DO NOT ban words from your poetic vocabulary!

I recently heard that Bloodaxe issues a list of “banned words” to any poet they plan to publish. I’ll be honest - this shocked the hell out of me. I’m guessing that it may not be 100% true, but even so, it’s only one example of a worrying trend happening in poetry - creating a hierarchy of words in which some are “good,” others are “bad,” and a few are even “banned.”
This process is, if you ask me, ridiculous - and yet many, many people buy into it; particularly those who teach creative writing. As a brand-new fourteen year old poet, I used heaps of these so-called “banned words” all the time, and had someone come along and said to me “you can’t use x, y and z, and if you do, your poem’s no good,” I’d have been devastated. Fair enough - established poets probably should challenge themselves, and be constantly on the lookout for ways to revitalise their work… and if that means limiting the words they use, hey, so be it. But creating some kind of laundry list of “words not to be used in poetry under any circumstances” is just misleading and wrong, particularly for young and inexperienced poets. Surely the main thing to do is encourage as wide and varied a vocabulary as possible, for everyone?

I started thinking about this issue a while ago - for a couple of years now, I’ve worked with a tutor whose mantra is “you can’t say soul” (’soul’ is sometimes replaced with ‘love,’ ‘dark,’ or ‘desire’… but you get the idea). This has always bothered me, and recently I decided to put something on ONS on the subject. While researching the idea of “banned poetry words,” I found this perhaps-not-in-all-seriousness-but-still-pretty-worrying list of words never to be used in a poem… currently there are 99, and they’re adding more all the time.
I’m not afraid to say that this really saddened me. I dread to think how many inexperienced poets have visited this site and felt a huge confidence knock… and this is only one example of many out there circulating the internet. Young poets write about love, depression, darkness and loss… and yes, sometimes they also write about dragons. GET OVER IT ALREADY. To suggest that these things are off-limits to poets who are just writing about what they know is snobbery of the highest order. The important thing is this: they are writing. In ten years’ time, when they come to put together their award-winning manuscript, I’m pretty sure they’ll have learned a thing or two about language, and maybe they’ll choose to ditch certain themes, images, and even words. But maybe they won’t, and that’s up to them.

Encouragingly, I found a post on Rob A Mackenzie’s blog, talking about this very issue. Rob points out that a) some of the best poets around today use all these “banned words” all the time, to great effect, and b) sometimes, using “clichéd” or “banned” words can actually make your poem better:

“Using language that borders on cliche shows a lack of artifice on the part of the writer, and that approach gives a love poem the impression of being genuine. Whereas a love poem full of fresh, original imagery looks more planned out, as though the heart had less to do with it.”

Rob does point out that, “handled with less skill, the poems could all have come over as stale and clichéd” - and this is the crux of the issue. If you’re a good enough poet, you should be able to put ‘heart’, ’soul’, ‘dark’ and ‘desire’ in the same line and still make it sound amazing. It’s not the words you use, it’s how you use them, after all. After reading Rob’s post, I started to wonder whether this may be the case: poets who feel inadequate about their own abilities are the people who create these lists of “banned words”… and they do so in order to make up for their own inability to use them. After all, if they can persuade the whole poetry community to join them in condemning these words in anyone’s poems, they’ll never have to face up to their own lack of skill when it comes to writing about love, or the inner workings of their soul.
Think on that.

So basically, to anyone who’s ever encountered the “banned words” phenomenon and felt inadequate or confused, or to anyone who’s used “love” a million times in their poems and never thought twice, my message is this: carry on as you are. Ignore this “banned,” “bad,” “overused”, “clichéd” and “blacklisted” kind of crap. Do as Rob recommends - use these words carefully; think about their meanings and make sure they’re working hard for you, like every word in every poem should be. But under no circumstances should you abandon them. Words (and this is why I get annoyed with people who object to swearing in poetry, too) are the only tools a poet has, and they can be pretty slippery fish to begin with. Taking 99 of those tools away - and worse, publicly ridiculing anyone who uses them - is completely counter-productive. So don’t do it. Don’t ban words. There is no such thing as “bad” language.

(DISCLAIMER: A while ago, in my Poetry Rules - I still want to hear YOURS, by the way! - I stated that I’d never use the word “gossamer” in a poem. This was mainly through fear, because a pedantic English teacher had driven this rule into my head at high school and I’d never really been able to forget it! However, I recently had a “gossamer” epiphany, in the form of this poem. See? He even rhymes “gossamer” and “lobster” - and it works! Surely proof that any word is acceptable, yes?)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, guys. Do you have a list of words never-to-be-used? How do you feel about this phenomenon?

Also to read:
You don’t choose your literary heroes: they choose you
Youth really can = success… even in poetry!
Dealing with negative criticism
Writing in the face of adversity
If you don’t read, you will never be successful

(Photo by Redgum)

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15 Responses to “DO NOT ban words from your poetic vocabulary!”

  1. Simon Freedman Says:

    Well that’s Bloodaxe for you….

