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The Rules of Poetry: Does it Pay to be an Anarchist?

Source : Reading Woman with Parasol (1921) by Henri Matisse

If we were to trace the very first time someone wagged their fingers at poets and asked them to behave, we would land on Aristotle’s Poetics from 335 BC. Back then, poetry used to be a very serious business that was undertaken by very serious men. Needless to say, Aristotle too had to lay down very serious rules as to how poetry should be written. He defined poetry as the imitative use of language and rhythm which can be broadly divided into two genres of tragedy and comedy. The tragedy is all about lofty matters of important men, while the comedy deals with ignoble emotions of ridiculous men. 

Aristotle’s handbook for writing poetry is complicated to abide by. The rules that emerged from his observations and analyses are almost lawlike. Even though these rules were rigid and at loggerheads with the creative intention of the poet, Poetics remained a much-respected work that was followed religiously for centuries. It was not until the 19th century that Wordsworth proposed a new type of verse, one that is based on everyday language, and decided it was time to let go of verbose poetry. Eliot, too, agreed that even though poetic works are judged by the standards of the past, the poet must write to advance his own interests. These new definitions significantly loosened the Aristotelian grip. Poets were now encouraged to be true to their emotions while following the basic rules of poetry like maintaining a rhyming meter. This meant that poetry was finally becoming accessible to poets and readers alike. 

If poets had unanimously decided to never topple Aristotle’s objective laws of poetry, it would become monotonous and even obsolete. Aristotle did not consider that the disregard of rules in a creative piece is precisely what makes it progressive and modern– while the art that plays it safe appeals to our sensibilities, we are left spellbound by those that trespass the realms of the agreeable.

For the longest time, as a rule, women were discouraged from pursuing a career in literature. Centuries of movements later, women today dominate the poetry scene. Emily Dickinson’s defiance of the rules of poetry is especially remarkable to me. A known recluse all her life, Dickinson did not really care for punctuations or syntax nor did she bother to title most of her poems. Poems like “Come slowly – Eden!” and “I tie my Hat-I crease my Shawl” was posthumously edited to make them more ‘readable’. I believe that she never conformed to the rules as a way of rebelling against male poets and their assumption of how poetry should be written. And this is precisely why I read Dickinson– for her wit and playful use of language.

The rhythmic quality of a poem is often attributed to its rhyming scheme. Students are taught to identify rhyming meters as one of the rudimental ways of studying poetry. Yet, as we venture out of school textbooks, we are more likely to read poetry as free verse than as custodians of metered lines. Two examples that instantly come to mind when I think of exceptionally written free verse are Joy Harjo’s “Praise the Rain” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again”. Poets of color often write in a conversational tone and pay no heed to rhyming schemes. This strikes me as a peculiar situation where the poet challenges the rules of rhyming while upholding Wordsworth’s belief that poetry should reflect everyday language. Nikki Giovanni’s “Seduction”  and Nissim Ezekiel’s “The Professor” are two of my personal favorites that highlight the poetic in everyday conversations. Poems such as Ntozake Shange’s (“[lady in brown] de library waz right down from de trolly tracks”) is delightful in its disregard for ‘correct’ spellings– this is quite common to BIPOC poetry where poets often naturalize the English language to local diction.

While Aristotle preferred looking for inspiration in extraordinary situations, contemporary poetry seems to have no interest in the grandiose. Modern life is equal parts tragic and comic, and poets have found their muses in ordinary people going about their lives.  Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips” and Wendy Cope’s “The Orange” are glorious examples of how our own bodies and lives are worthy subjects of poetry. The absurdity of life is another popular theme in poetry, yet poets like Frank O’ Hara (“Having a Coke with You”) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Underwear”) turn poetry’s inherent existentialism on its head with great wit. This outside-in approach is a good way to realize that there’s no point in fixating on existential dread. As poets employ humor to discern the grand meaning of human existence, the lines between tragedy and comedy become blurred.

The advent of the internet has further undermined the rules of writing poetry. Just like all forms of art, the internet has democratized poetry. Blogs and social media have become virtual ateliers where poets experiment with styles, genres, and alternatives to the left-justified alignment. Avant-garde poetry is popping up on our feeds as poets mix the written word with audio-visual elements to make it palatable to the always-online generation. Brian Bilston’s “Pancake Poem” and Meena Kandasamy’s “Advaita: The ultimate question” are either anarchists or pioneers depending on whether you are a traditionalist (like Aristotle) or a millennial (like me) who has no more than a minute to spare for each post.

Obeying the rules of poetry shows meticulousness to the craft, but it does not ensure the infallibility of a poem. Art is subjective – what qualifies as ‘good’ poetry is completely left to our discretion. As a reader, any poem that has made me laugh, brought me comfort, or given words to the human condition has been worth its while – compliant to rules or otherwise. 

Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath
Sayari Debnath is a literature graduate from Calcutta, India. She enjoys talking about books, cats and Renaissance paintings. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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