Despite the title I have chosen for this workshop, rules in poetry are not necessarily a bad thing. Anyone thinking of entering a poetry competition for the first time, for instance, would do well to read Fleur Adcock’s hilarious ‘The prize-winning poem’, which gives a very clear idea of the kinds of things that are likely to scupper their chances of glory.
Telling other people how they ought to write has a very long history, of course, going back at least as far as Aristotle’s Poetics in 335 BC, but the problem with telling writers what they may not do in a poem is that it limits the possibilities of what can be achieved, especially if the person on the receiving end of well-meant advice takes every rule to be a hard and fast one.
In a poetry culture so dominated by workshops and tuition (which are, in themselves, no bad thing), I’ve often heard fellow writers defend particular poetry ‘rules’ on the grounds that ‘my tutor said you shouldn’t do that!’
Here are just some of the pearls of wisdom that I’ve been offered by other poets:
‘Don’t use commas at the end of lines.’
‘Never repeat a word in same poem.’
‘Only use everyday language.’
‘Never make obscure references.’
‘Never use adjectives.’
‘Never use more than one adjective in the same line.’
‘Never use semi-colons.’
‘Never use dashes.’
‘Never ask questions in poems.’
If I walk over to my bookshelves right now and start flicking through a few of the volumes of poetry, I can guarantee you that, in the course of few minutes, I will be able to find excellent poems that break each of these supposed rules. In fact, I’m pretty sure that many of them would break most of these rules.
To be fair to the would-be rule makers, I think what they probably mean in most cases is that it is easy for the poet who is just setting out to look amateurish by unthinkingly falling into the many traps of clumsy writing, and that paying attention to some of these points might help them to avoid that.
This may well be the case, but sticking too rigidly to these sorts of prohibitions also means that we are limiting ourselves in terms of the effects that we can bring into the poem. If we are consciously breaking the rules and doing so with a clear purpose in mind, then I believe that we stand a better chance of getting the most out of the poem we are trying to write.
My favourite example of this is one I like to point out to anyone who repeats the old mantra of ‘show, don’t tell.’ While it is certainly true that both experienced and inexperienced poets can ruin a perfectly good poem by feeling compelled to spell out to the reader exactly what it is all supposed to mean, even this rule can be broken to startlingly effect.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (which you can read here in translation by Stephen Mitchell) is probably one of the best-known poems in modern European literature, but I can well imagine it getting that ‘telling’ last line chopped off it in one of today’s workshops.
However, Rilke is breaking this rule to deliberate effect. By allowing us to submerge ourselves in the act of contemplating the work of art described in the poem, only to then confront us very suddenly with the final message (‘You must change your life’), he perfectly recreates that experience of sudden realisation that can emerge from this kind of confrontation with art.
Of course, we can’t elevate Rilke’s approach to a new rule. We too can experiment with ‘telling’ in our poems, but we will have to find original ways to do it that suit our own ends. In this way, the rules that other poets play by can become challenges to push our work in new and surprising directions. I’m looking forward to exploring this idea with you in my forthcoming workshop.