Thursday, September 26, 2019

Breaking the Rules


My favorite thing about poetry is that it's always there when you need it. In times of trouble, when your emotions need relief or outlet or empowerment, poetry is there. You can always go back to your favorite Mary Oliver poem; you can always go back to read Maggie Smith's "Good Bones" when you're worried about our country or Idra Novey's "Still Life with Invisible Canoe" when you miss your childhood or your children. You can always depend on poetry. 

My second favorite thing about poetry is that it encourages us to break rules. We don't have to write in sentences or in order. Grammar is more flexible. Metaphors can run wild. 

When I teach poetry, this is something my students struggle with. Much as we think of teenagers as rebellious, they are actually pretty settled into the limitations that have been drawn for them. Think about yourself. Isn't it comforting to know what the rules and procedures are? Even as you scoff at English teachers and "grammar Nazis" (that loathsome term), don't you find yourself with those voices in the back of your head? 

But I can't start a sentence with a conjunction! 

One should never use first person in one's writing; it makes one sound silly. 

Or maybe the idea of writing as a collection of rules is so embedded in your consciousness that it paralyzes you, keeps you from writing at all? 

In that case, my friend, poetry can help you practice being unafraid to break rules. 

Not that there are no rules at all in poetry, but they're looser. You can bend what you know about writing into the shape of what you actually want to write.  Interesting things often happen not way across the line but right at the edges, at the corners. You're likely to enjoy playing in the street more than the sidewalk, even if you never go too far from home. 




This also means that I need to practice breaking my own rules: the patterns I tend to fall into when writing poetry. I experience the most excitement about my poetry when I push myself to try new things or switch up my usual forms. Of course, this means that I have to look critically at my own poetry to identify my usual ways of doing things, and then experiment.

My Rule: Always write a poem that fits within the confines of a notebook page.  

How I broke it: Try writing poetic forms that dictate length in different ways. Haiku and tanka are great motivators for brevity. Another fun one is the 59-word poem, inspired by Jeffrey McDaniel's poem "The Quiet World." It's also important to try different line lengths. Write sideways on the page. Decide to take up two pages. Let lines flow together and break up lines later. Remember that humans don't speak or think in the shape of a page. 

My Rule: Don't be repetitive. 

How I broke it: Repetition is an essential tool for poetry. Using repetition in interesting ways can add emphasis, show a shift in meaning, or demonstrate a speaker's thought process. 

Here's part of a recent poem draft of mine: 

       You invite me to your nephew's birthday party
       even though I am not a balloon.
       your mother says I am prettier than I am
       in my pictures; in the pictures you
       take of me to show her.

That's a doubly repetitive passage ("I am" and "in pictures") and I find it interesting because I think maybe it sounds like someone actually talking. When we talk to our friends and lovers, don't we often stop ourselves to clarify? We repeat ourselves when we're thinking through something or making a decision. I'm leaving in this repetition for now, even if I end up changing it up in the final draft. 


My Rule: Use punctuation to make it clear how the reader should be reading. 

How I broke it: This one's easy. Write poems with no punctuation. I practice making my meaning known with just my words, phrasing, and line breaks. Then I also have to be brave enough to notice where this fails, where there is ambiguity in the poem. Maybe that uncertainty is good and I should keep bouncing the beach ball in the air. Or maybe that's the one place where my poem really does need punctuation. Some of my favorite recent poems have been completely punctuation-free. 



Do any of these "rules" ring a bell for your own poetry? If not, identify your own boring patterns and find a way to break them up. For extra credit, tweet your rule-breaking at me! @MsPaceWrites

Good luck writing, see you next month!