Form and Function: Poetic License

Posted February 1, 2010 by 1 Comment

In the introduction to Poems of Paul Celan, the translator Michael Hamburger writes:

Many of these persons may have no existence or significance outside the poem. It is the poem that creates them or discovers them.

My happy interpretation of that? You can make stuff up if you want to. Poetic license.

Create new words. Use wonky spellings. Cross out entire phrases. Develop a brand new form.

The great thing about poetry is that you can forget about grammar, punctuation, and all the rules they made you learn in seventh-grade English while diagramming sentences. Poetry is the place where rules are bent, broken, and tossed out the window. (This is an occupational hazard… sometimes you can get so carried away forgetting the rules that when you need ’em it’s tough to pull them out of the cobwebby corners of your mind!)

This isn’t to say that punctuation doesn’t matter – it certainly does (see my diatribe on the ampersand). That omission of a comma, it’s a big deal. That proper noun that isn’t capitalized… it’s significant. (Think about it: God or god… mother or Mother. Each word has a different weight.)

Poetic license means that you can let go of all that’s “expected” of a “typical” poet. But it also means that you’re taking on a bigger challenge – to use language very deliberately to get your message across, to use as few words as possible to evoke an image or feeling.

Frank O’Hara was a great poet who made up words at his leisure or used unexpected adjectives to describe something (“the sky was a thumb”). Ann Lauterbach makes great use of free verse in her collection Hum, alternating her form between short and long lines.

The point is, for as many poets as there are who follow the rules, use iambic pentameter, attempt syllabics, write proper sonnets (and bravo to you), there are just as many fantastic poets who make their own rules. And their poetry is all the better for it. I think just knowing that the rules are there to be broken makes it that much easier for people to pick up a pen or sit down at the computer and start typing. Very careful academic verse has its merit, but you’re not married to it – write for the sake of writing, for getting something down on paper.

What kind of poetic license have you taken?


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