Free verse is an open form of poetry, which in its modern form arose through the French vers libre form. It does not use consistent meter patterns, rhyme, or any musical pattern. It thus tends to follow the rhythm of natural speech.
Free verse does not “proceed by a strict set of rules … is not a literary type, and does not conform to a formal structure.” It is not considered to be completely free. In 1948, Charles Allen wrote, “The only freedom cadenced verse obtains is a limited freedom from the tight demands of the metered line.” Free verse contains some elements of form, including the poetic line, which may vary freely; rhythm; strophes or strophic rhythms; stanzaic patterns and rhythmic units or cadences. It is said that verse is free “when it is not primarily obtained by the metered line.”Donald Hall goes as far as to say that “the form of free verse is as binding and as liberating as the form of a rondeau,” and T. S. Eliot wrote, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”
Kenneth Allott, the poet and critic, said the adoption by some poets of vers libre arose from “mere desire for novelty, the imitation of Whitman, the study of Jacobean dramatic blank verse, and the awareness of what French poets had already done to the alexandrine in France.” The American critic John Livingston Lowes in 1916 observed “Free verse may be written as very beautiful prose; prose may be written as very beautiful free verse. Which is which?”
Some poets have considered free verse restrictive in its own way. In 1922, Robert Bridges voiced his reservations in the essay “Humdrum and Harum-Scarum“. Robert Frost, in a comment regarding Carl Sandburg, later remarked that writing free verse was like “playing tennis without a net.” Sandburg responded saying, in part, “There have been poets who could and did play more than one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an insubstantial net, on a frail moonlight fabric of a court.”William Carlos Williams said, “Being an art form, a verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles.”Yvor Winters, the poet and critic, said, “…the greatest fluidity of statement is possible where the greatest clarity of form prevails. … The free verse that is really verse—the best that is, of W.C. Williams, H. D., Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound—is, in its peculiar fashion, the antithesis of free.”
In Welsh poetry, however, the term has a completely different meaning. According to Jan Morris, “When Welsh poets speak of Free Verse, they mean forms like the sonnet or the ode, which obey the same rules as English poesy. Strict Metres verse still honours the immensely complex rules laid down for correct poetic composition 600 years ago.”