Free verse is currently the most common form of poetry being written. Indeed, it has almost driven verse into extinction. But like anything, free verse has a history and emerged from the poetic forms that came before it.
Free verse is, essentially, any kind of poetry without meter. The precursor of free verse in English poetry is the King James Bible: the translators of this version of the Bible were more concerned with rendering the Greek text into English faithfully; but instead of translating the poetic books like Job, Psalms, and Isaiah into prose, they divided them into non-metrical lines An example is Psalm 23. Although these lines were not metrical, they were strongly rhythmic nonetheless.
The true father of free verse in English poetry is Walt Whitman, who wrote lines that were imitative of the King James Bible, using parallelism and repetition to achieve a powerful cadence. For example, Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”
Although Whitman was writing about the lives of everyday people, who to him represented the spirit of American democracy, his tone is very similar. That is to say, that also both poems have eschewed conventional meter in favor of a freer cadence, they still express the sense of being “poetic:” they are close to common speech, but not so close that the reader might forget he or she is reading a poem.
It was not until the 20th century that free verse came into its own as a legitimate poetic form (or, perhaps, lack of form). The first poets to take take Whitman’s idea of poetry without meter and add to it the idea that poetry should more closely reflect the language and rhythm of everyday speech.
Among these poets, four poets in particular stand out for the influence they had on later generations.
Erza Pound was perhaps the father of modern free-verse. One of the primary figures among the expatriate American writers living in Paris after World War I, he not only wrote free verse, but sponsored other free verse poets (as well as metrical poets he respected) both critically and financially. One example of Pound’s early style of free verse was this translation (though very loose translation) of the Chinese poet Li Bai.
William Carlos Williams
Williams was a doctor from New Jersey who spent most of his poetic career in obscurity. He was enamored of Whitman, but he was also very different from him, preferring a shorter line and embracing the hard-line wing of the Imagist school (one that Pound founded and grew out of that focused on tersest, most unornate lines possible). Williams credo was “no ideas but in things”, and one can see it in this excerpt from his long poem Spring and All.
Stevens was a friend of Williams, but did not share his views on “ideas” in poetry. In fact, a good deal of Stevens’ poetry is philosophical in nature. Stevens wrote both in free-verse and blank verse, and brought his own voice to all of it. Stevens’ tone is generally intellectual, but unlike any of the other four, some of his most famous poems are also his most playful—though their playfulness often conceals a layer of dark thought just below the surface, as in his poem, ” The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
Eliot is also considered one of the premier voices among free-versifiers. Eliot, unlike the other three, is more akin to the 17th Century Metaphysical poets: allusive, deliberately clever, and containing many deeply striking images that one wouldn’t see in real life. Eliot made frequent use of rhyme in much of his free verse, in many cases to create a sense of urgency, as well as in creating irony when compared to the use of rhyme in the poetry of the past, as in the opening of his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.