The HyperTexts

The Best Free Verse Poems of All Time

compiled by Michael R. Burch

As with any "best ever" or "greatest ever" list, a high degree of personal taste (and opinion) are involved. However, if you find poems you enjoy here, perhaps we can agree that I did my job, even if what I produced is really only a list of my favorite free verse poems. Purists may dispute some of my choices, claiming them to be closer to traditional blank verse or accentual verse than ad hoc free verse, but my goal here is not to draw lines in the sand or to minutely dissect poems to see what makes them tick. All the poems here are freer in form than traditional poetic forms such as sonnets and villanelles, so rather than quibble, let's just relax and enjoy some of the best poems ever written, together ...

Sappho of Lesbos is perhaps the first great female poet still known to us today, and she remains one of the very best poets of all time, regardless of gender. She is so revered for her erotic love poetry that we get our terms "sapphic" and "lesbian" from her name and island of residence. As you can see from the utterly stellar epigram below, she remains a timeless treasure:

Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wild gales whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.

http://adruidway.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/whitman.jpg

This is my favorite poem by Walt Whitman, the father of English free verse and perhaps the most original and unique American poet. "A Noiseless, Patient Spider" demonstrates how a great poem can mesmerize us with a simple metaphor: here, a spider weaving its web symbolizes the ever-questing and -questioning human soul.

A Noiseless Patient Spider

by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the mother and father of American free verse, but they seem to have been as unalike as night and day. Whitman claimed to be a rogue and wrote freely about sex and homosexuality. Dickinson was a recluse who wrote about love more circumspectly. But perhaps they were not so unalike, since it has been suggested that they both wrote about love without ever consummating a real-life relationship. But in any case, they left us many moving and memorable poems. Dickinson's poems seem more formal/traditional that Whitman's, but she employed slant rhymes and metrical variations that make her sound unlike any poet before her.

Come slowly, Eden
by Emily Dickinson

Come slowly, Eden
Lips unused to thee.
Bashful, sip thy jasmines,
As the fainting bee,
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars—alights,
And is lost in balms!

If Walt Whitman is the father of free verse, Ezra Pound is the rebellious son who helped carry on the family tradition despite not always agreeing with (or wanting to acknowledge) his patriarch. Pound is an interesting poet, to say the least. He advised other poets to "make it new," then wrote some of the most archaic-sounding poems since Chaucer. But he proved in poems like "The Garden" that free verse can rival the best formal poetry.

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.

Wallace Stevens is one of the best modern free verse poets, although many of his best poems are written in what appears to be gorgeously-rhythmed blank verse (i.e., unrhymed iambic pentameter). His meter is so good it defies categorization; only Hart Crane rivals him when it comes to writing fluid verse.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

D. H. Lawrence is another poet who's difficult to categorize. "Piano" may be the best and most musical of his poems. While most of his best-known poems are decidedly free verse, this one is written in rhymed couplets and seems more traditional, yet in a nicely relaxed, modern way.

Piano
by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Along with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot helped create modern free verse. This poem demonstrates his remarkable talents. While Eliot was a sophisticated, urbane poet, his main theme was human love, and he often comes across as a somewhat "nerdy," disillusioned romantic.

La Figlia Che Piange (The Weeping Girl)
by T. S. Eliot

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair —
Lean on a garden urn —
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair —
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise —
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and a shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight, and the noon's repose.

William Carlos Williams is one of the most important American free verse poets, along with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.

This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Langston Hughes is another important and highly influential American free verse poet. He was also important as a protest poet. His poetry contains elements of traditional poetry, negro spirituals and the blues.

I, Too, Sing America
by Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Luis Omar Salinas is generally considered to be one of the best Hispanic poets to write in English, with good cause. "Sometimes Mysteriously" is one of those mysterious poems that makes us feel a special kinship with the poet.

Sometimes Mysteriously
by Luis Omar Salinas

Sometimes in the evening when love
tunes its harp and the crickets
celebrate life, I am like a troubadour
in search of friends, loved ones,
anyone who will share with me
a bit of conversation. My loneliness
arrives ghostlike and pretentious,
it seeks my soul, it is ravenous
and hurting. I admire my father
who always has advice in these matters,
but a game of chess won't do, or
the frivolity of religion.
I want to find a solution, so I
write letters, poems, and sometimes
I touch solitude on the shoulder
and surrender to a great tranquility.
I understand I need courage
and sometimes, mysteriously,
I feel whole.

Walid Khazindar was born in 1950 in Gaza City. He is considered one of the best Palestinian poets; his poetry has been said to be "characterized by metaphoric originality and a novel thematic approach unprecedented in Arabic poetry." He was awarded the first Palestine Prize for Poetry in 1997. He lives in Tunis.

Distant light
by Walid Khazindar
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Bitterly cold,
winter clings to the naked trees.
If only you would free
the bright sparrows
from the tips of your fingers
and release a smile—that shy, tentative smile—
from the imprisoned anguish I see.
Sing! Can we not sing
as if we were warm, hand-in-hand,
shielded by shade from a glaring sun?
Can you not always remain this way,
stoking the fire, more beautiful than necessary, and silent?
Darkness increases; we must remain vigilant
and this distant light is our only consolation—
this imperiled flame, which from the beginning
has been flickering,
in danger of going out.
Come to me, closer and closer.
I don't want to be able to tell my hand from yours.
And let's stay awake, lest the snow smother us.

"A Blessing" is a wonderfully touching praise poem that helps us share the poet's awe and gladness to have had such a magical experience with creatures of another species. I like to think of poetry being an act of communion between the poet and reader, and this poem might well be called sacred, or touching on the sacred.

A Blessing
by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

"The Layers" is one of my favorite poems by a contemporary poet. Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was an American poet. He was appointed Poet Laureate twice, first in 1974 and then again in 2000 (when he was 95!).

