Is free verse free?

Willamette Live
By Mike Shuler

Remembered Words

It is coming back to me now
The song forgotten
When part of me died
And words were lost
As I begin to sing
I recall mid-winter frost
Kiss as sweet as pear
Touch of cheek
Taste of breath shared
Soft whisper and vow
And love
Crisp as cold air

As an undergraduate student at Oregon College of Education in the mid-1970s, (now Western Oregon University) I was asked by one of my professors “what kind of poetry I wrote.”  I glibly responded “free verse,” and he proceeded to gently but firmly educate me about writing, not only in that conversation, but in following writing classes.

“There is no such thing as free verse,” he said.  “All writing is bound by conventions of form.  Verse has certain conventions that allow it to be poetry, including truncated lines, meter, and an appearance on the page distinct from prose.  Free verse is not free; it adheres to conventions and rules, and works as a structure within a larger universe of writing structures.”

That was one of my introductions to college.  I had a lot to learn.  He went on to say that rules must be learned before they can be broken, which challenged me to study literary forms and conventions, and ultimately, to become a better writer.

“Remembered Words” is a recent poem which emerged as I was struggling to recall a song I had written about five years ago.  As the words to the song gradually returned over a three-week period of time, the words of the poem began to reveal themselves in a memory of young love.

Even though the remembered song had nothing to do with the remembered love, perhaps one opened a door to the other.

As the poem was written, it became captive to language within the boundaries of style.  It paid homage to rhyme both internal and end-line, it had metered (although not regular) lines, and it included simile as a poetic convention.  And when designated as “poem” or “verse,” it fit within an accepted writing format.  So, it is not free, but constrained by the conventions of poetry and of the content of the experience itself.

I eventually realized that my professor’s lesson for me about “freedom” could be applied to just about anything:  The sciences, politics, relationships, behaviors, technologies.  Boundaries may be stretched and pushed, and that usually is the way creative breakthroughs happen, but when one breaks free of all boundaries, either chaos or emptiness results.

Mike Shuler is a retired educator and psychologist living in Dallas, Oregon.  He has taught, coordinated, and led programs in public schools and higher education.  In addition, he has worked in outpatient and inpatient mental health services as a therapist, coordinator, and program director.  He edited his college literary magazine.  He writes songs, poems, and stories.  He has not published widely, but has won awards for poetry and may be found in college and local anthologies.

Line Break is a partnership between Salem Weekly and Mid Valley Poetry Society (MVPS),  a group  working to spread awareness and appreciation of poets and poetry in the greater Salem area through articles, events, and monthly meetings. visit them at  For information about local poetry events contact Ruth at

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