Jason Reynolds and Free Verse

The poetry novel, Long Way Down uses Free Verse.

Free Verse is an open form of poetry that does not use formal meter patterns or rhyme, and thus tends to follow the natural rhythms of speech.

That being said, it isn’t really ‘free,’ instead the patterns of conventional poetry tend to be suggested in a more subtle way. 

As the poet TS Eliot said, “No verse is free for the [poet] who wants to do a good job.”

So what does free verse need?

Evocative language. Rolling, tumbling sequences of words that dance together in the mouth and the mind.

Repetition, Alliteration, consonance and assonance, that all tend to suggest a rhythm, rather than enforce a rhythm as in a traditional structure such as the iambic pentameter, and rhyming system of a Sonnet.

Metaphors, similes, and other forms of analogy that can be used to actually trigger a physical response in the reader.

Not just a physical response, but an involuntary response.

When you read the lines your nerve endings send signals to your brain, that in turn sends to your lymphatic system, that secretes hormones into your organs, making your heart race a little (or a lot), your skin tingle, and your breathing become labored. 

Notice how we have no choice but to feel the stifling nature of the fog in this fragment from THE LOVE SONG OF J ALFRED PRUFROCK by TS Eliot:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

As you can see, even though this is free verse, the conventions of formal poetry are all still in evidence.

The ‘yellow fog’ is personalized––as a cat.

The word ‘yellow’ is itself repeated, in order to suggest a rhythm.

The dominant ‘L’ sound from ‘yellow’ is echoed in ‘Licked,’ ‘Lingered,’ and ‘Let fall.’

This repeated letter sound is known as ALLITERATION. When a consonant is alliterated it is known as CONSONANCE.

Notice there is also a repetition of the letter ‘O.’

Fog––smoke—pools—soot, and so forth. When a vowel is alliterated it’s known as ASSONANCE.

Notice how the assonance tends to give middle-rhymes––pools—soot,

Or slant rhymes such as ‘slipped’ and ‘leaped.’ 

All of these elements tend to suggest an underlying form.

Of course the dominant poetic element of this excerpt is the extended metaphor of the fog as a cat, which TS Eliot referred to as an OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVE.


When we come to LONG WAY DOWN, Will is stuck in an elevator with someone smoking a cigarette. We physically feel Will’s disgust and struggle to breathe.

Here is another example of free verse from Walt Whitman:


COME my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,

Pioneers! O pioneers!
Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond
the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

What poetic elements make this poem work as a poem?

Here are some snippets from LONG WAY DOWN that show some of the elements mentioned above:


Cops flashed lights in our faces and we all turned to stone.

Did anybody see anything?

Or this one with the letter, P

Pressed our lips to the pavement and prayed

Analogies, in other words Metaphor and Simile.

Analogies are where you make a comparison between one word (or idea) and another, in order to better express what you’re trying to say with that word.

A simile is a direct comparisons and a metaphor is indirect. Here is an example of a simile:

…hanging over my

brother’s body

like a dimmed

light post.

See how this simile evokes the exact posture?


…tiny fists punching the backs of my eyes feet kicking

my throat at the spot where the swallow starts.

See how these metaphors evoke the exact feeling the author wants to convey.

Visual cues and dramatic juxtaposition of ideas:

The Hebrew poets who composed the Psalms in the Jewish Bible worked with an interesting verse form. It consisted of distichs. These are two line verses in which the first line makes a statement, and then then second line builds on the idea in the first line in one of three ways:

Sameness: The poet restates the first line by restating it in different way, as in Psalm 102:

I am like a pelican in the wilderness;
I have become an owl among the ruins.

Antithesis: the poet can opposes the statement in some way (sometimes by negating the opposite to the first statement), as in Ecclestiastes 3:4:

A time to weep
A time to laugh

Complement: This balances two halves of the statement as in Proverbs 19:21:

A man may have many plans in his mind
But the counsel of the Lord––that will stand.

Take a look at these juxtapositions of ideas from LONG WAY DOWN:

Shawn was zipped into a bag
and rolled away,
his blood added
to the pavement galaxy of
bubblegum stars.
The tape
framed it like it was art.
And the next
day, kids would play
mummy with it.