painfully aware of one another, and it’s all terribly awkward and grating. For instance, you have the most leftist large US city outlawing panhandling and being the number one source of funding for Republicans. It’s just terribly awkward. And so is this poem.


Stinking of Coronas and burnt fish, I scramble through the ruins of the new Asian Museum, shattered glass of the past, the broken teeth of the future scatter themselves at my feet.

Where peat used to curl into my toes, only the Almighty knows how to walk through the hills, the dry shrubs. Past the menacing vultures in pinstripes and tweeds, shooting heroin and smoking weed, looting pensions, snorting greed, yet untouched by the smooth skin allegory of true love. Truth’s glove.

Softens the blow of another transoceanic reprieve, I fumble through the cracks like the world is a sieve. In a hundred places the globe pricks up its ears but fears and tears are quiet here. The Bay, the Pacific water rushes over everything breathes fog over anxiety erodes the coasts into submission, still untouched by true love. Truth’s glove.

Other poems in the Water Poetry Series:

The Haiku

The Sonnet

The Villanelle

The Sijo


5 thoughts on “Water Poetry 4: The Free Verse”

  1. Mmm….speak the truth, brother…. [picture nodding under a black beret, snapping fingers]….

    =) That’s my favorite.

  2. As I was reading Pacifica I could hear the words being spoken to a packed room in a dimly lit coffeehouse, or perhaps at a clandestine meeting of revolutionaries in an abandoned Tenderloin warehouse. This reminded me that free verse seems created for performance, and I recalled a moment when Carl Sandburg was reading at JFK’s inauguration and the new President held his top hat to shield Sandburg’s eyes from the sun.
    I loved “hearing” Pacifica.

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