Thursday 25 July 2013

Poetry Rules

That’s not Poetry Rules OK, though it does on this blog, but Rules for Poetry. These get tossed to and fro in workshops like paper aeroplanes, or lurk like U-boats below the surface of reviews.  One day, if the world continues as we have known it, someone will write a PhD on what effect poetry workshop culture had on poetry in the early 21st century.

The only good poetry rule is this one: THERE ARE NO POETRY RULES.  It’s tempting to call for a ban on all the others, but that would be accepting the terms of the rule-makers.  Here are the ones I find most irritating:




Telling, abstractions and closing-off are difficult to do well, today – for example, it’s easier to end a poem by stepping off lightly or at an angle.  These three do cause problems in draft poems.  But advising people not to try them at all is like saying, don’t try anything difficult.  Or, don’t take risks… though ‘risk-taking’ is one of the most annoying adjectives used in reviews. 

Better to make apprentice writers aware of the pitfalls, not warn them off altogether.  Ezra Pound:
“A man of genius has a right to any mode of expression.”

And yes, that’s the Pound of the Don’ts.  He does say that his list is “for those beginning to write verses” (at the beginning of ‘A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste’, first published in Poetry in 1913, though not necessarily in the issue pictured here).  Geniuses were presumably exempt.  

Interesting that the Don’ts have lasted for 100 years.  What does this tell us about poetry now?  That a set of precepts formulated at the dawn of free verse still applies in its maturity, or that we’ve got stuck, or a bit of both?  Maybe we’ve just got stuck on the idea of Rules.

One of the most quoted items from Pound is, of course, “Go in fear of abstractions”.  (“Fear” is an interesting word choice.)  I wonder if that’s an example of having got stuck.  But it’s immediately followed by this less quoted passage:

Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.  

That remains excellent advice (and it is advice, rather than a Rule).  Pound could open many poetry magazines today and find a poem that has deceived. 

Les Murray has the right idea.

I'm a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform to your times.

Editors who have to read hundreds or thousands of poems may disagree about avoiding rules. They are well placed to identify today’s poetry trends and mannerisms.  Helena Nelson of HappenStance sometimes writes about these on her blog.  She reads like crazy for two months a year and must be the UK poetry publisher with the clearest, most transparent guidelines.  (She’s my publisher so I’m biased, but find me another like that.)

I’m revising drafts at the moment, and have gone back to a piece Nell wrote last year.  Near the end is a list of around 20 features of what she calls “Contemp Po”.  A list that I read both as writer and reader, checking off which habits I’ve got, and which I recognise around me.  None of the three Poetry Rules listed above is there – I wonder if that’s because everyone is either following them, or taking the risks successfully.  Here are four of (to me) her most interesting items:

– the word ‘yet’ flagging an epiphany;

– cross-stanza enjambment with no particular logic to it, except to fulfil the poet’s desire to divide stanzas into neat chunks of two, three, or four lines;

– numerous ‘as’ sentences;

– …sections relying heavily on two or more verb clauses, each appended to the same subject. Often this increases towards the end or high point of a poem… I walk into the room, pick up my gun, shoot the publisher.

This stuff – not rules, but advice to help us poets see ourselves as we are, subconscious absorbers of trends, of micro-memes – is gold dust for any emerging writer.  Nell’s also been blogging this month on the same theme, and giving (as usual) syntax the place in criticism that it deserves but rarely gets.  Here she is on engaging the jaded reader’s interest in the first few lines of a poem:

The syntax (by which I mean the grammatical structure of the opening statement or sentence) is usually crucial.

To end, here's a classic piece of poetry advice, my favourite ever, from Philip Sidney's muse.  And oh, what he does with syntax!

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows;
And others' feet still seem'd but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
"Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."


  1. Liked this, although I'm a bit concerned if we're still waiting for the first PHD on the effect of workshop culture on poetry - does this mean all those people doing creative writing degrees and MAs are actually leaving academia and trying to get jobs afterwards? I wouldn't advise that.

