Breaking Grammar Rules in Poetry Writing

grammar rules poetry writing

Do you break grammar rules in poetry writing?

Accomplished writers respect the rules of grammar the way an acrobat respects the tightrope — grammar might be intimidating and complicated, but we need it in order to perform.

Yet sometimes, an acrobat takes her foot off the tightrope. She does a flip or some other trick of physical prowess that seems to defy the laws of gravity and exceed the potential of the human body.

Grammar rules lend structure and clarity to our writing and gives us common ground rules that we can use to communicate clearly and effectively, just like the tightrope gives the acrobat a foundation upon which to walk.

So when does a writer take her foot off the rules of grammar so she can perform spectacular tricks?

Good Grammar in Poetry Writing

I’m often asked by writers and poets how they should handle grammar, capitalization, and punctuation in poetry. When it comes to grammar rules, is poetry writing the exception?

Many poets demonstrate grammatical expertise, neatly parking periods and commas in their designated spaces and paying homage to proper capitalization.


Consider the following poem and how it follows the rules of grammar. Note that in poetry writing, the traditional rule is that the first letter of each line is capitalized regardless of whether or not it starts a new sentence.

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
By Adrienne Rich 

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

Writing Poetry Without Grammar Rules

Poets don’t always follow the rules, which is why poetry is attractive to writers who are especially creative, rebellious, and enjoy coloring outside the lines.

Grammar rules, particularly spelling and punctuation, are nothing more than a creative tool for many poets who choose to dismiss these rules altogether or use the them to decorate and add aesthetic elements to a poem.

Many poets have skirted grammar with great success. Many more have failed. E.E. Cummings is well known for giving grammar the proverbial finger, but he takes his anarchy one step further and actually alters basic sentence structure, and manages to do so quite effectively.

anyone lived in a pretty how town
By ee cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

Cummings has dismissed capital letters altogether and he uses punctuation seemingly at random. Yet the poem works. Imagine it with the proper grammar rules applied and you’ll quickly realize that his way is more effective for this piece and what he’s trying to accomplish with language.

Poetry Writing – Where Rules and Creativity Cooperate or Collide

As the poetry canon grows beyond measure, poets increasingly reach for creative devices to make their work stand out.

Toying with grammar rules is one such device, but it is not something that can be approached carelessly. If you choose to forgo the rules because you don’t know them rather than as a creative technique, your lack of knowledge will show and the poem will present as amateurish. Of course, that’s true for all types of writing: learn the rules, and only after you have learned them, go ahead and break them.

I salute anyone who breaks the rules in the interest of art and great poetry writing just as much as I admire poets who craft meter and verse within the confines of grammar. So for this language-loving poet, either way is the right way. Walk the tight rope or jump from it and see if you can fly.

What are your thoughts on applying grammar rules to poetry writing? Are you a stickler for good grammar, even in your creative or experimental work, or do you like to bend and break the rules? Share your thoughts in the comments.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

22 Responses to “Breaking Grammar Rules in Poetry Writing”

  1. Geddy Friedman says:

    I have been writing poetry consistently for 14 years and only in the past maybe 3–4 yrs have I actually not only been compulsive in my grammar, but even attempted it much at all. The reason for this is because I started as a lyricist and lyrics do not need punctuation when they are sung. But now as a full-fledged poet, I cannot possibly write without it. Comparing any good poem without grammar to the same with it is like comparing a handsome tiger without fur to one with it. Grammar is vital to all communication because it expresses urgency, hesitation, exclamations, questions, pauses, breaks of thought and much more. Personally I think E.E. Cummings was an atrociously amateur writer. His proverbial finger to grammar hasn’t helped him much. Compare Lord Byron, John Wilmot, or William Blake to E.E. Cummings. They make him look like a child. I am yet to see how any poem, including the one shown above, is truly benefiting from the blatant disregard of proper punctuation. Grammar is the very instructions for how you read what the words say. Without it, words are just words with virtually no guidance, direction, or purpose.

    Anyway, that’s my take on it. Not sure if anyone will read this comment.

    • Hi Geddy, Thanks for sharing your opinion on the matter of grammar and poetry. I am of a different mind and as a huge fan of E.E. Cummings, I have a great appreciation for experimental works, including those that question the rules of grammar by breaking those rules. It takes a highly skilled writer to break the rules effectively and I believe Cummings was successful in his endeavors. True, many of his works have a childlike sensibility — I believe that is intended and executed effectively by flouting the rules (as children are prone to do). Also, I think it’s worth noting that not all of Cummings’ works were written in this style. Although I believe grammar is critical to written language, I also believe that there is a time and place for everything, including breaking the rules.

      • Geddy Friedman says:

        Melissa, you said yourself “Good writers respect grammar the way an acrobat respects the tightrope. Grammar might be intimidating and complicated, but we need it in order to perform.” I fully agree with that statement. I disagree with virtually any and all follow-up contradictions.

