A Poet’s Perspective on Grammar

David Locke works in the Library at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He attended Louisiana State University as a double major in History and Creative Writing. In addition, he earned his Master of Fine Arts from Queens University in Charlotte. Though he hopes to begin submitting work again soon, he continues his self-imposed apprenticeship to the written word.  

 

For many people, grammar is the ineffable apparition lurking in their darkest nightmares. Memories of the first time I heard the word “predicate” uttered still haunt me. Over twenty years later, I have developed a love for grammar through patience, persistence, and several narrowly avoided nervous breakdowns. As a poet, a few flirtations with hysteria are commonplace to the point of cliché; therefore, I acknowledge them and soothingly coax them back into a dark corner with a machete. There are myriad ways grammar affects poetry, but I use it in an attempt to display verbal control, and simultaneously as an entryway to revision and to muffle my inner critic.

While displaying verbal control may sound obvious as a goal, I find it matters even more in the compressed format of poetry. Translation: there are fewer places to hide my mistakes. On occasion, an intentional fragment may emphasize a point, yet the appearance of a run-on sentence will send a poem straight to the recycle bin. Sometimes it is a question of intention: do I want the reader to pause or to stop? Commas can serve as interruptions to rhythm, allow the readers to catch their breath, or mark a pause. A period creates a longer hesitation, if not a stop altogether. Either can serve as visual clues to show where the voice pauses and stops when reading the poem aloud. My grammatical choices often depend on what direction the poem wants to go. If I end lines with enjambment (no punctuation or a comma), the poem heads in a more meditative direction. Conversely, if I write lines with strong end-stops (a period, a semi-colon, or a dash), the lines stand alone for inspection.

Grammar helps me confront the two largest problems that I face as a writer: summoning the courage to revise and generating fresh, compelling material. Because so many writers have spent ample time dealing with writer’s block, I don’t feel a need to elaborate on the difficulties of generating material. Whenever I think about revision there is a moment when crippling doubt creeps into my thoughts. Overcoming this is easier when I approach revision systematically through the familiar steps of the writing process. Almost everyone remembers the lessons—if not the actual content of those lessons—on evaluating content, organization, and style. In the past, I loathed and feared revision; however, I now look forward to it as the reward for enduring the often more strenuous work of generating new material. My former chore has morphed into an enjoyable game.

Once I have finished the initial draft of a poem, I am confronted with the herculean task of taking the next step: revising the poem. The most successful way I know is to treat it as a game. I trick myself by saying, “I’ll just see how many syllables are in each line,” or “I wonder if there are any verbs that would work better in the second stanza.” Furthermore, treating revision as a game helps me silence my inner critic and stop dreading it as drudgery. Who gets excited about sentence analysis, realistically? I can see the kids lining up, red pens in their sticky fingers, drooling at the chance to carve up their latest “masterpieces of inspiration.” Even Sheldon Cooper caught that sarcasm.

Although I embrace technology in most formats, I still compose longhand with a specific type and color of pen: Pilot Precise V5, blue. Inevitably, I don’t have a genuine feel for the poem until I type it out. As much as I want to stay true to the poem, the way it appears on the page matters. If something isn’t quite working, I can separate the sentences on the screen and get a visual sense of the possible over-consistency of length or type of sentence, for example, too many simple declarative sentences piling into each other. Sentence variety can be as useful in poetry as it is in prose. Individual sentence analysis also helps when the need to discard a favorite line reveals itself. After analyzing the sentences in a draft, I have discarded the initiating line that set the poem in motion more than I care to discuss.

Maybe you aren’t afraid of grammar; maybe you don’t give grammar a second thought; maybe you have dinner reservations, or you noticed the next season of your favorite show just released on Netflix. Maybe you saw the word “grammar” in the opening sentence and stopped reading. If you did, I don’t resent you. A decade ago, I would have stopped reading there too.

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  1. #1 by priceswrite on March 26, 2013 - 5:19 pm

    Stunned – absolutely stunned – to realize that poets and playwrights have such commonality in grammar use. Much more so than with other forms of writing. We’re both obsessed with how our work is read and grammar is one means of guiding our readers. Wow! Thanks for that insight.

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