The Composition Crunch

Today’s guest post is from David Walker, whose poem “Upon Visiting my Father” will appear in Issue 13, themed “Luck.”

As a poet, you believe in freedom of expression in its many forms. You know what you like and dislike, but you would never want to put constraints on anyone else’s art. As a lover of the English language, you cringe at the sight of “your” and “you’re” being interchanged mercilessly – especially in Facebook status updates. And as a Composition Instructor, you are all business with the red pen to prove it.

            So as all three, what do you do with someone like, say, E.E. Cummings with his reckless abandoning of even the capitalized ‘I’? How do you twist just the right parts of your brain like a Rubik’s Cube to enjoy the pure expression of his poems and then twist them yet again to circle and underline and strikeout the same mistakes in your students’ writing? It’s not easy.

            I’m divided on where I fall on the debate of grammar (mis)takes in poetry (if there even is a debate.) One of my graduate school professors swore by perfect grammar and would mark up our poems like I do freshman compositions. And I’ve seen it in action: I shopped around a poem with purposeful mistakes for a year or so until it was finally accepted somewhere AFTER I corrected them.

            But how differently would we read “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” if it adhered to the strict, oftentimes arbitrary rules of grammar? Would we deem it utterly unremarkable? Not exactly, but the outpouring of love felt when reading it would be sterilized – at least a little bit – to sentimentality. So is manipulating the commas and spaces and capitalizations a parlor trick or a stroke of genius? Is good poetry only good when it’s still good with good grammar?

            I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the different sides of my sometimes-tumultuous relationship with language. Even now, when I’m revising this, I wonder if it takes away or adds to my message that I switched from the second person to the first in my third paragraph. I don’t think anyone could ever put their finger on the right answers for every situation in writing. But I suppose that’s the anarchist in me wanting to do away with the conventions of grammar altogether – except for that whole “your/you’re” thing.