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What Is Poetic License?

Are songwriters poets?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
April 16, 2010
Episode #217

April is National Poetry Month in the United States, so today we're going to ponder poetic license.

What is Poetic License

When describing writing, you say people are taking poetic license when they use language in a way that isn't normal or correct. I think of it as implying that you're cutting them some slack (Oh, yeah, Bob took some poetic license with the lyrics), but it's not an inherently positive term; it can also be used negatively (Wow, Bob really took poetic license with that song).

Poetic License in Poetry

Poetic license is often granted to, obviously, poets, and many of the references I found seemed to consider it to be a privilege granted to poets (1, 2)—a freedom that polite society allows poets so they can enlighten us and achieve certain effects or work within the constraints of certain poetic forms such as rhymes or meter.

For example, the book An Introduction to Poetry (2) notes that you might see a poet using unusual word order or use auxiliary verbs such as "did" or "do" when we normally wouldn't as in this line from "The Ancient Mariner":

They all the day did lie

Poets may put adjectives after nouns as in the line from the poem "Ode to Evening":

Come nymph demure, with mantle blue (3)

They may sometimes use odd contractions such as "ne'er" for "never" and shortened forms of words such as "'tween" for "between (1, 3)," and poets even sometimes make up words as in Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky."

Poetic License in Songs

We understand poetic license in poetry, but you've probably also heard it used to refer to song lyrics. Should we cut song writers the same grammatical slack we cut poets?

We grammarians like to cringe at what we consider poorly written songs, and I like to use songs with errors as examples because they're memorable, although I've always said I don't expect songs to be grammatically perfect.

A 2004 article by the Chicago Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis notes that "The Greeks referred to singers and poets with the same word (4)." In that same article Kenneth Clark, the director of the Poetry Center in Chicago, says "If you go back 5,000 years, there is no difference. Like the psalms--they're set to music and they're poems."

If Lewis Carroll can make up words for his famous and revered "Jabberwocky" poem, should we be so quick to dismiss the made-up word "pompatus" in "The Joker" by Steve Miller (5).

There's something different between "Jabberwocky" (’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves; Did gyre and gimble in the wabe) and "The Joker" (Some people call me Maurice, 'Cause I speak of the pompatus of love), but would you take away Miller's poetic license? I wouldn't.

On the other hand, I have a hard time—a really hard time—with something like "Buy You a Drank" by T-Pain.

Imma buy you a drank
Imma take you home with me
I got money in the bank

So he doesn't use "drink" because he needs "drank" to rhyme with "bank." Deep in my heart I feel like that's a rhyme he should have just let go. But perhaps one person's horror is another person's poetry. [Added 4/6/2014: I take back my objection to "drank." It turns out that my objection just showed my cultural ignorance. "Drank" is a real thing: It's both a slang term for a drug and the name of a soda.]

I also have a hard time with Paul McCartney's "Ever changing world in which we live in." What bothers me most is that it's unnecessary. Instead of "the world in which we live in" he could have easily written "the world in which we're livin'." In fact, I thought those were the lyrics until multiple people pointed out the error to me.

Poetry has never been my strong point, so I won't pretend to have an answer for you about musicians and where we should draw the line between poetic license and errors. Some of you may think songs with grammatically incorrect phrases such as "between you and I" are errors, and other people may chalk it up to poetic license.

Here's your homework assignment for the week: ponder where you'd draw the line between errors and poetic license in music, and then post a comment about it below or on the Grammar Girl Facebook page.

References

 1. Margaret S. Mooney "Composition-rhetoric from literature," 1903, Albany: Brandow Printing Company, Google Books.

2. Raymond Macdonald Alden, "An introduction to poetry: for students of English literature," 1909, New York: Henry Holt & Company, Google Books.

3. Peter Bullions, "The principles of English grammar" New York: Pratt, Woodford & Co., Google Books.

4. Jim DeRogatis, "Poetic license or verbal abuse?" JimDero.com, May 9, 2004 http://www.jimdero.com/News2004/May9RockPoetry.htm

5. Luke Lewis, "Stop Making Sense—The Dumbest Song Lyrics of All Time" NME, November 27, 2008,  http://tinyurl.com/5obkjo

Circled words, arrow, spiral notebook image, Julie Jordan Scott at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.
 

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