Poetry in which there are no regular rhymes, stanzaic forms, or metrical patterns.

Free verse is a style with no restrictions, and therefore quite liberating. Perhaps the first poet to bring free verse to the masses in America was Walt Whitman, but the movement was said to be started by a bunch of French poets, including Arthur Rimbaud, rebelling against the strict meter and rhyme standards of their time and place. A good portion (and wide variety) of twentieth century poetry was wrought in the free verse style, including the work of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Charles Bukowski.
Perhaps the most common misconception about free verse is that, simply because it isn't written in one of the standard poetic forms, it is somehow less poetic -- and, consequently, more random and less artful -- than structured verse.

Well, there's just one problem here: free verse is structured verse.  It just doesn't conform to the usual poetic conventions of rhyme and meter.  Simply because a poem isn't a Petrarchan sonnet doesn't mean it is some sodden, undigested amorphous mass like your Aunt Emma's Jell-O mold gone horribly wrong.  Just because free verse is presented as formless in high school English classes doesn't make it so.  Consider the following passage from "A Game of Chess," the second section of "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot:

    My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
    'Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
    'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
    'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'

      I think we are in rats' alley
      Where the dead men lost their bones.

    'What it that noise?'
      The wind under the door.
    'What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?'
      Nothing again nothing.
    'You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
    I remember
    Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!.
    'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'
    O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag--
    It's so elegant
    So intelligent

Does this passage have a regular rhyme scheme?  No.  Does it use conventional poetic meter?  No.  Is it, then, rhythmless and unstructured?  Don't be ridiculous.  These certainly aren't the best lines of poetry ever written, but they're no worse than, say, Shakespeare's Sonnet XVII.

Free verse poets have a hard job.  They have to make art without leaning on the formal conventions of their predecessors.  And to top it off, they have to compete within their genre with those just cutting their teeth on words, those highschoolers (or younger) giving poetry a try for the first time.  They don't compete on the field of value, but in the field of opinion, which is dominated by an elitism that dictates which forms are respectable.  As a side note, this elitism, now academically sanctioned, dictates which kinds of free verse are acceptable.  For example, it is generally considered fine to play around with form, but it is generally not considered fine to be grammatically or orthographically innovative.  Of course there are exceptions, but they do not disprove the rule.

It's also important to remember that crap is hardly form-specific.  Most poetry is crap, just like most novels are crap.  There was crap before free verse.  I mean, just take a glance at Rudyard Kipling or an example of his work. (Peripherally, Kipling did not call himself a real poet.  Good for him.  Calling oneself a poet is as obnoxious as calling oneself a hacker -- it's a title that must be bestowed externally.)

Lastly, let's not make the hasty assumption that all free verse is postmodern.  That's as silly as saying that all blank verse is Romantic.  Lots of people, including book and journal editors who should know better, seem willing to confuse a poetic form with a literary movement.  It might be fair to say that most postmodern poetry is in the free verse form, if one could come up with some proof to back up such an assertion.  Until then, such an argument falls into the "Well, it really seems true so it must be true" camp, which just isn't rigorous enough to carry its own weight in a serious discussion.  If anyone wants to gather proof, statistics would be nice.

The points to remember are that rhyme and meter are no more a guarantee of poetic quality than the ability to type, and that good free verse is as formally driven as a villanelle, but since nobody is telling you how to write it you have to work harder.  Writing good free verse is much more difficult than writing a good sonnet, since the writer can't rest on the crutch of formal convention.

Regarding sighmoan's comments: it's perfectly valid to use a descriptive noun as a title; just look at the hacker example above.  As they are used here, hacker and poet are the same part of speech.  If we look at the trusty OED, we'll find:
    A descriptive or distinctive appellation; a name, denomination, style.
That use has been around since 1383.  So the shoe fits -- hacker and poet are titles just like doctor, judge, and father.

As to the issue of calling oneself a poet, there's already a node that takes that on from the speech act theory vantage.

"Calling oneself a poet is as obnoxious as calling oneself a hacker -- it's a title that must be bestowed externally."

It would be convenient to dismiss this quote from jmc's write-up above as merely a scrap of thoughtlessly mis-used rhetoric--a poor choice of words (and rudely phrased). Unfortunately, there is much in the write-up that I (and others, obviously) find reasonable and well-put--so much so that this casual bit of nonsense is liable to pass without critical attention into the reader's store of unconscious prejudices.

Let me clearly state my bias in regard to the quoted sentence: I am a poet. Poetry is my primary form of artistic expression. All are welcome to disregard what I do as bad poetry, if that is what they think of it, but I insist that it is poetry. If you can think of anything other than "poet" that I may call myself with any self-respect, however humble, then first imagine yourself as a writer of poetry and try it on yourself. There is no other usefully specific word.

"Poet" is not a "title"; there is no one to "bestow" the name on anyone else. "Poet" is a descriptive noun--you can look it up in the dictionary--that does not mean 'one who writes good poetry' (or 'one who practices the art of poetry without a day-job').

The only judgment that is the right of the reader or listener (and the duty of the poet) is the judgment of how well the poet uses the tools peculiar to the composition of poetry; if a person makes a child, however ugly, then it is considered ignorant to wonder if the parent is human.

If you ask me...

Free verse owes its existence to the fact that English words don't lend themselves to rhyme. Plus, complex thoughts should not deign to be packed -- or shoehorned -- into changeless metric time. What can be said when rhythm is one's master and meaning is her disregarded slave?

If some line should loom longer, or skip faster, or break the rhyme, or elsewise misbehave -- more gladly should one leave the line uncut, so that it may prolixly yield its thought, than cram it into some iambic rut just so it may perspire there, trim and taut.

Your ode need not be danceable or sonnet; just take the page and loose your soul upon it.

Isn't it funny
How free verse sucks?
You think it will rhyme
But it doesn't.

It might as well be a paragraph.
A pretentious, fancy paragraph.

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