        I would not be so quick to say it required a high amount of skill for e e cummings (whenever you write his name you have to use the same poor grammar he uses) to disregard the rules of the English language. All that it takes anyone is laziness, a lack of self-discipline, and at times a bit of good ol’ willful ignorance. I am very much unimpressed both by his proverbial finger to proper writing and his writing itself. He seems devoid of depth, wisdom, understanding, and something truly meaningful to say. On top of that, his writing skills/habits were horrid. If you like him, fine, but like a Van Gogh or a Monet (compare their dated work to the Renaissance master of Italy), he was reasonably decent at what he does compared to other amateurs in high school, but to be a man known for generations for his classic work, to me he just simple doesn’t deserve the right to be remembered. (As you can see I take punctuation and following the rules of the language quite seriously, especially now in an age where virtually everyone under 40 does not know how to spell “their” and “you’re” right.)

        Well, I guess I’ll await your inevitable defense of this poor undisciplined and very much overrated writer. Thanks again for reading.

        • Geddy, I’m not interested in trying to convince you of the merits in E.E. Cummings’ work. I admire artists who defy convention and break the rules effectively, and I think he was successful in his endeavors. That is my opinion. Yours may differ.

        • Geddy Friedman says:

          I admire artists who defy convention and break the rules effectively as well and for this reason I cannot respect the work of “e e cummings” just like how I cannot respect the music of a band of misfits who never learned the proper way of playing their instruments. We need to have standards to the quality we demand and I personally draw the line well before reaching this guy. Now give me some John Wilmot . . . I’ll take his defiance of propriety and ceremonial norms over Cummings any day of the week.

          P.S. Check out my link. My poetry book is now out. Enjoy!

        • Your opening statement contradicts itself… (?)

          In all fairness, ee cummings didn’t always break the rules when he wrote. His other work demonstrates that he certainly had a grasp on the rules. Personally, I love his work and rule-breaking, but obviously, it’s not for everyone. As for musicians, my favorite guitarist (Lindsay Buckingham) can’t read music. Many of the world’s greatest musicians did not play their instrument the proper way.

          I do think that an artist’s best bet is to learn as much as possible (academically) but true art does not come from learning; it comes from the heart and if it speaks to an audience; that’s enough for me. Actually, I don’t understand why someone cares whether a band has “learned to play their instruments properly.” If you like the music, you like the music. Who cares how they play their instruments? Do you care how I hold my pen? I also don’t like the idea of locking people out of the arts who don’t have access to formal education. If you can pick up an instrument or a pen and make art that speaks to some audience, then I say good for you. I don’t want to give the wrong idea here — I believe one should practice, study, and hone one’s craft. But art is not about following convention.

  2. Somebody commented on one of my poems saying:
    “Your spelling and grammar is terrible. Please, I beg of you, stop writing shitty poems.”

    And I sent them this article, quoting some of the things said in it.
    I knew I would immediately find a website page on this when I searched it because its very huge in poetry, and many, many beautiful poems aren’t grammatically-correct.
    I told this person that I was sorry he was so closed-minded to poetry in that way, because of all those amazing poems out there, that are grammatically-incorrect, and he is going to immediately label them ‘shitty’.

    His one-worded reply, was: “No.”
    I think I somewhat stumped him. He had no argument back, because, what can he say to actual evidence? An entire website page completely against what he just said! And the fact that I didn’t personally attack him, so he couldn’t defend himself in that way, either, because I gave him no chance to.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for making this article.

    • Jelisa, the point of this article is that writers should learn all the rules of grammar and then break them, but only when it benefits the writing. Your grammar isn’t terrible, but your comment does contain several mistakes, which suggests that you’re not bothering to learn the rules at all. I think the person who commented on your poems had a tactless approach, but maybe you can take the message and run with it instead of looking for ways to prove the messenger wrong. Many writers don’t want to learn grammar so they look for excuses, and this article is not meant to be used an excuse for ignoring the rules. If you want your writing to shine, you’re going to have to work at it, and that means learning proper grammar.

  3. Joseph J says:

    I write short stories. I say this because the other side of grammar use is the nature of the story. Rappers call themselves poets and their “style” is hardly English. A story about Detroit inner city isn’t the same as a mountain meadow. So the point is, we shouldn’t mix the two in the same story. And then there is readability. I recently read a piece I wrote weeks ago and had to take it out of the done directory and place it in the almost finish stuff. It was difficult to read and lacked tune, voice, and the message was lost.

    • Hi Joe,

      I’m not sure how “the nature of the story” is the “other side” of grammar. A story should use grammar, certainly. I don’t see them as opposites but rather grammar is a tool that one must use to write a great story.

      As for your comments about rappers, I’m going to have to disagree. There is a lot of great poetry in rap and hip hop music (Jay-Z, for example, is a brilliant poet). No, a story about a Detroit inner city is not the same as a mountain meadow. A Detroit inner city immediately indicates human struggle whereas a mountain meadow sounds like an image on a greeting card. You can write poetry about either, and artists (especially poets and lyricists) may take any liberties with the English language that they want in their work. That is why we call it art.

