Or, alternatively: Why Poetry Should Be Grammatically Correct

Poetry: such an expressive, free form, unbound by the rules of mundane grammar, right? The poet can alter the structure, syntax, punctuation, and even the spelling to suit his whim, correct? Not quite.

There is a commonly held belief that writing poetry means one can toss the rules of grammar and spelling out the window. This is only partially true. One of the hallmarks of poetry is its sheer flexibility and freedom of form. However, and this is a big “however”, standardized grammar and spellings exist for a reason: to make communication possible.

Imagine, if you will, a world with no set rules for written language. Every single word has multiple spellings that vary based upon the writer. Sentence structures and syntax are often drastically different from person to person, with words dropped out at whim and strange words interspersed willy-nilly. But it’s freedom of expression, so all is fine since all the writers are doing is expressing themselves, right? Perhaps, but freedom of expression can only be taken so far. If you take this freedom too far, you become incoherent and incomprehensible; it can no longer be said that you are expressing yourself as no one can understand you.

The simple fact of the matter is this: language exists for clear communication. If you abuse the language to a point where your ideas cease being clearly communicable, you are doing something wrong. By breaking the conventions of grammar for shallow reasons such as carelessness or a desire to appear poetic, you are making your poem less coherent and comprehensible. Which, assuming you wrote the poem to share with others, defeats the whole purpose of writing the poem in the first place.

Now, this is not to say that all poetry must always be punctuated. As mentioned before, it is partially true that poetry does not always have to adhere to the conventions of spelling and grammar, and there are cases where following these standards would actually harm the poem. So when is it acceptable to break from language conventions?

There is one case where this is permissible, and that case is when breaking convention clarifies the meaning of your poem.

This is not a common occurrence, but it does happen occasionally. However, and this is another big however, you must, as a writer, have a complete mastery of all aspects of grammar and formatting before you can claim that breaking convention is most beneficial for your poem. Very simply, before you can break the rules without repercussions, you must know them inside and out. Only then will you become acquainted with the exceptions and the loopholes of the language, an acquaintance you can exploit to further enhance your poetry (and all other forms of writing).

Until you master all the aspects of grammar, however, please punctuate your poetry properly, and spell words correctly, and generally adhere to the conventions of grammar. It will make your poetry easier to understand.

Comment

  1. Snow White Queen on 18 July 2010, 00:59 said:

    This is a good article and a good point, but I think it would benefit from examples.

  2. ZeeZee on 18 July 2010, 01:46 said:

    Good article! It’s nice to see some writing articles again.

  3. Romantic Vampire Lover on 18 July 2010, 06:58 said:

    I don’t think I agree with you here. Some examples would certainly help me understand the exact situations you are writing about.

    I don’t think art should have any restrictions whatsoever, unlike just about everything else. Music, for instance, is something that is very personal. One person may interpret it one way, another person may interpret it in a completely different way. Example: was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata written as a quiet, gentle piece, or was it suppressed rage on Beethoven’s part? There are many different opinions, and I have my own.

    Poetry is art. There should be no restrictions. It is well known for being vague, for example, but that’s not to say that all poetry is vague.

    Your point about spelling makes sense, but would benefit from examples. As for punctuation… I really think that’s up to the author. It depends on how they wanted it read, etcetera. For example:

    While this line is clear and makes perfect sense to the reader,

    “My eyes roll towards him slowly, while I try to control myself;
    Whatever they say, sarcasm is the best line of defense; it makes people think I’m not serious.”

    This line requires more thought, but, in my opinion, it is more artistic than the first:

    “My eyes roll towards him slowly while I try to control myself.
    Whatever they say, sarcasm is the best form of condescension.”

    Hmm… Maybe that wasn’t the best example, but in any case, hopefully that made some sense.

    In short: examples would be greatly appreciated. :D

  4. Romantic Vampire Lover on 18 July 2010, 10:49 said:

    Sorry about the double post, but I finally found a good example. :D Here ‘tis:

    Like a small gray
    coffeepot
    sits the squirrel.
    He is not
    bq.
    bq. all he should be,
    kills by dozens
    trees, and eats
    his red-brown cousins.
    bq.
    bq. The keeper, on the
    other hand
    , who shot him, is
    a Christian, and
    bq.
    bq. loves his enemies,
    which shows
    the squirrel was not
    one of those.

    ~ The Gray Squirrel by Humbert Wolfe

    This is one of my favourite poems, and I think the punctuation and spacing as well as the syntax is perfect. I think it works better than:

    Like a small gray
    coffeepot
    sits the squirrel.
    He is not

    all he should be.
    Those that kill trees
    by the dozen and
    eat his red-brown cousins.

