Following the Rules

When we begin to explore formal poetry, we step into the sticky muck of tradition and rule following. Very briefly, I will give you my thoughts on that: Do what you want; follow the rules or break the rules. It’s your choice.

Look: it’s poetry. The history of poetry is one of following form and varying form. It’s the same in every art. In the end, the only question that art must answer is “Does it work?” The variations are “Does it move you,” “Is it beautiful?” “Does it say something memorable?” Most likely various members of an audience will have different answers. So the question I end up asking myself: “Do I please or impress those that I want to please or impress?” If I do, I am successful. If I don’t, then I go back to the drawing board.

So with formal poetry—from ghazals to sonnets, with sestinas and villanelles and haiku and ballads and blues all thrown in the middle—the question for you to answer is how much do you care to adhere to the rules? And I would say, what are your reasons for varying.

One reason I asked everyone to write their own Poetry Handbook was that I wanted to make you conscious of the tools that are available to you and you then have the choice to use them or not. Think of punk rock music or Bob Dylan. Yes, a lot of those songs have just three chords. I would say, in the long run, all guitarists and song writers will want to know and use more than three chords. There are some great songs written in three chords, but there are songs that are impossible to conceive of or to write without a greater set of tools.

If the form is “three chords and the truth,” it is okay to break that rule. Add the forth chord. Or the fifth chord. Change the tuning. Add a section that is 4/4 in the middle of the waltz (3/4 time).

The question that came up one class relating to giving your name at the end of a ghazal is the case in point. Some students had clever ways of doing it.  “Great Scott” a person named Scott wrote. We had personal identifications: “Changing Woman.”  And we had literal but adapted “Mother Sandra.”  And we had those who ignored the requirement. One writer’s work was interesting in that the identification of all people is “hidden with dust covered faces,” so not only is the writer disguised, so are all of us.

I hope the decision of whether or not to follow the rule was made by asking the question: what is best for my poem? What is my theme? What is my aesthetic? What am I trying to make the reader feel and think?

Finally, I can say that there is a great deal of ego pleasure to following the rules of a formal poem. To write a poem that follows all the rules and to do so successfully is quite a kick.


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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.