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Breaking the Rules of Grammar and Punctuation in Poetry

Learning the rules of grammar and punctuation is one of the most elementary parts of becoming a writer in the first place. In this regard, poems and poetry seem to be at odds with a great deal of writing and literature in general. Long novels are endlessly edited in order to eliminate all grammatical errors. A short poem can have multiple grammatical errors, and it's considered acceptable in many cases. People who are new to writing might be curious about how to contextualize this situation.

Professional and Amateur Poets

For one thing, it should be noted that both very famous poets and very amateurish poets will try to break the rules of grammar and punctuation with Poems & Poetry. However, the two groups will often do it for different reasons. The professional poets are usually trying to break the rules of grammar and even basic clarity in order to better evoke an emotion or to play around with language.

Rule Breakers

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein is a poet who is famous for playing around with language. Her short poem A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass is a classic example:

"A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading."

In addition to the fact that this very brief poem is made up of run-on sentences and sentence fragments, the meaning of the poem itself is very hard to grasp. There are lots of interpretations of the poem. Some people have said that Stein was trying to get across the fact that things that seem different to other people seem connected to her, that language itself has limits when people are trying to convey their meaning, and there can be limits when it comes to communication.

In this case, Gertrude Stein is breaking the rules of grammar and even clarity in order to support and even to embody this theme. She isn't doing it because she actively despises the rules of grammar and she isn't doing it because she thinks that the rules of grammar should not apply to her. Some amateur poets do this, but they're not trying to make any point in the process. They are breaking the rules of grammar just for the sake of breaking the rules of grammar.

Gertrude Stein's large vocabulary is on full display here and the fact that it looks like her sentences are complex sentences with pieces removed serves to highlight the fact that she is familiar with grammar and mainstream writing. She is just choosing to go against the rules to make a point about language and perception.

Tom Pickard

Tom Pickard is another example of a poet who has done this, and his poem nectarine is a good example:

I forgot forget
was lost to me

then a smooth
fur-free fruit
unnamed for days

until I found it
on my tongue

This is a much simpler poem with a more basic use of the language. However, in this case, the highly-fragmented nature of the poem really serves to communicate his theme of nostalgia and the fact that thoughts can really lie below the surface. Once again, Tom Pickard is a poet who is breaking the rules to make a point.

Both poems are difficult to understand and people need to unpack them. However, the poets were not deliberately trying to confuse anyone by breaking the rules of grammar. Breaking the rules of grammar can make something harder to read for the people who are used to a certain type of writing. If the poet is breaking the rules to communicate something more effectively, it works. If the poet just makes the poem harder to understand by breaking the rules, it doesn't.