Fixed-form and free-form poetry

Every poem sits somewhere on a spectrum that extends from fixed-form poetry at one end to free-form poetry at the other. Put simply, a fixed-form poem is a poem that adheres to a regular formal pattern. More often than not, the rules that govern this pattern are predetermined by generic convention. These rules dictate such things as

  • the number of lines in the poem as a whole and/or in each of its stanzas
  • the metre
  • the rhyme scheme

In free-form poetry, by contrast, neither the length, the metre, the stanzaic structure nor the rhyme scheme are likely to follow a conventional pattern. Indeed, in some cases these poems may not seem to follow any pattern whatsoever. One should not make the mistake of assuming this means that a free-form poem does not have a form at all, however; it certainly does, it is simply a form entirely of its own creation that we have to make sense of on its own terms without being able to refer to a standard key or decoding device.

The main difference between interpreting a fixed-form poem and a free-form poem, then, lies in the presence of a pre-established generic code that can help us decipher the former and the absence of one for the latter. We should take into consideration the same elements and devices in both cases: the poem’s use of the line as a unit of meaning (which is a defining feature of any poem of any kind), its metre (if it has one), its rhymes (if it employs them), and so on. Yet whereas we are able to identify some of the strategies by which a fixed-form poem goes about its work by considering the degree to which it either upholds or flouts the rules of that genre, this is not an option for a free-form poem. For that kind of poetry, we have to identify the formal logic that governs each poem on its own and assess the contribution this makes to the meaning of that poem as a whole on a case by case basis.

Every poem has a form and every poem’s form will express one or other kind of ideological commitment. What that ideology is, however, will depend on the poem as a whole and not the form alone. You will sometimes hear it said that free-form poetry expresses a passionate commitment to democracy, freedom and openness in human life more generally, whereas fixed-form poetry reflects a more conservative espousal to a world of authority, rules and traditions. This is true in some instances but not in others, since each of these forms possesses both limitations and possibilities that are inaccessible to the other. Whether fixed-form or free-form poetry is better equipped to ‘free up’ the poem to do the work it wishes will depend entirely on how it activates that form’s distinctive resources.

I mentioned at the top of this page that every poem sits somewhere on the spectrum between the two outer poles of fixed-form and free-form poetry. This means, of course, that not every poem is necessarily either one or the other; several poems occupy a middle ground somewhere in-between. To a certain extent, where a poem will lie on this spectrum depends on when (and to a lesser extent where) it was composed. Loosely speaking, the vast majority of poems written in English before the second half of the nineteenth-century are fixed-form poems. After the emergence and popular success of Walt Whitman’s self-avowedly American poetry in the second half of the nineteenth century, free version became much more prominent, eventually reaching its high-water mark in the first three decades or so of the twentieth century, after its adoption by the Modernists on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of their labours, free verse became the dominant poetic form of that era (to such an extent that some scholars insist that we should reserve labels such as ‘free verse’ and its French equivalent vers libre for Modernist poetry alone). Since the Second World War, there has arguably been something of a coalescence between these two polarities of fixed-form and free-form poetry, with many poems adhering to more conventions and rules than the Modernists but fewer than the poets who preceded Whitman.

When it comes to analysing poems that sit somewhere between these two poles of fixed-form and free-form poetry, it can be helpful to try to establish where on this spectrum they are located. Once you have identified which aspects of a poem are conventional, regular and/or rule-bound and which seem to be free from those conventions, rules and regulations, you will be well-placed to reflect upon the question of why (say) the number of lines per stanza is regular but the metre is not and to pass judgement on what the poem is able to make happen as consequence of its distinctive mixture of these regular and irregular features.

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