      We can talk about “high art,” which, to me, is art that comes from academic study or from people who have advantage (access to lots of books, museums, etc.). What makes rap and hip hop so awesome is that it can be magical and heartbreaking and inspiring even though it’s not learned in a classroom. And that means it comes from heart, soul, and raw talent. Which is beautiful, if you ask me.

      • Joseph J says:

        Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I know what works for me and what doesn’t
        Can wait to hear your new rap album. Careful with the high art crap you should snobby.

  4. Tiffiny says:

    Melissa,

    As always a wonderful article. I agree, without knowledge of proper grammar and usage we can not break grammar rules effectively when needed. I’m actually quite surprised by the comments left, I think your use of E. E. Cummings poem was the perfect example of someone who knew grammar intimately and chose to break the rules. Someone said he had no depth in his writing, the example poem in this article shows the opposite. The word usage is where the depth is and what pulls you in. What makes one want to understand each and every line.

    As to your question, I think a true artist needs to understand their chosen field but once that understanding is in place they should have the freedom to bend, break, or even throw out the rules when needed. Because great art comes from somewhere much deeper than where rules and regulations reside. Although I do think those rules are what eventually gets us to that deeper place.

    • Thanks, Tiffiny. I agree with you 100%. “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” is one of my favorite poems. It’s whimsical but sad and it has a childlike quality that reminds me of Dr. Suess’s work. I love writing that is abstract in the sense that the reader is not sure what the author’s intent is but the poem is understood nevertheless, sometimes at a deeper level.

      When Eddie Vedder introduced R.E.M. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said (and I paraphrase) that in their early music, he had no idea what lyrics they were singing but he still understood the songs. That’s pretty powerful, if you ask me.

  5. Dina Ayman says:

    I agree with you ….sometimes writers and poets should handle grammar, capitalization, and punctuation in poetry.When writing poetry, you have quite a bit more freedom than when you’re writing prose. You can go ahead and break rules of grammar—but do so for a reason. Some writers will break all sorts of rules of grammar and spelling, either because they are poor grammarians or bad spellers or because they want to be different only for the sake of being different. My take on breaking rules is that one should do so purposely and with some forethought.

  6. Tracee Orman says:

    I love this article and ee cummings was one of the first poets who truly inspired me to break the rules and try new things with my own poetry. I also agree that it should have a purpose. I went through a phase in my writing to try different things just because I could. Needless to say, I wrote a lot of terrible poems. But I learned from my mistakes and kept trying. And it made me a better writer, in general. Because, like you said, to purposefully mess anything up, you have to know how to do it right in the first place. I have a lesson I use with my students to have them try to write a poem breaking at least one rule. I think they learn more about grammar and mechanics in that one lesson than they do when I am trying to teach proper grammar.

    Another thing to remember is that poetry is meant to be heard and if the voice is not authentic, the poem will not be as effective. I think that’s why rap resonates with so many: sure, there are liberties taken with grammar, but it is authentic and speaks to people. Isn’t that the purpose? (This is directed at the responses above from those who questioned this practice.)

    I should note, however, that when one of my students does use improper grammar, spelling, mechanics, I ask if it was on purpose and, if so, what effect they were looking for in the piece. If it is not obvious to the reader/listener or if it distracts, by all means correct it. Most of the time my students will not even realize they are making the mistake, then try to cover it up by saying it was on purpose. That is not good writing. But it IS good practice. ;)

    • I would have loved to have been one of your students! I especially like that you include breaking a rule in a poetry assignment. I can see where students would learn more about grammar from an exercise like that than from actual lessons on grammar. I agree with you about rap. I think there are some fine poets in the rap world :)

  7. Stephanie says:

    I’ll admit, I am an amateur, but I do believe that literature (poems, specifically) is a form of art. Is art not based on creativity and expression? Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a grammar nazi. However, when it comes to poetry, I think that grammar is only a loose guideline. Art has no rules, so I think poets should be able to play around with grammar and wording (perhaps even spelling?) in order to express what they want. I think people should be able to mess around with the rules, and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

  8. Erica says:

    Lovely article. I’m just shocked at some of the comments! They are very classist. Not everyone has access to formal training. This doesn’t mean their art is worthless! Geesh.

    Also, the comment, “A story about Detroit inner city isn’t the same as a mountain meadow” … good lord. I’ve never heard a more upper-class, ultra-white statement about the arts before. It’s sad that people were arguing about your opinion, when it’s *your* opinion! Not everyone has the advantages in this world to write flowery poems about mountain meadows. A lot of people don’t even have the opportunities to GO to a mountain meadow. If that’s what you love to write about, go for it; don’t dismiss others as lazy/untalented/whatever because you don’t like the way they work. It’s their work.

    *deep breath*

    • Thanks Erica. I find that in the world of writers, most people are open-minded and kind hearted. But there are judgmental attitudes and classism for sure. I cringe every time someone says rap has no merit. Deep breaths all around!