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