Free Verse is the Form That Will Save UsShare
Free-verse poetry provides to children and adults an invitation for self-expression through words.
Out for a morning walk today, my body tingling in the freezing but exhilarating cold, I had a significant realization. I had just composed a few lines to a poem on the notes app in my phone while en route, and suddenly it occurred to me: in my poetry is the only place that I have consistently been “allowed” to be truly myself over all the years I’ve been writing.
Let’s take that back to the beginning. I was an eager learner always. But school left me hungry, especially in third grade when I had to endure a very long year of twiddling my thumbs and teaching other kids the things I already knew. In order to receive at least average marks in the “uses self control” box on my report card and avoid being grounded for eternity, it was as if I had to wrap myself in a virtual straitjacket. There were so many thoughts bubbling in my head all the time and they wanted to come out. But there wasn’t a forum for them in school, where we were asked to memorize facts and prove our knowledge on multiple choice tests, or write factual answers to factual questions. The thoughts and connections and new ideas didn’t fit, and therefore over time I learned the sad art of suppressing my creative and original thinking. If I didn’t do this, it would get me in trouble as it still did on a number of occasions. But for the most part, I behaved, did my work, forced down the boiling energy that wanted to create, think, experiment, originate, and imagine. I will admit that I couldn’t keep it all down and this repressed creative energy was channeled into cheeky comments voiced aloud in class and jokes in the back of the room with friends.
I don’t know what would have happened to me had I not been saved the summer after fourth grade. My mother drove me every day 45 minutes from home to a summer program called Worlds of Wisdom and Wonder (which has now expanded and is all over Chicagoland in summer, fall, and winter) run by Joan Franklin Smunty. It was there that I enrolled in Joan’s creative writing class. I remember the feeling of freedom the first day, when she introduced to us free verse poetry. It wasn’t like the poetry in school with rhyme scheme and pre-determined constructs to which one must conform. Instead, there was only one rule: no rhyming. It was not as much a form, but an invitation for self-expression through words.
Each day Joan presented a catalyst: a piece of art, hundreds of calendar photos from which we could choose, a beautiful nature video, the bibliographical story of the life of a famous individual, music like Fantasia, a picture book. We absorbed the catalyst, and then she asked us to respond to it. The first step was to describe it together as a class, and Joan wrote our observations on the board as a series of lines rather than in paragraph format. Then she asked us to select our own photo or picture, and describe it ourselves. To expand upon description, she might prompt, “Pretend you are in the painting.” And we would write from that point of view. Or she might say, “Choose a character, whether it is a person, tree, flower, and write from its perspective.” We simply responded to the prompt and the catalyst according to our inspiration. After we had tried our hand at free verse a number of times, Joan introduced us to the poetry of famous writers such as E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, and Carl Sandburg.
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
- Carl Sandburg
From these we could clearly see that there is no one “right” way, but each writer has his own style.
Joan didn’t use a red pen to mark up our papers, but instead she encouraged us, pointing out the words that made the poem come alive or the sentiments behind the thoughts. Then she gave us more catalysts. She read our poems aloud with joy, and published them in a beautiful magazine at the end of the session. That blissful two weeks was the key to opening a channel for my own, unique self expression. I had found a home, a safety, in free verse poetry. I could write anything I wanted - my observations, my deepest thoughts, or something light. I could be funny, silly, serious, or spiritual. There was absolutely no limit to the possibilities. No one made me do it their way. My thoughts didn’t have to conform. They could just be what they were. That winter I remember writing in my notebook night after night by a roaring fire. And I never stopped writing.
Now, you might point out that there is a difference between a good free verse poem and a not-so-good one. You, as a fellow teacher or parent, might say that if we are going to have children write poetry they need to be taught to write good poems. I would argue that there is a place for directly helping children improve their writing, but free verse poetry must remain an invitation and a positive experience in all ways. The only way to approach this art is to inspire children to want to write, and to want to write again, and again and again. It is not about correcting punctuation and grammar, nor even suggesting replacement words. As students keep writing, they naturally develop and improve (please see Exhibit A below for an illustration of this point).
Over the years I have written poetry for many hours - though not as many as you would think and it recently saw a resurgence in my life - and during those hours I was learning to understand how I see the world while carving out my own style. My work can be compared to other writers’ styles, but no one told me what it should be or where it should go. I had total freedom to chart my own course of self-expression.
As a college student, I learned from Joan how to teach creative writing and since then have taught free verse poetry to hundreds of students. Anyone can write free verse using the catalyst approach. Not everyone will love it as much as I do, but many kids who think they cannot write, or are not creative, experience the floodgates to their creativity open through this format that is supportive of individual thoughts. Some students find through free verse that they not only love writing, but they must keep doing it. Joan’s gentle, open, encouraging, inspiring approach has never failed even the most reluctant writers, if attempted with joy and trust between student and teacher. Free verse poetry is like a blank canvas, a fresh piece of clay, and it is each individual’s opportunity to find his or her style within it.
Here is an illustration of the natural development of free verse poetry through time. These two poems were written by the same student, the first in second grade and the second in sixth grade. She was introduced to free verse poetry using the above approach in second grade but did not receive specific free verse classroom exposure again until sixth grade, though she wrote quite a bit on her own.
The Cloud Tree
by Natalie Cahill, age 7
The tree is surrounded in spring.
Sunbeams hit the tree.
The grass gently sways in the wind.
The birds sing cheerfully.
The lake behind the tree is a beautiful blue.
And also behind the tree there is a town.
The Big Piece of Swiss in the Sky
by Natalie Cahill, age 11
You know that big white thing up in the sky?
The one that’s supposedly made of cheese?
Well, no, it’s not made of cheese,
it’s made of forgotten dreams
that have drifted away slowly.
Because I have flown to the wide blue ocean
that people like to call the sky
with my long star-catching net.
And broke off a dream and nibbled.
I have basked in moon glow
and floated all the way back to Earth
with my skin full of moon juice.
I crawled into the safety of my midnight-blue blanket
And stared up at the ever-revolving orb,
knowing that I have touched the sky.