    The keeper, on the
    other hand, who shot him,
    is a Christian, and

    loves his enemies.
    Clearly,
    the squirrel was not
    one of those.

    I obviously changed the second poem to how I think it would suit my point, but hopefully I’ve conveyed my point. There are situations in which ‘improper’ punctuation and unusual grammar make the poem better. Then again, this is all a matter of opinion. What do you think?

  5. Romantic Vampire Lover on 18 July 2010, 10:50 said:

    Whoops… Triple post now; sorry about the formatting; here’s what I was going for:

    Like a small gray
    coffeepot
    sits the squirrel.
    He is not

    all he should be,
    kills by dozens
    trees, and eats
    his red-brown cousins.

    The keeper, on the
    other hand
    , who shot him, is
    a Christian, and

    loves his enemies,
    which shows
    the squirrel was not
    one of those.

  6. Chant on 18 July 2010, 15:09 said:

    The article doesn’t say you can NEVER use incorrect grammar… just make sure it makes sense when you do.

  7. Romantic Vampire Lover on 18 July 2010, 16:27 said:

    just make sure it makes sense when you do.

    Yes, but my question is when can one judge that it is fit to do so?

  8. SlyShy on 18 July 2010, 20:28 said:

    One thing that’s useful to note is that a lot of the restrictions of traditional poetry (meter, rhyming, etc.) is the cause of a lot of creativity in poetry. The human mind is extremely good at working creatively inside of constraints. In fact, having an entirely open ended situation can be paralyzing for some.

    Anyway, this article’s title fully satisfied my unhealthy obsession with alliteration. So great work.

  9. TakuGifian on 19 July 2010, 08:41 said:

    Hmm. Good article, but as others have said it could have used some examples (I have a bad habit of not using examples, as well).

    I both agree and disagree. It’s important to remember grammar when it suits to form of the poem, but if it doesn’t suit, it doesn’t need to be used.

    examples:

    so much depends
    upon

    a red wheel
    barrow

    glazed with rain
    water

    beside the white
    chickens.

    I feel that grammatically correct punctuation would actually diminish the effect of The Red Wheel Barrow. It is more powerful without punctuation. Whereas

    O Rose, thou art sick!
    The invisible worm
    That flies in the night,
    In the howling storm.

    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy,
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.

    would lose its power without punctuation. So really, it should be a matter of preference for the individual poet. Would punctuation make their work more or less powerful?

    As for my final point, if we were as strict about punctuating poetry as we are about prose, then there would be literally no distinction between the two:

    So much depends upon a red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

    When you think about it, the line breaks that give written poetry its power and rhythm are in fact entirely ungrammatical. If such a fundamental element of the form defies convention, why should the rest of it be forced to conform?

    And finally finally, you get poetry like the following:

    IN A STATION OF THE METRO

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

    Which is utterly and completely incapable of conforming to punctuation standards without some heavy reworking. So in this case, pnctuation is about as vital to the poeration of poetry as metre is to prose. Valuable to know and understand, but applied only when wanted by the poet/author.

  10. Steph (what is left) on 20 July 2010, 00:09 said:

    One thing that’s useful to note is that a lot of the restrictions of traditional poetry (meter, rhyming, etc.) is the cause of a lot of creativity in poetry. The human mind is extremely good at working creatively inside of constraints.

    I agree. Also, you need to learn the rules before you can break ‘em. Case in point: Picasso.

  11. Kyllorac on 20 July 2010, 23:43 said:

    @RVL and Taku

    I’m not saying that poetry can never break the rules – only that when the rules are broken, they must be broken for a reason other than “it looked cool” or “everyone else is doing it” or “poetry is art and therefore not subject to the rules of grammar”. The last one in particular is a pet peeve of mine because those who most vehemently spout it tend to be the lazy writers who never bothered to learn the ins and outs of grammar. If there is a solid reason why the conventions of grammar are not being adhered to, such as in the poems the two of you cited above, then it is fine. In fact, following the conventions, as you’ve both pointed out, can sometimes harm a poem.

    The main point of this article was that, like Steph already mentioned, one needs to know the rules of grammar before one can break them.

    Then again, I did write this article originally for a different audience, one who tends to not be as well-read in or aware of what goes into writing coherent poetry. Methinks I should have probably revised this for II. XD

  12. swenson on 28 July 2010, 16:51 said:

    THANK YOU!

    The most annoying thing in the world is when amateur poets defend their terrible poetry and complete ignorance of the English language by claiming it’s “free verse”. THAT IS NOT HOW IT WORKS. Yes, there are very famous (and, I’d venture to say, very good) poems that ignore convention. But like you say, you have to know the rules to understand when it’s acceptable to break them. Otherwise, it’s just terrible.

    Also, your poem sucks.