What the Fuck is Free-Form and How Do I Write it?

An opinion piece by Joe Bennett


Writing free-form poetry is like asking your soul to somehow take a pen and simply write down whatever it thinks. It’s spilled thoughts: it’s like spilling ink onto a page that forms the most beautiful linguistic patterns that completely capture your truest intentions and emotions, and captivate your readers in the most fascinating of ways. It can be clear, ambiguous, explorative, and even comfortably familiar (or unfamiliar if that’s your thing). It is like writing down a little piece of yourself and keeping it alive in words forever.

The art of free-form captures the essence of the Beat poet era. It draws upon the Ginsbergs and the Kerouacs inside us all, and changes and propels itself into startlingly new contemporary heights – and, right now, it’s starting all over again with you. Right here, by reading this, you’re starting yourself off on an amazing literary adventure.

As a relatively young poet, I’m going to be stereotypically strong-willed and opinionated on my views of poetry. Like a Victorian Romantic, full of angst and anti-establishmentarianism, I’m a liberally prescribed and typically self-assured Byronic student, one who will stand defiantly in my beliefs about what makes poetry great. When I talk about my life as a writer (specifically one who L O V E S poetry), one of my biggest peeves is when someone says to me: “This can’t be a poem because it just don’t rhyme!” Now, typically, my instantaneous reaction would be to scream “Poetry doesn’t need to rhyme!” in a very Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men-esque way, but let’s face it…if you truly believe that poetry has to rhyme then you can’t handle the truth of how poetry can actually be written. It doesn’t need to have a fully prescribed set of rules about recurring rhyme or metre, and we most certainly don’t have to abide by the idea that a poem needs to be written in a trochaic or dactylic fashion.

Yes, I’ll admit, we all like a good strict form poem (personally, mine is The Tyger by William Blake), but writing in this way doesn’t have to be the be-all and the end-all of poetic writing. I don’t want to seem like I hate rhyming, really, I love a good rhyme, and this is something you should remember too. Rhyming in poetry isn’t always cheesy or cliché. If you get the words right and the tone of where and how to use it, then, hey presto! you’ve got a pretty damn good rhyme. A free-form poem can indeed contain a rhyme too, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in an ‘abab’, ‘abcb’ form. Throw in a few rhyming couplets if you think it’ll work, or maybe some internal rhyme, whichever you think will help the flow because it’s your poem and you’re making it the way you want it to be.

So then, as we read through and experience our own and others’ free-form poetry, what we read or write will hopefully resonate with us on many levels, with each new finding arising from yet another discovery of another level or another layer of meaning. Think of it like Shrek and his onion analogy. Free-form has got many layers, and you’ve just got to work your way through them.

Writing is much like trying to sew together a patchwork blanket. There is no ideal place to start, no one continuous idea which you can copy from your brain and paste onto a page. It is about snippets of this and that, a line here, a character or personality there, a few themes and thoughts which you somehow have to sculpt into a narrative, regardless of how nothing seems to initially fit together.

So how does this metamorphoses of jumbled thought smooth out into something worth reading, or indeed, worth writing? There is, unfortunately, no set formula for this. For some, the process of crafting your piece is persistence whilst juggling a multitude of other things; for some, it’s seclusion; for others, it is writing whilst indulging in an adventure. But what is imperative is that there is a starting point. More can be crafted with a wisp of smoke than thin air. The smallest idea can be nurtured, developed and layered into something beautiful – this small idea is your starting point. It can be a character, a theme, a really good piece of chocolate cake. As long as it is something you can place onto a page and draft, and draft, and draft until it’s the best you can make it.

For me, however, the most important aspect of crafting a poem is feedback. There will come a point where you become numb and blinded by your work. Sometimes it is that you know something is wrong, but cannot pinpoint it, or it is that there’s a hole that can only be filled by something you have no inspiration to write. Giving your poem to a friend, not even one who shares your love of writing, just one you trust and who likes to read, is the key to ironing out the violent creases in your writing.

In the end, poetry, especially free-form is pouring out your thoughts and emotions. Idealistically, there is never a right or a wrong, only the truth: the truth that you are willing to write. And that is my take-away from this. Write about what you love, and what you hate, what you fear and what you adore. Even just what confuses or confounds you. And as long as you’re pleasing yourself, that’s all that really matters.