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Chaucer To Kristofferson - Grammar In Poetry Past and Present

by Sidney Beck

The indisputable fact is that generations of traditional folk songs and countless classical poetry geniuses (like Wordsworth, Shakespeare, et al ) have not hesitated to alter or ignore “good“ grammar to suit their artistic needs. The word order of many poems by the “greats” is quite different from the word order as school indoctrination presents it. In the school sense the word order of poetry is often quite wrong.

The idea of ignoring or altering the established rules of grammar and word order comes directly from Greek and Latin poetry. The “greats” of those cultures did not hesitate to change the rules to suit their artistic needs, and this attitude seems to have morphed into the widespread practice of rule changing in English poetry. The rules might deal with vocabulary, sound, word order, rhythm, or other matters. The attitude is notable in today’s fad about rap poetry, which ignores established rhythm patterns, and uses sprung rhythm, a form of accentual verse, stress-timed rather than syllable-timed. Certainly, the lyrics of traditional English folk music, as well as modern “country” songwriters like Kristofferson, fall easily into this attitude inherited all the way from the Greeks.

Has poetry ever been perfectly correct grammatically? Probably never, because the language and its rules are forever morphing into a medium that keeps contact with the population, which itself changes constantly.

Poetry has poetic license to manipulate ‘reality’ (for example in metaphor or allegory) and also to distort language into artificial and deliberate patterns that you would be much less likely to find in everyday speech. 

Poets have always used altered/inverted word orders in English (especially if they are seeking to write in an elevated style). Some manipulations of word order are even found in English poetry before Chaucer. For example, the subject of the sentence may be postponed until after the verb and the object. Chaucer does this partly to meet the demands of rhyme, metre, and line-length, and partly as a principle of style. There are several well-established techniques of shifting word order.

Standard Word Order is Subject + Verb + Object The subject is what a sentence is about; so, it comes first. For example: The dog (subject) + eats (verb) + popcorn (object). The main word orders that are of interest are:

(i) the constituent order of a clause, namely the relative order of subject, object, and verb;

(ii) the order of modifiers in a noun phrase - before or after the head noun. …..adjective (red house)….determiner (this house)…. numeral (two houses)….. possessor (my house)…. relative clause ( the house built by me). Changing the order lends emphasis “Our King has castles five in this land.” “This garden of mine.” “With a laughin' little girl who he was swingin’.”     

One of the main types of word order manipulation is front-shifting This means the moving of a sentence or clause component to the front of a sentence or clause when we would normally expect it later on. Front-shifting is used because of the demands of metre, but nonetheless this potentially produces some very useful ‘by-products’ for us to interpret. The front-loading of “wounded” in “wounded in eye and heart, his loss of spirit was the fatal blow” gives emphasis, and also makes us wait for just a fraction to find out who or what is wounded. 

Fronting (also called  Preposing) refers to any construction in which a word group that customarily follows the verb is placed at the beginning of a sentence. Fronting is a type of focus strategy often used to enhance cohesion and provide emphasis. Look at these examples from well-known literature -

(A) To the degree this idea has crowded out genuine debate, it is really and truly terrible.

(B) On the stands in nearby orchards, were //hard, yellow apples filled with powerful juice.

(C) In June came //ponderous heat and mornings like eggshells, pale and smooth.

(D) Powerful you have become //Dooku, the dark side I sense in you.

(E) Busted flat in Baton Rouge……Bobby thumbed a diesel down.

(F) Somewhere near Salinas, I let her slip away

As the above examples illustrate, these constructions always involve fronted phrases (like directional and positional adverbials) (on/in); and the verbs are intransitive (typical verbs of movement or location)(came/were). In these examples (using double slash // ), the verbs were/ become / came  have shifted to precede their subjects.

Another device is syntactical discontinuity This is the separating of words and phrases which would usually be found close together in sentences. “His anger, as far as I know, reached no limit,” “ And there's nothin', short of dyin', half as lonesome as the sound”

Because English has a settled natural word order, anastrophe emphasizes the displaced word or phrase. For example, the name of the “City Beautiful” urbanist movement emphasizes "beautiful". “A tyrant cruel” depicts Vlad the Impaler’s cruelty. Even so, famous “greats” may make mistakes. Coleridge's word order of "his hand dropt he" is not the customary word order in English. Such excessive use of it especially for the sake of rhyme or metre, is usually considered a flaw, as also the clumsy phrasing in Hopkins's metrical psalter Some poets are heavy in use of anastrophe. Hopkins is particularly identified with the device,

When anastrophe draws an adverb to the head of a thought, perhaps for emphasis, the verb is drawn along. That causes a verb-subject inversion: "Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential”. “No sooner had we arrived home than the police rang the doorbell.”    

Of course these devIces are not employed by the poet in a mechanical way but are used out of practice and experience - often for multiple motives, including emphasis, rhyme, drama, rhythm, etc.  

Should English poetry always be grammatically correct? Yes, and let the rules for correctness be completely understood by writer and critic. Read these few excerpts from more recent poems and songs. They all show examples of these devices, and they give a sense of how common and widespread the use of such devices is. Each example is underlined.

(a )Folk song The Jolly Waggoners “Many are the hardships I since did undergo Who wouldn’t be, for all the world, a jolly waggoner?” (syntactical discontinuity )

(b) Trad song about ship off Cape Horntopsails a-quiver, she rounds the Horn” (fronting)

(c ) ee cummings…. “Yours is the light by which my spirit's born” (order of modifiers)

(d) TS Eliot (Journey of the Magi) “The ways deep and the weather sharp,” ( front-shifting)

(e) (Prufrock) “ Wreathed with seaweed red and brown” ( for emphasis and consonance on the /w/ and also rhyme at end of poem) (order of modifiers)

These excerpts show that good grammar is necessary for clarity, but everything depends on the definition of “good”. All writers of poetry and songs have attempted to use good grammar and some have been more successful than others. Traditional songwriters and today’s “country” writers like Kristofferson share the same rules.

If you examine four of Kris Kristofferson’s songs you find he uses all these devices and many others( which have been discussed in previous articles). I do not reproduce whole lines or verses but only the key phrases, easily locatable if you are listening to the songs.


Flat in Baton internal rhyme consonance

dirty red bandana consonance /d/ /r/ /n/

shared the secrets of my soul alliteration /s/

coal mines of Kentucky to the California alliteration /ck/ and consonance

home I hope assonance /o/



Fumbled…. Stumbled echo sound

Someone…. something that I'd lost somehow, somewhere syntactical discontinuity and alliteration

somewhere far away a lonely bell fronting

short of dyin' syntactical discontinuity 

cleanest dirty shirt paradox and assonance



other side of nowhere (anastrophe)

enough to know where I belong ( parody and paradox)

the pride of just the other side of nowhere's goin' home. (fronting = preposing)




hollow sound of silent people ( alliteration, consonance)

neon-darkened (paradox, consonance)

fatal rattle (enjambment assonance, echo sound)

Never glancing in the mirror (allegory metaphor)


Writers from Chaucer to Kristofferson characteristically use their favorite alliteration and assonance in addition to complex anastrophe. Their occasional “breaking” of grammatical rules can often produce original thoughts, as with Dylan Thomas, and also with Kristofferson. The latter is a poet with a masters degree in Literature from Oxford University so when he uses these techniques and devices of writing it is no accident.


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