    It is possible to write a poem in very obscure language which taken as a whole, is still a cliché. It is also possible to write a poem with the the no-go words you mentioned which taken as a whole, is totally original. The end result is all that matters, to me anyway.

    Incidentally, you might want to check out Ambit’s submission guidelines if you want to pull your hair out some more. They actually list shards, abysses and iridescence as unacceptable!

  2. William Soule Says:

    There are some words I get fidgety using… names of people, for some reason (although I don’t outright ban the usage or anything like that). I think it’s fine if poets have a personal “banned words” list for their own poetry, but it would be terrible to think that other poets shouldn’t use those words!

    Marie Howe, for instance, uses names of people she knows in her poems a lot! But I love her work even though I tend to (but not always!) avoid names in my poetry.

    I wrote a poem for a winter-themed contest that had a list of banned words specific for that contest (such as snow, icicle, etc.)… and it was one of the funnest poems I’ve written. Banning words for specific poems can be a fun and engaging challenge… but banning words for ALL poems written by anybody is quite ridiculous. I’m actually thinking about writing a poem using those 99 words in WriteThis.com’s banned list and submitting it to them!

  3. Lorelle Says:

    I’ve never heard of banned words before now, and I agree that the entire concept is ridiculous. I think the words you use all have to do with the context of the poem and sometimes words fit and sometimes they do not. To single out words is putting a limit to something that is supposed to be independent and creative–making poetry almost pointless.

  4. William Soule Says:

    Well, apparently writeThis is a dead market, but I still want to write that poem!

  5. Claire Says:

    Simon — I’ve seen Ambit’s guidelines, yes!! They are quite funny in places and I think that’s the intention, but unfortunately so many magazines now do that “we won’t accept poems if they have the word “shards” in them.” They think it sounds incredibly acerbic and smart, but actually it just makes them look narrow-minded and snobbish.

    Will — I think using names is a different issue… it’s a much more complex issue! You have the question of the connotations a name brings, and if it’s a real person (rather than a character), how will they react? I think with things like that, rules are fine… and of course, personal restrictions and regulations are cool. I just think this is a growing trend and it’s scary! As you say, it has its place… and rammed down the throats of writers is NOT that place!
    (If you do write an all-banned-words poem… let me see it!!)

    Lorelle — You’re quite right when you talk about the “fit” of words - that’s how we ought to see it. Sometimes the word ‘love’ is the word that fits… and if that’s the case, we should use it!!

  6. annie Says:

    Something I doubt has been mentioned often enough in this conversation is that banning cliché (that is, common) words limits their readability. In the very very light surface-scraping of poetry I’ve been doing lately I’ve come across the idea that poetry should be something open to all people. On the one hand it’s good to challenge the vocabulary of your reader, that challenge can also be a barrier: it’s hard to enjoy reading something you don’t understand.

    That said (and with the sidecar idea that poetry should be timely and reflect the age it was written in) with my “serious” poetry I don’t like using words that date it. I have an unofficial ban on using terms like “computer” or “phone” or “fast food” in the concrete sense, or referencing pop culture. (I despise pop-culture punch lines in literature.) When I’m rambling off ditties about my day, however, everything’s fair game. :)

  7. Rachel Fox Says:

    I once went to a writers’ group where one of those know-it-all type guys told a woman in the group not to use the word ’shards’ and gave that smug don’t-we-all-know-that laugh and talked about lists of banned words. Ah yes…now I remember why I didn’t go back (and why wrote a poem all about shards… and then wrote a poem about writers’ groups). Humbug.
    x

  8. Claire Says:

    Annie - as I say, having personal poetry rules is cool. I agree on the “dating” thing, you do have to be careful not to use something that in twenty years time will make your poem seem outdated… unless, of course, that’s the result you want!

    As for removing readability - that’s a very, very interesting point and one I’m glad you made! Removing commonplace words because they represent a potential cliche problem, and replacing them with something less ‘obvious’ is always going to alienate readers. And poetry has alienated enough people already!

    Rachel — I hate situations like that. That’s about 99% of the reason why this blog exists… that kind of behaviour just makes me want to tear my hair out!!

  9. Rachel Fox Says:

    But don’t…you have lovely hair!
    x

  10. Rob Says:

    Yes, there are no words that can’t be used in a poem other than second-best words (easier said than done of course). That said, I’d always advise a beginner poet to avoid cliché - as a general rule. Finding fresh and surprising ways of saying things will wake most readers up.

  11. Becky H Says:

    Looking through your archives and came across this post. I thought it was interesting that much of the list of banned words refers to things linked to romanticisim - easily cliche-able, but also a massively important movement in philosophy and the arts that deserves a more complex response than full on censorship.

    Having said that, I worked for a poetry magazine competition last year and was quite surprised by the number of similar, cliched entries. Some self-criticality is always good. Need to find a balance I guess.

    Really like your blog!

  12. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Words that should be banned… Says:

    [...] I am not a huge fan of “banning” words (as you’ll already know if you’ve read this rant!), but as I read the list, I found myself agreeing with a lot of it. Some of these words [...]

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