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 poets who choose to dismiss the 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.

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