The poetical excuse for going rogue with grammar

5th August 2016 at 01:00
One poet explains why we should be teaching pupils that the rules of grammar are made to be broken

When it comes to poetry, grammar rules are there to be broken.

If you think this sounds like a dangerous thing to teach to children who are learning about tenses and semicolons for the first time, then you’d be right.

However, I believe that it is important for students to understand that there are certain situations where the rules of grammar simply don’t apply – and that, when taught with care, this understanding is crucial to young people’s abilities to appreciate not only poetry, but creative use of language in general.

Making poetry resonate

When we teach children about poetry, we need to make it clear that a good poem should engage, sustain interest and resonate with the reader. For this to happen, so many variables besides grammar come into play, including imagery, perspective, structure, rhythm, form and tone. The poet’s job is therefore to weigh up these variables and make choices according to the poem’s subject matter and to his or her stylistic preferences.

For me, the look of the poem on the page is especially important, whereas for many others it is fairly irrelevant. There is neither a right nor wrong here, since poetry is subjective, but I usually try to convey some added meaning by way of a poem’s form or shape.

So, for example, in my haiku Snowscene (pale sky field hedges/slightly darker like charcoal/lines on white paper) from The Missing Girl, I sought to sketch a snowscape with the words themselves, using sparse lines and line breaks to do the job of punctuation, thereby transcending the need for formal grammatical accuracy.

no grammar no problem

Of course, my old English teacher would look in horror at a poem like this, since it contains no verb, punctuation or capital letters. He would be right that standard grammar can help the reader understand a poem and grasp its meaning while bad grammar can be a turn-off and lose the reader.

But does this mean that poems without standard grammar are bad? I would argue that what really matters about a poem is the effect on its reader, and whether she or he is moved in some way, however small.

I would also argue that when we teach children poetry, we should encourage them to look for the bigger picture of meaning and effect, and not get hung up over hyphens and subordinate clauses. Moreover, we should enthuse and empower pupils to write their own poems and dive into the blank page without fear of “getting it wrong” – to explore their daydreams and journey back and forth in time, imagining other worlds, perspectives and possibilities. Writing, like reading, should be a joy, not a chore.

Clearly, it helps to know the rules first before breaking them. So while it is important that we help children to understand and respect grammar, it is equally important that we teach them not to be enslaved by it.

Will Kemp is the winner of the 2016 Keats-Shelley Prize and the 2010 Debut Poetry Collection Award. His next collection, The Painters Who Studied Clouds, will be published by Cinnamon Press this autumn.

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