In honor of National Poetry Day, we thought we’d take a look at poetry from a linguistic perspective. Despite the common misconception, linguistics is more than just speaking a ton of foreign languages. Linguists study language itself—everything from how words sound to how language changes over time to grammar and syntax.
Poetry interests linguists because it doesn’t follow the same rules that apply to standard prose writing or to oral communication—in fact, poetry deliberately breaks those rules in order to convey its message. Let’s take a closer look at how it all works.
What Is Poetry?
Merriam-Webster defines poetry as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” To create these effects, poets consciously choose to disregard the standard unspoken rules of communication that speakers of a language typically follow.
For standard communication, the rules are vitally important. Without them, communication wouldn’t be possible. Imagine how hard it would be to understand other people if everyone didn’t agree that a four-legged, furry, domesticated animal descended from wolves was called a “dog” or if some people thought it would be cool to speak using only nouns!
The standard rules of grammar and writing conventions, like punctuation and ending an introduction with a thesis statement, all aim to improve communication. If we all agree on the rules, then we know our audience will understand what we’re trying to say.
So how does poetry break these rules, and why do poets break the rules if they’re so important for universal conversation?
You could easily write a book on all the ways that poetry differs from normal, day-to-day communication. So we’ll just look at a few main examples.
“Neologism” is just a fancy way of saying “new words.” While new words are coined every day, especially in the modern technological era, poets are particularly fond of making up words, usually without providing a concrete definition for said words.
One of the best examples of poetry using neologisms can be found in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
To quote Alice’s initial impression of the full poem, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” Neologisms can be used for many different reasons; often poets use them because an adequate word to convey their intended meaning doesn’t exist or because the invented word better fits the rhythm and rhyme of the poem.
In the case of “Jabberwocky,” the sound patterns of the made-up words help convey a general emotional atmosphere to readers, while still allowing readers to come up with their own individual interpretations of the words and the story based on context.
As writers and editors, we’re well-versed in the rules of grammar, and we spend a great deal of time proofreading our writing to make sure that it’s grammatically perfect. However, poets frequently break the standard rules of grammar (deliberately!). To illustrate this, we’ll take a look at a poem by Emily Dickinson (Fr 772):
Essential Oils – are wrung –
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns – alone –
It is the gift of Screws –
The General Rose – decay –
But this – in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer – When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary
This poem showcases many of Dickinson’s trademark techniques, including her unusual use of capitalization and the dashes that can be found throughout most of her poetry. However, for this example, we’re taking a closer look at her use of verbs in this poem.
Most of the verbs in this poem are uninflected—they don’t reflect the person/number of their subject or any tense. In standard English, this doesn’t work; all sentences require an inflected verb. But in poetry, the intentional breaking of this rule instills in readers a sense of timelessness. The message that Dickinson is trying to convey isn’t tied to the past, present, or future.
A Deeper Meaning
So why do poets do this? Why can poetry break all the rules that we work so hard to follow the rest of the time? Simply put, you draw the reader’s attention when you intentionally break one of the spoken or unspoken rules of language. Readers expect the rules to be followed, so it’s jarring when they’re not. By drawing the reader’s attention, the writer indicates that they have something important to say, and the reader should pay attention.
Drawing attention by breaking the rules can have the effect of making the poem more dense in meaning. The ambiguity and uncertainty created by rule breaking allows readers to find multiple messages within the same, short poem.
Look back at “Essential Oils – are wrung -”. On the surface, the poem is about perfume. Essential oils are pulled from flowers to create perfume. While flowers die, their scent can live on, even long after the lady who owned the perfume has passed away.
But, as those uninflected verbs alert us to, there is more meaning that can be found in this poem. Another frequent interpretation is that the poem is about Dickinson’s poetry—”wrung” from her with “Screws,” it lives on long after her death.
The important thing to remember about rule breaking in poetry is that it’s intentional and deliberate on the part of the poet—it’s not an error or oversight. The next time you’re reading a poem, try to look at it from a linguistic perspective—you might be surprised what you can learn!