    Agree on the rules. Obviously, the last one should actually be 'don't close off poems badly' but I suppose the workshop customers probably demand something more specific than that.

    Show don't tell really ought to be taught in lesson one and untaught in lesson three - because I'm not keen to read much by writers who think you have to show everything on principle.

    If your poem takes place in the dark but that's not the main thing you're writing about, it's probably ok just to write 'it was dark' rather than 'barely a star twinkled in the sky, as she wondered where she'd put her touch' before moving on to the important stuff about the unicorn.

    1. Ah David, you’re probably right and this subject has already been absorbed into PhD territory! The author(s) should figure in a contemporary campus novel.

      Alas, the last rule is not as you reworded it – I’ve quite often heard ‘don’t close off poems’ stated as a principle. Of course doing anything badly isn’t that great, though I do wonder whether doing something interesting badly is more worthwhile than doing something boring well.

      Your lesson timetable for ‘show don’t tell’ looks promising, as does the unicorn, of whom (which?) I hope to hear more.

  2. Thanks for this, I think it needs to be said. As you said, it's worth asking ourselves how much (and why) we are influenced by rules and trends when writing poetry.

    Too much of the sort of rules you've described leads to poetry which is quiet in a dull way, not expansive, not singing or passionate. Not that poetry has to be singing or passionate all the time but... I enjoy reading American poetry and Arabic poetry (in translation), for instance, because to me there's more openness and passion there. On the other hand, they may in many cases be subscribing to their own set of rules, I suppose...

    1. Clarissa, I agree that reading beyond British poetry is a way out of getting stuck. We are so lucky to be reading/writing in English, of which there are so many versions! Plenty of younger British poets are reading Americans, and I think it shows, in a good way.

  3. Some very significant points well made -- thanks so much for sharing this.

    But plenty of older British poets are reading Americans too, Fiona, and have been for quite some time thanks to poets like Mimi Khalvati and editors like Pascale Petit and Michael Schmidt (to name only a few). I'd like to know where the new voice influences are coming from and I think we might be looking harder to Australia and New Zealand (in English writing, not translations) - who's the next Les Murray? (and it's good you mention him). Why are we not looking at Judith Wright as we look at Adrienne Rich?

    From your list my particular bug-bear is 'avoid abstractions' - Why? Embrace them! Enjoy them! If they don't work then they're not what the poem needs, try again! Sometimes an abstraction is the only way a thing can be tackled - which doesn't mean to say abandon the concrete. No! Let them play together (if they play nicely, they play nicely, if they don't then you've probably got a poem!)

    1. Thanks Jacqueline. I agree abstractions is the most annoying rule. And of course I agree about the Americans too – though the impression I have is that it’s more widespread and matter-of-fact among younger writers. Perhaps that’s wrong; either way, there goes another good PhD subject!
      Thanks for mentioning Judith Wright too.

  4. I really like the 3 rules or guidelines you wrote, mostly the first i totally agree with you on that one!

  5. Just read this after reading the final 100 submissions to Antiphon this time - Among the poems that almost worked, but not quite, I'd say the 'as' problem was most prominent - it seems an easy way to create the poetic metaphor. I don't have so much of a problem with abstractions, because I quite like philosophical poems - but they have to be handled carefully.


    1. Thank you Rosemary - interesting. I think ‘as’ is a word it’s easy to be blind to, because it’s small and can be deployed in several useful ways. I’d never thought about ‘as’ as [!] a habit before reading Nell on the subject, since when I’ve become mildly paranoid about it, though possibly not paranoid enough. Perhaps it gets used for metaphors because people are afraid of ‘like’ being too crude and familiar a signal for simile, but don’t want to go for pure metaphor. So a new habit drives out an old one.

    2. Dear Fiona

      If there is one thing I detest, it is other poets telling me what I should and shouldn't write. Poets who do this (and there are plenty of them) tend to be painfully insecure control freaks. As far as I am concerned, absolutely anything and everything is a suitable subject for poetry.

      Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    3. Yes.. though maybe rules can stimulate creativity too, because they bring out our contrary side! Didn't think about that when I wrote this piece....