an ode to informality

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

no, i don’t mean you should talk like a hick. or write like an uneducated fuck. i mean you should stop writing (or reading) formal poetry. formal poetry isn’t formal in the sense of “honorific” or “respectful”. it’s formal like “written in a form” — a sonnet, for example, or something that rhymes like a couplet or blank-verse poem. there are many modern freestyle poets who say “there’s nothing wrong with traditional forms but i don’t write in them”. i was one of those for a long time, though it wasn’t actually true. i didn’t think there was nothing wrong with traditional poetry. i just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the problem was. then i did. it’s language evolution. there wasn’t nearly as much wrong with them when they were new. there’s something massively-wrong with them now. this is why you should give them up. even if you’re just starting out. and why every poetry-creative-writing program in the world should scrap them from their curriculums. they’re not just worthless and useless. they actually train you to write bad poetry — even when you stop using them.

english is an evolutionary language. of course, all languages have evolved over time. when they stop changing based on popular usage and cultural influence, they become dead languages and nobody speaks them anymore outside academia. but i don’t mean it’s evolutionary in the general, shifting sense. i mean it’s rapidly changing based on pressure in a way other languages simply don’t — and this has been sustained for at least the last century. if you take a book or news broadcast written a century ago and compare the grammatical and vocabulary structure and content with one from this year, you will notice a huge difference. massive. unavoidably. if the book or broadcast is modern, it will use completely different grammar to the point that many people barely understand the words and structures from that time.

do the same comparison with things written and recorded fifty years ago. even twenty-five or thirty and you’ll see an unavoidable progression. this progression has had two main paths. there is a general shift from indirect grammar to direct. and there is a simplification of vocabulary to move from noun-focused speech to verb and adjective-focused speech. i’ll give you a few examples.

  • that is a great idea!
  • that idea is great!
  • the shop to which i daily go is that which provides me the best prices.
  • the store with the best prices is where i go every day.
  • the person whom i was at that time, which was ten years ago, was a different person from the person i am today.
  • who i was ten years ago is different from today.

these are not extreme examples. they’re completely common, standard, everyday shifts in the english language from the old to the new. and these aren’t examples from a hundred years ago. these were common only twenty-five years ago, a remarkably-short evolutionary timeframe.

so here’s the first reason those metrical forms are silly — meter implies a standardized stress-pattern. english has always been talked about historically as having a fluctuating intonation and a roughly iambic rhythm. in shakespeare’s time this was completely true. it’s not true of modern english. let’s take a look at these same examples with that in mind. we’ll get to intonation in a minute but we’ll start with stress-rhythm — the difference between accented (hard, marked with h) and unaccented (soft, marked with s). if this is a new concept, iambic rhythm

  • that is a great idea!
    • s h s h s h s (iambic pattern)
  • that idea is great!
    • s s h s s h (decidedly not iambic pattern)
  • the shop to which i daily go is that which provides me the best prices.
    • s h s h s h s h s h s s h s s h h s (no, iambic pattern isn’t completely standard by this point in history but it’s close)
  • the store with the best prices is where i go every day.
    • s h s s s h s s s s s h s h (not even close)
  • the person whom i was at that time, which was ten years ago, was a different person from the person i am today.
    • s h s h s h s s h s s h h s h s s h s h s s s h s s h s h (not quite alternating but definitely balanced)
  • who i was ten years ago is different from today.
    • s s s s h s h s h s s s h (overwhelmingly shifted in the direction of unaccented syllables)

looking at these, the evolutionary trend is clear. we have been shifting away from alternating soft-hard speech patterns to one that is less-rhythmic and, perhaps more important for the purposes of poetry, less-balanced. the staggering majority of english is now spoken with far fewer accented syllables combined to form shorter, simpler sentences with far more words conveying meaning and fewer only communicating grammatical function (that, which, who, etc).

but formal poetry is typically prescribed in terms of its rhythm and structure to fit the english of the past. let’s take a look at a simple example, one of shakespeare’s.

  • “to me, fair friend, you never can be old for, as you were when first your eye I eyed, such seems your beauty still.” (sonnet 104)
    • s h s h s h s h s h s h s h s h s h s h s h s h s h (perfect iambic meter)
  • “dear friend, you are still as beautiful as the first time i saw you.” (not poetic, just standard modern speech)
    • s h s s h s h s s s s h s s h s (irregular meter, as is common in english spoken today)
  • “your beauty, dear friend, is the equal of our first moment’s glance.” (modern poetic adaptation)
    • s h s s h s s h s s s s h s h (twice as many soft syllables as hard, a reasonable assumption in any modern poetic writing reflecting the shift in contemporary grammar, vocabulary and usage)

when we look at these examples, it becomes very clear what is wrong with teaching people to write in enforced forms. it could do one of two things. it could frustrate them and make them believe their poetry is using the language incorrectly, shifting them to writing in a form that is less-contemporary and more difficult for readers to understand, certainly not a desirable change. or it could make them dissatisfied with their actual poetry and convince them they’re not “talented-enough” for life writing poetry, even if it’s just an enjoyable pastime. forcing people to write these forms is nothing if not cruel and dangerous.

