Should certain words be banned from poems?

There’s a debate on Magma poetry magazine’s blog about whether certain words, e.g. shards, should be banned from poems.  This stems from Peter Sansom’s book on writing poetry, which suggests certain words have become so over-used they are rendered meaningless.  Other words such as gossamer, palimpsest, lozenge, lambent, shimmering, have been suggested.  Doubtless, that list could be longer.

As some have pointed out, Seamus Heaney, who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, uses shards in his collection “Human Chain” so if he didn’t get the memo, then poets shouldn’t concern themselves with being in the know and avoiding certain words.  There were also concerns poetry could become divisive with those who have read the book and know about “banned” words becoming divided from those who haven’t read the book or have read the book and use the “banned” words anyway. 

Additional concerns such as who chooses which words get “banned” weren’t aired but would arise.  Poetry already has gatekeepers such as editors, publishers, competition and award judges, who select what gets published, praised and given prizes.  To some, these gatekeepers already make poetry look like an exclusive club.  To add more gatekeepers who choose the “banned” words would be extremely unhelpful.

However, discussions on whether or not certain words should be used or not miss the point.  The real problem isn’t the words themselves, but what they represent. 

If you read poetry widely, you’ll be aware that some words seem to be repeated in different poems by different poets, as if the words have suddenly become trendy.  Sometimes this is down to synchronicity: it’s not unusual for poets to write on similar subjects or be inspired by the same media report or documentary.

Sometimes, however, it’s laziness.  A writer grabs the first word that comes to mind or the first one that offers a good fit.  Then fails to go back and ensure that it really is the best fit, in terms of rhythm, sound and meaning.  Often the first word that comes to mind is the cliché or the common word of every day vocabulary.  Whilst I’m not suggesting that poems should be stuffed with exotic words that have readers reaching for their dictionaries, I am suggesting poets should be sure that every word in a poem earns its place.  On occasion, shards will be the only word that will fit, but poets need to explore alternatives before settling with their choice of words.

Personally, I’m not in favour of banning words.  Trends come and go and avoiding words like “shards” may help you get published now, but won’t guarantee you’ll still be read in years to come.  The poems that endure will be the ones where the poets used the best words that offered the best fit so the poem rewards re-reading.

Signing off now until the New Year.

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2 Responses to “Should certain words be banned from poems?”

  1. connetta Says:

    after reading many of the famous poets of our past, i’d say it has all been said. i do think that cursing bad should be banned because it is rude.

  2. Jayne Says:

    I agree that poets should explore further than than their immediate choice of word so that the one chosen earns its place in a form where every word matters.
    I do think, however, that the main, if not the only, reason a certain group of individuals wish to produce a ‘banned’ list is to make poetry more elitist, on the assumption that ‘good poetry’ is written by ‘poets’ poets’ is deliberately mutually exclusive and ‘cerebral’ (in the hope that the ‘common man/woman’ will indeed require frequent referals to his/her dictionary).
    I can only assume, then, that this group of esteemed individuals will be pleased when the already small readership of poetry (in comparison to other genres) will further diminish.
    In conclusion, I think the debate should concern itself with how poets can bring new readers to poetry without compromising the art.


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