Finding a Rhyme and Reason for National Poetry Month

Academia teaches us to use proper nouns, pronouns, and punctuation, but what about other types of writing? What about types of writing, like fiction or poetry, which capture a reader in ways beyond the period or comma?

April is National Poetry Month, and a great time to help writers to answer these questions — even if in an intangible way. For example, to strict grammarians, poetry may seem as though it has no rules. But this is definitely not the case. While poetry takes traditional grammar rules, chops them up, moves them around, and fits them back together again in a contorted puzzle, it does have — pardon the pun — a rhyme and a reason.

It is possible to break a poem down by its rhyme scheme or meter, and to identify its specific form. In addition, you can often identify certain grammar rules that are utilized in poems – including commas, point of view, or the use of capitalization. But these rules, similar to poems, themselves, are subject to creative license.

In poetry, writers may choose which rules to use and how to use them – and may choose to disregard some of them in the process. Brent Calderwood, a writer, editor, and activist, recently expanded on this topic in his article about writing rules: “Writing is like a painting. You have to know the rules before you start experimenting with them.”

This method of understanding grammar rules, and then breaking them down, encompasses much of what we call informal writing. Blogger Anne Wayman writes about how writing has become more informal over time: “My hunch, too, is that over the last decade or so all writing, including formal writing, has become more informal. While some might lament the lack of rules and structure in much of today’s writing, I like it – as long as it communicates clearly, accurately, and completely.”

Anne’s point is quite relevant to poetry. It is the communication of a piece that remains the golden rule of poetry. While a poem might break a few rules of academic writing, as long as it communicates a feeling clearly, it can by many standards be considered a good poem.

Poets do not ask permission to bend the rules of grammar. Instead, they create new forms of writing such as haikus, sonnets, or ballads (you can view a large list of poetic forms here). Many great poets have chiseled their names into the walls of history through the creation of such forms. Some, like Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson, remain as relics in our literature books. While others, like the Taoist Laotzi, have forged religious and philosophical belief behind their words.

There were many famous authors who also wrote books of poetry to accompany their other forms of writing — Wendell Berry, Richard Aldington, Walter Allen, and Simon Armitege, just to name a few. The list of influential poets is also too long to put here, but has an interesting top 100 list to get you started.

As we head into poetry month, and contemplate the rhyme and reason of poetry, let’s not forget to give homage to those great writers who have come before us. They are, after all, the ones who created the poetic rules we often observe. They are the ones who walked off the beaten path, and for the first time created the complex rhyme schemes that we identify today. Whether you prefer free verse or formal poetry, remember to appreciate these poets and their rules as the forefathers of poetic form — and to observe and appreciate the form that does exist.

Perhaps then, we too can help invent the poetic forms of the future.

Happy National Poetry Month!


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