Saturday, June 25, 2011

Poetry Prompt #59 – Poetic License

Poetic license is a term we’ve all heard and generally understand as a writer’s departure from established rules, conventional forms, facts, and logic to create a desired effect. This includes liberties with syntax, vocabulary, punctuation, and grammar. For examples, click on the links below and read a few poems by e. e. cummings – notice the infrequent use of capitals, the unusual punctuation, words that are run together or broken apart, and use of space on the page. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins also exercised poetic license through the liberties he took in inventive diction, inverted syntax, and sprung rhythm. Consider “Pied Beauty,” one of his curtal sonnets:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

he fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

(Note: The curtal sonnet is a form that Hopkins invented in 1877. A curtal sonnet typically contains ten lines with a half line at the end; the rhyme scheme is usually abcabc dbcdc, or abcabc dcbdc.)

Poetic license may also be about the difference between “actual truth” and “emotional truth.” For example, my friend Joe Weil once wrote an amazing poem about a girl he knew in his youth. The emotional depth he achieved was profound but, in a conversation years later, he told me (and I share this with Joe's permission) that he made the girl up – she never existed in “actual truth” although she did exist as an “emotional truth.” Even knowing that the girl in the poem was not a real person, I can still read that poem and be moved by it – for me, the poem will always be about the ways we live in relationship with others and how the past informs the present. Joe’s intention was not to deceive. He did what the best poets do best: he used his imagination to create what he needed to make his point; and, interestingly, although the girl may not have existed in reality, she certainly exists for all who have read the poem. You can meet her (Sue Repeezi) in Joe’s book Painting the Christmas Trees.

Now for your poems! For this prompt, we’re going to work from a perspective of aesthetic judgments and sensibilities to experiment with poetic license as we use space in unique ways, make-up words (or create word combinations), take liberties with sentence structure, play with grammar and punctuation, and think about actual and emotional truths.

Poetic license doesn’t have to be extreme as in the works of cummings and Hopkins – a little will go a long way in enhancing your poem’s impact and power. The subject of the poem you write this week is up to you, and a good place to begin a little poetic license is to think about word combinations, made-up words that convey meaning, how to space words in a line, and inventive syntax. As you experiment, let the poem lead you – give it its head, and give it a long lead so it has room to change direction. Keep in mind that poems don’t always mean what they seem to say: there should be layers of meaning, nuances, suggestions, surprises, and things left unsaid.

An alternative prompt is to write gibberish as Lewis Carroll did in "Jabberwocky."
Exercise your poetic license and tell a story with made-up words.


  1. Didn't Picasso tell us art is "a lie to make us realize the truth"?

    I'm such a rule follower that I need a rule to give me permission to break the rules. Which this is. If that makes sense. Guess I'll at least have to try!

  2. Thanks for your comment , David V., and for the Picasso quote!

    I think I'd like to believe that art is neither the truth nor a lie (which are concepts) but a tangible "other."

    It's hard to break rules that have been "drummed" into you. I'm so glad :-)) that you think of this prompt as permission to break some rules!

  3. The Picasso quote is great, and I like David V's. take on this prompt: that it gives permission to break some rules! Go for it, David!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Bob's Mustangs!

  5. This one is a bit of a challenge for those of us who have spent years trying to stick to the rules! But don't get me wrong - I love it!

    Like David V, I feel that this prompt gives us permission to experiment with our creativity.

    Thanks, as always!


  6. Having portrayed Gerard Manley Hopkins in a poetry festival, and having read some of his poems at another, I was happy to see "Pied Beauty" here. I never fail to be humbled by Hopkins.

    Thanks, Adele, for this wonderful blog!

    Rev. Alex D. Pinto

  7. Thanks, Fr. Alex!

    Your performance as Hopkins was brilliant!