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

If modern English/American free verse began with Walt Whitman, he obviously learned much about his craft from the King James Bible. The passage below demonstrates just how moving and musical poetry can be, without formal meter or rhyme.

Song of Solomon
attributed to King Solomon
from the King James Bible

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes,
and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor wake my love, till he please.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" is perhaps the first great poem in the English language, with the caveat that at the time it was written English still sounded a lot like German. I hope my loose translation of the poem does the poem justice, because it has been one of my favorite poems since I first read it. The poem is especially interesting because it seems to have been written by a woman and it deals with what appears to be rape, an unwanted child, and perhaps a ménage a trois.

Wulf and Eadwacer  (Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Ballad, circa 960 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is to the others as if someone robbed them of a gift.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf's far wanderings, I suffered with hope.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, that was pleasant, but it also was painful.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, unable to eat.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.

The earliest Old English poem still extant today is probably "Cĉdmon's Hymn," which was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD. According to the scholar Bede (673-735), Cĉdmon was an illiterate herdsman who worked at the monastery of Whitby, a small English fishing village on the North Sea. Cĉdmon, as Bede's story goes, was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. Like "Wulf and Eadwacer," "Cĉdmon's Hymn" was written in accentual meter, which utilizes four strong beats per line and alliteration to create "word music." 

Cĉdmon's Hymn
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now we must honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father. First he, the eternal Lord,
established the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the first Poet, created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men, holy Creator,
Guardian of mankind. Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made the middle earth for men, Master almighty.

The poem below, by Ezra Pound, strikes me as a "free verse Haiku." This short poem demonstrates the ability of the better poets to capture a moment, in a few words, for all time.

In A Station Of The Metro
by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Allen Ginsburg was perhaps Walt Whitman's primary heir. In this poem, Ginsburg captures the questing spirit of Whitman, the way Whitman once captured the questing spirit of a noiseless patient spider.

A Supermarket in California
by Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! — and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

"Dover Beach," written around 1850 and published in 1867, has been called "the first major free-verse poem in the language." I tend to agree, as "Dover Beach" and T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" strike me as the first two great modern free verse poems in the English language, out of the poems that continue to employ meter and rhyme in a more relaxed form, while the best poems of Walt Whitman make a more complete break. Arnold's and Eliot's poems also seem more modern, while Whitman's sound more like the King James Bible. But I love the best work of all three poets, so once again I don't want to split hairs.  It's interesting to compare the different styles that began to emerge from the mid 1800's to early 1900's, but there is no more need to choose between formal poetry and free verse than there is to choose between classical music and jazz.

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

"Those Winter Sundays" is a poem that is simultaneously a blank verse sonnet and free verse. Rather than trying to label it, we should simply enjoy it, as it tells a compelling story about a boy who once took his father for granted, until one day he "saw the light."

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

in Just-
by e. e. cummings

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame baloonman

whistles      far      and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old baloonman whistles
far      and      wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
it's
spring
and

      the
               goat-footed

 baloonMan      whistles
far
and
wee

Beginning My Studies

by Walt Whitman

Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

Buffalo Bill's defunct
by e. e. cummings

Buffalo Bill's
        defunct
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
                                        stallion
        and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                         Jesus
        he was a handsome man
                             and what i want to know is
        how do you like your blueeyed boy
        Mister Death

Richard Moore is one of my favorite contemporary poets. He specialized in writing formal poetry, and was a strong proponent of "perfect rhyme." But he still managed to write one of my favorite free verse poems, "In the Dark Season."

In The Dark Season
by Richard Moore

I

I fall out of the foliage of my feelings.
That is the beginning, the ending,
when the orange peels appear
from the shrinking lips of the snow
and broken bottles, still clinging to their labels,
in the gutter outside the church.
A silk stocking coils in the mud.
In the dark season, someone has sown
the seed of confusion. The church will graze
on the flowers, the fruits of love,
the soft nutritious pulp of remorse.
Do these events signify
summertime in another hemisphere?
One studied a new language in the darkness,
looked far down into the well,
into the hints of sunlight in its depths.

II

We are dead such a long time before
and will be dead such a long time after
this leaping into light
as a dolphin leaps from the sea
and carries the glare of that moment
back among the curious creatures
who have not known the light.
Don't tell me this is like Plato's cave;
I know that. But in death, our element,
who swims with us? Do we even?
If God is light...No, but there may be,
as the poet says, a soft monster 
deeply sleeping among his thousand 
arms under millennia
unnumbered, and enormous polypi.
I think we have been frightened into life
as fish leap from greater fish below.
We cry angrily in our cradles,
then overcome, grow tranquil through the years,
hopefully, ready ever for the depths
ever ready for us.

III

Yes, but of course, there is the need
for symmetry. Matter calls out
for antimatter, which forthwith
sings in the shadows. Thus, tonight
streetlight fingers new foliage
with breezes making light of it,
where unseen trunk divides itself
into a multitude of tips
above ground and below, as in
a mirror, strangers to each other,
two lives, depending on each other,
therefore the same life: in dark depth
and moisture one, in dry sunlight
the other: God and Satan, one,
female and male in each one, one.
Dolphins from darkness visit light.
Who from her glitter visits us?
These, lost inside you: look outside
in the not-you: you find them there.

Other free verse poems of note:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot
Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Helen by H. D.
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond by e. e. cummings
The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop
The Send-Off by Wilfred Owen
After the Persian by Louise Bogan
My Grandma's Love Letters by Hart Crane
Forgetfulness by Hart Crane
Voyages by Hart Crane
Incidental Effects of the Revival of Fascism on a Provincial French Island by T. Merrill
Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

Related pages: Famous Free Verse Poems

The HyperTexts