you may be thinking “that’s all well and good but we should teach people to read them, at least” and you’d be … well, you’d be wrong. because we write poetry based on the patterns we’ve learned in our lives. getting students to read formal poetry is both confusing as it’s not generally written in good, contemporary english and unhelpful as a model because they can make a choice and either choice is bad — they can write like that and end up with something that’s arcane in its structure and sound or they can write in contemporary language and the formal poetry is actually a learned-and-practiced error they have to intentionally ignore. either way it’s actually worse than useless — it’s harmful.

the other piece, of course, isn’t about rhythm. language is more than rhythm and meaning. the meaning is very different and we’ve now seen how much rhythm has shifted but there’s actually a third component and it’s vastly-different now from only a century ago and this has lead to a significant error even in most contemporary english-learning textbooks.

i’m sure you’ve seen or heard this sentence or something like it — “in english, statements have falling intonation while questions have rising intonation” and it’s actually completely and absolutely false for the vast majority of english. english, as a general rule, has flat intonation with a slight drop at the end. this includes questions. the only exception is implied questions, which have a barely-noticeable raised-inflection on the final syllable — this is actually more often not even raised, just an absence of the typical lowering at the end of the sentence to signify the implication of the question. let’s take a look at an example.

  • you went to the store this morning.
  • you went to the store this morning?
  • did you go to the store this morning?

the first has only one inflection point — it drops slightly in pitch on the final syllable. the second also has one — it goes up slightly on the same, final syllable to indicate it’s a question without a inquiry-marking word or inverted structure. the third, with its inverted, question-form structure, duplicates the intonation pattern of the first, not the second. the last syllable of the third example is lower, not higher.

what you will notice if you listen to a recording of speech from a century or even a half-century ago is that english had dramatic shifts in intonation during regular conversation. people spoke with rising and falling tone as a general rule even as late as the 60s and 70s. by the time the 80s and 90s came, though, most tonal variation had disappeared from the language — and this is a progression that began around the time of the second-world-war. a hundred years ago, even more two-hundred years ago, the general wisdom about questions with rising-intonation was actually true. this has been the impact of a modernizing force in english and a subduing of the tonal, lyric pattern over generations to simplify and streamline speech. english is now spoken much faster than it once was and it is far easier to speak quickly when tonal shifts are minimized — you will notice the same pattern in modern mandarin, for example — chinese languages used to have more tonal variation in terms of number of potential tones and the shift between the different tones was significant. a mandarin-learner will often find it hard to tell the difference at first between tones because the difference has become far more subtle compared to what it was in past centuries and teachers often speak with exaggerated tonal differentiation to make it easier to learn and understand which is which.

traditional poetic forms are structured to take advantage of the tonal and rhythmic patterns of their original languages. the sonnet was, for example, an italian form coming from a language that has huge tonal variation and very balanced rhythmic structure. this is why it was so quickly-adopted in english, a language that, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, shared those characteristics. it doesn’t now.

there are a few exceptions to this, of course. some forms don’t require strict rhyme or rhythm — the haiku, ge, ghazal or sijo (from japan, china, india and korea in that order). these don’t have the same negative traditional implications of sonnets and rhyming couplets. teaching children to rhyme or undergraduates to compose in meter, however, has no merit in a contemporary educational setting and encourages poor use of language, negative self-image in a linguistic and compositional context and provides vast numbers of counterexamples to sabotage the automated pattern-formation that is the hallmark of writing poetry.

perhaps these things are not clear to those teaching or learning these traditional methods — in the case of the teachers, i suspect this is because these were far less important when they were students because much of the shift that has occurred in english has happened in the time since they were children and they may not have realized its significance. for students, they don’t know better yet and it’s like they’re young children being taught a healthy diet consists of ice-cream every day, twice on tuesdays. unless someone tells them — and who’s going to do that but their instructors, who are generally just as clueless on this point, as likely on many others — they’ll believe they’re getting the best possible training in poetry.

so it’s time we stopped accepting the norm of standard poetry — both in literature and writing. our schools need to modernize and adapt their english teaching to the daily use of contemporary language rather than pandering to the desires of conservative, traditional and historic arcana. i hope this has been enlightening. may your poems be full of beautiful images. and may you think before you write.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.