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Sundance Creativity -- Grammar for Poets

GRAMMAR FOR POETS

Some new poets mistakenly believe that grammar rules do not apply to poetry, that it is strictly a free-form means of expression. But careful study of the most widely-known poets will reveal that in most cases, sentence structure, language, word choices and grammar are VERY important in crafting a powerful, readable and impacting poem.

This guide covers a few of the grammatical issues of which poets should be aware. Let me take you back to high school English class as we explore some of those old grammar terms and how they apply to poetry.



MODIFIERS AND INTENSIFIERS

You may recall that a modifier is basically any word or group of words that limits, qualifies or describes another word or group of words. Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers. Since much of a poem's beauty relies on description, the writer should be very aware of the modifiers in use.

In particular, the group of modifiers known as intensifiers should be carefully used. Like the name sounds, intensifiers are modifiers which add particular emphasis to the words they modify.

Why are intensifiers so important? Mainly because they can be poorly used in poetry. The most common intensifiers are much, so, too, very, pretty and really. They are so overused that they lack any, well, intensity in poetry. Consider the phrases below:

I loved her so truly
I needed her very badly
She treated me pretty rudely
But I stuck by her too obsessively

These weak intensifiers don't add anything to the expression of love and sadness. Overuse of weak intensifiers in a poem will not create a striking or memorable piece.



FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE

In place of weak modifiers, a poet should strive to use figurative language; comparing two things that are different in enough ways so that their similarities, when pointed out, are interesting, unique and/or surprising. Figurative language can be broken down into two basic categories:
Similes, which are direct and explicit comparisons using "like" or "as", and
Metaphors, which are implied comparisons.
For example:
"Her eyes were like the deep green of pines reflected on a lake." (simile)
"The raucous circus of the shopping mall" (metaphor)

Compare this sentence using a weak modifier with the example of a simile above: "Her eyes were very green." Which is the more striking phrase?

A good poet should strive to use inventive similes and metaphors in place of lazy, simple modifiers. But they should be used with care. Avoid strained figures of speech, where the things being compared are so drastically different that a simile or metaphor combining them is, at best, a real stretch of the imagination for the reader, or at worst, downright silly. For example, here's a statement that lacks what we might call "poetic grace":
"His eyes took me in like the downpull of a flushed toilet."
This could serve as an example of hyperbole, or a figure of speech that is an intentional exaggeration and isn't meant to be taken seriously. Make sure the use of hyperbole is fitting for the tone of your poem.



DENOTATION VS. CONNOTATION

What poet hasn't sat at a desk pondering a word choice? What you were probably puzzled over was the choice between denoation and connotation. Simply put, denotation is the literal meaning of the word, and connotation is the emotional response or associations that a word carries. It is delicate work to choose a word that would have the same connotation to the majority of a poem's readers. Your gut reaction to a chosen word may differ greatly from the general public's. The best practice is to check the dictionary definition of a word; if the meaning you intend is somewhere in the list, then you are probably safe using the word in that fashion. If it isn't, bounce the phrase off some other writers, and find out if they pull the same figurative meaning from it that you intended.



DIRECTNESS

Though not an element of grammar, directness is important in good writing of any kind, and thus merits a mention here. Poetry can be described as an artful weaving of words. A weaver does not include unnecessary threads in a rug, only the ones that add color or strength. As a poet, you too should choose only the words that add vibrancy and meaning. Anything else is filler. If one exact word can be substituted for two or more approximate words, make the change.

Cutting words from a poem can be a very difficult task, especially if you are working in a form where syllable counts are important. But that is the one place where "filler" words can detract the most; to the reader, it will be obvious that you are adding little words in order to meet the structural requirements of the form. There's no easy way to do it except through practice. Working with a good dictionary and thesaurus by your side, you can teach yourself to edit a poem down by finding the best, most direct words.

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This page last updated September 26, 1999

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